Sunday, August 30, 2009

Talent development 2: beware perfectionism

I would like to follow-up my post of two days ago, Secret to top-notch development of one's talent, with an important caveat.

I emphasized that you must be able to honestly and accurately criticize yourself if you are to develop your natural gifts to the highest possible degree. This is true. However, there are some whose natural disposition can cause them to fall into a nasty problem as they try to do this. I am speaking of the nasty vice of perfectionism.

It is good to want to do your best and try your best as you work on developing your talent. However, this can become perverted by perfectionism. Excessive perfectionism is actually one of the myriad subtle forms of pride rearing its ugly head. It is one thing to recognize a flaw and then work to remove it; it is another to become obsessed with being "perfect" at all costs. The former is good; the latter, bad. And it can be difficult to accurately distinguish between the two, especially in regard to oneself.

I have no foolproof solution for preventing perfectionism while still maintaining appropriately high standards. But, I do think that simply being aware of this potential pitfall is a very helpful first step toward avoiding it.

Following are a few suggestions as to how we might recognize when we are sliding towards being excessively perfectionistic (i.e. self-absorbed in a prideful way, which is unhealthy) rather than appropriately self-critical (which is healthy). For the sake of being specific, I will have in mind a musician who has just finished a practice session (something of which I have experience from my younger days).

Immediately after practicing . . .

1. Are you angry, hurt, or upset? These are signs of perfectionism (or, of biting off more than you can chew, or trying to excel at something in which you truly do not have much talent). A person who practices with humility and patience can be highly self-critical and demanding of himself yet at the end of a practice session will be at peace; he will not be angry. He should be able to enjoy the spiritual exhilaration that comes with doing something he loves and for which he has talent even while being physically and mentally tired. Prideful perfectionism ruins this inner delight while healthy self-criticism does not. Imagine the difference between a musician storming off a stage seething versus leaving the stage essentially joyful and grateful. Practice should be like this as well.

2. Can you practice alongside others who are more advanced than you are without being envious of them or angry at your own shortcomings? A mature and humble approach to developing one's talent accepts that there is a curve of growth that everyone must go through. And while the rate of the curve is steeper at first, a great musician never stops learning and growing. Also, aspiring musicians know that in order to be the best they can be it is essential to play with others who are more advanced. Solo practice, as necessary as it is, can never duplicate the irreplaceable value of playing alongside accomplished masters. Musicians who have the potential to be great know this and take every opportunity when they are young to learn all they can from those whom they aspire to emulate. Prideful young musicians would rather play in mediocre groups where they can stand out as the best. Humble young musicians who are serious about being the best they can be do not avoid situations where they are not the star of the group--they hunger for chances where this is the case so they can continue to grow and learn.

3. Were you focused on giving your all for the sake of the music, or were you occupied with imagining yourself as the center of attention in future performances? There is a big difference between demanding the best of yourself because you passionately love and respect the greatness of the musical arts, versus wanting to be good because you desire attention and praise. The former attitude is selfless and conducive to great artistry; the latter is selfish and stifles great artistry.

So these are a few ideas that hopefully might help to evaluate our motivations as we strive to develop our God-given gifts. We want to hit that mature place where we can be humble and selfless even as we are demanding and critical of ourselves, all the time keeping a healthy perspective that the human endeavor in which we are engaged is about something bigger and more important than ourselves. Themes that summarize this balanced attitude would be: 1) giving rather than taking, 2) gratitude and appreciation for the gifts of others, and 3) learning rather than showing off.

In my opinion, great musicians who are blessed to have long careers, are beloved by the public, and who will end up contributing the most to the enrichment of human culture are able to maintain an approach whereby they love their art more than praise (and thus see music as bigger than their own personal careers), never lose great respect and appreciation for their peers and forebears, and understand that no matter how accomplished they become they will never know it all and will never cease learning more about their art and growing as an artist.

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