Better to try and fail?

I’ve been inspired by my students to renew my friendship with my lovely old piano. It’s probably around 100 years old with a beautiful tone and a wonderful feel to the keyboard. My playing doesn’t do it anywhere near justice, partly because I’ve never done enough practice to get really good, but also because I am woefully afraid of making a mistake.

This is a surprisingly crippling affliction. If you are so afraid of making a mistake that you can’t play a note, or you have to stop and fix the ones you stuff up, then you will always struggle to get through any piece complex enough to be worth playing. The gap between the music in my head and the sound flowing from my fingers is so wide that I get frustrated and give up, instead of barrelling through and enjoying the ride, focusing on what I can do, rather than what I can’t.

A psychologist told me years ago that perfectionists were often extreme procrastinators, largely because if they can’t do something perfectly, they would rather avoid doing it at all – and who has time to do everything perfectly these days? I was pretty sure my former teachers would have snorted their coffee at the suggestion that I was a perfectionist, so I found her comment rather startling.

Over time it began to make sense, though. I don’t dance, in spite of a deep and abiding love of music. I won’t play the piano in public. I berate myself for not being good enough, or organized enough, for not working harder, practicing more, or doing things better. I beat myself over the head with every class that doesn’t go as well as I’d hoped. This is classic perfectionist behaviour.

You have to learn to pace yourself
You’re just like everybody else
You’ve only had to run so far
So good
But you will come to a place
Where the only thing you feel
Are loaded guns in your face
And you’ll have to deal with

Pressure – Billy Joel

Yet last Tuesday I watched a student get up and perform in front of the whole school, singing and playing guitar for the first time in front of such a large audience. Once or twice he flubbed his lines, gave a grin, and kept going. The audience cheered him on, and applauded rapturously when he was done – and for good reason. His performance wasn’t perfect, but it was great. The audience loved it. The song was gorgeous, and his rendition heartfelt and beautifully evocative. I hope he is very proud of it.

He was brave to try something he hadn’t done before, and certainly courageous to make a mistake and not let it derail him. Really, that’s what life is all about, isn’t it? The ability to trip and get back up? The courage to try something new and not be daunted when it doesn’t quite work out the way you expected?

It’s not like I don’t try new things – throwing in an academic career in my late 30s and taking the leap into teaching was a chasm-crossing move that still takes my breath away, four years later – but sometimes the internal pressure to do something perfectly or not at all seems impossible to shake. I want things to be exactly the way I picture them in my head, and if I can’t do it RIGHT NOW I have to wrestle down an extreme urge to take my bat and ball and stalk off home.

Watching my students throw themselves into new endeavours on a daily basis – not necessarily worried about whether they sink or swim, but determined to wrest everything they can from the experience – is slowly teaching me that fear is one of the only things standing between me and the person I really want to be.


5 thoughts on “Better to try and fail?

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