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?
If you are anything like me, the New Year rolls around and you are excited for new beginnings, and maybe a little depressed about what you didn’t get done in the last year. Whatever great intention you set for yourself last January is waaaaaay back there in the rear view mirror. All year long, things kept coming at you at a breakneck pace and you dropped a few balls along the way. For so many of us, it’s the dropped balls that we remember. Isn’t it lovely how those dropped balls shine so much brighter than all the good things you did?
We can accomplish a thousand great things, and it’s that one mistake that will eat us alive.
Failure is a funny thing. It can grip us in its claws, and make us feel horrible. We would do anything NOT to feel like a failure. So, what do we do? We beat ourselves up. We avoid taking risks. We play small. Our answer to failure is punishment. As if somehow, once we pay our penance, all is well.
At the end of one of my programs last year, a participant pulled me aside and “confessed” that his biggest fear was of failure. He spoke in a hushed tone, making sure none of his colleagues were in earshot. He said his normal pattern is to cover up his mistakes and once they are discovered, he goes on the attack to deflect criticism. When we dug a little deeper, it was clear that he is a competent person who is making his normal share of mistakes. The mistakes are not the problem. How he sees them is causing him all kinds of grief.
I sooooo wanted to have a quick answer for him to turn all this around. But I’ve been there. It’s not that straightforward. In my article The Secret to Better, I share some of the inner thoughts I have carried that block my ability to perform or to learn.
Mistakes are not the end of the world. They are a sign that you are learning.
It’s a daily practice to monitor my thoughts and keep my thoughts on the “improving” track instead of the “proving” track.
We all have an inner world that informs our outer world. It’s the inner game that separates those that perform well under pressure from those that get in their own way. (Some call this the mental game, but I argue it’s mind, body and emotion.) Nobody has this mastered – just look at some of the top executives and athletes that have reached the top only to fall. It is a lifelong journey to develop the inner tools to overcome the thoughts created by those burning dropped balls, even under great pressure.
So, this year, instead of making a New Year’s resolution or just planning the year ahead, I did a Prior Year Review. (Got the idea from Tim Ferriss, who does a great job of breaking down what creates world class performance.) The core outcome for me was that could see the patterns of activities, people and commitments that helped me be at my best. When I am clear on keeping these as priorities in my life, everything I do is more infused with genuine caring and love.
Here’s my list:
Looking at all the good things of the year certainly dimmed the glow of those dropped balls. One of the exercises I often give clients is to write down all the positive things they have done for a period of time. The kind of answers that come up usually shock them – they discover they are doing a LOT more than they remembered.
What activities give you the leverage to do more with less time? What are all the good things you accomplished in 2018? What are you most proud of? Where are you doing things that totally drain you, just because you should? For obligations that you must do, in what ways can you be grateful? What practices and habits keep you at your best?
Inspiring new ways to look at learning, growth, and reinvention, whether in leadership, athletics, art or life.
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