The comment I get most from others about being a performer is, “I could never do what you do. I would be so terrified of messing up.” I usually smile and say “Yeah, I mess up sometimes. But who doesn’t ever mess up, really?” Then the conversation suddenly shifts and instead of talking about all the things we think we can’t do, we start talking about how great it is to do something you love. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, it is a gift to be able to do something you love. I’ve found that there is a prevalent feeling among humans that we’re not allowed to do and enjoy things we love if we feel like we can’t do them ‘perfectly’. I am definitely a recovering perfectionist.
One of the first steps on my road to recovery was being encouraged to take “Imperfect Action”. Being a musician, especially a classical musician, I have placed a LOT of emphasis on being perfect. Partially because I know how competitive the environment is for opera singers, especially sopranos (God bless us all!!). But mostly, because I have held a secret belief that I’m not worthy of success unless I’m perfect. I started remembering all the times I wouldn’t allow myself to celebrate after performances where I had “messed up” all the times I felt I had ruined auditions after singing a wrong word or note. Then I remembered all the times someone shared how touched they were by my performance, and all I could think of was how many ‘mistakes’ there had been. Then I had a nice long cry.
I realized that on some level, it would actually be much easier for me to continue to pursue perfection. At least I’d never have to worry about celebrating or enjoying myself as an artist. There seemed to be more certainty in that path, certainty that I would continue to cut myself off from success. But perfection doesn’t actually exist in this world. So as long as I was pursuing perfection, I would never actually be doing what I love. So I decided that the brave thing to do was to let go of perfection. As I started to let go of perfectionism in my life, I started to really enjoy the process of being a singer. Without perfection weighing me down so much, I could actually start exploring the world of excellence.
The difference between perfectionism and excellence for me is really in my mindset. With perfectionism there is no room for creativity, development, or grace. With excellence, there’s room for exploration, collaboration, growth, and moments of sheer bliss in the discovery of something new. I’m not as concerned with the outcome as I am with the experience. And really, what else do I have except for my life experiences? I’ve discovered that sometimes growth feels exciting and amazing and sometimes it feels terrifying and painful. Life and art are complex and diverse experiences that allow us to become more compassionate, grateful, and open if we want them to.