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Aim for Excellence Rather Than Perfection

Young boy playing violin in empty-seated theatre.

“Perfectionism is a cudgel and a way to hide...Perfectionism is a way to berate others for not meeting imaginary standards. Or berating ourself as a way to avoid shipping the work. The perfectionist desires an outcome that can never be achieved. That’s why they’re a perfectionist–to hide behind the impossible...Better? Sure. Work for that. But perfectionism is a defect.” - Seth Godin, Seth’s Blog April 9th, 2021

As musicians, we want to put our best foot forward when we perform and create music. We take what we do seriously; putting time and care into our work in order to honour our art. But this desire can often lead to perfectionism—where we expect ourselves to achieve flawlessness. The fear of falling short of this outcome can be enough to delay or even prevent us from sharing our music with the world. Instead of aiming for perfection, we can choose to strive for excellence by setting a high personal standard, accepting the right imperfections, and creating a minimum lovable product. 

Although aiming for perfection is sometimes viewed as a positive trait—one associated with high achievers—being a perfectionist is actually not conducive to improving at our craft. As Adam Grant explains in his book Hidden Potential: “Extensive evidence shows that it’s having high personal standards, not pursuing perfection, that fuels growth.” When our goal is to do or produce something free of any blemishes, we inevitably fail. We can instead set a high standard for ourselves based on where we currently are on our music journey. Adam suggests taking on a “precise and challenging” objective in order to avoid the pitfalls of perfectionism. “It focuses your attention on the most important actions and tells you when enough is enough.” Aiming for an outcome tailored to your present skill level will keep you moving forward and making improvements where it matters. Set yourself a concrete target that is high enough to push you beyond where you are while still being achievable. Your standards will naturally adjust over time as you continue to challenge yourself and make progress. 

Part of pursuing excellence is learning to recognize the inevitably of imperfections and deciding which of yours are tolerable. “Tolerating flaws isn’t just something novices need to do—it’s part of becoming an expert and continuing to gain mastery. The more you grow, the better you know which flaws are acceptable.” It’s easy to worry and fuss over getting everything just right before we’re ready to let go and move on. But we need to accept our shortcomings—even allowing them to become part of who we are as musicians. Adam categorizes the art of “wabi sabi” as a character skill we can develop. He describes it as “honoring the beauty in imperfection,” and explains: “It’s about accepting that flaws are inevitable—and recognizing that they don’t stop something from becoming sublime.” There are certainly going to be shortcomings we need to address in order to practice, perform, and create music at a high level. But we can still embody excellence while working within our unique limitations

If you’re preparing to release music or to put on a live show, you can work to create what Adam Grant calls a “minimum lovable product: a higher-standard alternative to a “minimum viable product.” This is where you create something to meet the standards of the people you’re trying to reach. To accomplish this, it can be beneficial to seek out the input of others. Adam uses his own writing as an example: “For each project, I pull together a different mix of five to seven insiders and outsiders with complementary skills… I ask the judges to independently rate my work on a scale from 0 to 10. No one ever says 10. Then I ask how I can get closer to 10.” The score he aims for changes depending on his skill level and the significance of the task. “For a major project like this book, I set two targets: an aspirational goal (9) and an acceptable result (8). When I get 8s across the board, I know I can be satisfied with my progress.” Consider trying this out the next time you’re preparing for a performance, or are working on a new song: Gather your own group of judges and invite them to offer you a score from 1 to 10. Then, ask them what you have to do to get closer to your target. As Adam explains, receiving a specific score will provide vital information on what changes are the most important to make, and will motivate you to become better. 

Adam does offer a warning against putting too much stock in the opinions of others. “A great deal of research shows that perfectionists tend to define excellence on other people’s terms. This focus on creating a flawless image in the eyes of others is a risk factor for depression, anxiety, burnout, and other mental health challenges.” Ultimately, the most important person you need to please is yourself.

Perfection is unattainable. The reality is, there will always be imperfections in the music we create and perform—but we don’t have to let that stop us from sharing it with the world. If we instead aim for excellence, we can reach for the highest standard available to us at a specific moment in time. Rather than worrying if what you’ve produced is perfect, consider, as Adam Grant suggests: “If this was the only work people saw of yours, would you be proud of it?”. 

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