Finding the balance between setting high standard while not being hard on oneself

Setting the standard high without being self-critical: Part 2

Being too hard on oneself or constantly feeling under pressure due to being held to a very high standard is a big challenge for musicians (and anyone who is pursuing mastery in their craft). If I were to reflect back on why I set low expectations for myself, it was because I didn’t want to be that hard to myself, and after all, it’s just a hobby and I was supposed to have fun.

Can there really be a perfect balance between not being hard for oneself yet still holding the standard high? While I’m not sure about how perfect that balance can be, but I do believe there can be a balance, and it may look a bit different to everyone. In my case, there are a few things that helped my find that balance.

1. Have a realistic understanding of how long progress takes

If I set out to become Yo-Yo Ma as I picked up the cello, it would’ve undoubtedly been a disaster. As an adult beginner, learning a new instrument undeniably comes with all sorts of real challenges. The key is to acknowledge them and know yourself enough to get a sense of what your velocity of improvement is.

Sometimes our inner critic is actively judging us because we expect that we can do things much better than we realistically can. While our goal is ultimately play that challenging piece, it takes time to get there.

2. Aim for good and focus on the how

Even though “good” may feel unattainable, it’s really beneficial to have that in your head and ears. Just like me in the first few days of the TSM rehearsal, because I didn’t think I could hear the nuanced differences between what’s in tune and slightly out of tune, my ears were closed off and I relied on my mentor to tell me how to adjust the tuning. But once I opened my ears to hear what in-tune sounds like, I played in tune more consistently.

While we may not get to “good” immediately, we can always move towards it. The key is the “how”. That’s what really matters in practice. You can think of it as having a roadmap to achieve a goal. The easiest way to figure out the how is to discuss it with your teacher for ideas.

Our inner critic loves to focus on the comparison. Focus on how to get to what good sounds like will help you let go of the judgement so you can focus on the learning and growth. Having something to aspire to doesn’t have to involve judgement.

3. Practice slowly

Take all the time you need to make one improvement at a time. This means breaking things down, isolating one problem at a time to focus on. And when working one something, go slow to gain clarity and build a solid foundation. You have to practice slow to play fast. 

Our inner critics are the loudest when we try to rush through things. Practicing slowly, to be immersed in the music and to focus on gaining clarity, is the best way to quiet our inner critic.

4. Invite—not command—yourself to take risks

In a previous post, I reflected on the refreshing effect an invitation, rather than a command, can have on learning. Instead of being a perfectionist or a defeatist, I asked myself, "Just to humour me, self, why don’t you try to do this thing you didn’t think you could do and see how far you can go? If you fail, that’s expected; but if you succeed, that’s a huge bonus. What do you say?” How can I turn down an invitation like that? 

When you invite yourself to take risks, there's nothing to lose. And when there's nothing to lose, there's no place for the inner critics to judge.

5. Know there is a difference between perfection and improvements

The former is not achievable (unless you are Yo-Yo Ma, Hilary Hahn and the like), but the latter is not only possible, but what we should be striving for. Rome is not built in a day, and even once it's built, it continues to evolve to adapt to the time and people's needs. There's never an end, but it's the learning and progress that matter.

Our inner critic needs to be reminded that "perfection" doesn't exist. No matter where you are in your pursuit of mastery, we're aiming for better, not perfect.


If you're the kind of person who tends to be overly critical to yourself, hope this helps you find the right balance to hold yourself to a high standard without being that hard on yourself.  


By Winter Wei

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