Nobody’s perfect. One of the first figures of speech we learn is that one.
When compelled to defend a minor error (or sarcastically dismiss a major catastrophe) people rely on this unsophisticated but succinct expression. As imperfect beings, we universally get it. Misshpelled word? No big deal. Messed up punchline? Oh, well. Often, we can simply shrug off imperfections.
It’s the time when it really counts that perfection becomes paramount. In school, a missed question on the test drops your score a bit. In sports, a missed goal does the same. But if we’re talking about a “50% of your grade” test or a championship game, the stakes are high, and the consequences of too many errors can be devastating!
Much as we like the theory of “nobody’s perfect” all of us secretly crave perfection and sometimes need to attempt it to bring out our best. So how can we hope to achieve as flawless a performance as possible, especially when it truly matters?
In a word, mastery.
Mastery is the real name of the game when it comes to learning new skills, improving on existing ones, and it is imperative for reaching objectives while staving off errors. It is also a far better bet than a desperate hope for perfection.
In music lessons, my students and I spend hours mastering tasks large and small. We work to grasp the artistic scope of a piece so we can play with appropriate expression straight through, unwavering. We break down and practice the infinitesimal technical elements to learn to capably execute a tricky maneuver as it occurs in the music. To demonstrate a song, series of chords or technical exercise with deftness, mastery of the different components is crucial. Throughout the process of grappling with all this complexity, I continuously remind students that the steps we are taking are necessary for gaining mastery of their music. Still, many suspect that it’s perfection I expect, and I frequently get accused of just that.
Typical scenario: Jacob stumbles five times on his song before finally playing it “perfectly” on the sixth try, but then can’t replicate his “perfect” performance the seventh time or beyond. Jacob hasn’t yet achieved mastery, so I reassign the song for the next week with specific instructions for improvement. At this moment, I am also preparing for an earful from Jacob. Like many of my students, Jacob is not shy in voicing his grievances about how unrealistic it is to require absolutely no errors before he moving on. The protests hit some serious decibels when there was that ONE TIME he DID get it perfect, and it’s not fair that I don’t let him pass!
Contrary to what students think, perfection is sometimes the result of mastery, but it is not the aim of our practice. I hold students to a pretty high standard, which is often misinterpreted as requiring perfection; in reality, I’m helping students toward mastery. To reassure students that we are on a different mission than the impossible goal of 0% error, we must explore the question: what exactly is mastery and how is it different from perfection?
Mastery is the pursuit of proficiency.
Mastery takes focus, patience, and perseverance. It yields reliable skills which enable you to perform tasks with accuracy and confidence. Perfection, on the other hand, can be regarded as a by-product of mastery, though in certain cases it’s pure and simple luck.
If a beginner hits a hole in one, this perceived perfect stroke is obviously sheer luck. Chances are he can’t even make par on subsequent holes. A master may not hit a perfect hole in one ever, but will consistently win tournaments due to his many hours of practice and the resulting skill acquired. Perfection is elusive in this way, where mastery is dependable. Perfection is also conditional. In a static environment, the winds would remain calm throughout the game so the golfer may easily send the ball where he chooses, but this isn’t the case once storm clouds begin to gather.
What if there are no clouds and you don’t see it coming? If an ice rink appears perfect, but an invisible variation is lurking in the surface where a figure skater is about to take off, it is only her level of mastery that will allow her to maintain her balance if she has practiced enough to correct her body in the air. Where perfection fails, mastery rescues!
Mastery is what is required to handle all the variables that life throws at us when the inevitable imperfection occurs.
Perfection is an ideal where mastery is a practice. Perfection is the absence of error and mastery is control over error. I could go on, but it should be evident how significant the differences are between these concepts!
Suffice it to say that mastery is crafted from experience and is the nobler (as well as more useful) quest to embark upon. In your journey toward mastery, you can dispense with that old worn out “nobody’s perfect!” because it will be irrelevant as you increase your odds for perfection far beyond what luck would afford you. And think of it this way—what would you rather be known as a Master, or a Perfectionist?