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The Pursuit of Perfection: The Road to Nowhere

Updated: Mar 26

My fingers dance across worn ivory keys, practicing a melody they’ve followed countless times before. As my eyes scan a sheet covered in various ledger notes and musical symbols, I slowly but surely make my way to the end of the page. The song I’m playing is unbelievably beautiful, abounding in both artistic nuance and emotion. To the untrained ear, I’m doing the piece justice, but I know better. As the song progresses, my mind fixates on each slightly botched rhythm, every barely flubbed articulation. The rendition comes to a close, and my finger slips. The result is a discordant note that echoes across the room, a musical phrase left unfinished, and a despondent piano player.

Mediocrity is unacceptable. This is a motto I have subconsciously striven to obey for all of my life, and not just in playing the piano. Furthermore, it is not some individual circumstance, but rather, a collective phenomenon among many Asian Americans. Asian youth face undeniable pressure to always put their best foot forward—pressure from their families and their peers, but also from themselves. When perfection is the standard, you’re always going to fall short.

In Asian culture, there is a ubiquitous subscription to the belief that success equates to happiness. We place more value on attaining this success than any other demographic. Many of us are second-generation, meaning we were born in America to immigrant parents. Our parents have had to work hard all their lives to make ends meet in this land of opportunity. They know more than anyone the importance of hard work and commitment, and as a consequence, they’ve instilled in us these same values. However, these qualities often come with negative tendencies. A strong work ethic is very much a good trait, but if one isn’t careful, this same dedication can quickly pave the way towards normalizing hustle culture. In very much the same way, unceasing commitment and the desire to always improve seems wonderful at the surface level, but can very easily lead to the trap of perfectionism.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to be your best self, with wanting to become better each passing day. However, if you can no longer find joy in pursuits that were once fun, if you can’t engage in a task for the first time without wanting to be on a professional level, if you’re hesitant to try something new because the thought of being subpar terrifies you, your perfectionist tendencies are no longer beneficial. Instead, your perfectionism is hindering your ability to grow.

Those of us with this perfectionist mentality often associate our mistakes with our own value as people. We tie our identities to our accomplishments, our self-worth to our success. We play it safe, purposefully confining ourselves our own self-imposed boxes filled with the things we know we’re good at. We’re afraid to try new things, for fear of not measuring up to unsurpassable expectations. And when we inevitably fall short in this endless pursuit of perfection, we beat ourselves up for it, not even giving ourselves a fighting chance.

I was five years of age when my parents bought a piano, a polished Kawai with a mahogany finish. Long have I forgotten the process of learning an entirely new instrument, let alone an entirely new language. While it didn’t take long for me to develop a considerable degree of skill, I am no modern-day Mozart. In all honesty, I am far from it: even after over a decade of piano-playing experience, I will never reach the level of the six-year-old prodigy who played at Carnegie Hall. I used to be ashamed of what I believed was my lack of ability. At piano recitals, I would listen to the other children performing and feel terrible about my own skills. Their piano-playing abilities seemed utterly flawless—effortless dynamics, not a note out of place. It hurt to know that while I was good, I would never be one of the greats.

“You’re the most successful person I know.”

“Why can’t I be more like you?”