The Genius of Imperfection
On why it’s all right for Desmond to stay at home and do his pretty face
There’s a scene in Kill Bill: Volume 2 in which Budd’s boss says to a young, lady employee, “take a hit, be somebody, baby.” I love that scene.
Many a doubtful souls among us may find the idea of being somebody, whatever that means, enticing, so I’d like to start with the obvious public service announcement: a line of cocaine isn’t the way to go. That’s just Tarantino messing with the weaklings.
So which way then? Why, of course, be the best at whatever you do, right? That’s a fair assumption—be the smartest and be the fastest, because only by being perfect and creating perfection you’ll guarantee success. Right again, aren’t I? (And I expect you to be high-fiving the screen by now.)
The end? See you in the next article?
Hold it there.
I have my doubts about this perfection business; in fact, I…admire imperfection.
I’m not going to get into the topic of success today—I’ll get back to it in future pieces—but I’d like to talk about the relationship between perfection and the road to expertise. And to help me illustrate my point, ladies and gentlemen, the Beatles.
Just a bunch of ordinary guys
In the early 1980s, John Barrett, a young engineer at Abbey Road Studios—where the Beatles recorded most of their albums—was diagnosed with cancer and started chemotherapy. He wanted to keep his mind occupied and Ken Townsend, then the studio’s general manager, suggested him to listen through every Beatles tape and write down the details. Barrett produced such an incredibly detailed catalogue that when he passed away in 1984 the studio was determined to publish his work. A few years later, Mark Lewisohn took over Barrett’s project and penned The Beatles Recording Sessions, a fascinating book that every music technophile who’s spent their life rocking out with the Liverpudlians should read.
The Beatles were not only a group of musicians; they were four guys with a rare combination of traits. They were honest, they were optimists, and they were down-to-earth jokers who knew when to laugh about themselves, especially John (“I’m Eric”). They were sharp and articulate rule breakers, yet they were not perfect.
Lewisohn’s book includes a candid interview with Paul McCartney in which they talk about the band’s songwriting and recording process, their songs and how they saw themselves. “Yeah, the Beatles were a pretty good group!” Paul admits. “We knew we were good. People used to say to us, ‘Do you think John and you are great songwriters?’ And I’d say ‘Yeah.’” But later he mentions recording a song in which they invited a guitarist friend to play an arpeggio because “only people who are trained to play can do that. Ordinary guys like ourselves can’t do that!”
That’s one of the most successful composers and performers of all time calling himself ordinary, a classic corollary to the Dunning–Kruger effect.
Experts know that they are good at certain things but don’t let that cloud their judgement. And they can also see the spark in others.
Paul remembers John turning up at the studio one day, “‘I’ve got a new song.’ I said, ‘What’s the words?’ and he replied, ‘You know my name look up the number.’ I asked, ‘What's the rest of it?’ ‘No, no other words, those are the words. And I want to do it like a mantra!’” I’m listening to it as I write this line. Extremely catchy.
To become an expert, you must be willing to face obstacles and learn from every experience. In Tune In, a closer look at the Beatles’ story, Lewisohn tells us about a young John and an even younger Paul learning to compose songs without having a way to record their creations. They didn’t have the equipment and didn’t know how to write music so they just scribbled the lyrics and described the melody (“ooh, ah, angel voices,” Paul jotted down). They forgot many of their creations the next day so they decided that if a song wasn’t memorable then it was just crap. And crap they didn’t make.
From frustration to inspiration
The Beatles’ seemingly imperfect creative process and their constant struggle between getting it right and keeping a playful attitude had a lot to do with the magic in their songs. In 1968 the band were back in Abbey Road to work on their eponymous album—the White Album—and spent the first half of July focused on what’s now considered one of their most fun songs: “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.”
They recorded around sixty takes—an unusually high number, even for them—and tried quite a few ideas, such as overdubbing a piccolo that was later wiped by Paul. The sessions for “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” were the first time the Beatles recruited musicians and rejected their takes.
Robert Lush, the second engineer during many of these recording sessions, recalls: “They spent so much time doing each song that I remember sitting in the control room before a session dying to hear them start a new one.” According to Lush, when you thought they were done with one song, “they’d come in the next day and do it again in a different key or with a different feel.” They were always trying to come up with something better and, as John and Paul had learned in their youth, were never afraid of tossing their crap away.
After five nights of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” everybody had had enough. Paul had conceived it as a much slower tune and kept playing it that way until a frustrated, and very stoned, John Lennon showed up, “went straight to the piano and smashed the keys with an almighty amount of volume, twice the speed of how they’d done it before, and said: ‘This is it! Come on!’” That’s the distinctive, upbeat introduction that went on the album; that’s the version we all know and love today.
Even if Paul wasn’t very happy with the remake—a few more versions were taped—he realized they weren’t going to improve the song any further and decided to keep John’s version and focus on the finishing touches. It’s here where the all-familiar ho-hos and laughs were introduced and Paul sang “Desmond stays at home and does his pretty face” (rather than Molly), a mistake that the other Beatles liked and decided to keep.
See? Imperfection all around but genius nonetheless.
The Beatles split in 1970, two years after the White Album, but many observers believe the conflicts started during these sessions. Tempers were lost so frequently that at some point Ringo quit and Paul had to play the drums on some tracks. Isn’t it remarkable that amid all the tension and confusion these four blokes managed to create not only a great song but one of the best albums of all time?
Creativity can overcome difficulties and show up unexpectedly; sometimes you just need to dismiss planning and aiming at perfection. Yes, just let it be and next time you feel stuck or out of ideas, keep calm, listen to the story of Desmond and Molly Jones, and carry on.
Go get the job done
Our idea of perfection is flawed; we expect genius to involve precision and complexity, and sometimes it does, but it’s not evident in plain sight.
How can somebody using simple, everyday words be a better writer than the professor dispensing obscure, elegant-sounding prose? How can a three-chords Beatles’ composition be a masterpiece? And what about those xkcd stick figures? The magic of creators reveals itself in subtle ways; it just disappears to leave us with an unforgettable book, a beautiful song, or an amazingly clever comic.
Perfection is overrated. Always do your best to get the job done but don’t obsess. As Joe Williams says in Style, his guide for writers who care about the craft but keep reality in mind: “Perfection may be the ideal, but it is the death of done.”
Learning and creating takes time and effort—lots of both, a life of them—and the road to expertise is full of mistakes. If that’s not your case then you’re not doing it right, or you are a genius and I have no idea why you kept reading until this paragraph.
Be imperfect. Be somebody. Be you.