Editor’s Note: Grace Ueng is the founder of Savvy Growth, a noted leadership coaching and management consulting firm, and an expert on wellbeing and human performance. Grace writes a regular column on Happiness & Leadership for WRAL TechWire.



RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – When I restarted my piano studies last year to honor the memory of my mom, my first teacher, I thought I would just play for myself in the privacy of my home. After all, I was just a novice. My sister was the one who graduated from Juilliard, and the pianist in our family who the outside world wanted to hear perform (see Comparison is the Thief of Joy)

Growing up with internationally awarded pianist, my older sister! (Photo courtesy of Grace Ueng)

At the start of this year, however, after several months of lessons, I thought it might be fun to push myself and share my music, so I sat down with Teddy, my teacher, and said “let’s set my goals for this year.” I settled on getting several pieces in good enough shape to record myself and post the video performance for my family.

Step Outside Your Comfort Zone

Fast forward a few months, after opening my mind to piano possibilities and saying “yes,” I went a bit farther than posting to the family YouTube channel.  Now, I perform every few weeks with Presto, a Triangle piano group. This fall I will be performing in Raleigh on stage at Ruggero’s fourth Friday concert on their magnificent Bösendorfer concert grand. And this weekend, I will hold my debut concert for a private residential community that has engaged me to play for their seniors every month.

Talk about pushing outside my comfort zone!  If I tell my coaching clients to do this, I must also. I must walk my talk.

I am grateful to Adam Broome for anchoring my mindset. I reached out to him for advice as he had started piano studies before me.  He said “for some time, I have been tackling select Chopin etudes and Moszkowski etudes. I love the challenge, but recognize that perfection is beyond my abilities.”

I met Adam years earlier when I facilitated the discussion of the HBS case, “Cree, Inc.: Which Bright Future?” and as Cree’s Chief Legal Officer, he was a part of my discussion panel. A highly capable executive, I knew Adam was likely also a very talented pianist.

Perfect Practicing versus Performing

His words to me were well timed, as I took away from his comment that perfection is not the goal with our piano practice.  Instead, we are both enjoying the journey, the challenge and the camaraderie with fellow pianists who are on the path of piano performing.

If I were to wait until I was perfect, I would never perform.  And while I may sound “perfect” at home, every performer, no matter how advanced, experiences butterflies and nerves once they have an audience. I had very sweaty palms and a fear of forgetting what notes were where, the first time I stepped on stage earlier this year.

In my novice performer’s mind, I thought you learn a piece and then perform it and that was that.  That was before I appreciated that it can take months to get a piece into shape to perform well at all.  Then you just have to start performing it, in order to get better.

I have now performed two well known works, Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique, Op. 13. Adagio Cantabile and Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2 in E flat major, twice each.  My teacher told me he learned years ago that the first time he performs a piece, he just accepts it will not go well. Then, each time he performs, the playing gets better.  I have found this to be true for me.  You learn what you do incorrectly, and you go back and correct.

I began studying this year with Noa Kageyama, performance psychologist at Juilliard.  He has shared research that shows that rote practice doesn’t do much for improvement. It does not reveal our blind spots.  Identifying our mistakes is what allows us to correct them on a more permanent basis.

Happy my very imperfect performance is over! (Photo courtesy of Grace Ueng)

Good versus Great

It’s like the difference between a good leader and a great leader. When I conduct a 360 for my coaching clients, my synthesis of the insights reveals blind spots, which can then be addressed by my coachee.  Presto videos each of our performances for us to figure out our problem areas. I also always ask my fellow performers for feedback on my playing, especially in comparison to my prior performance.

Without experiencing nerves on stage which then reveals our true memory retention and mistakes, we can only theorize.  We get better with actual live on stage performing. Practicing, while of course important,  doesn’t provide performance experience. Performing is what makes us better performers. This is similar to saying that being a CEO is how one learns to be a good CEO.

 Presto applauds imperfection! 

Our Presto group encourages pianists to perform pieces that we are just beginning to learn.

The core belief is back to if we wait until we are perfect, we will never perform.  Perfectionism is often associated with a fixed mindset rather than a growth mindset. In my mom’s final years, I really wanted her to go to physical therapy to regain strength after hospital stays.  When I spoke to her care team, they said they thought her fear of not performing well was likely why she didn’t go work with them. I was so saddened by this. Stepping outside of one’s comfort zone, while scary, can strengthen.

Since we are all on the path of performing and none of us are perfect, my Presto performance group normalizes the pressures of performing and provides a safe place to make mistakes.

If you had to step on stage to give the student commencement address right after Jim Carrey stepped off the podium at your graduation, it would be intimidating.

Lucky for me, as I waited my turn to give the student address at my MIT commencement, I was given the seat right behind the keynote speaker.  I could see up close the CEO, who preceded me, giving the main address, shifting his feet back and forth, even appearing nervous, but all concealed by the large speaker podium.  Wow, I thought if this leader of a large technology corporation has the jitters in front of these 10,000 people, it’s ok for me to also.

Other’s humanity provides comfort. No one is perfect.  Take off the mask.  Show your true self. It will help you be a more inspiring leader. That is at the heart of authentic leadership – expressing yourself and allowing the real you to be seen.

While auditioning to play the Marvel Superhero ShangChi, Simu Liu tried to subdue his concerns that he wasn’t as handsome or buff as some other Asian actors. He now realizes what makes superheroes appealing is their humanity. Peter Parker’s awkwardness or Clark Kent’s love struck dweebiness is what makes Spiderman and Superman more real.

When we see ourselves in these characters, just as I did with this famous CEO behind the MIT podium,  I too had the courage that I could rise to the occasion and address the audience of 10,000.

The 80/20 Rule

 Rote practicing for hours on end in hopes of achieving the perfect performance isn’t worth it.

 One of the concepts Bain drilled into our heads early on is the 80/20 rule, known also as the Pareto Principle. It commonly takes 20% of the full time to complete 80% of a task while to complete the last 20% of a task takes 80% of the effort. Reaching perfection is not possible, so as increasing effort leads to diminishing returns, activity becomes increasingly inefficient.

One of the courses I am taking from Noa Kageyama is “practice that sticks” – strategic practice based on science, that is effective. Smart, like the 80/20 rule.

Perfection often prevents implementation of good improvements.  Why Bain hammered the 80/20 rule into us.  We wanted to add value and good improvements to our clients, and given heavy travel schedules and the huge amounts of data we had to analyze, we had to use our time most effectively on behalf of our clients.

Why “80/20-ing” became a verb and part of our everyday speak at Bain.

Perfection is not necessarily a good thing!

When I started my happiness studies nearly a decade ago, I quickly realized that perfection is not necessarily a good thing.  Requiring perfection can lead to depression and as can be seen by social media comparison with young people today, even to suicidal ideation.

Don’t hold off a decision, a performance, or a product launch in order to be perfect.

As Winston Churchill wisely said, “Perfection is the enemy of progress.”

Excellencism versus Perfectionism

 Working toward excellence instead of perfection is a healthy alternative. Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, a psychology and neuroscience professor based in NYC shared in this article, the idea that finding the sweet spot between the perfect and the merely ok is a better way.

For those of you recovering perfectionists who realize being an excellencist is healthier, I recommend her 3 step exercise:

  1. Think of an activity where you tend to be a perfectionist.
  2. List what perfection looks like to you for this activity.
  3. Pick one thing on the list that you can let go. Do it!

How does letting go make you feel?  How does it make your colleagues/family feel?

Try letting go this month.   The results could surprise you!

About Grace Ueng

Grace is a strategy consultant and leadership coach with Savvy Growth. Join her Happiness and Leadership community to share ideas on becoming happier.