When I was an adult, I went back to taking piano lessons. This was not some long-held dream or bucket list item. No, this was more of an accidental way to deal with my lack of patience.
We had an old player piano that was way out of tune. It was something my new husband brought into the marriage against my wishes. In fact, I’m pretty sure I stood at the front door trying to keep him from bringing this old dirty thing into the house. It was REALLY old and dusty - and out of tune.
We got it cleaned up and every now and then, I would sit down and play. As a child, my parents forced me to take piano lessons. I could still play a few things, but they sounded terrible on this old thing. What was surprising to me as an adult was how much I enjoyed playing. Believe me, as a kid, nothing made me want to play, especially when my Mom nagged me (and nagged, and nagged and nagged ) to practice. It was an obligation. Yet here I was as an adult liking it.
One day I decided to call a piano tuner. After he finished getting that old piano as tuned as it could be, he played. And oh, how he played! It was nothing like the classical music that had been forced on me as a child. This was the blues and I was in awe!
We started talking and I learned that piano tuning was a side gig for him. In his real life, he was a professional musician and he had played with many well known people. He also gave piano lessons. He could teach me to play the blues!
Right then and there, I signed up. Here I was as an adult choosing to play piano. I practiced and practiced and practiced.
When I was a kid, I never played anything perfectly. I didn’t care. As an adult, I really wanted to play perfectly. Notwithstanding my love of the blues, soon my goal was to play Pachelbel’s Canon without missing a note. I was seeking perfection. Every day, I sat down to play. When I would make a mistake, it stopped my rhythm and I would start over. I was so proud of myself for trying so hard! So much was going on in the background that I didn’t understand at the time.
To start with, what I was calling pride in myself was actually me trying to please my piano teacher from childhood. As I was playing along, I would miss a note. Instead of continuing to play, I would freeze for a second and get mad at myself. Then I would start over from the beginning. My desire to be perfect was an exercise in proving myself to a teacher that had been dead for 20 years.
Difficult passages in the music created an even bigger dilemma. I didn’t have the patience to break it down and really learn the notes. Interestingly enough, it was lack of patience that brought me to the piano. My husband would often keep me waiting before we would go somewhere. Rather than nag him to hurry up, I started playing the piano to keep my hands occupied.
So thanks to striving for perfection and my lack of patience, I limited myself to the easy pieces of music. Rather than learning and improving, I lowered my sights to a domain where I could prove myself worthy.
During a lesson one day, I noticed that my new teacher was really pleased with something that wasn’t perfect. I told him it wasn’t good enough - ha! Me the student had higher standards than the teacher! I even mentioned that as a professional, he was so much better than me. Of course, he was perfect when he played. Then he said something that has stuck with me all these years. “I’ve never played a perfect piece in my life and never will. What we professionals have learned how to do is play through the mistakes. Every performance has a mistake. We just don’t let our mistakes knock us off our flow.”
He went on to say “I want you to learn to be a better musician, not to be perfect. Music is not about playing all the notes in the right place and at the right time. It’s as much about the space between the notes. You can only improve your skills when you are willing to feel your way through the mistakes and keep playing."
In seeking perfection, I was losing proficiency. All my energy was going into proving myself instead of getting better and learning. When I gave up striving for perfection, I became a better musician.
Perfectionism runs rampant in Corporate America. Even in cultures that have the mantra “Done is better than perfect”, individuals within that culture often struggle when they make mistakes or see others make mistakes. For many people, being asked to let good enough be good enough is like hearing fingernails on a chalkboard. It goes against everything they stand for. Even without external pressure, they feel internal pressure to get it perfect. The Perfection Game is essentially a way of life.
I’m still learning to let my perfectionism go. The habits are so deeply ingrained. It’s a life long journey and worth it.
Better is better than perfect.
Where do you struggle with mistakes? What do you say to yourself when you want perfection and fall short? What one change could you make to strive for proficiency instead of perfection?
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