Freedom from Perfection

What cooking and calligraphy taught me about Confidence

Everyone who has the great good fortune to be selected as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford comes to campus obsessed with tackling the biggest challenges to our field. For these journalists, JSK provides the time and space to throw themselves into their life’s work, unencumbered by limitations or constraints.

That alone is an unimaginably immense opportunity. But as I reflect on my year of exploring how to cultivate empathy in society for its marginalized communities, I can say the fellowship experience ran even deeper than that.

The most significant thing I came away with from my year was Confidence.

I don’t mean professional confidence. Coming in, I knew I could write, think critically, and articulate powerful arguments. Rather, I mean confidence at a more base level; to try new things and learn new skills without the burden of perfectionism.

It was an idea I explored over and over again in different forms and contexts throughout my year. In the fall quarter, my Storycraft class played improv games designed to celebrate mistakes. Business titans at the Graduate School of Business extolled the virtues of viewing failure as a preamble to success. In the d.school, where I spent most of my winter quarter, the mantra “Bias Towards Action” permeated every class I took. Very quickly, I was thrown into the deep end, forcing me to collaborate with strangers in a Movie Design class to write, cast, film and produce a short film in a three-week sprint. In my d.Leadership class, I was expected to coach and lead a small team of IT professionals in using design thinking to improve the way they served their colleagues at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

That Stanford is a place that celebrates failure wasn’t a surprise to me. What I wasn’t expecting however, was just how deeply that ethos is infused into every aspect of campus. As profound as my learnings were from the regular classes I took, I found the lessons in confidence most transformative in the “joy projects” and extracurricular activities.

Perfectionism and Culinary Confidence

I’ve been plagued by perfectionism my entire life. There’s a good reason for it: As a woman and a person of color, I know I will be judged more harshly for my mistakes. It makes sense then to be cautious and conservative. But in the long term, perfectionism doesn’t help one succeed. If anything, it prevents it.

My cooking class at Stanford’s Teaching Kitchen taught me that. For 10 weeks, me and five other students spent our Tuesday afternoons gaining something I call “culinary confidence.” Yes, we were learning how to cook meals. But the recipes were almost an afterthought in the kitchen. Far more important to our instructor Chef David Iott was that we walk into every class ready to experiment, ask questions, and try new ingredients. His goal for us was to walk out having basic skills coupled with a self-assuredness that we could make a meal work, no matter what ingredients and equipment we had available to us. Did I burn a sauce more than once? Sure. Did I ruin the meal? No.

My workstation at The Teaching Kitchen at Stanford

Cooking for others has always been a source of stress for me; I feared I would screw it up. What slowly dawned on me after weeks of experimenting with beef stir-fry, Thai green curry, cheese omelets, green smoothies, soda bread and tomato basil soup was that my perfectionism wasn’t about having high standards. It was an insidious mindset marked by an inability to adapt and grow. And ultimately, if my standard was perfection, I was setting myself up for only one possible outcome: disappointment.

Calligraphic Confidence: Being Messy in Public

When I first began writing for news organizations, I would never let anyone see early drafts of my work. It felt too vulnerable to share clumsy prose, run-on sentences and worst of all, ideas that weren’t fully developed. The result was mediocre writing that took way too long to produce.

First attempt at Arabic Calligraphy

By the time spring quarter of my fellowship year rolled around however, I’d had enough time to marinate on these lessons in confidence. So when I enrolled in a class on Arabic Calligraphy, I decided to share my earliest forays in learning the art with my friends on social media.

I created the hashtag #CalligraphicConfidence and shared all my shaky, smudgy, misshapen strokes. At first, it was hard not to immediately criticize my own work when I posted it. By criticizing it before anyone else could, I felt I would somehow make any criticism I received from others less hurtful. (For the record, none of my friends actually criticized it.)

The more I posted of my work though, the easier it was to not be so critical. Sharing my nascent hobby with friends went from being an exercise in “no shame in trying” to “pride in trying” something new. Mistakes were no longer things to hide or provide caveats for, but rather markers of learning and development.

In Persian calligraphy, there is a style called Siyah mashq or ‘black practice,” that originated from when calligraphers would do warmup exercises on blank practice sheets to refine their shapes before approaching their intended work. But when calligraphers saw how beautiful the result of the practice strokes were, their practice became the art itself.

There is deep beauty and value in the imperfect. Truly knowing that can free you from the constraints of expectations. It is in that freedom that confidence can grow and hopefully allow you to experience the messy, smudged, overcooked parts of life with an open mind and heart.