Perfectionism vs. appreciation of current abilities

Alan Watts - a very wise man

by Kristian Pedersen on December 25, 2010 · 1 comment

in Creativity strategies and mindset


So, you’re feeling overwhelmed by those who are “above your level”. How on earth are these masters able to accomplish such ridiculously amazing things? You could never do that, right? I often find myself briefly thinking the same thing.

I was introduced to electronic music 10 years ago. I was in awe by how cool it sounded, and I couldn’t stop smiling. I had found something unique, mysterious and cool, which resonated really well with my hyperactive imagination.

It was around this time that I started making music. Although the thought of creating something like that overwhelmed me, it was a thought that extremely rarely occured to me.

I suspect that many people have kept going with their music because of the belief that it will improve in the future. This is at first sight a logical perspective, since the vast majority of people improve at something by doing it often over a period of time. I believe this way of thinking has a slight flaw though:

The future vs. the present

What about the present time? The future-focused perspective yields results, and involves constant improvement. However, it always subtly implies that your current abilities aren’t quite good enough.

When I learned to walk and talk, I was terrible at them to begin with! I wasn’t bothered by that, and I got good at them because I enjoyed their benefits in the present moment. In retrospect, the things I haven’t been very good at (throwing, knitting, girls, cooking), are things where I envied the abilities of others, had a focus that distracted from the present moment, and/or I simply didn’t enjoy.

There’s nothing that can be done with the past, and the future doesn’t really exist. Now is where it’s at.

2000 vs. 2010

Around 2000, at the age of 11, I was amazed by Music Instructor and Bomfunk MC’s. I tried to imitate their music, but I failed. I could have kept trying, but instead, I kept on enjoying making tunes like Kuskjid (cow’s feces). I chose the appreciation of my current abilities instead of perfectionism. As a result, I had so much fun with my music!

10 years later, I listened to the same music, and was largely unimpressed by it. I still liked some of the same songs, but I was surprised at how many points of improvement I could find. The thought of outdoing them was suddenly not so distant after all.

The funny thing is, my mindset is very much the same as when I started out. Instead of focusing on perfectionism, I have enjoyed making and listening to the hundreds of tunes that I have created throughout those years, in between most people’s imaginary state of “inadequacy” and ever-moving goal of “perfection”.

A night of doing things poorly

I’m going to spend the next semester abroad, in Lima, Peru as an exchange student. I will learn to speak spanish, dance salsa and cook peruvian food. There are people out there who are insanely good at all three, and my current spanish/salsa/cooking skills are practically non-existant.

I will of course improve by doing these things frequently, so I could stagger through my poor skill level and become less and less frustrated at my inferiority. As indicated above, I choose to do it otherwise. Already after my first week of casually studying spanish, I asked a spanish girl “quieres bailar con migo?” (do you want to dance with me?) and got a dance!

I was a million miles away from perfection! My level of spanish meant that I didn’t understand the words in her reply. I probably pronounced the phrase very badly, and maybe my choice of words was odd. I must have sounded so much like a foreigner! My dancing was clumsy and probably went against everything in Dance Class 101. I must have looked foolish!

Perfectionism wouldn’t have done me much good right there. Despite the poor execution, both the dancing and speaking were done with full enjoyment, and resulted in me having a great time! I assume that having fun and smiling easened things up far more than perfect abilities ever would have. Afterwards, I was persuaded to sing karaoke :P People don’t care; that has been a great realisation for me.

Some day, I will speak spanish and dance like a prince. With singing lessons, I could probably even tolerate listening to myself. I’m already doing these things void of perfection, but full of enjoyment! The road to success is covered with failures, and I intend to enjoy those failures to the fullest.

What about stagnation?

What about it? If you feel you’ve become worse at what you’re doing, read up on it, do something, and appreciate your current abilities.What else is there to do about it?

Every new song I make always starts out worse than the previous one(s). Often, the end result isn’t what I aimed for, but my appreciation of my current abilities keeps me going, and always lets me create music that I enjoy. If I’m doing something technical poorly, I can compensate by having a strong visual element, or vice versa.

Some might argue that my music is getting worse, and that I have somehow stagnated. I know with myself though that I always find joy in making music, and to me that’s the exact opposite of stagnation. I don’t have any more or less enjoyment just because of technical skills.

Replace “music” or “making music” with “writing”, “cooking”, “singing” or whatever it is that you do for yourself. If the stagnation can be statistically proven, and you depend on those statistics, see the first paragraph under the “Stagnation” headline. Maybe I’m simplifying things a bit, but too many people complexify things when it’s not necessary.


The choice is yours: Improve by working towards perfection, or improve organically by enjoying what you’re doing right now.

Happiness is not a state to arrive at, but a manner of traveling.

Vast numbers of books have been written about this subject, so my knowledge on the topic is small. I could be wrong about a lot of things. I would enjoy hearing your thoughts on the subject in the comments!

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