All right, my peeps. No more goofing off talking about sex. On to bigger and better things. Or at least smaller things.
The Devil in the Details
Today’s blog is about perfection. Achieving it? No. Not exactly. Mostly about understanding when it’s important. And getting on with life when it isn’t. So here we go. And you know, that around here, no good blog isn’t better with a little life anecdote.
My very first job was in a wallpaper store. Back when they still had wallpaper stores. Yes. A whole store devoted just to wallpaper. Seems as outdated now as butchers or bakers or shoe repair shops. But yeah – I spent the better part of my 16th year doing wallpaper hanging demonstrations in a skirt and high heels to weekend do it yourselfers who wanted to spruce up their bathrooms. That was, of course, back when wallpaper itself was actually still in style. Oh, see…now you’ve gone and made me feel all old. I hate that.
One of the people I worked with at the time happened to be a woman in her forties who had risen to the much coveted position of WALLPAPER STORE DISTRICT MANAGER. I know! Shocking that anyone would want the job, but also probably shocking to you that this store wasn’t just one store – it was a chain. With stores all over California. Lots of them. Wallpaper was once big BIG business. Like the horse and buggy. And kerosene lamps. (This is getting worse for me by the effing second, just so you know.)
Anyway, this woman and I would sometimes have conversations about life in those long evening hours between dinner and nine o’clock closing when people were mostly not interested in buying wallpaper. I was young and bright eyed and bushy tailed. And I was already a good musician, but really hadn’t figured out a life path yet. Over coffee one night, she told me all about how she had been working on a particular life problem with her therapist and that she had figured out through the examination that she had one real problem in life: she was a perfectionist procrastinator.
Now…I had never heard of these two words put together before. And I hadn’t really thought much about it, but she went on to explain how in everything she did in life, she expected perfection from herself in doing it, and in doing that she would almost always procrastinate doing the thing because she was afraid of failing at perfection. She further explained that she thought this is why she had ended up the district manager of a wallpaper store. Because she was certainly bright and good with people and had a lot of obvious talents, the least of which was folding towels correctly in the bathroom display. And I remember thinking…”Wow. This is probably a really good life lesson because I really don’t want to end up being the district manager. And I certainly don’t want to be folding towels and hanging display wallpaper and ripping it down again the following day for the rest of my life.” And I was right. It was a good lesson. I tried to remember it while limping through adolescence and later moving onto bigger and better things in life.
Fast forward almost 20 years (ooooh. There’s that old feeling again.), and when looking back at this lesson, I really do think it is one of life’s most important. Like a voice from the sky, that woman tapped me on the shoulder at a young age and gave me a glimpse into a monumental life mistake, i.e., taking yourself too seriously.
Perfection – while a wonderful idea is largely unachievable by most people. Mostly because it’s a moving target. What’s incredible today is passé tomorrow, and what people notice right now is not what it was five minutes ago. Every generation has a different idea of perfect, and for some, the idea of perfection in itself is totally foreign in the first place.
Details, the building blocks of perfection, I have learned, can be both awesome and useless. The trick is in knowing which ones are important at the time. And that, my friends, is REALLY HARD. There is no more difficult language to speak than nuance. It is the musicians’ bane on a daily basis. Where on the big beach of awesomeness do you draw the line in the sand where you aren’t wasting all your precious energy, but the results will matter to people? Oh…glasshawppah…these are the vast secrets of the universe that some of us will never know.
But there’s a good rule to follow. Taught to me by someone somewhere along the way that I don’t quite remember and can’t exactly recall. But is best illustrated by a recent conversation I had with a woman in the bathroom at the new Hard Rock Café in Vegas before a show. While in the bathroom, carefully applying spray glitter to myself (ummm…this is Vegas, remember?), a woman looked up and, identifying me as a performer for the evening, asked me from her sink, “Do you ever get nervous just before you go onstage?” To which I quickly answered, “No…not really.”
“Oh…why not? I would be so nervous if I had to sing in front of all those people…” she continued.
“Well,” I answered, “I usually just try to remember that people’s attention spans aren’t really long enough to catch every mistake I’ll make onstage. For the most part, they will remember the first thing I do and the last thing I do. Which means, all I have to really do is be mostly prepared and do what I do well, and the rest will take care of itself.”
“I never thought of that,” she answered, “but you know…you’re right. That’s totally true. I don’t remember everything that happens when I watch a show. Mostly I just know whether I’m having fun or not.”
Most of the best players and performers I’ve worked with have exhibited some knowledge of this one particular axiom, which here let’s just call the first and last rule. Come out strong and finish strong. And don’t totally suck in between, and onstage you’ve pretty much got the formula for success. And all those details in between that you sweated and worried about until they put you into a funk and stressed you out and sent you into a sleepless rage…well…there they went – lost into the ether anyway.
Yes – the devil is in the details. And he’s got your number. The worrying. The tweaking. The wasted hours on a recording that is just never right, the mix that just doesn’t measure up, or that live video that is just never perfect enough to post. The devil wears a deceiving mask of self-importance and he hides behind the fear of failure. The devil has neglected to tell you that people just want to enjoy your talent and don’t necessarily care if you get every note right. And that 32nd mix that you did for that song you can barely let out of your hands because you’re so worried that it’s just not perfect enough…well…if you talk about it anymore, they won’t want to hear it at all. Music, like a lot of things, after all, can be perfected to death. Perfected soul-less. Perfected silly.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t do things well. Or be well prepared for whatever task is at hand. The music world is obviously filled with players and technical masters that we idolize because they are so damn good at what they do. Mastering your art and being discerning about your talents are gifts that will take you places. For many gigs, being good enough IS what will get you the job, which is why constant practice and goals are key for musicians.
But being excellent at what you do is not the same as being an overly nitpicky perfectionist who can’t walk away from anything before it meets some no-fault sterility test. Being a good artist requires the ability to let go, to take risks, to let a moment be a moment, and a flaw to humanize your overall performance. Being a good artist requires not taking yourself too seriously. Being a good artist is, by nature, messy business. Being an artist is applying the first and last rule, and letting the whole world in between those moments carry people away in whatever awesome feeling it will provide them at the time.
Unlike the guy who wrote, “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” my philosophy of music and life has become “Know which small stuff matters.” Good music is, after all, like a good story: a tasty opening. A satisfying close. And laughing, crying, and general roller coaster intrigue in between.
So if your devil is in the details, you might want to reconsider the road to perfectionist procrastination.
Or you could just sell wallpaper instead.