It was a frigid winter night when Yo-Yo Ma almost dropped his 2.5-million-dollar instrument on the floor.
The sold-out theater was buzzing with excitement. A single wooden chair sat in the center of the stage. The audience hushed and then broke into applause as Yo-Yo Ma appeared. The concert began, and in the middle of a difficult song, Ma’s cello suddenly slipped, and then again. On the third slip, it really started to fall. Abruptly, Ma stopped and reached out to catch his 1773 Stradivarius before it hit the floor. The audience gasped. Everyone held their breath. Ma gave a sigh of relief and gracefully pulled the cello back into position. Then he pointed at the cello and wagged his finger as if to scold her mischievous act. The audience erupted into laughter. Ma smiled, straightened himself out, and continued to play.
The Pitfalls of Perfectionism
The way Yo-Yo Ma handled himself made that blunder become beautiful. He transformed an error into an act of grace. It changed the concert into a community event. After the recovery from the mistake, everyone in the audience was on his side. Yo-Yo Ma was no longer one of the world’s top performers, he was a friend. The way he handled his error made us feel safe. To this day, that was one of most powerful and creative musical moments I’ve experienced in my life.
It was a simple act, embracing the mistake, but it was profound. Who does that? When I make a mistake in front of others, my face becomes flush and I get stressed. Yo-Yo Ma was the epitome of calm. Yet he wasn’t just a Zen master who fluidly handled a problem; he was a creative genius who brought out harmony from discord. To do such a thing, it helps to have a deep sense of identity and a vision for a higher goal. Yo-Yo Ma had both. In one interview he said, “You don’t play music for perfection. The point of music is to make someone feel.” His performance did just that. Embracing that blunder, rather than trying to cover it up, brought warmth into that chilly room.
Perfectionism is made up of two parts: a drive for greatness, and fear. It’s the fear and the shame, blame, and judgment that overwhelm. Mix those ingredients together and they become a bitter drink. Perfectionism poisons creativity. Some perfectionists never try to create because they are afraid of being wrong. But being creative requires that we let go of fear, get out of our comfort zone, and make mistakes. As the cliché goes, “Mistakes are proof that you are trying.” Yet mistakes can also be proof that you haven’t practiced very hard. Making mistakes is never enough.
I walked into one of my client’s offices and saw a huge poster that said “Make Mistakes. Make Mistakes. Make Mistakes.” At first glance I thought, “that’s great.” Then I stopped and thought some more. As I stood there I noticed that the poster was hanging in the finance department above the cubicle that belonged to the head of payroll. Instantly, I remembered that a number of my paychecks from this company had been wrong. Suddenly, the message on that poster didn’t seem like such a good idea. Making financial mistakes isn’t where creative genius is born.