Life & Culture

Just muddle through and aim for the top

Susan Reuben is having guitar lessons. What's the best approach?


I’ve become hooked of late on contemporary Jewish sacred music: the melodies of Debbie Friedman, Jeff Klepper, Dan Nichols and the like.

So, I’ve started learning the guitar with the brilliant Ivor Goldberg, who is teaching me jointly with my 12-year-old.

I have visions of playing and singing along to settings of Shalom aleichem and Lecha dodi, my fingers dancing over the strings with agility and skill.

So far, it’s not really working that way and I’m getting pretty frustrated with myself.

There are so many chords I can’t play because my fingers are simply not flexible enough to reach the right frets, and I keep catching the wrong string so the chord sounds awful.

Then I remind myself that I’ve only ever had two lessons…

My problem is that having found something I love doing (and I do absolutely love it), I want to be good at it. My son’s approach is fascinatingly different. Whereas I practise assiduously day after day, going over and over the chord changes and strumming rhythms, he picks his guitar up for a few minutes now and again — and pounds out a Beatles hit with far more flair than I can muster.

It has become something of a given in modern society that perfectionism is a Bad Thing, and is to be conquered at all costs. The argument against it is that nothing is ever perfect, and hence if you are not satisfied until it is, then you will constantly be stressed, frustrated and unable to bring a project to a close.

I think there is room, though, for the meticulous and obsessive types like me as well as the fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants ones like my son. Rather than “perfectionism”, we need a term for the rather more moderate approach to personal achievement where you learn a skill or do a job to the very best of your ability. “Good-as-you-can-make-it-ism”, perhaps … The name might need a bit of work.

This thought came to me this week through the unlikely lens of a pest control company.

We have moths. At least we used to till we called in “Pest Assassin”. A couple arrived at the door, armed with gloves and buckets and sprays and protective gear like something out of Ghostbusters, and set to to tackle the problem with zealous enthusiasm. When they’d finished, they sat down and told me about previous jobs they had carried out, regaling me with epic tales of apocalyptic infestation followed by gleeful extermination.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a greater contrast between the appealingness of a job (at least to my own eyes) and the dedication with which it is carried out.

I observed them in awe, fully aware that there is almost no job I would hate more.

If any creature that crawls or buzzes or scuttles is rude enough to do so in my home, I’m really unhappy about it.

I always thought the scenario of a screaming lady jumping on a chair when she spotted a mouse was a cartoon cliché, till the first time I saw a mouse in my home and found myself on a chair — screaming.

It made me think, not for the first time, about how much I respect people who do their jobs as well as they possibly can.

When we had a new kitchen put in, our kitchen fitter got very upset because there was a panel missing. He had to fashion a new one that didn’t exactly match. This panel was to go behind the dishwasher where no one would ever see it — but he knew it was there, and it made him unhappy. I really get that.

A little while ago I was feeling a bit uninspired and adrift in my career. I didn’t love what I was doing and didn’t really know where I was heading.

Then I heard the following in a speech by the fantastically wise Tim Minchin (creator of Matilda the Musical) speaking at a University of Western Australia graduation ceremony:

“Be micro ambitious. Put your head down and work with pride on whatever is in front of you.

“Just be aware the next worthy pursuit will probably appear in your periphery. Which is why you should beware of long-term dreams.

“If you focus too far in front of you, you won’t see the shiny thing out the corner of your eye.”

This really hit home for me. I love the idea of working with pride at whatever is in front of you — whether or not you’re truly passionate about it. It means the work becomes more rewarding from the very fact that you’re trying to do it well. You’re creating your own job satisfaction.

I fretted for several days about whether to write a column on perfectionism. Would it be good enough?

I guess it’s as good as I can make it.



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