How Songwriting Saved Kiri Oliver from the Curse of Perfectionism

The Early Riser frontwoman on the importance of being willing to fall on your face once in a while.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a perfectionist. Unlike a lot of my friends, my drive to excel didn’t come in the form of pressure from my parents—they were actually the ones reassuring me it was normal and OK to get a B (or even a C!) sometimes, while I insisted that only straight As would do. An ingrained part of my personality is that I really like to do things well, I really don’t like to do things badly, and I expect myself to get good at things quickly so I can stop being bad at them as soon as possible.

In middle school I dreamed of being a great gymnast, but I stopped taking classes after I flubbed my vault at my first recital. Although I was a hardcore theater kid in high school, when I got to college I was afraid to go to auditions for plays, so I stopped acting. More recently, I studied improv comedy seriously for four years, but the stress of having to fail over and over in public in order to get better ultimately outweighed the joy of learning the craft, so I quit.

I recently realized that my perfectionism can manifest in two main ways: an intense fear of being seen as bad at something, or an intense drive to work on something until it meets my vision and I’m happy with it. The first creates an incredible amount of stress that hampers my creativity; the second is what allows me to create work I’m proud of and want to put out into the world. Thankfully, when I write songs, I’m tuned into the second form. This difference might explain why I’ve gravitated to and stuck with music as my main passion while I was led to quit other pursuits when success didn’t come quickly enough.

Writing music has helped me learn something that’s often been hard to grasp in other areas of my life: that I need to take the time to create a large volume of work without judgment or self-censoring, let the best ideas rise to the top, and then focus on honing those for public release. When I write songs, I’m mainly driven by the need to express myself and the desire to connect with others by sharing my thoughts and feelings, rather than by a general desire to excel or succeed. I’ve found that when success is my goal, then I always fear failure, and quitting often ends up looking like a good alternative. But when expression is my goal, that’s something I can’t fail at, no matter how many people hear my songs. I’m always succeeding, just by doing it. And by doing it, I get better. And by doing my best work, I organically attain more traditional forms of success, like gaining fans and opportunities.

When perfectionism pops up in my musical life, it comes hand-in-hand with impostor syndrome, usually when I’m doing something new or out of my realm of expertise. I’ve experienced this when dealing with live sound issues, guitar and amp repair, recording and production—all essential components of a musician’s working life. My fear and self-judgement about my lack of knowledge are often compounded by the fact that I put an unfair amount of pressure on myself to represent all women in music and fend off mansplaining jerks by knowing everything about everything at all times. But over time, I’ve developed some resources for handling these feelings and deciding the best way to proceed. In most situations, I’ve found that one of these three strategies usually applies:

  1. Practice/teach myself: When the issue is related to a lack of technical skills or knowledge as a musician, from “I realized there’s no variation in my strumming patterns” to “I’m terrified of breaking a string on stage and not knowing how to change it quickly,” the answer is often something I can look up online and then take the time to practice on my own. That can often be a hard thing to take initiative on, since I’m used to wasting all my energy on the fear of doing something badly rather than applying it to learning and getting better. It helps me to remind myself that while worrying will never improve my skills and prevent me from making a fool of myself, practice actually will. Also, being a beginner or visibly imperfect at something doesn’t make me a fool.
  2. Call in the experts: If I find that I can’t figure something out on my own, especially when it’s an equipment issue like, “I don’t know what this weird sound is that’s coming from my amp,” I need to ask for help. That’s also not easy for me—I’ve had enough terrible, sexism-fueled experiences in Guitar Center to last a lifetime, so it’s very difficult for me to go into a music store and admit I don’t know something. The key has been finding the people who make me feel safe, supported and like an equal. I’ve reached out to sound engineers and musicians in my network when dealing with specific issues, and they’ve been so kind and generous with their time and knowledge. I’ve also found a local guitar shop where I feel comfortable asking for help and know that I won’t be condescended to.
  3. Reframe my expectations: Sometimes I get wrapped up in arbitrary measures of success, like social media followers, Spotify streams, and whether this or that cool band wants to play shows with us. This is a form of perfectionism because I’m equating these things with success and wrapped up in the fear of failing by not having enough. But as I said earlier, my goal is to express myself through my music, and to connect with others through sharing it. When I refocus on that, I’m much happier, and the other forms of growth happen organically.

In the end, my approach to songwriting is helpful to keep in mind when I’m struggling with perfectionism and self-judgement in other areas: I do it because I love it. I practice because I enjoy it and want to do my best work. I focus on executing my own vision for the work I put out into the world, rather than on trying to impress certain people or meet external (and often arbitrary) measures of success. And I remember that the worst thing in the world wouldn’t be to do something badly or been seen as less than perfect—it would be to quit and give up the opportunity to keep expressing myself and connecting with amazing people through my music. I’m willing to fall on my face once in a while in order to keep doing that—as long as I never have to do another gymnastics vault again.

(Photo Credit: Andrew Bisdale)

Kiri Oliver is a writer and musician from Brooklyn, NY. She wears bright colors and sings about her feelings in the folk-pop-punk band Early Riser. She was a music booker for The Chris Gethard Show from its public access days through its run on truTV. Follow her on Twitter here.