Embracing Mediocrity

October 9, 2018, 1:14 PM · I read this with recognition. I struggle with a naturally competitive nature, given the fact that I am not amazing at any of my hobbies. I love it that this piece gives me permission to just enjoy, and not strive. :-)


Replies (22)

October 9, 2018, 4:22 PM · Excellent essay and really good reminder. I liked this point:

"In a way that we rarely appreciate, the demands of excellence are at war with what we call freedom. For to permit yourself to do only that which you are good at is to be trapped in a cage whose bars are not steel but self-judgment."

Going to my own little afternoon of practicing. If something is worth doing, it is worth doing even badly.

October 9, 2018, 4:33 PM · Reminds me of the reason I ultimately do this (not just to be good at it).
Edited: October 12, 2018, 5:23 PM · I believe it’s called “Failing Forward.” If you can’t deal with failure on the way to getting better, then do something passive and enjoy someone else’s work (aka doing nothing, being a bystander, living vicariously, slug life, etc.) It seems to work for millions of sports fans.
October 12, 2018, 6:45 PM · As a professional psychologist (and an amateur violinist), I have always appreciated what a colleague of mine told me decades ago. His specialty was psychoanalytical psychotherapy. He talked about what he called the "perfection fantasy."

The perfection fantasy is that we sometimes equate perfection with adequacy. In other words, the only thing that is "good enough" is achieving perfection. While perfection is a wonderful goal to strive for, to equate perfection with simply being adequate puts us human beings in an impossible bind.

According to the perfection fantasy, we have only 2 choices: It's either to be perfect or to be no good and totally inadequate. And since we human beings are hardly ever "perfect" in anything, we are always losers, failures, because we made just one or two even inconsequential mistakes. This is bound to lead to feelings of failure and discouragement, and can destroy anyone's motivation.

So, yes, strive for perfection. But don't judge yourself by perfection.

Of course, I myself have never made a mistake. I thought I did once, but I was wrong.


October 12, 2018, 7:36 PM · One of the hardest things about getting better at music is: the better you get, the higher your expectations tend to become. I found it easy to embrace mediocrity for the first 10-12 years when I thought my ceiling was intermediate level. It's become much harder after breaking through and going well above what I thought would be my ceiling, and still improving rapidly. In orchestras, where I was once just happy to be there, I now remember every single missed note in a concert for weeks afterward...

But freedom comes from knowing that no one else is playing perfectly either.

October 13, 2018, 7:31 AM · For me, being good at something and enjoying it are not mutually exclusive... they go together. When I first started playing violin, I didn't really enjoy it because I sounded bad. I only stuck with it because I knew that if I worked hard and improved I'd get better and probably enjoy it more. I have indeed enjoyed it more and more as I got better, got to play more complex pieces, play with better musicians, etc. I don't think that striving for excellence has to be something bad, something that destroys our enjoyment. Of course it can cross the line into perfectionism and over-competitive-ness, which becomes un-enjoyable for me, but for me it is equally un-enjoyable to be in an environment where mediocrity is accepted and even celebrated, where it feels like people have stopped trying to improve, or don't imagine or hope for a higher level for themselves. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, but its not my scene. I know I will never get to a professional level of playing on violin but I do carry the knowledge with me that I am playing masterpieces of the highest order and I have a responsibility to play them to the very best of my ability. I enjoy this sense of responsibility and striving.
I think there's an equally disturbing trend in our culture to equate enjoyment with relaxation, and dis-associate enjoyment from hard work. I'm curious to see if others feel the same way, or if I'm alone in this way of thinking...
October 13, 2018, 8:04 AM · Nice essay. Thanks for posting. I am now 62. Music has been my major hobby over time. Piano off and on (mostly off) since age 8; trumpet since age 12 (played jazz band, church, regional orchestra; guitar as a midlife crisis last 20 years (classical, jazz, fingerstyle) so I have been able to do lot with it. Recently took up the viola as a totally new challenge intellectually, hand-eye, etc. I am a physician and am convinced that a challenge such as this could be preventive for later dementia. I never anticipate taking the viola public, but who knows? I have an excellent young teacher who endures my efforts and understands my goals. Really I am only competing with myself day-to-day, week-to-week.
Sylvie, I think, is spot on in her observation above that hard work is underappreciated. Grandparents used to talk of a feeling of "good tired" when they had accomplished a lot around the house or on the farm. I have had my share of it and look forward to more.


Edited: October 13, 2018, 8:37 AM · Ironically, one of thr healhiest groups I ever ws part of-in terms of accepting the variability of performance and improvement through practice- were triathletes. At the finish line, we all congratulated each other for just doing better than we-as individuals - had done before. Everyone had the same goal- a PR or personal record. Perhaps that came from a three discipline event in which no-one was perfect in all aspects of all three sports.
As an aging amateur with multiple roles, responsibilities, and jobs, I take satisfaction in those things that are improving. very different from when I was in the college of music as a young adult.
October 13, 2018, 11:03 AM · Here's an appropriate and famous quote from a violinist who in his day was the symbol of perfection - Jascha Heifetz:
"There is no 'top.' There are always further heights to reach."

And, yes, often we can take pride in the commitment to succeed and in the attempt and in the small victories, even if we fail to achieve ultimate "victory" or perfection. There's nothing like recognizing one's imperfect humanness to help one accept and appreciate oneself....and others.

October 13, 2018, 11:27 AM · Thanks Sander, et al. I call it "toxic perfectionism", and it afflicts the main-stream classical music culture more than the other music genres. Perfectionism leads to Procrastination leads to Paralysis.
My antidote is "sometimes good enough is good enough", and, the audience is not there to judge you, they want to have an enjoyable evening.
Edited: October 13, 2018, 11:30 AM · Sander, I really appreciate your contributions to this discussion. You wrote, "...to equate perfection with simply being adequate puts us human beings in an impossible bind."

I've got a lot of hobbies, but nowhere is this bind more acute than classical violin. I've made a lot of my own furniture and I'm proud of it even though it's very obviously not perfect. Folks come over and I say, "Look at the stacking end-tables I made" even though they're nothing special. No WAY would I say, "I'm a violinist, sit down and hear my Fiocco Allegro!" What I CAN do is play But Beautiful or Smoke Gets In Your Eyes on the piano, because nobody expects technical brilliance from an old ballad.

You also joked, "Of course, I myself have never made a mistake. I thought I did once, but I was wrong."

My version of that: I used to be conceited, but now I'm perfect.

Edited: October 14, 2018, 1:47 AM · It should go without saying that the achievement of "perfection" in anything is a false goal. Elizabeth's question isn't concerned with the attainment of perfection or even improvement, just the striving after it; why not be content with one's level of achievement and simply enjoy the ride?

I don't play the violin in order to get better at playing the violin. I long ago reached a point where I don't expect to get better, and am pleasantly surprised when occasionally I do detect some improvement. My satisfaction is achieved when, as happened yesterday, I get together with a bunch of old friends and, prior to a substantial lunch and a couple of bottles of wine, discover we can read through a Beethoven quartet last played maybe 15 years ago with a modicum of success. It's a great feeling. OK, it wasn't quite so good after lunch.

The NYT article hints that "striving" may be a characteristic of culture in the US more than some other countries. Like all cultural traits, it has a plus side and a minus side.

October 15, 2018, 11:30 AM · (Forewarning, I did not read the article!)

I think this "striving" is also reflected in the fact that every single person I speak with who learns that violin is a hobby of mine asks if I am going to find a way to make money from it. I had another "hobby" become a second job and it's brutal - the pay stinks, the hours are horrific and I'm the only employee...

October 15, 2018, 12:07 PM · I think it's important to strive at violinistic perfection, however illusory, because any less aspirations all-too-often produce less than mediocre results. I have a personality that often asks for self-perfection, though it's not driven by ambition, but more by core values. "It must sound good". I am way more lenient with others than with myself. I have however learned to appreciate every step, rather than chastising myself over "not good enough yet". Another voice within now says "but it's better, and will definitely improve with more conscientious work and patience."

So , yes , don't hurt yourselves over mistakes, but working hard and intelligently at it will finally yield better results, which will make it a more enjoyable "hobby" for you to learn.

For me it is a way of life, and an endless musical Journey.

October 15, 2018, 12:38 PM · Remember the title of Yehudi Menuhin's autobiography? It is, "Unfinished Journey."
October 15, 2018, 12:41 PM · Adalberto - does your endless musical journey involve aspects of music outside violinistic performance? I ask in all seriousness because one of the things that surprises me most about this site is how many people seem to regard their playing as an end in itself, not a means to an end which is the participation in and enjoyment of one of the great achievements of western civilization.
Edited: October 15, 2018, 3:29 PM · In this regard, I believe that Tchaikovsky had the most eloquent quote (that I've ever seen) on this issue:

"Music is not illusion. It is, rather, revelation. Its triumphant power is that it reveals to us beauties we find nowhere else. And the apprehension of them is not transitory, but a perpetual reconcilement of life."

Bravo, Tchaikovsky

October 15, 2018, 8:37 PM · I'll embrace an old Army slogan, "Be all you can be"

If you give up you'll never know what that is exactly. If you persist, you'll continually be moving toward that goal.

I think goals are important. I want to be a better mediocrity than I was yesterday until hopefully it's no longer mediocrity. Since my pursuit is more about the ride than the destination , I'll be ok enjoying the ride while striving for the goal, since the goal is ever moving, much like time.

If time were a goal what would it be? For creatures that time doesn't matter, perfection can take forever. Old musicians don't really die , they just move to another concert hall.

Music doesn't exist without a conduit. If you were chosen to be a conduit, don't think that will ever end.If you try to run it's going to find you.If you wait too long, you'll come running back looking for it.

October 15, 2018, 8:59 PM · There is enjoyment in learning to be fluent in a language, and similarly in music. But if one is not learning to be fluent and accepts to stay where one is, where is the joy in that? It is frustrating.

I think here it is not really about excellence or perfection as much as it is that the lack of fluency (ie technical faults:intonation, rhythm, bad bowing, etc etc etc) is just so obvious that the faults, being so jolting, immediately foreground the music. To some extent, playing well is also a matter of getting out of the music's way. Bad playing is in the way. That's the hard truth. Im very much in the way.

Edited: October 16, 2018, 3:46 AM · Tammuz - you make an excellent analogy but exactly (IMO) the wrong conclusion. Most people learn languages, not for their own enjoyment but in order to be able to communicate with others. Fluency certainly helps, but what is the point of fluency if you're talking to yourself? Nobody spends hours practising their French into a mirror.

And Timothy - I really don't care about "being all I can be" or "moving towards a goal". Without wishing to widen the Atlantic, these are very much US American ideals that are far less important where I come from. My life isn't all about me and my goals. If it were I'd have despaired as soon as I realized that many of my capabilities are starting to ebb away with age, so my goals would all have to be constantly revised downwards.

October 16, 2018, 9:23 AM · I just want to add that the quality I hate most and fire most from my staff, is perfectionism.
It's incredibly egotistic, with stink of sanctity.
Perfectionists rarely deliver within the deadline. Often times "never", if they are not happy with their work.
In real world, things need to happen and advance. Obsessive perfectionism is unidimensional and stagnating.
October 16, 2018, 5:13 PM · This article describes my life. I think it was my long break from the violin and restart on the viola as an adult that enabled me to be a happy amateur.

There is something powerful in modest, realistic expectations. I keep mine that way and then I pleasantly surprise myself by ocasionally exceeding them. The other way, of endlessly chasing high expectations, of "shooting for the moon" and hoping that even if you don't get there you'll land "among the stars," besides being astronomically incorrect (since the stars are much futher away than the moon) is a recipe for anxiety and disappointment, at least in my experience.

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