“Arggh!” I could hear my longtime, longsuffering, assistant, Bijan, cry. “What are they teaching them in schools these days?!” He was proofing the Sibelius work of a recent participant in our mentorship program who had made yet another notational faux pas.

It didn’t surprise either of us. This particular young man was earnest, charming, talented – and often sloppy. Had his score gone to the stage as it was, it could have caused a very expensive trainwreck of a session.

“How to get a 95”, I answered. I was referring to a pet phrase that Bijan has heard me say too many times: “The difference between school and pro is that in school, if you get an assignment 95% right, you get an A. In the professional world, you get fired.”

This may be the single most difficult thing to learn. What the very best composers, players, engineers, you-name-its have requires a level of precision that no school asks for because it would be impractical to demand. Unfortunately, this leads to a lot of bad habits, the worst of which is “good enough-itis”. Did you check your work? Yeah…it’s good enough.

Good enough-itis caused a Mars orbiter to crash a few years back because somebody forgot to check to see if feet had been converted to meters.

Brilliant genius film composer Harry Gregson-Williams once told me that the day before he was to turn in his score for a film, he got a call from then Dreamworks head, Jeffrey Katzenberg, who said, “Everybody loves it. But is there anything that could be better?” Of course, Harry spent half that night revising to make what was already a great score the best it could be.

It’s not just youths who need to be reminded of this. Last year I was helping out an overwhelmed friend by scoring some cues on one of his TV shows. Bijan was out of town so I did the upload myself – and never checked to make sure it had gone up properly. Fail. My own sloppiness became apparent the moment my safety net was on vacation.

There is a popular documentary called Free Solo about climbing the formidable El Capitan rock face without ropes. Before free soloing, Alex Honnold climbed the face dozens of times with ropes, planning literally every step and learning the route by heart because if he made a mistake when he was climbing without ropes he’d die.

School is a lot like climbing with ropes. But being pro is free soloing.


Addendum: Since posting this a few people have thought I’m saying pros never make mistakes. Of course they do! But they do their best to make sure they catch them before anybody else does.

Also, a couple of folks pointed out the pitfalls of obsessive perfectionism: Getting It Perfect is the enemy of Getting It Done. I agree. Not only that but there will always be differences of vision between, say, a composer and a director or show runner. The key is to do the best possible job on each iteration, knowing that it ain’t over ’til it’s over.

You will still fail. Fortunately, most of us get a chance to climb the mountain again.