When I was young, I took piano lessons, and every year I played in a piano competition called “Gold Cup.” Players didn’t compete against each other; rather, each musician prepared two pieces of music and then performed for a judge in a private room. The judge rated the pianist on a scale of 1-5. If you received scores of 3 or above for three consecutive years, you received a trophy.
One year, I entered the little room with the judge and the piano, and I absolutely butchered my first piece. I started off well, and then it all fell apart. I missed a note, my finger memory failed, I literally forgot a whole section of the piece, and I picked back up at the first spot I could remember and finished poorly. It was a disaster.
My second piece was okay. Not excellent, but stellar in comparison to the first song.
I was deeply disappointed, not because I might miss out on a trophy but because I had performed more poorly than I ever had before.
The judge talked about how I started so strong before everything fell apart. The Olympics happened to be occurring during this time frame, and my default for handling disappointment was humor. I must have just watched an Olympian blow a chance at a medal or something, because with a half smile on my face, I jokingly turned to the judge and said, “It’s kind of the like the Olympics. You can work so hard, and then you get one shot, and that’s it!”
After a couple comments on my playing, what the judge said next shocked me: “Why don’t you try the piece again?”
“What?” was all I could manage to say. Not only was this unorthodox (and maybe not allowed?), but judges were also always behind schedule and pressed for time. Dozens of children waited in chairs outside the room for the brief, five minute chance to play their songs for a judge.
“Why don’t you try the piece again?” the judge repeated gently.
I ended up playing the piece again—and butchering it again, though I don’t recall if it was as bad as the first time. The judge gave me tips on how to overcome nerves in high pressure situations, but the grace given made a far more lasting impact than the words spoken.
What that judge did made an impression on me. That judge helped me understand life isn’t the Olympics.
As someone with a natural bent toward perfectionism and placing worth in performance, it’s easy to view my actions as make-it-or-break-it events. In some ways, I've viewed my life as a series of Olympic events. Because I demanded perfection of myself, every situation was a challenge with no grace and no do-overs. I've struggled to be okay with mistakes or failures or weaknesses. There's always been a score board. Eventually, if I'd train hard enough and push myself, I would win the gold medal in perfection. Or at least that’s what I told myself all those years.
It's taken me years to learn what the Gold Cup judge tried to help me understand so long ago, that playing the piano as a teenager isn’t the Olympics. It’s real life. It’s messy, and there are screw ups and balks and absolute failures. Living life each day isn’t the Olympics. It turns out I was the only one keeping score of my successes and failures, and training for perfection simply isn’t real. The true reward comes in the lessons learned and the processes of life.
We live, we make mistakes, we do things well, we learn, we build relationships, and we do it all again tomorrow. There is grace. There are do-overs. There is forgiveness and learning, and there are people and a God who welcome us in with open arms at the end of the day, no matter what our performance looked like, because they know who we are.
This week as I watch the Olympics, a shift in values and perspective finds me most drawn to the athletes’ back stories rather than their performance. I want to know where they came from, what they do outside of sports, and what their dreams are for the future. Some are moms, some students, some entrepreneurs.
As they hug and shake hands with their competitors, and as they rejoice with their families after events, I can’t help but wonder at the relationships they’ve built and wonder if those relationships are sweeter than the gold on a string. I can’t help but long to know about the lives they’ve built, because all of our lives are made of so much more than our performances, our achievements, and our actions in the public eye. I can’t help but wonder at where their true identity lies, because I know from personal experience building an identity on ability to perform is devastating.
I wonder about their real, day to day lives, because as much as I love the Olympics (and I do, I’ve been watching every day and set my TV up for the sole purpose of watching them), real life is simply not like the Olympics. No, it’s much, much better.