Is sitting all day evil? There are increasing numbers of articles in fashionable magazines and on trendy websites that will tell you that yes, sitting is intrinsically evil and can kill you. The Huffington Post, for example, seems to run an article on the evils of sitting every couple of months.
I mean, we always knew that sitting, especially sitting all day was a problem. Huge numbers of people experience discomfort through sitting, especially at their desks and computers. Backs, necks, shoulders all seem to beg for mercy. But now we’re told that sitting isn’t just uncomfortable – it can actually shorten your lifespan.
Is it true, and what can we do about it?
Sitting is the new smoking.
That’s the advice Marc Hamilton, director of the Inactivity Physiology Program at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana, gave to the magazine Runner’s World. Apparently, sitting for long periods may cause an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase to decrease in the bloodstream. As this enzyme clears noxious fats out of the bloodstream, this is bad news. Apparently this sends out harmful biological signals that could be implicated in cardiovascular disease.
According to the articles I’ve seen, sitting still for long periods has been linked to not just obesity, but cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, though personally I’d want to see more studies come up with similar results before I got too worked up about the evidence.
But before you panic and throw away all your chairs (as some people have done, and would advise you to do – see this article), let’s examine the issue with the clear-sightedness that FM Alexander would want us to use.
Problem number 1: chairs are not cigarettes
Sitting is part of our normal range of movement behaviours. It’s one of the things we are designed to be able to do. If we say that one movement behaviour is intrinsically bad, how many others will we find that are just as evil or worse? What about rock climbing (all that looking upwards), or playing the violin (having your head tilted to the side can’t be good for you, surely) – should we ban those, too?
If there’s a problem with sitting all day, that’s not the chair’s fault, but ours for thinking that doing any one thing for prolonged periods isn’t going to have repurcussions. It’s a bit like food. I love chocolate, but I don’t eat it every day. I love carrots too, but if I ate them for every meal I’d soon turn orange. Who tied us down and forced us to sit in the one spot all day long?
Problem 2: Will exchanging standing for sitting be any better?
Instead of sitting all day, why not stand up or work out? A lot of authors out there on the web are telling their readers to exchange their chairs and conventional desks for ‘standing workstations’ or treadmill desks. Is this a good idea?
Well, it depends. FM Alexander would tell us that many of the problems we experience are not context-related (relevant only to a specific activity), but are the result of a deterioration in the general manner of use of ourselves. In other words, there’s a way we like to use our bodies – maybe tightening neck muscles, or raising shoulders, or jutting pelvis forwards – that we bring into every activity that we do. And in some of those activities that general way we like to use ourselves becomes problematic.
If this is the case (and Alexander Technique teachers down the decades have anecdotal evidence that this is true), then just swapping standing for sitting isn’t going to help, because we’re going to bring our poor manner of use along into the new activity. If we keep our shoulders raised all the time, we’re going to do that while we’re standing, and the knock-on effects of that through our whole system is going to generate achiness in just the same way it did while we were sitting. It might move or be subtly different in some way, but the cause is the same.
So the whole ‘sitting is bad for you’ campaign has two major flaws: the chair didn’t make us sit for prolonged periods, rather, we did; and there’s nothing to say that standing or using a treadmill desk is going to be any more beneficial in reducing overall harm to our systems.
What, then, should we do? I’m going to give you three top tips.
1. Don’t sit still! Take breaks!
Chairs are just a tool, in the same way that a computer keyboard is just a tool, or a hammer is just a tool. We need to decide how to use them safely. So don’t sit still for long periods. Get up and walk around once an hour, even if it’s just to the water cooler and back. If you can’t trust yourself to remember, set a timer.
2. Think about your general use of yourself.
Do you hunch your shoulders? Do you jut your pelvis forwards, or crane your head forward on your neck? Do you permanently have one shoulder raised so your handbag won’t fall off… even if your handbag isn’t there? Start taking the time to observe yourself dispassionately, or see an Alexander Technique teacher for some advice.
3. Keep an open mind.
Read the articles. Check out the research. Make sure that you understand the issue before you do anything drastic like junk your furniture or spend thousands on a treadmill desk. Do what seems best for you in your circumstances, taking the research into account. You may well decide that the cardiovascular benefits of a treadmill desk are exactly what you need! But don’t be rushed into anything without thinking about it.
Maybe Hamlet had it right when he said “there’s nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Let’s stop blaming the tools, and start reasoning out how to use them effectively.
Stage fright is a funny beast. Because it has such a formidable physical dimension, we often fall into the trap of believing that it is primarily a physical phenomenon. But what if it isn’t? What if stage fright is primarily a thinking-based problem that is alleviated by thinking-based solutions?
Today, I want to explore how our levels of anxiety in different performance arenas are first and foremost dependent upon the decisions we make about how comfortable we are with that arena.
Malcolm Gladwell told a story in a recent New York Public Library interview about emotions, and about seeing his father in tears reading Dickens. He followed this with the tale of being taken to a movie by his father. (You can watch this whole interview via this page from the website Brain Pickings – the section I’m referring to starts at 13:35) They rarely went to movies. This one was a particularly sad picture about the Holocaust and the life of Corrie ten Boom. Everyone was crying, except Gladwell’s father. When asked why he wasn’t crying, Gladwell snr said, “It’s just fiction!”
Clearly he didn’t think that Dickens was biography, so why the thoroughly un-teary response to the biopic of ten Boom? Because he had decided to value it differently. There was something about the written word, and the written words of Dickens in particular, that held a higher value for Gladwell snr. This was a choice that he had made.
Similarly, we can make choices about what things we value and what things we fear. More than one of my students has confirmed my own experience that performing as an actor was far less terrifying than performing as a musician. As an actor, they say (as I once did), the audience see the character. They don’t see YOU, so stage fright isn’t an issue.
But this is just another decision. One of my students is an actor who specialises in improvisation. He loves it because there is a clear framework and a set of rules that lead to a successful performance. He dislikes scripted theatre because it lacks these. One of my other students loves scripted theatre because it has a clear framework and a set of rules, and dislikes improvisation because it lacks these.
Partially, of course, these people like the thing they’re most accustomed to. But more than that, they like the thing that they have decided to like and invest time in. If you decide it, improvisation can be safe. If you decide it, musical performance can be safe. If you decide it, I imagine even stand-up comedy can feel safe. The point is, it’s all a decision.
Once I decided that the audience didn’t really see me even when I was playing music, stage fright vanished. I was completely happy about going onstage. I realised that the audience didn’t care about me particularly – they wanted to hear the music first and foremost. As long as I gave my attention to the music, the audience would be happy, and so would I. And it worked.
What would happen if you decided that the performance arena you think is unsafe and uncomfortable, is actually far more safe and comfortable than you have given credit for?
It may seem perverse, but more often than not risking failure fuels improvement. I was again reminded of this when chatting with an artist and visual arts teacher, who works in a high school with teenage students. I asked my new friend what the most common difficulty is that she experiences with her students. The answer was immediate: not going far enough.
I asked the art teacher to explain. She said that, in her experience, students are afraid of making mistakes and ruining their artwork by doing too much and wrecking all the promise of the piece they were working on. So they try to hedge their bets and stop just a little too early.
Risking failure: baking the biscuits
Why is this bad? Why should we worry if artists leave their pieces just a little on the side of unfinished – doesn’t this leave the promising beginning intact?
Well, yes. But no. It is definitely a problem. And here’s why.
By never going too far, they don’t learn where just enough is. It’s a bit like making biscuits. If you take every batch you make out of the oven when they’re still a little doughy, you don’t learn how to recognise when they’re cooked. Most of the time they’ll be edible, but they’ll never be really right. If, on the other hand, you ‘caramelise’ them*, you soon learn what they look like when they’ve gone too far!
In other words, sometimes you have to take things to the point of ‘caramelisation’. You have to go too far. That’s the way you find out where the optimal range lies. You fail in order to find out where success truly lies. If you stop at ‘slightly doughy’, you’ve set a ceiling on your ability to improve.
FM Alexander did the psycho-physical equivalent of ‘caramelisation’ many times in his efforts to discover the way to overcome his vocal problems. He discovered the three tendencies that appeared to be implicated in his vocal distress. He found which one he could directly prevent, and stopped doing it. The other two vanished as well (thereby proving his suspicion that the three tendencies were linked) and his voice improved.
Job done, you would think.
But FM wasn’t satisfied, because he knew that risking failure fuels improvement. He decided to have a go at putting his head forward, further forward in fact than it felt right to do – just to see if he could make things even better. And the results of that little experiment led to many more months of experimentation and angst. But it also led to the creation of what we now teach as the Alexander Technique.**
If FM hadn’t tried going too far, I wouldn’t be writing this blog to you today.
Yes, going too far and stuffing things up hurts. Artists hate looking at pieces they’ve overworked. I hate it when I burn my bakes. But if you don’t take that risk, you’ll never reach the potential that you were aiming for, and you won’t learn the concrete and practical things that you could do to make it possible at the next attempt.
So… Go on. Go a little too far today, and see what happens.
* I’ve watched enough cookery programmes to know that no one burns anything these days!
** You can read about it in FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, Orion Books, p.21ff.
Are you afraid of performing? Whether it’s a concert, play, audition or after dinner speech, do you find yourself frozen up by the fear of what is to come?
Many people are afraid of the battle. To them, every performance, audition or job interview is a competition, and one that they are afraid of losing. The audience/panel are the enemy, the competitor that they must fight. And the fear of competition seems almost all consuming. Some of my students have described it this way:
Fighting the audience – fight to keep the audience engaged and with you.
Fighting the panel – battling to keep them looking at you as a real contender.
Fighting the competitor, and fighting oneself - struggling to retain the self belief to keep competing.
I want to share with you something I’ve been reading that threw a lot of light on the fear of competition issue. I’ve got two main points that I hope will set you thinking anew about it. My fondest wish is that you’ll come the the conclusion that fear of competition is a mental trick that you can escape – if you want to.
1. Fear of competition is a state of mind.
I love watching snooker, and especially love watching Ronnie O’Sullivan. I’ve often wondered what goes through a player’s mind, especially at the beginning of a tight match where the scores remain even, and one player does not gain immediate dominance over the other.
Do you think this would be stressful, or do you think it would be fun?
Many people might imagine that a player would find it stressful. But that isn’t what Ronnie O’Sullivan describes in his most recent book, Running.
I went bang! Long red. Eighty. He went bang! Long red. Eighty. I went bang! Long red. One hundred. He went bang! Seventy. And I thought, 2-2, we’re having a row here, this is good! I’m enjoying this.*
What Ronnie is describing is a joy in the heat of battle. If the other player is matching him frame for frame, he relishes it. He describes a joy in being able to hold his own and gradually overcome another player who is also playing at the height of his powers. For Ronnie, when he is at his best, the battle isn’t something to run away from. It is, rather, something to engage in and enjoy.
Fear of competition is a state of mind, a “trifling habit of thought” (FM Alexander’s words there**) that at some point we have taken on. But it is just a state of mind, and states of mind can be changed.
2. It isn’t really a battle.
The second point is that most performances, most presentations, most auditions and job interviews even, are not battles. They are not a competitive sport, and the audience/interview panel are not your competitors. They are not your enemy. You are not fighting them.
The audience, at heart, wants to be entertained.
The business audience, at heart, wants to get out of the room alive. If they enjoy their time, they are thrilled.
The audition panel just wants to cast the role. They want you to be the one.
The interview panel just wants you to be the right candidate.
They aren’t your competitors. Unless you’re in a particularly extreme set of circumstances, they’re on your side. So what is there to stop you just getting on and enjoying being with them?
*Ronnie O’Sullivan (with Simon Hattenstone), Running, Orion, 2013, p.71.
** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT edition, p.52.
Do you struggle with self criticism as a performer? Me too. I’m telling this little story about my own self criticism, partly so that you can all feel a little better by having a laugh at me, and partly to make a point about why we don’t need to do it in the first place!
Just recently my group Pink Noise played a concert at a small church in Somerset. We finished our programme with a lovely arrangement of Astor Piazzolla’s Oblivion. I play the lead line. This is a fairly accurate rendition of my thoughts as I play the first phrase.
Will the high D sound? Please God, don’t let it crack!
Brilliant! But it sounds so thin. Argh!
Argh! Relax those fingers!
The note’s so boring. Finger vibrato!
Argh! Not enough finger vibrato!
Argh! Too much finger vibrato!
Argh! Finger vibrato isn’t even enough!
Running out of air – gotta breathe…
I hope I didn’t sound like an asthmatic walrus…
I never get the articulation right there…
Phew – made it!
And that’s just the first phrase!
It feels like I never do the piece justice, that I never manage to play it as cleanly and smoothly as it deserves. Frankly, I always feel like I struggle with it, and wonder why the others in the group don’t take the part away from me.
That’s how it feels. And that’s how I’d see it, if one of our group hadn’t made a video recording of the performance. I finally got round to watching it. And what did I find?
The awful truth… isn’t that bad
Actually, it’s okay. I was pleasantly surprised. There are things to work on for us as an ensemble (we haven’t performed this piece very often yet), but it holds up. And my lead line isn’t nearly as bad as it sounded in my head. I hesitate to say it, but it’s really quite decent.
FM Alexander warned us all decades ago that our feelings aren’t a reliable guide to anything much. Anyone who has had an Alexander Technique lesson will have seen or experienced a session in which they are convinced they’re about to fall over backwards, only to be told they’re standing perfectly straight. Or that when they think they’re turning their head, they’re actually turning at their waist. Or that when they think they’re bending their knees, they’re just not! What we think we’re doing is very often not what the outside world sees.
What I love about watching videos of my performances is that I get to see a view from outside my own head. I get to listen, maybe not to a studio quality recording, but at least to something that is outside of me and the processes I’m engaged in to make the sound. I get to experience what the audience might experience.
The lessons for today?
Teachers aren’t perfect. Thank goodness. That’s why we understand the struggles our students go through.
If you’re a performer, or are having to give some sort of speech or presentation, find a way to get objective feedback. Video yourself. Get a person you trust to watch you. Do what Alexander did and look at yourself in the mirror, if you can bear to. Find some means where you can evaluate your own performance, and preferably AFTER you’ve done it, not DURING. During, you should be far too busy doing it to evaluate anything.
And finally, if you’re having a thoughtfest of self criticism like the one I wrote out, be kind to yourself. Notice that you’re doing it, then get back to the job of playing/performing. Evaluation comes later.
How do really great performers get so good? And can we emulate them in any degree at all? Is it, in short, possible to go from good to great performance?
Last weekend I had the immense pleasure of seeing my childhood hero, recorder player Michala Petri, perform with lutenist Lars Hannibal here in Bristol. At the end of a truly sparkling first half, the audience spilled out of the performance space and spent the interval sipping wine and wondering at what we’d just seen. A couple of things really stood out for us:
She played the entire first half from memory.
She barely moved anything other than her fingers (and they moved very fast indeed!), and yet was utterly mesmerising.
And the most common question I heard during the interval? “How does she DO that?!”
How she does it, step 1: Practice
Michala Petri has been performing for around 40 years – she gave her first concert at age 11. She’s pretty experienced. She’s done a lot of hours in the practice room.
So how does she remember all that music? She’s practised it! I suspect that she’s played some of those works for at least 20 years. After that time, I suspect that memorising isn’t really an issue.
It also strikes me that Ms Petri’s experience of playing those pieces of music is going to be completely different to the experience I have when/if I play them. Her relationship with the music goes far beyond needing to know what note or phrase is coming next. Through familiarity and close study, she has been able to cultivate such an in-depth knowledge of each piece that even the most difficult piece of Bach has a clear sense of line and purpose.
Put more simply, what takes Ms Petri from good to great performance is not remembering the notes, but her ability to move to a completely different level of relationship with the notes as part of a holistic structure.*
What would happen if we, whatever our field of expertise, were able to do sufficient work that our next performance moved to the level beyond ‘remembering the notes’?
How she does it, step 2: Concentration
More than just knowing the piece, however, Ms Petri is able to communicate her ideas clearly to the audience. She does this by maintaining an absolute focus on what she needs to do to communicate. As FM Alexander said,
We must cultivate, in brief, the deliberate habit of taking up every occupation with the whole mind, with a living desire to carry each action through to a successful accomplishment, a desire which necessitates bringing into play every faculty of the attention. By use this power develops…**
Concentration is the ability to stick with the process you’ve designed, and not to allow your focus to waver. What would happen if you brought that level of attention to your next presentation or performance?
How she does it, step 3: do only what you have to
Because Ms Petri has done the practice and the study, because she has lived with each piece of music for a long time, she has developed clear ideas about what she needs to do to communicate the piece to the audience. So she does those things.
And only those things.
That’s why she doesn’t move much – she doesn’t need to. Her fingers and her lungs are doing most of the physical work. Any other movement would run the risk of disturbing them, so she doesn’t indulge in any. This isn’t to say that she looked rooted to the spot. She could have moved as much as she wanted. She just didn’t want to.
Going from good to great performance isn’t without effort, but the steps are clear. Do the work and the study. Take it up with your whole mind, both in rehearsal and in performance. And only do what you need to do.
Simple steps. A world of experimentation and improvement awaits.
* Interestingly, the only times she resorted to sheet music were when she was playing very new works that had only been written a couple of years previously. She’d only known them for a couple of years – they hadn’t reached the level of knowledge for playing from memory yet!
** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT complete edition, pp.66-67.
Picture of Michala Petri and Lars Hannibal by Tom Barnard.
When you perform, are you concerned about audience reaction? Perhaps you keep half an eye or ear on the audience as you perform. Do you try to gauge how they’re liking your performance? How would you feel if, heaven forbid, someone should frown or even walk out while you’re performing?
It is a fairly common theme when I work with people with performance anxiety that their tension levels increase through fear of negative audience reaction. Bluntly, they are stressed out by the thought of the audience hating them, or at the very least disliking what they’re doing.
But if they’re frowning, do they really hate you? Or are you perhaps misunderstanding the audience reaction?
This was really brought home to me when one of my students auditioned for the full-time acting course at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.* He came out disconsolate, saying that one of the panel had spent the entire audition staring at him, her head resting on her hands. “She looked like she hated me,” he said. “My audition was terrible. I’ll never get the place.”
Luckily, I was also friends with another member of the panel, who told me the story of what happened after my student had left the room. The supposedly grumpy panel member had turned to the other auditioners, fixed them with just as intense a stare as she had the young student, and said, “he’s absolutely marvellous!”
My student looked at the panel member and was convinced she hated him. And it just wasn’t true. So how did my student get it so wrong? How did he so misjudge the audience reaction?
1. You can’t know what’s in their heads.
What a person is thinking is private information. You can’t access it directly. You can make guesses based on available (public) information, like their facial expressions. But your guesses are still just guesses, and while they might often be accurate, under stress your ability to make accurate guesses might be severely compromised. If someone in the front row has a massive frown on their face, you have no evidence that they don’t like you. Maybe they always look like that!
2. The psycho-physical truth
We all think and act (except when forced to do otherwise) in accordance with the peculiarities of our particular psycho-physical make-up.**
This is one of my favourite quotes from FM Alexander, because it so neatly sums up the human condition. We think and act according to our belief structures, whatever those may be. And so if we come across new information or new experiences that require decoding, we will do it according to what we already believe to be the truth about the way the world works.
I ran across a lovely story that speaks to this. The author recounted how the youthful babysitter he had hired looked in wonderment at his (slightly old-fashioned!) corded kitchen phone. “Mr Hunt, what a wonderful idea,” she said, “to tie up your phone so that people won’t walk away with it. Just like the pens at the bank.”***
The babysitter had only experienced cordless phones, and so created an explanation for what she was seeing based on her beliefs and previous experience. We do this all the time. But just like the babysitter, our explanations may be completely off target!
If we’re in a high pressure situation, our systems are pumped with adrenalin. This makes changes to the way we are thinking. And if we’re accustomed to thinking of performing as unpleasant and we’re already looking on the negative side of things, then we will prioritise anything we see that confirms our negative viewpoint, and discount any contradictory (positive) information.
You can’t know how other people are taking things. And it isn’t your business anyway. Your job is to deliver your content in as truthful, sincere and efficient a way as you can. Watching the audience to see how much they like/hate you just distracts from that. Be convinced of the worth of your content and your process, and keep delivering.
* This is a brilliant college. I know I’m biased, but if you live in the UK and are thinking of studying in the fields of music or acting, you simply must investigate Royal Welsh.
** FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.304.
*** Andy Hunt, Pragmatic Thinking and Learning, Pragmatic Bookshelf 2008, p.130.
Image by Freddie Pena, Flickr Creative Commons
Are introversion and performing success mutually exclusive? Can you be a good communicator if you’re an introvert?
I work a lot with people who have stage fright issues, and I get asked this question a lot. I suspect most of the students who attend my presentation courses would class themselves as introverts, and they frequently believe that their quiet nature is fundamental to their not being comfortable in front of an audience.
Can this be true? Can it really be the case that introversion and performing just don’t go together successfully?
I’ve been doing some personal development reading lately. One of the books I’m reading suggested doing some online personality tests, in order to help me discover how I like to learn and what sorts of environments/contexts would be helpful or harmful to me learning most effectively. So I did a spot of googling and found an online MBTI style test. If you don’t know these, they rank you on a continuum in four different areas, the first of which is introversion vs extraversion.
So how did I do? I came out at 89% introverted, and I think I only came out that low because I bent the truth on a couple of questions.
Suffice it to say, if you’re looking for an illustration of introversion for your pictorial dictionary, I’d be a fantastic candidate. When a friend recently told me about how prior commitments meant he wouldn’t be able to attend a party, I felt relief even though it wasn’t me, it wasn’t my invitation, and I had no connection to the event at all. THAT’S how introverted I am.
But do I combine introversion and performing? Can I perform in front of audiences? You bet! So how do I manage this? How is it that I can be very decidedly one of life’s quiet people, and yet spend much of my working life having a lot of fun working with groups, or playing my recorder in front of audiences? I follow these three lessons from FM Alexander, originator of the Alexander Technique:
1. Get lots of practice.
When FM Alexander was trying to solve the mental (and resulting physical) misdirections that caused his vocal problems, he realised that part of the solution was practicing his new directions “very many times”. Bluntly, if you want to do anything decently, you need to do it with some degree of deliberateness and consistency. Here is Susan Cain, author of Quiet, on her preparations for her book launch:
“my job is to be out here … talking about introversion. And that’s a lot harder for me, because as honored as I am to be here with all of you right now, this is not my natural milieu. So I prepared for moments like these as best I could. I spent the last year practicing public speaking every chance I could get. And I call this my “year of speaking dangerously.” And that actually helped a lot.”
2. Speak from your passion.
Why did Susan Cain want to improve her public communication skills? Because she had a subject she was passionate about, and she wanted as many people to know about it as possible: “But I’ll tell you, what helps even more is my sense, my belief, my hope that when it comes to our attitudes to introversion and to quiet and to solitude, we truly are poised on the brink on dramatic change. “
If you have a passion for your topic, you are more prepared to go outside your comfort zone in order to communicate it. In the same way, FM Alexander’s passion for acting meant that he was prepared to do immense amounts of work and suffer innumerable setbacks when trying to fix his vocal problems.
3. Communicate in the way that best suits you and your purpose.
I’m going to say something controversial. The audience don’t care about you. (well, maybe they do if they’re your family, or if you’re some kind of celebrity – there’s exceptions to every rule…) Apart from the odd exception, it’s true. The audience only care about you, as such, if you make yourself their issue. Otherwise, they just want to hear what you’ve got to say/play/perform. They care that you do it authentically, but otherwise they primarily want the content.
This is tremendously freeing. It means that you can be authentically nervous. You can be authentically quiet, or authentically loud. How it is said doesn’t matter nearly so much as that it is said truthfully and with integrity. If you want to see this in action, just take a look at Susan Cain, or JK Rowling. They get their message across brilliantly, and both of them are totally their quiet selves.
The key is to do only what you have to do in order to achieve your goals – a key Alexander Technique principle. Pretending to be someone else is unnecessary effort, and does nobody any good.
A quiet person can command respect and attention. A shy person can be a performer. A nervous person can get their point across. An introvert can be a truly great public speaker or performer. All it takes is some attention to principle, and a modicum of consistent, deliberate practice.
Do you find decision making easy, or is your power to decide crippled by the knowledge of the loss of the alternatives once you’ve committed to one option?
A friend of mine told me the story recently of a student of hers, who had had the misfortune to lose all her university coursework in a house fire (she was lucky to have survived herself). With a supreme effort, the student was able to do extremely well in her final assignments, but narrowly missed getting a First.
The student asked my friend if she should appeal. My friend replied that she’d have a strong chance of having her degree lifted to a First, but that it would take time and mean her not graduating at the same time as her friends. Which was more important to her?
The student decided to graduate with her friends, and to give the higher grading a miss. When my friend saw the student at the graduation ceremony, the student was having a wonderful time with her friends. She was at peace with her decision.
Decision making as loss
I love this story because it gets to the essence of something I’ve been thinking about recently (thanks to a lovely post by my friend Susan T Blake). Decision making can be so very difficult sometimes, because every decision we make has with it an element of loss.
Sometimes that loss is small (flat white or latte?). But sometimes the choice is far more difficult, as each option has a significant joy, and its loss a significant cost. The student gave up a First – that is a loss. But to choose the First over graduating with friends would have entailed a different loss – the loss of fellowship and shared experience.
The fork in the road
One of the most important concepts in Alexander Technique is that of ‘the fork in the road’, where we find ourselves having a choice between two alternatives.* The most usual one in an Alexander Technique lesson is the choice between the old, familiar way of thinking/moving, and the new and unfamiliar way of thinking/moving. My job as a teacher is to stand at the fork in the road between these two alternatives, and point to the path of the new and unfamiliar, suggesting that it might be worth trying out!
There are, however, other kinds of choices, and other forks in the road. Sometimes someone will present you with a choice (a First or a peer group experience), and ask you to make up your mind which option you want to take. Sometimes you may even present yourself with the choice.
But these choices are sneakier than the one Mr Alexander paints for us. Unlike Alexander’s fork in the road, where the man knows the destination he wishes to reach, in the First/friends choice the destination is not defined. We are being asked (or asking ourselves) to make a choice when we don’t immediately know which one gets us closer to where we want to go.
Decision making and core values
These choices are difficult because the outcomes are not clear. We don’t know what will suit our needs best. And we may be placed (or place ourselves) under pressure to make a decision quickly, before we have had sufficient opportunity to decide which option aligns best with our core values.** And sometimes the difficulty of the choice stems from the fact that it highlights an area where we haven’t really considered what values are most important to us!
So what should we do?
Stop and breathe. No one should expect an instant answer!
Consider the options given. What core values or principles do they represent? For example, a First = academic excellence. Friends = value on social ties and affections.
Check these against your own core values. Which option fits best with your own value structure? Or is this a chance to decide what our core values are?
Decide if there might be any other, better, courses of action. Just because you are presented with two options doesn’t mean there aren’t more options possible…
Choose something and commit to the consequences.
And take note of that last step. Yes, whatever you choose will entail losing the benefits of the choice not taken. My friend’s student didn’t get quite the degree they merited, and that is a real and genuine loss. But what would have been far worse, and far more damaging, would have been to choose an option and then spend time regretting the loss of the other.
And there is one thing that is even worse. Yes, even worse than regret.
Just standing at the crossroads and not ever deciding. That is the most deadening option of all.
*Alexander, F.M., Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.299.
** ‘Core values’ is a term I borrow from life coach and all-round fab guy Tim Brownson. He writes a superb blog at http://www.adaringadventure.com/blog/
Image by Kittisak from FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Here is the liberating truth. If you’re a newbie, you’re allowed to ‘suck’. You are allowed to be joyfully, liberatingly bad at the activity you’re trying.
Of course, most of us don’t give ourselves this pleasure. Instead, we expect ourselves to be good at this new thing. Not just passable, you’ll notice. We want to be good.
And this is just a little bit crazy.
Think about it. You’re walking onto a tennis court for the first time in your life. You’ve seen it played, but you’ve never picked up a racquet before. You don’t know how to hit the ball, don’t know how to serve. Is it reasonable, then, to expect yourself to be able to hit backhand winners down the line in the style of Roger Federer? Probably not!
But this is what we so frequently do. I clearly remember giving up chess at age 7 after my first ever attempt at a game because I wasn’t instantly successful. I can think of other occasions where I’ve seen children and adults make similar decisions.
Can you think of a time when you’ve done something similar?
FM Alexander had just such an experience when he was trying to find a way of undoing the vocal hoarseness that was threatening his acting career. He thought that just because he’d used his vocal tract in a certain way for a prolonged period, he’d be able to change the way he used it and do the new thing just as accurately, just as easily. But it simply wasn’t the case.
Alexander realised that he wasn’t the only one to make this error, and named the phenomenon a universal delusion:
because we are able to do what we “will to do” in acts that are habitual and involve familiar sensory experiences, we shall be equally successful in doing what we “will to do” in acts which are contrary to our habit and therefore involve sensory experiences that are unfamiliar. *
Just because I can play tennis does not mean I can play badminton. Just because I can drive a car, I shouldn’t expect to be able to ride a bicycle. Just because I can play recorder to a fairly decent standard, I should NOT expect to be near-instantly performance standard on an oboe – I would almost certainly sound like I was strangling a duck.
And that would be okay, because I’d be new at it!
Secret number 2: you might be a newbie and not even realise it!
Sometimes we are really bad at recognising that we are doing a new activity. We can be fooled into thinking it’s just the same thing as something else we do successfully, when in fact it is a different activity, involving different techniques and a totally different means of approach.
I realised the full force of this the first time I picked up a renaissance recorder and tried to play some really tricky consort music with it. Yes, it’s a recorder. But it has subtly different fingerings, a different bore requiring different breathe pressure, and a different orientation of arm joints to reach the holes comfortably. It is a different activity.
This principle also cropped up just the other week in the presentation skills class I’m teaching at the moment. It is tempting to think that because we all speak to each other all the time quite successfully, that doing a presentation or a speech is just an extension of the speaking we do all the time. But it isn’t.
Just because we can all speak DOES NOT MEAN that we know how to deliver a presentation to a group of people. Talking to friends and giving a work presentation both involve talking, it is true. But the presentation isn’t the same activity. It is a different skill involving different technical aspects and completely different levels of preparation. And if a person goes into a presentation not realising that it’s a new activity and then has a bad experience, it can sow the seeds of anxiety which could develop into full-blown stage fright. And all because they’d miscategorised the presentation as something that they knew how to do.
Before you do that activity, ask yourself:
Do I really know what I’m doing, or are there enough ‘uncharted’ aspects to make this a new experience?
Am I okay with not being outstanding at this activity? Bluntly, am I okay with the idea of failing?
This isn’t about reducing standards, nor is it about settling for average. This is about recognising that everybody has to start somewhere. If you give yourself the luxury of mistakes and stuff-ups, you’ll be approaching whatever it is you’re learning with an unstressed, free and creative state of mind. And this, in turn, will give you the firm foundation to learn and progress.
* FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the IRDEAT complete ed., p.417.
Image by Qrodo photos (Flickr creative commons)
Hi, I’m Jen. I came to study Alexander Technique when I was looking for solutions for my own problems with RSI-like difficulties. Now I teach in Bristol and Cardiff. Read more