Success, mastery, perfection & user research

What can relatives of failure teach us about success, mastery, and perfection?
A drawing showing a target with arrows shot at it, success = an arrow hitting the bull's eye at a specific moment, mastery = trying and failing multiple times, till you can replicate success, again and again, perfection = not shooting an arrow for fear of criticism and being perceived as not good enough.
Drawing by author.

Failing while being perfect

When I started as a user researcher, my main worry was that a study should go smoothly and I should deliver a perfect report. Being wrong or failing was scary to me. My presentations and reports brought me compliments, which were great for the ego but overall, I felt constricted and stressed.

And this chasing of perfection and the stress of avoiding failure blinded me to more important things. Like when a colleague pointed out that often no one follows-up on our study results. And suddenly I understood that you can fail while being perfect.

To address this ‘failure’, we started organizing follow-up design workshops after every test. These were far from perfect – they were chaotic, full of disagreements, and yet were more valuable than my narrow definition of success.

Relatives of failure: success, mastery, and perfection

This reminds me of the three relatives of failure – success, mastery, and perfection – a beautiful concept by Sarah Lewis, who teaches the history of art and architecture at Harvard University. She is also the author of The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery.

She says that success is an event-based victory, a specific moment in time, while mastery is being able to replicate the success again and again. And perfectionism is being concerned with how others see us and our fear of being wrong.

Pursuing mastery opens our minds

Looking at relatives of failure - Success, Mastery and Perfection

This photo at the top shows an eagle I drew – which came out well enough. You could call this a success. Now, look at the sketches below where I try to draw an eagle in different poses.

These imperfect and funny sketches, some of which look like pigeons :D, form the path to mastery, where I will learn what works and what doesn’t, like the thigh muscles of the first one :D. Knowing what works, what doesn’t, and under which circumstances. And failing and learning from failure is a key part of mastery.


Sketches of eagles in different poses

I could pursue perfection and refuse to draw an eagle unless I am sure it will be a success. Or refuse to show my work to anyone unless it is perfect. This leaves a very narrow and suffocating way of making art, and of living.

When I visualize mastery, it feels open and outward-oriented – making connections, finding opportunities, and growing. When I visualize perfection, it feels inward-focused, limited, closed, and individual-focused.

Pursuing mastery opens our minds – on the way to mastery, we are led by bigger goals than mere avoidance of failures. As Sarah Lewis says in her TED talk,

“Masters are not experts because they take a subject to its conceptual end. They’re masters because they realize that there isn’t one.”

Those were my reflections, your turn now 🙂. . .

  • What are some areas in your life where you pursue mastery?
  • Are there areas where you pursue perfection or avoid failure?
  • What counts as a success?

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