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Thursday, March 8, 2012

Lessons from the Practice Room: Don't Chase Perfection because it's a Moving Target

This is the first of a series of posts I plan to write about how the lessons I've learned as a classical musician translate into other aspects of life.  Being a musician is like living in a microcosm of life's greatest challenges and joys.  It teaches you how to learn, love, pursue something with undying devotion, and accept your limits.  I think you'll find these topics easy to relate to even if you've never picked up an instrument.

The first concept I want to tackle?  Perfection.  Because I disagree with a common belief held by musicians and non-musicians alike.

Practice does NOT make perfect.  

What now?  Hold on a second!  Haven't we all been led to believe the opposite?  

Let's get one thing straight: I am NOT knocking practice.  If you want to get good at something - anything - you have to work at it.  Hard.  You have to practice, because practicing makes you better.  

But it will not make you perfect.  

That may seem fairly obvious.  There is no such thing as perfection in art.  Everything is subjective and, no matter how accomplished you are, there will always be something that can be improved.  There is also no such thing as the perfect runner, student, friend, parent, lawyer, secretary, teacher... you get it. There is no such thing as the perfect anything.

So I don't think I need to further convince you that practice will not make you perfect; that in itself is quite clear.  There is a bigger issue here that I want to address:

Practice will not make you feel perfect.  

In fact, many times practicing makes you feel horrible about yourself.  Not only that, but the more you practice and the better you get, the worse you feel.  Let me explain.  

A few months ago, when I was at a extremely low point in my life, a musician friend of my shared with me this: 

Furthermore, I believe that the "gap" between your ambitions and and your abilities never fully closes.  Think about it: we work hard at the things we love because, well... we love them.  We put so much of ourselves into the things we are passionate about.  And for that reason, we further develop our good taste.  We know how much is possible, and yet we just can't do it.  

So, we practice.  We get better.  And with each accomplishment, we set the bar higher.  We prove to ourselves that we are capable of more and more.  We see so many more opportunities for improvement.  So we practice more.  The bar moves even higher.  And so the cycle continues.  

This is the process by which we get good at any skill but, while it is effective, it takes a harsh toll on us psychologically.  Our ambitions become a moving target so we can never catch up with them.  

"How do you get Bach in tune?!" 

That's a picture I took of a wall in a New England Conservatory practice room.  While I don't know who wrote this, I can assure you that, based on the exceptionally high level of students at this school, to the untrained ear this (clearly frustrated) musician was at least fairly close to playing Bach in tune.  But the musician himself heard only imperfection.    

In fact, my musician friends and I would frequently talk about this phenomenon.  The better your intonation, the more out of tune you think you sound.  

If you're not a musician and you don't know what I'm talking about, I am sure you have experienced this at some point in your life.  For example: The better a runner you become, the faster and further you expect yourself to run.  Ran 4 miles for the first time a year ago?  You felt great.  Run only 4 miles now?  You feel like a failure.  

This topic is so important to me because I have experienced firsthand how chasing the moving target of perfection can literally be deadly.  When I first started loosing weight, I felt great about myself.  But the feeling did not last.  As my jean size got smaller, I experienced a high that could only be sustained by loosing more weight.  With each smaller pair of jeans, I became less satisfied.  I thought a certain size would be "perfect," but when I got there my idea of the "perfect size" became even smaller.  No amount of weight loss could satisfy me.  Though I thought that fitting into a smaller pair of pants would make me feel better about myself, it actually made me feel worse.  In fact, when my smallest pair of jeans was loose and people were telling me I was too thin, I still felt fat and my self-esteem was at an all-time low.

If I had continued to chase perfection, I would have died.  

My hope is that others can see this as a lesson.  You can't chase perfection because it's a moving target.  Even if your quest to achieve perfection doesn't lead to a life-or-death situation, it has the potential to make you miserable.  So stop!  Stop focusing so much on improving and celebrate what you have already accomplished!  It's great - necessary - to keep pushing yourself in order to achieve your goals.  But once you're pushing so hard that you can't recognize your own value, you defeat the purpose of pursuing your dreams in the first place.

And that's just no fun at all!

I'd love to hear your feedback on this topic.

Have you ever lost your love for something because you pushed yourself too hard?  


  1. I agree, chasing the moving target of perfection can literally be deadly. It's stressful and frusterating!

    Have a great weekend! :)

  2. interesting post! i am a perfectionist (whatever that means) in many aspects of my life. sometimes you just have to accept when doing your best is perfectly good enough. :)

  3. I love this!! I was ALWAYS told as a kid to practise because it would make me perfect, but that's not possible! We can just try to be the best we can be and be proud of that:)

    Hope you've had an AMAZING weekend! <3