In Defense of Perfectionism

If perfectionism is defined as a pathological refusal to accept the inevitable shortcomings of life, then I confess to choosing another clickbait title, because I would never defend such needless mental torture.  But if perfectionism means giving everything we have to find perfection, in music and in life generally, even though we know we can never reach it, then I support it wholeheartedly.

Today, many people are agonizingly crushed by the vice of society’s pressures and the weights of our own expectations.  With work culture soaring, capitalism raging, and social media providing an endless, 24/7 stream of curated and often performative snapshots with which to compare ourselves negatively, it’s no wonder psychologists, their patients, and those in need of such treatment increasingly demonize perfectionism.  I myself have spent countless days writhing in this very hell, and I continue to learn and grow in hopes of minimizing self-flagellation and maximizing joy in a life that is too short and precious to spend fretting about flaws that can never be wholly and permanently fixed. However, yearning to be the best we can be, setting stratospheric goals, and refusing to settle for mediocrity can come from a good impulse, even from a noble place. When channeled correctly and tempered by an acceptance of the unavoidable failures and disappointments to come, perfectionism can, in my experience, actually prove to be a beautiful path, not only useful in its spurring us to higher achievement but also as a moral and spiritual way of life that can make us more whole, more self-actualized, closer to whatever God might exist, and better able to love.

The key to healthier and more successful “perfectionism” is to separate the seeking of ultimate perfection during the process, which should be ferocious, from the response to the results, which should be gentle.  It is possible—difficult, but possible—to pursue excellence with a near limitless zeal and passion during the process of growth and creation and then, once the task is complete, shift gears into an attitude of acceptance, humility, and gratitude.  One of our greatest and most painful challenges as humans is wrestling every single day with the fact that neither we nor the world around us will ever approach anything like perfection.  How we deal with this most brutal truth can determine our perceptions of ourselves, our outlooks on life, as well as our behavior.  Do we fight against our deeply tainted existence, or do we accept it?  To meet the flawed nature of everything with furious rebellion or despondent wallowing is an unhelpful recipe for misery.  Yet, embracing immorality or laziness or even mediocre art has never felt right to me, and I doubt it does to you, either.

Seemingly, the only solution is to walk the painful and harrowing tightrope of “dual-staged perfectionism,” teetering oh-so-dangerously over a bottomless pit of disappointment and self-loathing but keeping balance with a supple grip on a long pole of gentle understanding that our efforts will essentially never fully succeed or be complete—and that these shortcomings are okay.  Braving this tightrope is necessarily painful because to strive for perfection is to venture straight into failure, and failure is not fun.  What could be more foolish than to set off on an impossible errand?  But also, what could be more courageous than to take the leap of faith toward The Best, knowing that our leap will not take us far enough?  The certain letdowns will sting, to be sure, but the inevitable disappointments along this beautifully doomed journey need not be bitter.  The true bitterness is the taste of settling and holding back, of knowing in the stillness of the night that we are not really trying—that we don’t even know who we really are.  If we know failure will come again and again in thousands of manifestations both familiar and unforeseen but nevertheless we accept its fateful return, if we launch ourselves heavenward, hopeful but prepared for failure’s familiar sting, we can all be nothing less than the vulnerable heroes we are in our dreams.

A few arguments for perfectionism in the context of music follow, but each can easily be applied to other areas of life, such as other arts, sports, any profession, morality, family, or love. Also, note that references to “perfection” in music are completely removed from any aesthetic debate around autotuned vocals and perfect rhythms on a grid vs. beautifully flawed, more naturalistic and human performances. Perfection here means the best possible version of your personal musical taste and ideals.

1.  I can’t afford to aim for good enough.  To have a chance at producing something transcendent or even just pretty darn awesome, I need to aim for the divine.  As the inspirational poster reads, “Shoot for the moon.  Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”  And shooting for the moon usually entails a mountain of work. Of course, some legendary songs have been tossed off, bursting forth from their creators in a brief frenzy or even a casual flip of the wrist, with little belabored revision or editing.  This proves that neither long rewriting hours nor obsessive tweaking is necessary to create something meaningful and beautiful.  You yourself might be lucky enough to have written a piece or made a recording that was exactly what the doctor ordered in only a few minutes, in just a couple of takes.  It is important to remember that the first take, the intuitive first instinct, the effortless flow of a first writing session may indeed produce a masterpiece.  With that in mind, once I finish one draft of something, I always ask myself, “Is this it?  Is it finished?  Is this as good as it can be?”  We must be ruthlessly honest with ourselves when we ask these questions, in both directions.  We must neither waste time tampering with something that already shines with the glimmer of This Is It nor settle for a solid song when a diamond could be underneath the surface.  But much more often than not, when I ask myself “Is this it?” the answer is no.

Certainly, at least some of the time, people would still enjoy my first or second drafts of songs and recordings even when they are not as strong as they could become.  Even less perfected releases can earn handfuls or even torrents of rewarding pats on the back from friends and maybe many strangers, too.  But I’ve already gotten those, and I want more than that.  I want to move people.  I want to stop people in their tracks and give them goosebumps.  I want to change lives.  And I know that I can never reach that goal if I settle for “pretty good” with anything like regularity.  We all know stories of world-renowned songs written in twenty minutes and cherished recordings nailed in a single take, but those are the exceptions.  Even the most talented musicians who produced legendary works in a quarter hour had spent years or decades honing their skills, practicing, performing, tweaking, adjusting, learning, growing, failing, and striving in order to be in a position to strike gold at the right moment.  And, critically, most of the great works of art were not made in less than an afternoon.  They were pored over.  They were fought for.  They were squeezed out of the last tiny sneaky corners of a flat tube of musical toothpaste.  True, The Beatles recorded their first album in a day, but they spent 45 hours over five weeks on Strawberry Fields Forever.  Yes worked day and night on Close to the Edge, passing out in the studio and sluggishly reviving hours later only to resume tweaking the mixing knobs.  Mutt Lange, who produced some of the most popular records of the 20th century by artists as diverse as AC/DC, Shania Twain and The Cars, is notorious for demanding 50, 100, or more takes of a single, brief guitar solo.  Ask yourself: are you above putting in that level of work?  If that kind of over-the-top effort isn’t needed to make your best art, then that’s great!  And it will not be required for every project. But if it is, then are you willing to do it like they did?  When was the last time you spent 45 hours recording a single song?  The Beatles did.  Will you?  To create something magical is a remarkable feat, and since that is my goal, I cannot afford to make music that is good enough.  I have to shoot for Strawberry Fields Forever, and maybe if I’m lucky I’ll land on Buddy Holly by Weezer.

2. C.S. Lewis wrote, “Now we cannot…discover our failure to keep God’s law except by trying our very hardest (and then failing). Unless we really try, whatever we say there will always be at the back of our minds the idea that if we try harder next time we shall succeed in being completely good.”  Replace “to keep God’s law” with “to make the best music possible” and the estimable theologian makes a strong argument for perfectionism in the studio and the practice room.  How can we know who we really are we really are unless we try to be the best we can be?  We can never fully understand or evaluate our skills and artistry unless we smash our heads against our ceilings (which, yes, does hurt), and we can’t do that without striving for perfection.  We can never really know how or where we need to improve unless we exhaust the limits of our current ability.  How can we break out of tired patterns if we stay in the comfort zone, if we only go three quarters of the way?  We cannot know in which direction lies otherworldly paradise, we can never explore the furthest reaches of possibility until we have reached the end of the map we already have.

Does this mean that tossed-off demos have no place?  Of course not!  Does this mean that half-finished ideas or flawed explorations partially realized have no value?  Not at all!  Should every performance or recording project be an attempt at perfection?  Again, no!  I have received great pleasure from live performances and social media videos self-described by the artists as “just messing around” or “just a rough demo in progress.”  There is a place for that, and I release demos, too, some of which I remain proud of.  But the problem comes when most or all of our work is “just messing around.”  Messing around is wonderful and even necessary, and of course we are always works in progress.  But what would it look like if we didn’t “just mess around”?  What if instead of clinging to works in progress we were to strive for the Actual Thing?  The results are usually light years beyond less strenuous efforts.  Just as we can never know how “bad” we are unless we really go for it, we can never know how great we can be (or already are!) without banging into our ceilings!  Sometimes our best efforts fall short of our hopes and leave us crushed, but sometimes I am shocked and elated to find that my very best is actually far beyond what I thought it was!  And I never would have known if I’d stopped at “this is solid.”  Moreover, I often learn more from one project to which I give my all than in countless hours of goofing off and noodling.  Sometimes, perhaps often, we must push ourselves to the absolute limit in order to learn, to grow, and to get honest about where we really are.  The results can be humbling, they can be pleasantly surprising, but they are always, in some way or other, exciting and inspiring!

3. Deep satisfaction is rare for me in life (and that’s something I continue to work on, which, yes, makes me dissatisfied by my lack of deep satisfaction… hmm…), but one of the few places I am able to find it is when I know that I have given every ounce of my effort to something that I believe in.  No matter the result—no matter how pleased I am with the performance or finished product and no matter the fanfare or lack thereof—I can lay my head down at night with peace when I know that I have given everything I have.  Sure, I can always look back and say “I wish I had practiced that vocal line a little more before the show,” and we can always do “just one more take,” but when I am honest with myself, I know and can acknowledge, sometimes reluctantly, when I have reached the point of extreme diminishing returns, the point of realistic total expenditure.  I do not get to that place with every project or performance, but sometimes I make it there, and when I can acknowledged that I’ve reached that point of realistic all-out effort, then the experience of walking away from the venue exhausted but head held high is worth countless hours of struggle, and I will hold those moments of satisfaction close to my heart for the rest of my life.

4. If you’re a serious musician, you probably believe in music, and if you truly believe in music, then you must believe music deserves the honor and reverence of an effort that milks us dry.   If music is “just a hobby” for you, then this might not apply to your practice, though you might understand how it could be true for others who want to give a significant portion of themselves to music, and you can hopefully apply this attitude in another area of your life that is more important to you.  And if you do think music is worth fighting for, worth living for, worth sacrificing for… if music has saved your life or given you a new one and shown you dimensions of existence that you can’t imagine ever having touched otherwise, then deep down you already know that music deserves a gut-wrenching, heroic effort.  We go to war, we suffer, and we die for the things we believe in wholeheartedly.  With that sense of duty and sacrifice in mind, the perfectionism of doing just one more take on that harmony vocal is clearly something that your listeners and music itself deserve.

5. Finally, many artists hold back because they are afraid of what will happen if they leave it all on the field.  But this fear of striving for The Best is misguided, because the truth is, we will never get there anyway.  One could argue that if perfection is impossible, there is no point in working toward it, but I flip that around: if perfection is impossible, then why are we so afraid of seeking it?  You are already vulnerable!  By making and releasing art, even if it’s half-assed, you are naked.  Committing to the creation of your best possible work does not make you more vulnerable to anyone other than yourself—that thought is an illusion, though an understandable one—it simply makes the most of the vulnerability you have already signed up for!  Fear of failure is a ridiculous reason not to seek the absolute highest good because failure is already guaranteed (or, in another sense, if we give our all, impossible.)  Likewise, fear of success has no place because perfect success is either permanently outside our domain or already achieved through the effort to get there, depending on our perspective.  There is no need to fear perfection because we will never reach it.  There is no need to fear success because ultimate success is never possible.  Everything is relative.  Millions of amateur Facebook performers are as proud as can be of their barely rehearsed covers of Hallelujah, and yet Paul McCartney thought he was a disappointment in the seventies despite Wings being one of the most successful bands in history.  Eric Clapton spent most of his career thinking he was a complete fraud.  Our satisfaction depends not on objective results but on attitude and perspective.  Both the Instagram bedroom guitarist who spends five minutes on an unaccompanied and unmusical shredding video and Paul McCartney fell short of perfection, as we all will.  No matter how triumphant our artistic lives, insecurities will likely remain, even if they become quiet and sporadic.  We will fail over and over again no matter what we do, but the great failure is not to lay it all on the line.  C.S. Lewis also wrote, “No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good.”  Finding out “how bad” we are is a frightening proposition indeed, and I understand why many people, myself included at times, recoil from the prospect of facing it, but instead of focusing on that, let’s spin it positively: unless we strive very hard for perfection, we will also never know how great we can be!  Deep down in the centers of our souls, don’t we want to face all of that and find the real truth? And without total effort, we can know one thing for certain: we will fall short of what we could have been. We have only to gain by trying harder. No matter what we create, some people will like it and some won’t, so the lone question we must answer, not to please others but for ourselves, is how close do we want to get to the Promised Land, or, more accurately, how far are we willing to go to see if we can so much as catch a glimpse of it?  Once you fully accept that you will fail no matter what you do, then those horrifying questions—“Is it possible?” and “Can I?”—melt away.  The only question left, with which we are faced every day, is “How far?”  Once you catch a tantalizing whisper of the divine perfection that calls to us always, if you’re anything like me, your answer most of the time will be “Further!”

I wrote this for two reasons: 1. for myself, to reaffirm my own painful quest for perfection in music and in life 2. for others, with a sincere hope that I might inspire someone a pinch, just the valiant quests of my influences and mentors have inspired me.  We are all connected, and whether you or I ever find what we are looking for in our adventures artistic or otherwise, the efforts of my flawed heroes have caused me to believe that greatness is possible for us.  But we also must submit to how helpless we are when all is said and done.  The rest of the first Lewis quote reads, “Thus, in one sense, the road back to God is a road of moral effort, of trying harder and harder. But in another sense it is not trying that is ever going to bring us home. All this trying leads up to the vital moment at which you turn to God and say, ‘You must do this. I can’t.’”  This quest for The Ultimate and The Best is a delicate balance of soul-bending effort and humble surrender, which looks different for each person.  I hope that in both our efforts and our surrenders, we can savor every moment of this beautiful process and continue that chain of inspiration, today and into tomorrow.

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