What to Do When You’re Not Perfect

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Mistakes…
Have you ever made one?
In front of other people?
Did it prompt you to start thinking negatively?
Did it influence deeper fears and concerns?

Me too.

So what to do when that happens? How do we manage the multitude of thoughts and feelings that swim through our heads?

First: Breathe.

This seems to be the opinion of basically every teacher, doctor, psychologist, performer, or athlete I’ve ever heard discuss mental stress. Deep, purposeful breathing helps us regulate our heart-rate and oxygen levels, both of which are crucial for our minds to function optimally.

Child with head in hands. Short, dirty blonde hair with a white shirt. Sitting in brown patio chair outside.

Before I go any further, I’d like to direct you to this user-friendly article, “What to Do If You Make a Mistake in Orchestra” . Written by my friend Rob Knopper, Percussionist of The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, it provides an excellent approach to maintaining poise around colleagues under difficult circumstances. Frankly, it is full of very good reminders for a perfectionist like me. And to be clear, the advice that Knopper gives is applicable to any error that occurs in front of other people; it’s certainly not limited to the orchestral workplace.

So we’ve made a mistake and we are able to maintain composure around that which exists externally. But what about that which exists internally? What do we do now that we’re alone with our thoughts?

Often times, fulfilling basic human needs can reduce a high-stress situation into something more manageable.

Hydration.

When is the last time we had a glass of water? It’s amazing how energized or depleted we feel based on how thirsty we are. If I’m feeling down and remember to gulp at least one big glass of water, my mood is almost always instantly improved.

Nourishment.

When was our last meal? Did it include foods that provided energy, or was it full of stuff that slowed us down? I’m certainly not here to dole out advice on nutrition, I think there are enough “962 Ways to Look Like a Supermodel” articles floating around on Facebook as we speak. But I would like to say that a lack of food, or a lack of nutrient-filled food, is sometimes the culprit for feeling weak. And while our mistakes won’t magically disappear with a salad or a delicious burrito bowl (with guac, of course), food can certainly help improve our state of mind.

Sleep.

When was the last time we had some solid shut-eye? If you’re a night owl like me, this is often a problem. It is incredible how easily sleep affects the ability to stay collected, focused, and positive. If I’m in a slump, I’ve found that a couple good nights’ rest can do wonders.

White platter with two garnished egg halves on a bed of celery, cherry tomatoes, and asparagus.

So we’ve breathed, we’ve kept our poise, and our basic needs are met. But the mistake still happened, and we’re really shaken up by it! What now?

Disclaimer: At this point, I can only offer what I’ve learned from my personal experiences. My brain is different than yours, my soul is different than yours. We all have our own ways to manage stress, and we each have our own perspectives. 

Another disclaimer: I am by no means “holier than thou” and exempt from the task of dealing with the anxieties that come before, during, and after mistakes. In fact, my whole inspiration for writing this post came after a rehearsal last month, when things didn’t go as well for me as I had hoped. 

So if you have anything you’d like to contribute to the conversation, I wholeheartedly invite you to leave a comment below.

Less than Perfect is Perfectly Okay.

Self-forgiveness so crucial in moving on after a mistake. We are all human, we all make errors. Embracing this concept isn’t just lovey-dovey feel-goodery; it actually helps us perform better.

According to the performance psychologists Dr. Don Greene and Dr. Noa Kageyama (The Bulletproof Musician), we do our better in the heat of the moment when we aren’t actually aiming for 100% perfection. Rather, those who go for an execution that is comparable to 85% of their best typically outperform those who try to be perfect.

An article I wrote in 2012 for the website of Toby Oft, Principal Trombonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, outlines a time in my life when I experienced success at orchestra auditions. In it, I discuss how allowing myself to make mistakes and be imperfect enabled me to play music at a much higher level.

Admittedly, I sometimes lose sight of all this. After that rough rehearsal I mentioned earlier, I was talking with my colleague Peter de Boor, Hornist of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra. In our conversation, he mentioned this profound truth: “We don’t strive for perfection; we strive for excellence.” This was a very helpful reminder, and it is a wonderful way to sum up this whole concept.

A policy to not negotiate with terrorists.

There seems to be a rather universal concept in Psychology. I don’t have the qualifications to get too technical here, but suffice it say that a lot of negative feelings come from a voice within. This is called the “Inner Critic”, and it is quite good at leading me down the rabbit hole of anxiety and self-sabotage. The Inner Critic is completely ridiculous, but under the right circumstances, it can be a serious obstacle when I’m attempting to accomplish something I’m completely capable of doing.

These are some common examples of the Inner Critic’s terrible words:

  • Fear of what other people think of me. “My dog is in the audience. He heard me play a rhythm incorrectly. Now he thinks I’m worthless.”
  • Jumping to disastrous conclusions. “I’ve waited until the last minute to write this blog post. I’ll never finish on time, and all my readers will be upset.”
  • Setting unjustifiable limits or boundaries. “I only got five hours of sleep last night. There’s no way I’m going make it through rehearsals today. Why did I do this to myself? I’m such an awful person.”

In the aftermath of a mistake, recognizing and silencing the Inner Critic is crucial to moving on. I’ve learned that the Inner Critic can’t be reasoned with; increasing the amount of noise in my head doesn’t accomplish anything. And while it can be tempting to give myself a pep-talk or recall some magical pearl of wisdom to counter the Inner Critic’s point of view, silence is what ultimately gets that bully to go back in its cave.

Commit to a Decision.

Mistakes don’t have to be the end of something terrible; they can be turning points that lead to something positive. When my mind is clear from self-judgement and any of the other previously-discussed chatter, I find that I’m in a good position to decide what to do moving forward.

Perhaps a mistake in rehearsal might have exposed something that I need to address next time I’m in the practice room. Or maybe it happened because I needed to ignore the Inner Critic. With other types of mistakes, I might decide an apology is in order. (Accidentally spilling coffee on someone’s shoe, for instance.) Or sometimes, the best decision is to do nothing.

Ultimately, committing to a decision is the best way for me to completely move on after making a mistake.

Brown dog with pointy ears catches brown bone while jumping over a yellow hurdle.

 “If life is like a dream, why work and worry?” -Li Po 

This is the opening line from one of the movements in the monumental “Das Lied von der Erde” (The Song of the Earth). I’m taking this quote out of context here; I’m certainly not suggesting that we stop working. But I do believe perspective is important when it comes to dealing with our shortcomings. Life is too precious and fragile to dwell on our fears, regrets, and mistakes.

I wish us all the power to forgive ourselves, keep a cool head, and go forth confidently with our decisions.

Bonus Quote. (‘Cuz hey, quotes are fun.)

And now, I’d like to give the final word to one of the most fascinating people from all of United States History: Teddy Roosevelt. I can’t think of anyone who embodied more adventure, courage, and raw energy. He swung for the fences, and he was not without mistakes. This quote is long-winded–but it’s pure gold.

It is not the critic who counts; not the [one] who points out how the strong [person] stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the [one] who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends [himself or herself] in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if [this person] fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that [his or her] place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

 

About Doug Rosenthal

No one told Douglas Rosenthal to give up playing music. Not even his patient siblings, who endured many early-morning practice sessions; even they encouraged their brother to follow his passion. As the years passed, that passion evolved from simply playing music to advocating for music, musicians, and music-lovers. Douglas is based in Washington, DC. He is the Assistant Principal Trombonist of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra/Washington National Opera Orchestra. He currently makes his home on Capitol Hill in DC with a pug named Jake, who serves as a constant reminder to relax, eat well, and sleep plentifully.

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11 thoughts on “What to Do When You’re Not Perfect”

  1. I’m a writer and what you wrote in your post applies as well to writers, perhaps with some minor differences. However, at one point in my life, I was a performing musician and can easily relate to that sinking, sick feeling after a blunder or memory lapse. Thanks for writing this post!

    • I’m glad you were able to stop by–and I’m thrilled that a writer enjoyed something I wrote! I’d love to hear about these minor differences you mentioned, is this something you’d feel comfortable sharing? (Out here in the open or in an email?) Thanks for your comment.

      • Well, you perform in public. The only time a writer performs in public is if she is on a book tour, doing signings and readings. It is not the main thrust of writing which is done in solitude. When a writer makes a mistake, though, especially in a published book, it can be just as devastating as when a music performer flubs in performance. If a book has sold well, it could be a mistake seen by hundreds or thousands of people. Some readers like to then contact the writer and point out the mistake — either by letter, e-mail, or the very worst, face-to-face after a reading. Writers deal often with the Inner Critic (I’m writing a blog post today about the little bugger), but in addition to the usual disparaging inner messages from him he can also be extremely useful during the revision process. It’s important to make peace with our human imperfections and use them to advantage in some way, whatever works personally. Fear of failure is something everyone deals with, not only musicians or writers. It can cut us particularly deep, however, because what we do is a part of our beings, an expression of ourselves. Failure then becomes a comment us personally as well as on our abilities. Does that make sense?

        • It absolutely makes sense, and it is really interesting to hear your perspective. I can only imagine the negative thoughts that writers have dealt with regarding fears of having mistakes “set in stone”. Politicians complain about YouTube making everything permanent, but you’ve had this since the beginning of written language! I look forward to reading your article. I take a very big interest in psychological matters, the human brain is an endless source of fascination.

  2. Well done. I particularly enjoyed reading Teddy Roosevelt’s quote as I think it demonstrates what courage people have who are willing to perform in public. The triumphs and mistakes of musicians, actors, athletes, journalists, etc. are out there for the world to see which takes great courage.

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