The Perfectionism Trap

Drummer“Practice makes perfect.”

It’s one of my least favorite sayings in the English language. Yet, last year, this expression topped a poll of words of wisdom Britons picked up in childhood, and continue to use well into their older years.

It did better than “the grass is always greener on the other side,” and “good things come to those who wait.”

Why do I dislike “practice makes perfect” so much?

First of all, as is true for most clichés, it is a broad generalization. Secondly, perfection is a very loaded notion. Some people believe we should reserve that qualification to describe the divine. 

“Practice makes perfect” assumes that those who work hard will be rewarded. If only that were the case! Life isn’t fair, and hard work doesn’t necessarily lead to success. The millions of Americans who are working their butts off for minimum wage can attest to that.

And finally, I don’t believe we are created equal. Not everyone was born to win Wimbledon, or write a best-selling novel, no matter how hard and how often they may try.

But let’s start at the beginning by looking at the notion of practice.

GOOD INTENTIONS. BAD ADVICE.

People who tell you “practice makes perfect,” are usually trying to be encouraging, but they rarely define what they mean by “practice.” Of course the general idea is that the more one does something, the better one gets at it. As if repetition alone will lead to positive results.

Practicing can be very helpful, but it won’t make you a gold medal winner, or a world-famous musician. There’s one thing that consistent rehearsal will do, though. 

Practice tends to make permanent, but is that always beneficial?

If you practice the wrong things over and over again, you’ll only become better at what you’re not good at. It’s hard to unlearn bad habits.

If you really want to master something, you have to have a natural talent; you have to develop that talent from an early age, and you need what Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson calls “deliberate practice.”

Deliberate practice is a type of practice that’s rich on feedback, aimed at correcting mistakes. Ericsson says it’s the only factor that explains differences in performance in sports, arts, sciences, and intellectual games. Deliberate practice is not something you can do just by yourself. You need precise guidance, evaluation, and accountability.

MORE THAN REPETITION

Guillermo Campitelli is a lecturer at Edith Cowan University. He investigates individual differences in performance, judgements and decisions.

Campitelli has been involved in a study that re-analyzed previous research in the fields of chess and music, including data from Ericsson’s original deliberate practice study.

Campitelli’s research in chess expertise has shown that there is a huge variability in the numbers of hours of individual practice required to become a national master. One player he studied achieved that level after 800 hours (or 2 years). Another did it after 24,000 hours (or 26 years). A significant number of players dedicated more than 10,000 hours of individual practice, and never achieved that level.

His re-analysis showed that, on average, practice only accounts for 30% of the skill differences in music, and 34% of skill differences in chess. Campitelli concluded that deliberate practice is important, but other factors should be taken into account as well. Factors, such as our working memory capacity.

Our working memory capacity or executive functioning, is the ability to store and process information at the same time. Some of us are better at it than others, depending on the gene pool we came from.

People with high levels of working memory, outperformed those with lower working memory capacity in tasks such as piano sight reading, even when the latter group had extensive experience and knowledge of the task (source).

THE FLAW OF FLAWLESS

Practice isn’t all it’s cooked up to be, so let’s now turn to the notion of perfection. I think striving for perfection puts unnecessary pressure on people to achieve something that isn’t necessarily humanly possible, or even desirable.

One way to achieve perfection is to avoid errors. What could possibly be wrong with that? Well, avoiding errors can lead to people sticking to what they already know by playing it safe. That’s boring, and it stifles growth and creativity. Those who are trying to avoid something are usually motivated by fear, which can take away the pleasure of accomplishment. 

If we really wish to make progress, we need to push ourselves out of our comfort zone, take risks, and accept that we will make mistakes along the way, from which we will (hopefully) learn. To me, steady progress is a better and more enjoyable outcome than perfection.

There’s one last reason why perfection isn’t such a great goal.

LISTEN TO THE BEAT

In a lot of popular music, live drummers are being replaced by drum machines. These machines don’t make any mistakes. They’ll give you a consistent, perfect beat every single time. That’s something professional drummers cannot do.

Professional drummers aren’t robots. Even when playing to a super steady metronomic beat, they tend to fluctuate slightly. According to researcher Holger Henning, these variations are typically small, perhaps 10 to 20 milliseconds. Yet, listeners can tell the difference. Not only that, research has shown that these human variations are more pleasing to the ear.

Many electronic music programs now have “randomizing” functions to help producers add imperfections back into the music to give it a more human feel. However, they cannot produce the same rhythmic variety that people subconsciously recognize and prefer. There’s is no improvisation, spontaneity, or heart and soul in software. 

Musician Jojo Mayer says in his mini-documentary Between Zero and One:

“Digital computers are binary machines, which means they compute tasks making decisions between zero and one — yes or no. When we play music and generate it in real-time, when we improvise, that decision-making process gets condensed to a degree where it surpasses our capability to make conscious decisions anymore. When that happens, I am entering that zone beyond zero and one, beyond yes and no, which is a space that machines cannot access yet. That’s the human experience — right between zero and one.”

To put it differently: It’s the imperfections, that make a performance perfect.”

Think about that, if you’re a perfectionist.

Keep it in mind, the next time you wonder if voice actors will ever be completely replaced by text-to-speech software.

Take it from me: It will never happen!

Deliberate practice helps you prepare and perform better, but it doesn’t make you perfect.

And that’s perfectly fine with me.

Paul Strikwerda

PS Be sweet. Please retweet.

photo credit: Drummer with the cut outs at Oswestry Music Live 2008 via photopin (license)

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About the author

Paul Strikwerda

is a Dutch-English voice-over pro, coach, and writer. His blog is one of the most widely read and influential blogs in the industry. Paul is also the author of "Making Money In Your PJs, Freelancing for voice-overs and other solopreneurs."

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Journalism & Media, Personal

9 Responses to The Perfectionism Trap

  1. Theresa "T" Koenke Diaz

    As someone with major “type A” tendencies, I can attest to the fact that perfectionism is not a healthy thing at all, no matter how much it’s looked well upon in our Western world. I often joke that I’m always striving to be type A minus! “It’s the imperfections that make a performance perfect”: Such words of wisdom there. Once again, Paul, you’ve said it–dare I say it?–PERFECTLY! 😉

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  2. John Kissinger

    This…

    “It’s the imperfections, that make a performance ‘perfect.’”

    …is why I’m not as panicked as many others about the advancements in AI and its feared, inevitable dominance of VO.

    Sure, the pendulum will swing hard in the AI direction when the technology becomes more accessible to the masses. But, inevitably it will swing back when people wake up to the something’s-not-quite-right-ness of it all. We’ll want a proper human connection in the end.

    Thanks as always for your insights, Paul!

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    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Who would you rather listen to? To Yo Yo ma playing Bach on his cello, or to a computerized version of the score? Enough said!

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  3. Duke Vukadinovic

    Agreed! Our skills and ability to push to the limit can never be tested enough through practice no matter how serious we are about it… I’m a huge tennis fan and Novak, my fellow countryman, who is going through the most difficult period of his career spoke a lot about this for the past few months.

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    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Perfectionism can be paralyzing in sports and in the performing arts. It’s the inner game that matters!

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  4. Jim Edgar

    Indeed.
    Good to see Steve H. quote the “…PERFECT practice makes perfect” line – that was the thing which popped into my brain while reading this excellent column.

    Another way to describe it is “Training to Fail” – which cropped up many years ago while trying to learn various physical skills on a bike. The idea was after two or three times attempting something (say learning how to ride over a large fallen tree) and not achieving it, you were only reinforcing a sequence of failure in your brain and muscles. That was the point at which you had to stop, step back and visualize what you wanted to happen, as opposed to slogging forward.

    As far as the performance aspect…perfect is boring. We are the sum of our experiences and it is the combination of those things which create unique and new moments which only we can bring forth.

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  5. Howard Ellison

    A sound recordist I knew stencilled this on his equipment cupboard: “There is hope in honest error: none in the icy perfections of the mere stylist”.
    He did well, too – went on to be a BBC religious broadcasts producer, rest his soul.

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  6. Paul Strikwerda

    I just came from the gym, and I saw quite a few people practice in a way that wasn’t appropriate or healthy. Bad practice can actually be harmful. That’s why it’s so important to have a good coach who can show you what to do and not to do.

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  7. Paul Strikwerda

    Great observations, Debbie. Marketing mumbo-jumbo encourages people to search for the “perfect” solution, and the “perfect” partner. It’s an illusive quest that sets people up for failure. Some days even our best self isn’t as good as on other days, and that should be okay. All of us are a work in progress. That’s how we came out of the factory, and it’s what makes us vulnerably human.

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