Perfectionism is a Joy Killer

Perfectionism is a joy killer and a creative persons achilles heel! Twice this last week this issue reared it’s ugly head.  My problem is that I so readily recognize this problem, because I have it too.  Look up the word Perfectionist in the dictionary and I'm beyond sure my picture is next to it!  Over achiever extraordinaire - I have always struggled with perfectionism.  In school, in piano performance, life in general and its a heavy burden to bear.  The problem is that perfectionism robs us of the joy that we typical have in the things we like to do.  When I try to perfect a piece I’m playing at the piano, or a creative composition then the fun of playing the piano or being creative has now been hijacked and I’m left with frustration and and a lack of desire to finish a project I’ve started.

So when this happens in the studio I try as much as I can to nip it in the bud because I know the end result is frustration and most of the time the thing that happens next is quitting.  It’s unfortunate that the end of result of trying to get something perfected is ultimately failure because we quit too soon.

This doesn’t just affect young people - it can hit older ones also - for example this week I had both a 14 year old girl and a 56 year old lady struggling with perfectionism and feeling the ultimate frustration in the process.  The 14 year old is bearing the brunt of needing to achieve A+’s in school and it’s spilling into other areas of her life in the process.  She’s also spending hours playing basketball for her school team, and keeping her high grades in the process.  So the thing that suffers here is the piano and the voice lessons.  Since she doesn’t get a grade per se she lets that thing go the most.  So this semester we drilled it down as simple as we could so that she could enjoy the Christmas recital with a couple things to play.  The problem is though that as soon as you simplify the perfectionism only gets worse…It’s difficult to convince her that she’s only hurting herself both now and in the long term.  I have tried desperately to get her to realize that the music practice can be a safe haven or an emotional outlet so to speak to help her relax after all the pressures she feels at school and to use it as a way to unwind.  But she can’t see that right now, she just sees it as one more thing she has to perfect.  She can’t seem to stop herself and that makes me sad.

The other issue is really one and the same - stress affects my 56 year old student at work and at home.  She has an adult child and children that have moved back in with her and instead of her practice time being in piece and quiet, it’s now mixed in with a lot of background noise and chatter and singing along with her playing.  She’s trying to get comfortable playing for others, but she is allowing her perfectionism to interfere with the sheer joy of playing some songs that others will recognize and sing along too.  It’s creating more pressure in her life when what she really needs is some downtime and relaxation to be able to find time to enjoy the process.  I tried so desperately to get her to come and play a few Christmas carols that she was playing well at the nursing home with us.  The nursing home is such a safe place to perform especially for those who struggle with anxiety in performing in front of others.  The residents so enjoy the attention that our visit brings and the joy of music can be shared with others.  Most of the time they don’t care how the music sounds - they care mostly that we stopped long enough to spend time with them.

This has also happened frequently in the studio when we are working on compositions.  Everyone at some point believes it’s not “good enough”.  Or that they can’t create new things.  This is ridiculous - everyone is capable of creating new things and the creative process is hugely fun and satisfying.  Not everyone is good at it right away, but you have to be willing to start somewhere and gradually get better.   I mean that’s kind of the point, to learn something new we have to start with something we can’t already do and we can’t expect it to be perfect the first time we try it.  Working through how to make things better on one composition, helps to make it better for the next time and the next time after that.  I share with my students who struggle with composition whether at the beginning of the process or sometime in the middle when the ideas run out about an article I read once from a prolific sculptor.  He was asked how he had come to create so many masterpieces in his lifetime.  He stated that he didn’t wait until he was inspired, he would make himself create everyday even if he didn’t have any ideas.  Sometimes you just have to go and do it even when you don’t feel like it because you never know when a great idea will come!  But perfectionism can kill this process - the perfectionist thinks the idea isn’t good enough, all the really cool songs have already been created, it sounds too much like something else, etc etc.  The inevitable end of this thinking is to have partial bits and pieces but never a whole.   I’ve composed a lot of songs in my lifetime but I never quite finish too many because I don’t think it’s just right and I continue to make changes instead of just finishing for now.  SO I now encourage my students to finish "for now".  Make it complete and come back at a later time if you still feel it needs improving of editing.  At least you complete and have a finished product.

What’s the life lesson here?  Ultimately - don’t let perfectionism steal your joy!  The fun can be removed from any activity that we encounter in life when we allow perfectionism to overrun the sheer joy of being able to do the activity.  Is playing the piano or singing something that must be practiced and worked at - absolutely!  Does it have to be done perfectly to be enjoyed?  absolutely not.  At the end of the day we practice, we rehearse, we study, we breathe, we exercise, we vocalize, and we do all we can.  When it’s time to perform, it’s time to get out of our heads and enjoy the process of sharing something beautiful with others and enjoy the fact that we have the ability to even do what we do!  Relax and make beautiful music - even if it’s not perfect.  The only way I fhave ound around the perfectionism for myself is to let my mistakes happen and let everyone know around me that I made one (in practice or rehearsal) and I call them “jazz chords”.  I try to lighten up the desire to beat myself up over a mistake, by laughing at myself and giving it a name.  I mean jazz chords really do sound like mistakes most of the time right?  So I jokingly make myself relax and enjoy the process, and through in a few jazz chords on purpose (or do I) so that I can continue the process of having fun and enjoying the very thing that brings me joy - even if it’s not perfectly perfect.

This should hold true for you as well - whether you are making a meal for your family and friends, decorating your home based on a pinterest pin, or throwing a party.  I don’t care if you are presenting a project to your classroom, designing a game to be played with kids or just trying to do the myriad of things we try to do in a day.  Do things to the best of your ability, prepare, prepare, prepare -but then let go and enjoy.  It doesn’t really matter if the Christmas tree is really perfect for a photo shoot does it?  I mean if the kids are happy and fed, and enjoy being home isn’t that all we are really trying to do?    My daughter and I had this discussion around the tree just last week.  I had just gotten done mentally throwing my hands in the air and thinking well that’s as good as it gets…I just have to move on and maybe next year the tree will look better.  I sat down, and she said - I think that’s the best Christmas tree we have ever had.  What?!?  I laughed and told her what I was just thinking and she laughed too.

Stop putting so much pressure on yourselves to be perfect - it steals your joy and no one else realizes or sees things the way you do - you never know - they might already think it’s perfect!