Embracing Imperfection

Joshua Ogden-Davis

When you make mistakes, make them fearlessly.

When I arrived in China in 2010, I spoke no Chinese and had no idea what I was doing or how long I would stay. Eight years later, I’ve taught myself Mandarin and have co-authored a best-selling Chinese-language cross-cultural self-help book, Making Friends with Foreigners.

Learning a language and publishing a book may seem like unrelated pursuits, but I’ve discovered that one principle is absolutely critical to both:

Never let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

If perfection is the only acceptable outcome, mistakes become shameful; if you can’t make mistakes, you can’t do a single [profanity] thing. 

Let’s start with language. I never took a Mandarin class, but I was able to jump into a completely Chinese-language job and lifestyle after only two years of self-study (I’m no language genius either, as my high school Spanish teacher will gladly tell you). Yet, I don’t think I achieved fluency despite not taking classes. I think I achieved fluency so quickly because I didn’t take classes.

When you’re taking a class for a grade, your only job is to not make mistakes—in fact, you’re judged entirely on how few mistakes you can manage to make. But for me, learning Mandarin was something inherently useful. I had intrinsic motivation because my language level was tied directly to my quality of life. Learning a new word meant one more thing I could find, buy, or talk about, and the only consequence for mistakes was a few moments of easily-resolved confusion (except for that time I accidentally told a cashier that we were in a sexual relationship. That confusion lasted more than a few moments).

If I hadn’t gone through the experience of letting myself make mistakes in Mandarin, I doubt I would have been able to collaborate with Daniel Zhou on Making Friends. Agreeing to accept a sentence or a concept that I would not have chosen myself is not something my younger, more perfectionist self could have done. But Daniel has a stronger grasp of our Chinese target audience’s expectations than I do, and he also has the one thing that matters more than writing ability when it comes to getting published: the willingness to face rejection.

In China, business is famously dependant on relationships; sending a draft off to a faceless publisher is a surefire way to get rejected. You need an introduction, and then to be able to make your case face-to-face. Daniel was able to get introductions to several top publishers, but all of them were hesitant to bet on first-time authors, until we found some unexpected success. Daniel got us an introduction to a famous editor, one who we knew wouldn’t stoop to publishing a book by two nobodies, just to ask her advice—yet after we explained our project to her, she agreed to publish us on the spot.

The root of perfectionism is fear, the fear that we’re “not good enough.” But for learners and authors, fear only limits your options. When you make mistakes, make them fearlessly. When you face rejection, eat it up, and never miss a chance to ask for advice. The only thing you have to lose is the impossible “perfect,” and the only thing you stand to gain is, well, anything.


About the writer

joshua portrait

Joshua Ogden-Davis was born in Marshall, TX, and moved to China on a whim in 2010. Since then, he’s taught himself Mandarin Chinese, worked in international marketing for luxury auto brands, and published a book on cross-cultural communication, Making Friends with Foreigners. He currently lives in Shanghai, where he is creating a children’s TV show to teach Chinese.

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