Parable # 29: Strive for Perfection—But You Won’t Achieve It

    A Parable by Donald Lee

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    (This week is the 32nd installment of the book, “The Band Director’s Lessons About Life”, which TCRN is publishing as a series during 2020. This week, band director and spiritual author Donald Lee relates a parable about not staying stuck. For a complete listing of previous episodes in this series, click here.)

    One of the basic rules of the universe is that nothing is perfect. Perfection simply doesn’t exist . . . Without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist.STEPHEN HAWKING(British theoretical physicist)

    “I’m so worried I’m going to screw up in our concert,” said Charlotte as she sat down for the grade-eight band rehearsal and started to put together her tenor saxophone.

    “You probably will,” I said nonchalantly. Charlotte’s jaw dropped to the floor in shock.

    “Mr. Lee! You’re supposed to be encouraging.”

    “I am being encouraging, Charlotte. Do you think there is any chance your performance will be perfect?”

    “No,” she replied honestly.

    “I agree.” Another incredulous gasp from Charlotte.

    “You see, you’re not perfect. I’m not perfect. No one is perfect. Perfection is not something we can achieve in this world. In the next world, I don’t know.” I shrugged. “But it doesn’t happen here.

    “You have to accept and anticipate that your performance will not be perfect. If you accept that beforehand, it won’t destroy you when you make a mistake. Because, of course, you will make a mistake or two. But the biggest mistake would be to not even try.”

    “But you want us to play everything perfectly. You always find something wrong with us,” Charlotte countered.

    “That’s partly true,” I agreed. “I always find things you can correct or improve upon in your playing. That’s my job. I’m here to help you learn. That means opening your mind, your awareness, to how much better the music can be—how much better you can be. But you won’t play perfectly, and I don’t expect it. What I do expect is that you’ll try to do your best—that you’ll strive for perfection—not that you’ll achieve it. That’s something different.

    “It’s one of the many paradoxes of life that we strive for perfection but never get there. The more skillful you become as a musician, the fewer mistakes you will make. But your perception of what is musically possible becomes ever greater. A more skillful musician might not play any wrong notes yet still come away from a performance extremely dissatisfied. Their weakness lies in aspects of music you don’t even notice: a missed articulation, a weak crescendo, a momentary bad intonation. For a great musician, the performance was spoiled. Yet for you, the casual listener, it was a masterpiece.

    “What do I always tell you about your daily effort, Charlotte?”

    “Always do your best.” Charlotte rattled it off drearily, much like the classic elementary school response to the teacher’s greeting: “Good morning, Mr. Leeeeeeeee.”

    “I’m so glad you remembered,” I said excitedly. “Always do your best, and your best will always get better. That’s another way of saying, ‘strive for perfection.’ Strive for your ideal—that perfect something that is always just out of reach. It’s our imagined goal, our imagined perfection, our imagined best self. And our idea of musical perfection changes as we learn more about music. That’s why the performance cycle takes us ever upward. The more we become, the more we see we can become. It’s a virtuous cycle.

    “So strive for perfection, but realize you won’t actually achieve it.”


    In a similar way, our understanding of holiness as an ideal develops as we experience more of it. Sometimes we say “whole-i-ness”—that is, becoming more “whole” in the sense of better integrating our triune nature of spirit, mind, body, with spirit in the lead. The more we strive to live—to think, speak, and act—as our best self, the more we become our best self. Then we raise our understanding and our belief about who our best self is—about who we really are and who we want to become. It is an ever-rising, virtuous cycle of spiritual development.

    We can look at every ideal in this way: an ideal athletic performance, an ideal parent, an ideal husband. Striving for the ideal is important to our growth in all aspects of life.

    Perfection is an idea—a mental construct. It’s not achievable in this physical world. But you may have noticed how often we fall short of our goals. When we strive for excellence, we often arrive at mediocrity. By striving for perfection, we’re likely to achieve excellence. It is in the striving that we make progress toward the ideal in music, in life, in spirit. Otherwise, we stagnate in mediocrity.

    Our constant striving to live as our best self drives the cycle of spiritual development.

    Donald Lee is a spiritual author and speaker. This article is part of a weekly series for 2020 in which TCRN is publishing his inspirational book, The Band Director’s Lessons About Life: Volume 1 – 50 Parables on Life’s Performance Cycle, in serial form – one parable per week. You can learn more about the author at his website:, or order a copy of his complete book on Amazon, or get his free mini eBook and sign up for his weekly blog. Follow Donald on Facebook

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