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The Pursuit of Perfection

What do professional athletes and professional musicians have in common?

Whatever sport you follow, it’s your time of year. I’m not a sports fanatic, but I enjoy sitting down in front of a good game every now and then. To me, watching professional athletes in their prime is very similar to watching professional musicians, not just in terms of their often astonishing proficiency but also the degree of dedication they have to their craft.

I’ve had the privilege of getting to know a number of celebrated musicians and take it from me, the old adage about famous people putting on their pants one leg at a time, same as everyone else, is completely true. Granted, these individuals were born with a certain amount of talent that you or I may not possess, but I’m convinced that the main thing that separates them from the rest of us is sheer doggedness.

The pursuit of perfection is an often frustrating endeavor, and one that comes at a price. An acquaintance of mine went to high school with someone who eventually became a major league pitcher, and quite a successful one at that. I once asked him what this person was like as a teenager, and his answer floored me: “I don’t know. I hardly ever saw him.” The reason was that this hurler-in-the-making had apparently spent most of his high school years on the practice field throwing hundreds of pitches all day long, thanks to his coach’s skill in writing notes getting his protégé excused from most classes — something that also left precious little time for social interaction with his fellow students. That hardly made him a well-rounded individual, but it did mean that he was able to impress the scouts when major league teams came a-calling.

Another friend of mine spent years touring with a world-famous rock guitarist. I remember asking him once what this superstar was like when the spotlight wasn’t shining on him. His reply was, simply, “He’s just like the rest of us … only less so.” He didn’t say it to be demeaning — he was just stating a fact. “Look, put a guitar in his hands, and on a good night, no one can match him,” my friend went on to explain. “But send him off to the store to buy a container of milk, and he’ll have no clue.” His point was that this individual spent so much time practicing, rehearsing, recording and performing that he had no hours left in the day to develop what most of us consider trivial living skills.

On the flip side, I know more than a few extremely talented musicians who never became household names despite their having far more ability than some who did. In some cases, this comes down to bad luck or being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but all too often, sad to say, the primary reason is that they gave up. Carving a career in the music business is monumentally difficult — in some respects, as tough a path to traverse as trying to be a successful actor — and it requires not just talent but total commitment, along with an unshakeable belief in oneself. When you add in the pressures of having to pay bills (few of us, after all, have trust funds to live off), it’s easy to see how potentially world-class musicians can fall by the wayside. Sure, some have regrets, but others revel in the freedoms that came as a result of their decision, such as the joys of raising a family — something that’s difficult if not impossible if you’re devoting every waking hour to honing your craft.

So next time you’re watching an exciting game or attending a stirring concert, take the opportunity to reflect on the time expended, dedication required and personal sacrifices made by those athletes or musicians. Then ask yourself: Do I have it in me to do the same? If the answer is yes, go for it!


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