Moving beyond perfectionism (without losing precision)

Precision:  “a victory over approximation and amateurishness, haste and forgetfulness, the tendency to leave things half-finished or to cheat oneself…[it means] completing work in all its aspects, whatever the task might be, and finishing it well.  God, it has been said, is in the details.” —Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

It’s ingrained in pianists from our first lesson:  if you want to be a pianist, learn to be precise.  We’re required to maintain a certain posture, specific hand positions, and to faithfully replicate every detail in the musical score.  When precision is balanced by healthy self-worth, the results can be dazzling.  Sadly, however, when precision gets mixed up in the ego, it takes on moral characteristics—be precise and you’re a good pianist; make mistakes and you’re a bad one.  This is the point where precision flips into dangerous perfectionism.

Anyone who struggles with perfectionism knows how insidious it is.  Perfectionism is the little voice that tells us we’ll never be good enough, that our efforts don’t matter, and that we must be flawless to be found worthy.  Perfectionism seeps into all corners of our lives, crippling us with self-doubt and propels us into a soul-sapping cycle of inflation (“I played that perfectly!  I’m brilliant!”) and deflation ("I screwed up that scale.  I’m a hack”).  Perfectionism robs us of joy and freedom and replaces it with anxiety and tension.  At its worst, perfectionism can be crippling.

Precision, conversely, is characterized by relentless curiosity rather than questions of self-worth.  When a passage goes poorly, precision analyzes what happened and searches for ways to fix problems.  When a piece goes well, precision asks how the experience can be recreated.  Precision doesn’t ask itself if it’s “good” pianist or a “bad” one.  Precision simply goes about the business of getting the work done as easily and efficiently as possible.  

Moving from perfectionism to precision requires gentle determination and self-compassion.  Many of us who suffer from perfectionism have done so all our lives; making this sort of change means undoing decades of habitual thoughts and responses.  And while my own journey is far from complete, here are some things I’ve found that helped me make this change.  

Listen to your inner dialogue.  Are you beating yourself up or are you genuinely looking for solutions?  Who’s voice do you hear in your head?  Is it a parent or an old teacher?  Is this voice gently pointing out places to improve or telling you you’re worthless?  Would you talk to a piano student the way you’re speaking to yourself?

Find a truth teller.  I have several friends who can be counted on to tell me the gentle truth when I ask them for a “reality check.”  They’re unfailingly supportive; they love and respect me even if I fail.  Find these people in your own life.  These are the friends who won't tear you down but also won't let you get away with less than your best.

Embrace humility.  You screwed up?  So what?  Did you bring about the fall of western civilization by dropping some notes?  Guess what; you’re human.  Just like everyone else.  You can fail and still be a worthwhile person.

Remember that playing the piano is what you do, not who you are.  Most of us started lessons so young that our identity became tied up in music.  My freedom from perfectionism couldn’t take place until I stopped thinking of myself as “Rhonda-the-pianist” and knew myself as simply “Rhonda.” Learn to love who you are away from your musical identity.  

Surround yourself with true friends.  True friends want you to be successful but love you even when you stumble.  “”Frenemies” want you to fail and gloat when you fall.  If you have a “frenemie” in your circle, disentangle yourself from this person.  It's not cruel to back away, it's self-preservation.  

My journey from perfectionism to precision hasn’t made me a flawless pianist but it has allowed me to play with freedom and joy because I know it’s enough to simply do my best. I know the music contains the truth of me--strengths and weaknesses both.  Most importantly, I know that this human, fallible truth is where the music truly comes alive.