Select Page

Progress vs perfection

It was a black electric guitar, the obvious choice for this conservative, shy, 11-year-old Texas girl.

His name was Sonny and clearly, he was going for the 80’s hair band look. When I mentioned that I wanted to play the guitar like Amy Grant, he didn’t even try to hide the fact that he had no earthly idea who I was talking about. But guitar teachers were scarce in my small town, so Sonny and I met every Wednesday at 6pm at the music shop in the mall, right across from Chick-fil-A.

I had pretty low guitar playing goals. I just wanted to be able to play along to my favorite songs like “El Shaddai”, “Baby Baby” and every song on the Lead Me On album.

Sonny was an expert. He knew how to play the guitar and I wanted to…play the guitar. This was going to be a match made on the stairway to heaven.

I figured I just needed to learn a few chords and I’d be good to go, but Sonny insisted I practice the Diatonic scale, the Pentatonic scale and five different blues riffs.

He went on and on about fingering and hammer pulls and blah, blah, blah.

I lasted about six months. Okay, three.

A few years later, my friend Becca came back from college on summer break with stories, songs, and a guitar in her car.

She’d only been playing for a few months. She wasn’t an expert. But I asked her to come over to teach me something anyway.

She taught me how to strum and play three chords – G, C and D.

Suddenly, the heavens opened and I could play along with every single song ever written in the history of the world. In the world of guitar playing, this is only a slight exaggeration. I have yet to meet a song I can’t play with those three chords.

In an hour, I learned everything I never learned from Sonny.

Those guitar lessons taught me that there will always be people who want me to do all. the. things. The things that are important to them. The perfect things. The best things. The expert-y people things.


But you don’t need to know everything to accomplish your one thing. And sometimes, the “exact way” is the surest way to do nothing at all, because the overwhelm of perfection can kill our passion.

So as you work on all your New Year’s Resolutions or your One Word or whatever sort of goals or ungoals you have for 2015, remember that you don’t need to do all. the. things. You only need to do the next thing.

Sometimes we turn child’s play into rocket science. We think that our first step needs to be our final step.

Relax. Find a friend who is just a bit ahead and take the next step. Progress is the real road to perfection.

Reading Time:

2 minutes





  1. Jenn

    I needed this reminder today. Thank you.

    • Kat

      I’m so glad it encouraged you Jenn!

  2. Lisa Z

    Oh my gosh, I needed this lesson today! I wish I had learned this at a young age, and that it would really sink deep into my bones. In mid-life, I’m trying….but perfectionism still rears its ugly head too often. And yes! To learning just three chords and being able to play almost every song! That is so awesome.

    • Kat

      I’m with you, I wish I’d learned this when I was younger too. But as they say, better late than never!

  3. Sharon

    I love this. We live by this-I wish more people would. In fact, one of my goals for my children is for them to follow their interests. Unfortunately, it is tough to find a mentor who doesn’t push perfection. My daughter is dying to learn how to fiddle (much like you with the guitar), but every teacher so far wants her to learn classical violin and proper form first. We are still trying. We found terrific teachers for drums, gymnastics and dance but we are still on the hunt for a mentor for fiddling. 🙂 Thank you for this reminder to aim for progress!

  4. Jess Townes

    This is great. I also play both the ukulele and the banjo in a similar manner. A handful of chords and I can play all the songs! My husband plays these intruments with growth in mind. He learned to claw hammer, and to finger pick in a variety of patterns. He practices every single day and continues to grow. It is inspiring to watch, and I apply what I learn from watching it to the areas of my life that I want to experience that kind of growth in. It’s just that for me, that area is not the ukulele. There, and in lots of other areas, I just need a few chords.

    Thanks for sharing!

  5. Luke Plant

    This post encouraged me that I did the right thing teaching a kid I know the guitar! My level of guitar playing is pretty low, so I didn’t really have the option of teaching all the expert stuff. Instead, I focussed on things that would be fun – chords, some fun rock and blues etc., – and made sure we could actually play songs that people would be able to recognise, rather than scales etc.

    He was very good, and reached the point where my approach was holding him back, so I persuaded the family to move to someone who can actually teach guitar, and he is now ahead of me in most ways and doing really well.

    I wasn’t entirely sure that my approach had been the right thing long term, as I might have been teaching bad habits, but I think it has paid off. I think you need to hit the right effort/reward ratio at each stage.

  6. Katie Harding

    Awesome post with such a great message. I think we all need this little reminder every once in awhile!

  7. Kelsi

    Yes. A million times yes! I am planning to put in my first real garden this year and before I knew it I was trying to figure out daycare so that I could take the master gardener classes and scheming plans to build a green house… And then I realized that maybe I should just plant some seeds and pay attention.

  8. Donna @ MoreThanHungry

    The guitar analogy helped me to identify how overwhelming perfectionism is keeping me from playing my song – so to speak – in the blogging world. I am so low tech. I feel inept. But I have so much to say! I’ll just keep on doing. Keep on writing. Learn by doing. Slow and steady. Good words!

  9. Suse Fish

    Yes, absolutely. I remind myself of this often in my scrapbooking: I can easily feel overwhelmed when I watch the pros and think I’ll never be that good but all I need to do is make that next thing – for me. Thanks Kat. x

  10. Allison

    This is such a great perspective! My dreams tend to be really lofty, and with strong perfectionist tendencies they rarely get up off the ground. Now I’ll reconsider and make some more focused goals (ones that don’t involve being the expert in All The Things in the first 30 days) and make some actual progress! Thanks 🙂

  11. LiisaR

    Interesting article! As a music teacher, I identify strongly with both angles in this. I definitely need to let go of perfectionism in so many areas of life, and ditch expectations from other people that are dragging me down in areas I’m not that interested in. One one level, this was very liberating so thank you! 🙂

    On the other hand, I really regret that my first piano teacher wasn’t an “expert”, as I was seriously stunted in my music career (I was a music major and taught large numbers of piano lessons for 15 years) by not having quality instruction. My mom just hired the lady down the street, probably with the idea of not making too big of a deal about it, but I actually had talent and LOVED the piano. I wish I’d had a better teacher like some of my friends because they are much better musicians than I am, largely b/c of the huge head start. They got better professors in college, played more advanced pieces for auditions, were cured of bad habits before they played with bad technique for years and years, etc. I’ve actually had some physical problems from trying to play advanced pieces without a solid foundation.

    I hope that I was/am the kind of teacher who can engage students’ interest and let them play the things they want to play sometimes, while still having high standards so they don’t completely suck. Sometimes it’s not in their best interests to take the easy, fun way all the time. Furthermore, I would not be very well respected in my field if I came at piano lessons from that approach. I believe that excellence is important in education. Just my two cents! 😉

    • KC

      I think it’s good to have a range of teaching options out there available to students and to match them up well – a ballet teacher who’s looking at it as a great and interesting way of exercising and getting good posture, vs. a ballet teacher who is molding students into future ballerina careers, for instance. One is going to be a good match for one kind of student, the other is necessary for another kind of student. Music lessons similarly – if someone’s learning piano because they’re passionate about it, a more stringent and technical approach is warranted (and will be tolerated/enjoyed by the student!) than someone who is learning piano because they “have to” or because they’re learning the basics of reading music before moving on to another instrument.

      That said, everybody ought to be doing good posture and general technique so you don’t get problems later down the road – bad habits often aren’t even really shortcuts – so there’s that.

      But you need a different kind of gymnastics coach if you just want to be able to do a cartwheel, not get into the Olympics someday, and I think recognizing your goals and doing the appropriate level of “groundwork” and theory and history-of-the-discipline and such, whether that’s tons or very little, is an important part of actually achieving your goals instead of stalling out on some [where you just wanted the low-hanging fruit, but went for the full-on training where there won’t be any fruit in sight for years] and hitting a brick wall on others [where you got inadequate grounding for the heights you wanted to reach].

      • LiisaR

        I hear you! I think the tricky thing is that often kids/parents don’t know on the front end where it will end up. Everybody wants to quit at times, even kids who end up reaching a very high level of performance in a given area. I think for me, the technique issues were subtle but disastrous. 😉 Unless you have a high level of training, you don’t catch the finer points in your own students.

        That said, I love your thoughts and am a huge fan of AoS and have been for years. I often feel funny commenting unless I actually bring a different perspective but I enjoy the simpler approach and freedom you all offer here on a regular basis! Thanks again and keep up the good work! 🙂

  12. joanna

    So first all…this post is really beautiful. Great message.
    second I’m learning the guitar so I became very interested in this from your picture.

  13. Betsy Zenz

    Yes and Amen. Thank you, Kat. Totally needed this perspective reminder today.

  14. priest's wife @byzcathwife

    “exact way” is the surest way to do nothing at all- YES!

    I gave my 7 year old son his second piano lesson today- yesterday was the first day. I am rustier than I-don’t-know-what, but for now, he is full of joy with the bits we have done. Here’s to teaching him enough that I will need to pay for lessons!

  15. Tiare

    Ah, striving for progress instead of perfection is a lesson I’m constantly trying to learn.

  16. Diane McElwain

    Thanks, I love this advice!

  17. Deborah

    I get this. Thanks.

  18. Marcy

    This is just the church I need, Kat — you put this beautifully, and (as a recovering perfectionist, like another commenter) it’s a message I cannot possibly hear too often! The more we can be reminded to (how’s that old saying go??) not let perfect get in the way of done, the more we open to that gorgeous progress. Human unfolding. Beautiful!

    Marcy Axness
    author, “Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers”

  19. Anu

    Hi. My name is Anu and I’m a perfectionist. Combined with a childhood of overachievement I’ve become a poor sport internally and would rather not even attempt something if I can’t excel at it. This is a mindset that I need to change, especially since I now have children, and this article gave me the tool to set about that change.

    “Progress not perfection,” has become a daily mantra of mine since I read this last week and already I can see the positive effect it is having.

    Thank you.

  20. Chantel

    Oh my this is my husband and I to a T! He is Sonny! And actually I had asked for a guitar for Christmas and he was having me do scales etc. I found a video that taught a few chords! It is too funny, Thankfully we have been able to somewhat meet in the middle… and lucky enough I love him to bits!

  21. Laura

    I know this is an old(er) post, but this is really what I needed to read right now. Thanks, Kat, for your encouragement! I’m so glad I stumbled on this tonight.

Join thousands of readers
& get Tsh’s free weekly email called
5 Quick Things,

where she shares stuff she either created herself or loved from others. (It can be read in under a minute, pinky-swear.)

It's part of Tsh's popular newsletter called Books & Crannies, where she shares thoughts about the intersection of stories & travel, work & play, faith & questions, and more.