MY SUBJECT MATTER was limited, but my I thought my childhood drawings were pretty much perfect. Swords, horses, cowboy revolvers, fighter jets—I’d saved them in dusty stacks, little monuments to my skill. I didn’t often try something complicated, like a face; it was nearly impossible to get them to look right, and that wouldn’t do. It had to look right. I found great satisfaction in the details, but it was a guarded satisfaction, stagnant and safe, armored in fierce perfectionism.
I remember getting a letter from a pen pal (yes, I had one of those) who mentioned offhand that his sister could draw. This was my moment. I drew a stallion, mane blowing in the wind, muscles rippling mid-canter, and dropped it in the mail. A week later, I glowed with satisfaction at the admiration in his next letter. I didn’t mention I’d used a step-by-step guide from a magazine. At least it was perfect, and better than his sister’s drawings.
I eventually went to art school, where I met the sarcastic and easygoing Drawing 1 teacher Erik Sandberg. This was for beginning artists; it would be an easy A. What I didn’t know is that the class would be more than a grade; it would be a turning point for me.
In the middle of the room was an old model skeleton. Erik set a timer for 30 minutes, and told us to start drawing. Nervously, I got to work, trying not to miss a thing.
Soon I was running out of time. Proportions were a bit off and I hadn’t really finished, but I thought the details were impressive, especially considering the distance from the model.
When we were done, everyone gathered around the easels for critique. I looked forward to showing my work, and the admiration I knew was coming. Sure enough, the class was impressed.
“Peter’s is the best.”
“Ugh, I hate you, you’re so good.”
I was sure it was true.
Erik waited patiently, then told the class what he thought.
“You all think Peter is a god. But he draws like his butt cheeks are clenched.”
“They’re lifeless,” he said. And then he pointed to another drawing—to my eye messy and unpolished—as an example of what he was after.
Mine was still better, I thought, just look at those details.
It was time to try again. Eric walked to my easel, took away my fine-tipped mechanical pencil, and handed me a piece of charcoal. Charcoal is dramatic, but there’s no finesse. You’re drawing with a burnt stick.
He set another timer. 5 minutes.
5 minutes? There was no way I could be done in 5 minutes. But the timer was already ticking; I had to get moving. Again, I ran out of time, my drawing incomplete.
He set the timer again. 1 minute. I felt trapped, squirming under a spotlight. It had to be good, and I just couldn’t do it.
Unless I let that go, and let my hand lead the way.
Again. 30 seconds.
My hand was flying now. No time to think; just feel it.
Finally we were done. I stepped back, took a deep breath, and looked at my drawings. They were not good, but vitality was starting to emerge from the easel. In the imperfections, there were early glimmers of artistic freedom.
Something changed in me that day. As I learned to let go, my confidence grew, and I made rapid progress. I eventually got that A, but it wasn’t in the way I thought. I found a new willingness to embrace the imperfections and move, adding detail when it mattered, once the foundations were strong. Through the cracks in my fragile ego, a new kind of boldness began to take root.
That lesson didn’t stay on the easel. I still struggle with perfectionism, but when Erik turned on the timer and handed me the charcoal, he started something in me that’s still growing. As I graduated and moved into my career as a designer and leader, that emerging willingness to let the constraints push me to just go and find my honest voice has found its way into the rest of my life—from family decisions, to communications campaigns, to organizational identities, product experiences, to leadership strategies, to filmmaking, and many other places I can’t even detect because they’re just a part of me now. I’ve taken Erik’s lesson with me: to go further and faster by embracing the discoveries hidden in the imperfections.