My last newsletter resonated with many of you, about judgment and perfectionism. I love how one reader said it “struck a rather dissonant chord”. I thought I’d write a bit more about perfectionism for those who related to this topic.
Perfectionism is similar to the Inner Critic, in that it often turns into all or nothing – either I passed, succeeded with no noticeable mistakes, or I failed because my mistakes were noticeable. The thing is, we are never perfect. We just aren’t. We’re human, and part of being human is making mistakes.
I’m including Brene Brown’s quote on perfectionism again because I think it’s so good and worth rereading:
"Perfectionism is defeating and self-destructive simply because there is no such thing as perfect. Perfection is an unattainable goal. Additionally, perfectionism is more about perception – we want to be perceived as perfect. Again, this is unattainable – there is no way to control perception, regardless of how much time and energy we spend trying."
I think musicians have some unique circumstances that can contribute to the perfectionist mindset. We are trained from a young age, through weekly lessons and constant feedback, that we have flaws and imperfections, and that someone else knows better than us. Plus, many are auditioning on a regular basis, being judged by those with the power to hire and fire.
Some people thrive on this feedback though, and see it as a challenge to grow and become better. Why is that? And for those of us who struggle with perfectionism (everyone writing this newsletter does!), how can we become more like them?
Carol Dweck has studied this very topic for 25 years, and she has identified two different mindsets in learning. One is the Fixed Mindset – seeking to be perfect, to be perceived as perfect, and a correlating belief that our intelligence, personality, and talents are all fixed. The other is the Growth Mindset. In this mindset, people believe that they can improve and change their intelligence and abilities, and one never knows how much can be accomplished or achieved through effort and struggle.
Some people are predominantly in one mindset or the other. But many of us go in and out of the two different mindsets depending upon circumstances. The cool thing is that we can all cultivate the Growth Mindset.
For me, I used to believe that intelligence was fixed and our abilities had limits. I grew up with an older sister who also played piano and she won competitions. When it was my turn to enter the same competitions, I never did as well. In my mind this led to an equation – someone else was better than me (always my sister, and often other entrants in the competitions) and that meant I was never good enough. In the Fixed Mindset, if you aren’t the top, then you are a failure. And every challenge or competition is an opportunity to prove that point again and again. Even worse, these challenges make the failure available for public viewing.
In the Growth Mindset, one might view these circumstances differently. I could take my experiences in the competitions and find things to learn from it. I can also question my goals. Are my goals to win the competition, or learn to play the piano in the most satisfying and enjoyable way I know how? Am I looking for internal validation or external approval?
A major key (perhaps G major?) for the Growth Mindset is to get curious. Does the situation, feedback, etc, match up with your expectations and your internal experience? What can you learn from the situation? Is there useful information?
Summary of the Fixed Mindset: JUDGMENT
Summary of the Growth Mindset: Get Curious!
Here are some examples.
Situation: Receiving harsh audition feedback.
Fixed Mindset: It’s not my fault. I had a bad morning, my throat didn’t cooperate, my fingers were cold, I ate the wrong breakfast, the traffic was bad, the accompanist screwed up.
Growth Mindset: Get curious! Did the comments match up with my experience of the situation? Sift through the comments. Which ones can I address? What can I do about these weak spots?
Situation: Not being rehired for the yearly Christmas gig.
Fixed Mindset: They don’t like me. I’m not good enough, young enough, pretty enough, thin enough, never enough.
Growth Mindset: I wonder what happened? Perhaps I can call my contact person and find out. I can gather more information before making assumptions.
Situation: Overhearing negative comments from colleagues.
Fixed Mindset: I should show them! I’m much better than them! They can’t even [fill in the blank]!
Growth Mindset: Ouch, that hurts, coming from a colleague! Yep, that stings. But I know I’m solid with my skills. I wonder why they are feeling so nasty today?
Situation: Teacher/coach/friend tells you that you should set appropriateexpectations. Or comes right out and says you’ll never [xyz].
Fixed Mindset: They’re probably right. They know better than me. I’m not good enough. I'm going to stop trying.
Growth Mindset: This is a goal I really, really want, and I will do anything it takes to get there. I’m going to start by making specific plans in my practice for this week and this technical goal. I’m willing to pursue this goal, because I know I’ll learn so much just by giving it my all. Who knows where that will lead me?
What about you? What situations trigger the fixed mindset for you? How can you change that into the Growth Mindset? Keep it simple, one step at a time. Let me know if you have questions or would like help in figuring out how to apply this to your particular situation!