Settling for ‘good enough’ as an antidote to perfectionism

I work with a lot of musicians, so it goes without saying that I work with a lot of people who would describe themselves as perfectionists. Now, I’m not knocking standards in this post – of course we should strive to be the best we can be at what we do. But I am going to attack the particular stream of perfectionism that causes some of us to delay finishing things, or to delay even starting, for fear that we might create something that falls short of impossibly high standards.

Perfectionism as procrastination

For some of us, perfectionism becomes a means of not starting something we’ve said we intend to do. Many writers will tell you about the curse of the empty screen and the tyranny of the blinking cursor. Artists will talk about the fear of the empty paper or canvas. I can vividly remember, as a teenager, being faced with a blank piece of very nice and very expensive art paper in my high school Art class, and being frankly terrified to mark it because I felt in my bones that any mark I made would be terrible.

This fear of being terrible is a key component in the dark side of perfectionism – we want to be perfect, but are inwardly convinced that we are doomed to fail. So we don’t even begin. Note that it is our belief that holds us back, not any actual clear evidence.

Perfectionism as fixed mindset

But how did we end up this way? Toddlers will fall over many times while learning to walk, but we don’t see them not bothering to get up and try again. What happens to change the way we think so dramatically that we begin to fear even the prospect of making mistakes?

This has been a subject of study for a number of psychologists, including Aaron Beck, Carol Dweck, and Angela Duckworth. Beck’s contribution was the foundational insight that the same objective event can be perceived in different ways, depending on the interpretation – the self-talk – of the person involved.[1] In other words, two children can make a mistake on a maths quiz, but one might have a very different interpretation of that mistake to the other. The first might see the error as proof they are ‘no good’ at maths. The second might see the mistake as a cue to try harder in order to succeed next time. Dweck demonstrated in one of her early studies that telling a group of children to ‘try harder next time’ when in a group solving maths problems was far more successful than simply praising them – the praise group were more likely to give up on harder problems, whereas the ‘try harder’ group did exactly that![2]

Whether we are aware of it or not, our self-talk around whether it is okay to make mistakes, or whether we need to be right (perfect) all the time is a belief that is rooted in the examples given to us by parents, school teachers, music teachers, sports coaches, and pretty much any other adult we were around as kids. Children soak up knowledge, but they also soak up beliefs and attitudes. Some of them will be good and useful, and some will be rather more unhelpful.

Alexander’s take on perfectionism

FM Alexander was clear, in his chapter called Incorrect Conception, that a student’s fixed ideas were the cause of most of the student’s difficulties. All those little ideas and beliefs that each one of us has picked up over the years and added into our own little private universe of what is Right and True – these are the things that trip us up.

it is probable that all his former teachers will have instilled into him from his earliest days the idea that when something is wrong, he must do something to try and get it right. Beyond this, he will have been told that, if he is conscientious, he will always try to be right, not wrong, so that this desire to “be right” will have become an obsession in which, as in so many other matters, his conscience must be satisfied.[3]

If our overriding belief is that it is bad to make mistakes, then we’ll do whatever it takes to avoid them. And if we can clothe our fear with the seeming virtue of perfectionism, so much the better. But whether our perfectionism stems from fear of mistakes or a genuine desire to be perfect, what good does it serve us? It stops us from finishing projects, from trying new things. I know of a French exchange student who barely spoke to his English host family, for fear of getting his English wrong. He effectively threw away a tremendous learning experience through fear! Do we really want to make that mistake?

Listen to the new means; make mistakes

The only way out of the perfectionism trap is to start being prepared to make mistakes. It’s a decision, and as a recovering perfectionist myself, I can testify that it isn’t easy. But it’s the way of progress. Allow things to be ‘good enough’ occasionally. And if you’re having lessons in a skill, whether music or sport or something creative, make the experience of listening to what your teacher is telling you and trying it out, no matter how silly you may feel. You may be on the road to great things.[4]

[1] Duckworth, A., Grit, London, Vermilion, 2016, p.175f.
[2] ibid., p.179.
[3] Alexander, F.M., Concstructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat 1997, p.295.
[4] ibid., p.298.

Making mistakes in musical performance: should we aim for perfection?

Making mistakes in performance: bad or good?I worked with a student recently who has been having problems with mistakes onstage, even in music the student knows really well. My student described the mistakes as coming out of nowhere, and creating a sudden loss of focus that resulted in further errors. The student wanted help from me to eliminate the mistakes.

Would you have asked for the same thing? It is an understandable desire: I mean, nobody likes making mistakes while performing, especially when they lead to further loss of focus. Dealing with the mistakes would cause the other problems (loss of focus) to disappear on their own. Surely that seems like a great idea…

But what if the mistakes aren’t really the problem? What if we are really suffering from a completely different problem: a mindset issue?

Musical mistakes and perfectionism

Last month I attended a training day run by BAPAM[1] on anxiety and heard a great talk on perfectionism by psychologist Dr Radha Kothari. One of the markers suggested by Dr Kothari for an unhealthy perfectionism was a performer’s attitude towards mistakes: are they something to learn from, or something to be avoided? If we believe that mistakes are something to avoid, then we are likely to engage in behaviours that are unhelpful: we will get unduly nervous before performing out of fear of the mistakes occurring; we may start avoiding practice sessions; we may notice physical tension building when we are coming up to the passages where we think we are most likely to ‘fall off’.

Mistakes matter when we hold the belief we are aiming for perfection; that is to say, when we believe that it is possible to give a perfect performance. Mistakes are clearly not included in anything perfect, so logically, mistakes take us away from perfection and towards failure.

Except… perfection isn’t really possible. As an example, just think of how many recordings have been made and performances given of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Many of them will have been good; some will have been great; a number will have been excellent. But can we really label any one performance as perfect? Does that even make sense as a concept?!

Perfectionism as a habit of thought

There are lots of different (and helpful) models out there to describe this kind of thinking. Carol Dweck made the idea of ‘mindset’ famous, and even my son’s high school hands out material about the difference between a ‘fixed’ and a ‘growth’ mindset. There are a lot of good posts out on the web about self-limiting beliefs (here’s one from life coach Tim Brownson). Back in 1910 FM Alexander dealt with the topic, and didn’t mince his words. he called this kind of thinking ‘trifling habits of thought’ and said:

the majority of people fall into a mechanical habit of thought quite as easily as they fall into the mechanical habit of body which is the immediate consequence. [2]

The implication of his statement is that our beliefs, if they are merely ‘trifling’ and ‘mechanical’, are utterly changeable. They aren’t giant pits or bear traps; they are potholes. If we can fall into them, we can lift ourselves back up out of them and keep walking. We can notice the belief, and then change it.

My student’s attitude towards mistakes was an indicator of a mindset – a belief about perfection – that I suspected was not helpful. So I asked a question that suggested a change of mindset: “Which would you rather: perfection or excellence?” My student’s face lit up instantly. One change of word, and everything changed. My student reported a vastly increased fluency and enjoyment while playing, which was still evident (and increasing) weeks later.

If you strive for excellence, mistakes are expected. They are something to learn from. They are a source of information, and an occasional bump in the road. Nothing more significant than that.

So how will you view your mistakes today?

 

[1] British Association for Performing Arts Medicine. They’re fantastic.

[2] FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat ed., p.52.

Image by Stuart Miles, FreeDigitalPhotos.net