Perfection is the Anti-Innovation and 4 Other Things I Learned From Pottery

I’ve spent 10 years learning, practicing, and (more frequently) totally failing at making pottery. With mud up to my elbows and another mess in the trash bucket, I jotted down these five transferable lessons.

Learn from a master

Finding a mentor can be a daunting task. If you can’t find a “master” to work under, find someone who knows a little more than you. If you can’t find someone who knows a little more, find someone who is creative, ambitious, and willing to learn alongside you.

Don’t let someone else tell you what to do. Ask them to tell you what they do. Then, watch what they actually do and note the differences. Practice what they do, feel out how well their methods work for you, and adjust them until you find your own personal sweet spot for success.


Breathe a little more. Breathe a little deeper. Release bad energy before it seeps into everything you do.

A "teapot" I created in 2005

Push hard, but not too hard

When working on a pottery wheel, creating a beautiful bowl requires pushing the sides away from the center. This is a slow, patience-testing process. It takes strength to mold the piece to your desired shape, but if you push just a little bit too hard the whole thing will fall apart.

In a similar way, people mold to the dominant ideas and personalities around them. Feel people out, test boundaries, pay attention to nuances in speech, body language, and behavior. Give a little push, point the conversation and their work in a direction that suits you. Just remember not to push too hard, otherwise you might both trip up and land flat on your faces.

Make a plan, but be prepared to give it up

  1. Draw out your vision on paper. Make as many variations to it as you can. Add wings, glitter, and funky eyeballs to get those cerebral juices flowing.
  2. Test it out in theory. Turn it upside down, backwards, and inside out in your head. Note your assumptions and possible points of failure.
  3. Test it out IRL. If you do the same thing more than three times and it doesn’t work, something is wrong with your assumptions, your execution, or your idea itself.
  4. Don’t beat a dead horse. Pat yourself on the back for trying something new and move on.

Perfection is the anti-innovation

There are a lot of ideas floating around in the world about “perfection.” In this context, perfection is creating exactly what one sets out to create. Innovation is also a product of creation. By creating fast, frequently, and passionately levels of both perfection and innovation can be achieved, but not at the same time. Perfection requires deliberate, pre-determined actions and practice. Innovation requires freedom to fail and adjust your sails when the wind changes.

Picasso created many beautiful, perfect paintings. He also created the Guernica, and was arguably one of the most innovative artists of the 19th century. Follow directions and color in the lines for perfection. For innovation, accept any and every outcome as a new definition of perfection.

What life lessons have you learned from your hobbies?