Every Friday my column appears in a bunch of papers in Ontario and Saskatchewan. This week I want to talk about practice, perfection and our tendency to compare with others.
Last night I was cleaning up my kitchen while my 18-year-old practised piano. At one point I paused from my scrubbing, and just listened as her fingers danced across the keyboard playing a deliciously difficult piece.
I love moments like that.
Nine years ago, when she started piano, she did not sound very lovely. She would sit on the bench, her feet dangling over, as she tried to pick out the notes to This Old Man. It was cute, but it wasn’t beautiful.
Over the years she has spent countless hours perfecting her skill. And now she can sit down whenever she wants and play a song she heard on the radio. She’s had experience.
We instinctively understand that when it comes to instruments. We get it when it comes to most hobbies. We know it’s true of driving, too: you get better with time and effort. I don’t think, however, that we give enough credence to the idea that this phenomenon could also apply to other parts of life.
When my children were very small, Keith and I were invited over to dinner to the home of a couple who was then in their late forties. They served a wonderful meal with a beautiful centrepiece and a delicious dessert. Music was drifting in the background. The house was immaculately decorated. Our hostess made the meal look effortless.
The next day, when I looked around my living room to see the mismatched couches, and the toys scattered over the floor, and the distinct lack of dining room table (we ate in the kitchen and had allowed the children to take over the dining room for their craft projects), I felt like a failure. I couldn’t have hosted a dinner party even if I had wanted to. I wouldn’t know what to make. I wouldn’t know where to seat people. And my furniture was terrible.
Fast forward fourteen years, and life is very different. I can host a dinner party now, because I have a dining room table again. My 15-year-old makes great centrepieces. I can cook much better (though last year’s Christmas dinner was a disaster, but that’s another story). My house isn’t a mess.
And the reason is because I’ve had practice.
When I think back to that woman in her late forties who entertained us, I think she, too, had simply learned how to be a good hostess. When she was in her late twenties, she had three boys under four. I’m sure her dining room table wasn’t huge and spotless. I’m sure her furniture didn’t all match, and toys likely littered every surface. But over the years they could slowly afford to buy better furniture. She had practice cooking. The toys were packed away. And life got easier.
We have a tendency to compare our abilities to keep a nice home, cook a good dinner, balance a chequebook, or manage investments to those of other, older people, like our parents. Perhaps it’s time to stop. Your mother’s home may have been quite a mess when her children were the age of your children, even if her home is spotless now. Your boss who is so careful with investments may only have learned to be that way because of mistakes and lost opportunities in his twenties. Your father’s ability to grow grass probably is not instinctual; he learned it over decades.
If you’re not there yet, relax.
Practice makes perfect.
We don’t learn basic life skills overnight. It takes a while to get used to it. So let’s enjoy the journey, rather than always beating ourselves up for not having arrived yet.
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