Embracing Imperfection with Sourdough – Part 1

Shortly after the pandemic began, my household acquired a new member: Stan the sourdough starter. Stan’s appearance in our lives was prompted by the concern that we would not be able to obtain bread while in COVID-19 lockdown; we take bread very seriously in our house. So we ordered a dehydrated starter, and after a week of daily feedings (flour and water), Stan was happily bubbling away. It was time to bake bread.

But the process of turning flour, water, and salt into a beautiful golden-brown loaf is a deceptively complex process. If you look up “sourdough” in the dictionary, the definition should read “capricious.” I have struggled with the pernicious demon known as perfectionism for years. At this point, I can keep my perfectionist tendencies in check most of the time—writing essays remains a glaring exception—but sourdough baking threatened to cause a flare-up. Nonetheless, I screwed up my courage, donned my apron, and decided I would not let Stan cow me into inaction.

After baking my first couple loaves, I decided the only way I could forge onward was to eschew perfection. Many an imperfect—but still delicious—sourdough loaf has followed. They’ve been a little flatter, a little denser, a little smaller than I would have liked. But that’s okay. This process of embracing imperfection has reminded me of a column I wrote for my college newspaper as a sophomore, back in 2016. In the coming days, I will write another post sharing my sourdough recipe/regimen; but first, some philosophical reflection to get any prospective bakers reading this in the right frame of mind….

“I must admit it: I am a perfectionist.

That doesn’t mean I’m perfect (far from it), but it does mean that I spend hours hunched over my desk, poring over draft after scribbled draft of every essay, confirming that each comma is in the right place, that ‘posit’ is the better word than ‘claim,’ that my ideas fit together logically and smoothly like gears in an intricate machine.

I know I’m not alone when I say that high school groomed me to think of perfection as the pathway to success. A’s paved the way to college, a good job, and implicitly, to fulfillment. Therefore, every misplaced comma, every ‘claim’ instead of ‘posit,’ and every squeaky idea was a potential obstacle between me and my future happiness.

More and more, though, I’m coming to realize not only that perfection is unattainable (duh, you might think), but also that perfectionism is not necessarily a means to success. In fact, we should regard the concept of success itself with a healthy dose of skepticism.

After all, what does it mean to be successful? This is, of course, an enormously broad question with which many of us will grapple for the rest of our lives. I have no intention of suggesting a concrete definition; rather, I’m proposing that we have all been culturally ingrained with such an intense fear of failure that we cling to success by any means necessary, even when doing so is no longer fulfilling.

The United States is by no means unique in this regard, but the fact is that our national consciousness is built upon entrepreneurship, individualism, and achieving one’s dreams. I could point to any number of examples as evidence of our collective aversion to failure, but I find critics’ reception of two films, both released about a year ago [in 2015], particularly illuminating.

Spotlight, directed by Tom McCarthy, recounts The Boston Globe’s investigation of child abuse in the Catholic Church. It received the Academy Award for best picture and was lauded by critics, including Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post. Hornaday claimed, ‘It’s not a stretch to suggest that Spotlight is the finest newspaper movie of its era, joining Citizen Kane and All the President’s Men in the pantheon of classics of the genre.’

Truth, on the other hand, which traces the fall of Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) and Dan Rathers (Robert Redford) from CBS following a flawed investigation of George W. Bush’s time in the Air National Guard, was received with disappointment, and even disdain. Directed by James Vanderbilt, the film was not universally criticized—Stephen Holden of The New York Times called it ‘a gripping, beautifully executed journalistic thriller’—but overall, reactions to the film were unenthusiastic. The Atlantic’s review was titled ‘Truth: A Terrible, Terrible Movie About Journalism.’

Why such different receptions of two well-made, intelligent, suspenseful (I thought) films? The answer is no doubt multi-layered, but I think success has much to do with it. Scott concludes his review of Spotlight by writing, ‘Everything in this movie works, which is only fitting, since its vision of heroism involves showing up in the morning and … doing the job.’

Spotlight is about ‘heroism,’ about success. But in Truth, the most qualified and well-meaning individuals fail. They make mistakes. And we as a culture find that profoundly disturbing.

Now, I’m not claiming that the mistakes made by Mapes’ team were insignificant. They used documents of questionable authenticity in their rush to arrive at ‘truth.’ Indeed, in this case a more perfectionist attitude would have served them well. But I do think that the contrasting receptions of these two films reflect our cultural aversion to failure, whether it be others’ failure or our own.

So I urge you to get in the habit of asking yourself what success means. Is a successful paper one that gets an A—the ‘perfect’ paper—or one that pushes you to think differently? Is the ‘top’ position a successful one if you’re not happy? Is fear of failure preventing you from pursuing a dream?”

It may seem odd to juxtapose sourdough baking with two 2015 journalistic thrillers… But I hope these thoughts on (im)perfection might inspire some of you to take the plunge and give sourdough baking a try. Your first loaf may not be perfect—you might even consider it a failure—but that’s okay! Stay tuned for my sourdough recipe, to be posted here in the coming days.