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Mastery vs Perfection: Which is the Smarter Pursuit?

Saturday, October 16, 2021 by Cara Walsh Dorman | Universal Wisdom

Nobody’s perfect.

One of the first figures of speech we learn is that one. When defending a minor error (or sarcastically dismissing a major catastrophe) people rely on this unsophisticated but succinct expression. As imperfect beings, we universally get it. Misshpelled word? No big deal. Messed up punchline? Oh, well.

Often, we can simply shrug off imperfections. It’s the times when it really counts that perfection becomes paramount. In school, a missed question on the test drops your score. In sports, a missed goal does the same. But if we’re talking about a “50% of your grade” test, or a championship game, the stakes are high and the consequences of too many errors can be devastating.

Much as we like the theory of “nobody’s perfect” all of us secretly crave perfection and sometimes need to at least attempt it to bring about the best possible outcome. So how can we hope to achieve a nearly flawless performance, especially when it truly matters?

In a word, mastery

Mastery is the real name of the game when it comes to learning new skills and improving on existing ones. It is imperative for reaching goals while staving off errors. Mastery is also a far better bet for success than the desperate hope for perfection. 

In music lessons, my students and I spend hours mastering tasks large and small. We work to grasp the artistic scope of a piece so we can play with appropriate, unwavering execution straight through. We break down technical elements to infinitesimal bits to learn to perform a tricky maneuver the moment it occurs in the music. To perform a song, a series of chords, or a technical exercise with utter deftness, mastery of the different components is crucial.

Throughout the process of grappling with all this complexity, I continuously remind students that the steps we are taking are necessary for gaining mastery of their music, but many students suspect that perfection is what I expect, and I frequently get accused of just that. Typical scenario: Jacob stumbles 5 times on his song before finally playing it “perfectly” on the 6th try, but then can’t replicate his “perfect” performance the 7th time or beyond. Jacob hasn’t yet achieved mastery, so I reassign the song for the next week with specific instructions for improvement.

At this moment, I am also preparing for an earful from Jacob. Like many of my students, Jacob is not shy in voicing his grievances about how unrealistic it is to require absolutely no errors before he is able to move on. The protests hit some serious decibels after that ONE TIME (out of 7 or more) that he DID get it perfect, and it’s not fair that I don’t let him pass! 

Contrary to what students think, perfection IS sometimes the result of mastery, but it's not the aim of our practice. While it’s true I hold students to a pretty high standard, this is often misinterpreted as requiring perfection. In reality I am only guiding students toward mastery, and that fact usually needs repeated clarification.

To reassure students that we truly are on a different mission than the impossible goal of 0% error, we must explore the question: what exactly is mastery and how is it different from perfection? Mastery is the pursuit of proficiency. Mastery takes focus, patience, and perseverance. It yields reliable skill which enables you to perform with accuracy and confidence. Perfection on the other hand, though regarded as a by-product of mastery, often relies too much on pure and simple luck. 

If a beginning golfer hits a hole in one, this perceived perfect stroke is obviously sheer luck. Chances are he can’t even make par on subsequent holes. A master may not hit a perfect hole in one ever, but will consistently win tournaments due to his many hours of practice to achieve the necessary skill. Perfection is elusive in this way, where mastery is dependable. Perfection is also conditional: if weather was never a factor, a capable golfer could easily send the ball with high accuracy to wherever he chose. But what sensible player would ever bet on zero wind in every game?

What about the figure skater? If the rink appears perfect, but an invisible chink in the ice is lurking just where she is about to take off, she may not realize until the last second that she will be badly misaligned for her jump. It is only her level of mastery that will allow her to maintain her form or manage to correct her body in the air. Where perfection fails, mastery rescues!

Mistakes and unplanned circumstances happen and we just can’t always pull off perfection. And sooner or later, all humans realize we simply can’t count on nothing going wrong. Mastery is what's required for all the variables life throws at us. Perfection is an ideal, mastery is a practice. Perfection requires the absence of error, mastery provides the prevention of it as well as the recovery when needed.

I could go on (just ask my students!), but suffice it to say that mastery is crafted from experience and is the nobler (as well as more useful) quest to embark upon. In your journey toward mastery, you can dispense with that old worn out “nobody’s perfect!” because it will be irrelevant as you increase your odds for perfection far beyond what luck would afford you.

And think of it this way—what would you rather be called: Master or Perfectionist? I know my choice!

Originally published in edited form in Echo Magazine, Sep 2018