By Sean Dietrich
I went to the piano recital of a friend’s daughter. There was a crowd of proud parents wearing dressy clothes. Most were shooting videos with cell phones.
I’ve never witnessed so much piano music in my life. One child performed a piece by Chopin that seemed to last longer than an entire episode of “General Hospital.”
At one point during the recital, there was a 16-year-old girl who played something by Franz Liszt. While she played, something happened. She messed up.
One mistake led to another. And another. Then, she quit playing and ran off the stage.
After the performance, I saw her in the lobby. She was crying. She kept saying to her parents, “I wanted it to be perfect.”
Before I left, I shook her hand and told her how wonderful I thought she did. I wanted to say more, but couldn’t. It didn’t seem like any of my business.
But what I wanted to tell her was this:
Maybe her performance wasn’t perfect, but big whoop. Some of us like imperfect things. Some of us like mistakes.
Yes. I know, I know. People are supposed to strive to be the greatest, strongest, longest lasting, fastest, leanest, shiniest and the best. But I would like to point out: Why?
Besides, who decides what the “best” actually is? And what makes these decisions correct?
I once knew two older men who had a longstanding feud over who had the best college football team: the University of Georgia or Auburn University. These two men would get into big arguments, shouting about statistics and wishbone offenses, until they would almost get into a fistfight.
I’ll never forget being an onlooker for one of these legendary arguments. At the time, I was standing beside a young woman who was originally from Minnesota. She was on scholarship at Auburn, studying animal husbandry—or maybe it was poultry psychology.
The girl looked at these two angry men and said, “Hey, why can’t Georgia and Auburn just get over this stupid rivalry and be friends?”
Everyone got quiet. The men hung their heads. And do you know what happened? Those two old men, moved by the realization that all human beings are alike, set fire to the girl’s car.
I’d better end the anecdote right there.
So I don’t know much, but there is something I do know. The “best” doesn’t exist. Neither does perfection.
Oh sure, everyone gets excited about top performers, exceptional athletes, award winners or straight-A students. But what about the straight-C students, such as the author of this column? Does anyone get excited about guys like us?
During my youth, the common belief was that A-students hung the moon, and D-students would grow up to have pagan babies. There was no room for C-students.
We were the middle-of-the-roaders. We landed somewhere between students who were total slackers, and those who ate Elmer’s Glue.
Our teachers often told us to “try harder” or “apply yourself” or “Did you bring an actual lizard into my classroom, young man?”
And believe me, these teachers meant well. But the thing is, some kids (like me) did worse when we tried harder. It took me nearly 30 years to learn that. It took me even longer to learn that certain laundry detergents will give you the rash of death in your most sensitive regions. Gain with bleach, I’m looking at you.
Not long after I started writing, people began asking me to make speeches. I was nervous about this. At first, I started writing outlines of what I was going to say beforehand. I tried to make my speeches perfect. And do you know what? They sucked.
I would feel terrible about it. Because I wanted to do a good job speaking before, say, the small-town Rotary Club—which consisted of six people and one elderly man in a wheelchair who might have been clinically dead.
But the harder I tried, the worse I did. My turning point came when a nice Rotarian said to me, “You know, you don’t have to try so hard.”
Then he nodded to the man in the wheelchair and said, “I think your speech killed Norm.”
I took the man’s advice. The next place I spoke was a catered luncheon at a seniors club. Half the audience wore hearing aids, the other half was playing with their food and having loud conversations about things like barium enemas.
I took the stage. My only plan was to NOT try so hard. And you’ve probably already guessed what happened.
And yes. You guessed right. I sucked again! Only this time, I sucked less!
So to the crying girl in the lobby, if you read this, I want you to know that you don’t have to be perfect at anything. In fact, life is more fun when you aren’t.
You have no reason to trust a guy like me. I’m not an expert, I have no credentials, and right now I am suffering from a rash caused by a common laundry detergent.
Either way, I have learned that life is short, and it’s startling how little time we have left. Don’t waste it on perfection. Waste it by being you.
And if any Georgia or Auburn fans are reading this, please don’t set fire to my car.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist, and novelist, known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in Southern Living, the Tallahassee Democrat, Southern Magazine, Yellowhammer News, the Bitter Southerner, the Mobile Press Register and he has authored seven books.