Recently our daughter played piano in a Beaux Arts Festival at her school. As her parents, we were bursting with pride at her accomplishment; not because she played particularly well, but because three days before the concert the piece she was asked to play was in no shape to be shared with her school community. Whether it was the fear of public humiliation or just pre-teen procrastination, she finally ratcheted up the practicing and learned the damn song.
When I was in school, nearly every kid I knew took lessons in some sort of musical instrument. We held no illusions about careers in pop music, fame and fortune as concert pianists, or the perks of mega-stardom. We did it because the simple act of learning a new skill was its own reward. Well, that… and because our parents forced us to despite our protestations. Of course we wanted to do well, but it wasn’t about perfection or being Number One. It was about learning the damn song.
In Malcom Gladwell’s illuminating book, “Outliers”, he details his controversial “10,000 Hour Rule”. The gist is this; the most accomplished among us achieved their lofty heights by devoting hours and hours of dedicated practice to their craft, whether academic, athletic, or artistic. Many scholars have refuted Gladwell’s claim that greatness comes not necessarily through precocious talent, but where precocious talent meets lots and lots of practicing. His detractors tell us that Bill Gates’ relentless drive to write code means nothing without the inherent spark of genius that was already present. But here’s where things get murky. If your son simply doesn’t have the arm to throw a curveball like Sandy Koufax, I’m pretty sure 10,000 hours of pitches aren’t going to win him the pennant. But I bet he will end up a better player than when he started. And what’s wrong with that?
Somewhere along the line we’ve lost what it means to strive for goals when we’re not particularly good at something. As a result, we see kids “trying out” a new activity six weeks at a time to see if maybe they have a natural ability in said activity. And if they don’t? Then it’s goodbye to the oboe lessons and off to pottery class. The unfortunate casualty in this kind of fickleness is the loss of necessary failure. Without stumbling along the way, how can we tell the difference between what came before and what came after with a little elbow grease and hard work?
It’s no secret that most artists are notoriously perfectionists and there’s nothing like perfectionism to dampen the most creative of impulses. What are we so afraid of anyway? Are we afraid of being made ridiculous by showing ourselves to be not terribly good at something? Is our status or power threatened if we (gasp) make a mistake and look less than stellar? We do a terrible disservice to our young people and ourselves by expecting excellence right out of the gate. So cut yourself some slack and do anything- and dare to do it badly. Then do it again. And again. Practice might not make perfect, but perfect is boring. Missed notes, bruised egos, calloused fingers, blistered feet,- those messy days on the way to “better”- that’s where the good stuff is.