The Courage to Be Imperfect: A Potter’s Tale

While we’re enjoying a few days of relaxation in our favorite place, Door County, Wisconsin, we paid a visit to Ellison Bay Pottery and had an enjoyable chat with John Dietrich, who has been making pottery in Door County since the ’70’s (and has been at his studio with his soulmate Diane McNeil since the ’90’s).

John and Diane have the kind of life I’ve often envied: living on an old apple orchard farm in northern Door County, making pottery and welcoming visitors to the studio-gallery. They’ve survived the development (and sometimes over-development) of the region, and have lived through bubbles and busts in the economy, and into the social media age.

I’ve had a few of John’s pieces for a long time (and lost another one in a move), and it was great to see that his style hasn’t changed. Hearing him talk about the process of working with clay was interesting, too.

When I was reading their blog, one post struck me as a nice story that ties together their craft, my profession, and the “courage to be imperfect” that was a principal message of Alfred Adler and Rudolf Dreikurs.

In the post, Diane tells of a customer who got home with a newly purchased piece and wrote to complain that it was defective, in fact, “far from perfect,” and wanted a partial refund (to the “imperfect price.”)

Diane explained that this is the way John makes his pottery, and that the off-center lines in the handle are his way of making it unusual and interesting. Diane felt upset that she had to explain (and justify) this design decision, but when the customer’s response revealed satisfaction with the explanation, Diane used it as a lesson in customer service as well as a chance to examine her own reaction.

Although she admitted being upset, and felt the need to prove her point (by including pictures of all of the other “imperfect” handles on John’s pieces), she neither apologized nor defended herself. She simply explained. And the customer understood.

So perhaps our obsession with satisfaction surveys is misplaced. And maybe there’s a place for an artisan who wants to be sure we know that a human’s hands, and not a machine, produced his work. (After all, their business card says “One of a kind pottery.”)

I had my oil changed the other day, and in preparation for the inevitable customer survey, I was given not one but two handouts (one handed to me, the other in the mail) urging me to give them a high score or talk to them first if I was upset. This was clearly an explanation of the “net recommender score” system that’s widely used nowadays, in which only the high and low scores are counted and are weighted heavily. The trend of our times seems to be that you’re supposed to wow your customers or else take a huge hit. Just doing a good solid job isn’t enough. In fact, after my voice mail stopped working last week, I was getting survey calls from my phone company before they had actually fixed the problem. Call me an old crank, but if it’s still not working, I don’t really care how helpful and responsive the agent tried to be.

So the bigger lesson in the Potter’s tale is that we can choose not to try to be perfect, and instead focus on being ourselves. This is the courage to be imperfect – to be human – writ large. And we can celebrate who we are and what we do, with the goal of making our own unique contribution.

Now, i do think that we should continually seek feedback and make sure that we’re meeting our clients’ (or customers’) needs. David Burns, a well-known cognitive-behavioral therapist, makes a point of asking clients what was helpful about each session. Likewise, i would not expect a client to accept a scheduling error on my part, that resulted in inconvenience for the client, without being upset about it. Sadly, it does happen to most of us occasionally. But it still deserves a sincere apology and an effort to do better.

 
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