This is a photo of me at age nine or ten pretending to play the French Horn. Even though it was almost seventy years ago I can tell that I’m not really playing the instrument because I’m smiling, and also because I’m looking directly at the camera. When you’re really playing the French Horn you can’t smile (because you have to purse your lips) and your eyes would be focused either on the music in front of you or on the conductor, not the camera off to your upper right.
Why is this important?
My father was a professional French Horn player. Though I didn’t realize it when I was young, he was also the best brass instrument teacher in the world. Musicians traveled from all over to study with him. The principles he shared with his students, and that I learned from him as a child, still apply directly to many aspects of my life and serve me well to this day.
Dad is now 103 years old, and is at home recovering from a recent major surgery. Even so, he remains the consummate teacher. Last week he reminded me of an important concept that he always imparts to his students.
“If you are on a desert island with no hope of rescue, and no other human being exists within a thousand miles, when you practice playing your instrument you must always focus on what you’re doing, and always do your very best. Always. That’s the habit you must cultivate to play your very best when you really need to. You are a professional. A professional never settles for less than his or her very best. Nothing else is acceptable.”
It has taken me many years to apply this lesson to my writing. I’m very quick, and discovered in school that ninety percent of my best was usually good enough for an “A”. Why bother trudging that difficult trail from ninety percent toward one hundred percent? It was always easier for me to just take a mental nap.
For the past four or five years I’ve become more serious, and more professional, about my writing. I don’t settle any more for a “good” first draft. As Robert Graves wrote years ago, “There is no such thing as good writing. Only good rewriting.” I have to admit that, like a diamond, my best work never reveals itself in a blinding flash of insight. It must be thought out, then cut, then polished. That process takes time and energy. But I’m not looking for “A’s” on my report card anymore. Now I’m aiming for the top of the mountain, and by that I mean the very best I can do.
I’m sure you have already thought of other applications for this “desert island” principal. At work? Do your very best even when no one is looking. In a relationship? Do your very best even when no one may notice or appreciate it. With a hobby? Do your very best to satisfy yourself.
From now on whenever you contemplate whether or not your performance is good enough, I invite you to use my father’s secret code and ask yourself:
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