October 18, 1996


Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect.

Matthew v,48, c.75

The desire for perfection is the worse disease that ever affected the human mind.

Louis Fontanes, 1804

I have several CDs of Luciano Pavarotti singing opera arias. Not only is his singing perfect, but it is perfect every time I play it. He is never off key, nor does his voice ever crack. The tempo is the same with every playing. Luciano is my model; singing as well as he does is what I strive for.

Not only can I not achieve what he does, but he himself can't do it. When he performs, his tempo will vary from performance to performance, he will occasionally be off key, and his voice will occasionally crack, usually on a high "A". By his ultra-high standards, sometimes he sings exceptionally well, and sometimes rather poorly -although at his worst, he is better than most tenors at their best. He never performs a song or an opera unless he thinks that he can do it well. What is surprising is the number of times that he actually does approach perfection.

In contrast, another super-star opera singer, Placido Domingo, will tackle anything. He has learned an opera in three days and performed it. It must have been very far from perfect. It was an obscure opera, and the only person who knew about the imperfections were some of his fellow performers and the conductor.

In contrast to most endeavors, where the more you do them, the better you get, with opera singing, as your understanding of a song improves and your technique improves, the vigor of youth decreases. Like a professional athlete, your days may be numbered. Most athletes retire at an age when people in other less-physical occupations are just approaching their prime. Singers of less strenuous songs can sing until senility sets in, and some do. Others lose their voices in their forties. Jan Peerce sang well into his seventies and even performed in Fiddler on the Roof. Most songs require much less youthful vigor than opera, and this includes almost all popular songs. Some very successful pop singers have no voices to lose.

I didn't start this to be about singing. What I wanted to talk about was the curse of "perfectionism." The ultimate perfectionist is so obsessed with being perfect that he does nothing at all. There is a whole range between him and people who will do anything, with little regard to its quality.

I believe that striving for perfection is a good thing because the end product will be, if not perfect, a good one. It is understandable that a person will be disappointed if something doesn't turn out well -winning always feels better than losing. The problem is not in striving for and hoping for a perfect product; the problem lies in expecting to win every time. Things just don't happen that way. It has taken me a very long time to accept that; to be able to say "I blew it!" or "This is not the best that I can do." While it still bothers me, it doesn't keep me from doing things the way that it used to. There was a time when I was so paralyzed that I would either not do something, or procrastinate indefinitely .

A long time ago, someone told me that the way of life is that "you win a few and lose a few." More pertinent is the fact that perfection is impossible. The record of the greatest athlete is just waiting to be broken. No matter how superbly someone does something, someone better will always come along.

Doing something well is a very rewarding experience and it makes no sense to lose the joy because it might not be perfect. And it rarely is, even for the experts.

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