Why trusting decisions is vital for your development

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Do you have problems following through, trusting decisions that you’ve made? Perhaps you work hard at finding the right answer, but then have trouble trusting your choices when it comes to the crunch?

I think all of us struggle with this at some point. One of my students found trusting decisions a challenge, but recently made a breakthrough. When I first met him, he struggled with following through on what he’d planned. In essays he wouldn’t quite write the sentence that would nail his argument. When playing he would choose in performance to not quite do everything that way he’d rehearsed.

He reminded me of – well, me actually. As a young theatre student,  lecturers constantly told me that my acting just didn’t hit the mark. My playing choices were good, but it just looked like I didn’t really commit to what I’d decided was right. I wasn’t trusting decisions that I’d made, and to an audience it looked like I was holding back.

FM Alexander had the same sort of issue when he was trying to solve his vocal problems. He had worked out what he was doing wrong, had experimented with preventing it (with some success), and had worked out a better protocol so he could use his voice more effectively. There was only one problem: when he went to speak, he went back to using the old protocol and using his vocal mechanisms poorly. Why?

Being right vs feeling comfortable

FM realised that he was looking to old habitual feeling pathways to work out if he was doing the new (unfamiliar) thing effectively. It hadn’t occurred to him that doing the new thing might not feel comfortable. And when faced with the choice of feeling uncomfortable doing the new thing or feeling comfy doing the old ineffective thing, he chose the latter.*

It was only when he realised he had to trust in his reasoning processes totally that FM really made progress. He said:

my trust in my reasoning processes to bring me safely to my ‘end’ must be a genuine trust, not a half-trust needing the assurance of feeling right as well.**

This was exactly the problem I’d had as a student actor. I made decisions about what was the right way to play the role at any given moment, but if I had a choice between trusting decisions I’d made and feeling comfortable, I chose feeling comfortable every time.

My student, having studied this section of Alexander’s text, had the opportunity to change his response. He began trusting his decision-making process, and had a lot of success. He got through to the final of a major college music competition, and played beautifully. A couple of days later, I asked him about the experience. He was thrilled, because he’d had a plan for how to handle the final, and he’d followed through on every part of it. He had trusted his decisions.

Can you think of an area where you need to trust in the decisions you’ve made, and just follow through?

*FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, Orion, pp.43-44.
** ibid, p.45.
Image courtesy of aechan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Evaluation vs the power of NOW: What I learned from the 21 minute plank.

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Do you find yourself, as you are competing or performing, veering off into a fruitless evaluation of how you are doing? Do you find yourself obsessing about that difficult semi-quaver passage coming up, or worrying about your aching knee or your breathing?

Sometimes the temptation to indulge in an evaluation of how you are doing mid-performance can be almost overwhelming. Believe me, I know this. But I also know that it is utterly useless, and can’t get you to where you want to be. And the other day I had a very tangible physical demonstration of that principle.

For a little while now I’ve been on the email list of personal success coach Ramit Sethi, and when he offered a free course on increasing your potential that he had titled Hell Week, the challenge it threw down was impossible for me to resist. And what was the first challenge in Hell Week? To push past your ideas on your physical limitations by either doing 1000 push-ups or by doing a 21 minute plank. I chose the latter option, thinking (possibly naively) that it sounded like the easier of the two.

Well.

It wasn’t easy. I discovered that planking for long periods uses many more muscles than I initially realised. More importantly, however, I discovered that it wasn’t just a physical challenge. It was just as much a mental challenge, if not more.

When you’re in the middle of the activity, your brain doesn’t stop. Sounds obvious, but think about the implications of that. What are you going to think about as you’re doing the exercise? What are you going to think about as you do the run, or the performance?

What I discovered was this: evaluation mid-exercise doesn’t work. If you congratulate yourself about how well you’re doing, suddenly the exercise gets harder. If you think about the pain, it gets harder. If you think about how much time there is left, it gets harder.

This is the physical equivalent of what musicians have known time immemorial. If you congratulate yourself about the phrase you just played well, you are more likely to make a mistake. If you berate yourself for a mistake just made, you are more likely to go even further wrong. If you worry about what is coming up, you are also likely to go wrong.

The reason is simple. If you are indulging in evaluation, whether good or bad, or if you are anticipating what is to come, you aren’t in the present moment. Your body is in the present, but your mind and your focus are stuck in either the past or the future. And if your focus is not on the present, you can’t influence it.

This is what I learned from doing the 21 minute plank: keeping one’s mind in the present moment is the surest way to success. If you just think of the now, the present moment, it isn’t as hard. The pain isn’t the enemy. The semi-quaver passages and the composer are not the enemy.

You are – potentially – your enemy. You are also potentially your greatest asset.

Where are you going to place your attention? Well, obviously choosing the present moment is a great idea, but how do you achieve that? Many people would want you to focus on the goal. I’m not going to suggest that, because it may do more harm than good. Instead, I’m going to direct you to the work of FM Alexander.

FM Alexander’s suggestion would be to concentrate your thoughts on the means you are going to follow to attain your ends instead of thinking about your goal:

“stress must be laid on the point that it is the means and not the end which must be considered. When the end is held in the mind, instinct or long habit will always seek to attain the end by habitual methods.”(MSI 119)

Alexander would want you to have a goal, absolutely, but in his this passage from his first book he draws a very clear distinction between giving the orders (the mental creation) of the act, and the physical performance (the physical creation) of it. The first you can influence, shape and mould. The second is the outcome of that moulding process.

When I was doing the plank, for example, if I thought about the goal of the exercise (21minutes?!) the enormity of it was so crushing that I experienced an immediate stress reaction that impacted directly upon my stamina and ability to do the work. If I just kept thinking about my breathing and my form, I was able to keep going.

Similarly, my musician students often report the experience that, if they think of what is coming up in the music, they feel anxious; or if they have a big performance, they often feel weighed down by the scale of the task. If they just concentrate on the notes and what they want to convey, the nerves and anxiety vanish: they are too busy to be bothered with them!

My experience, and that of my students, is that staying in the NOW is the key. Not evaluating, not thinking about the goal. Staying in the now.

What will that look like for you today?

 

Image by phasinphoto from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Change your mindset, change your world

One of the most important books currently out there in the realms of psychology and self development must surely be Carol Dweck’s Mindset. You may have seen her TED talk – it’s well worth viewing if you haven’t.

I find her work on mindset very appealing not just because it explains why some people seem to have an inbuilt resilience and ability to overcome minor failures and hurdles in their fields of endeavour. More interestingly, every time I read her ideas, I am reminded of a line of FM Alexander’s first book, Man’s Supreme Inheritance:

“a changed point of view is the royal road to reformation.”

Here is a little slideshow I made that explains the basics of Dweck’s concept of the mindset. It tells you what mindset is, and more importantly, how we can use the theory of mindset to help us understand how to learn and grow.

I hope you like it.

http://www.haikudeck.com/p/3EvKzGUoHV

Don’t copy me! – why imitation can be a poor improvement strategy

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Imitation is a powerful force in teaching – any music teacher or sports coach will agree. But is it a force for good? FM Alexander, creator of the Alexander Technique, clearly was not convinced of its efficacy. He even reportedly told his teacher trainees, “Don’t copy me!” So what’s the problem with imitation?

Imitation in practice

Last week I took my son, a budding classical guitarist, to see the guitar sensation Milos Karadaglic in concert. It was well worth it, particularly to see a musician working with such freedom and gracefulness of movement and expression.

My son was very impressed. He left the concert venue clutching a Milos CD and harbouring a determination to play as well as him. The next day he listened to the CD multiple times, and then got out his guitar to do some practice. And he carefully turned his footstool round the wrong way.

Now, if you don’t know anything about classical guitar, let me explain. The player rests their foot (usually the left) on a footstool to help hold the guitar. And it is usually positioned sloping towards the player. Milos had his footstool sloping away from him. My son wants to be just like Milos, so he turned his footstool around.

Now, it’s just a small example, but it demonstrates very clearly the transactions behind imitation.

Imitation truths

  1. Imitation is truly the sincerest form of flattery. We imitate the people we admire. We want to be just like them.
  2. Very often the things the make the imitated person great are not easily imitated. My son cannot instantly copy Milos’ work ethic, his years of practice. These things are not visible, and take time and discipline to copy. So the likelihood is that they won’t be. We copy what we can easily see, not what makes the great artist great.
  3. What we see are the idiosyncrasies and foibles, and these aren’t what made the person great (most of the time). FM Alexander put it like this:“Most of us are aware that if a pupil in some art is sent to watch a great artist… the pupil is almost invariably more impressed by some characteristics of the artist that may be classed as faults than by his ‘better parts’.
    … the characteristics may be faults which the genius of the particular artist enables him to defy. It is possible that the artist succeeds in spite of them rather than because of them.” (CCC, p.364)
    Was Glen Gould a great pianist because he slumped around on a low piano stool and grunted a lot? Or was it because he worked really hard? Obviously the latter. But the visual idiosyncrasies are easier to copy. Luckily for me and my son, Milos only turns his footstool around!

We are not the same as our heroes. This is another really important factor that makes imitation dangerous, according to FM Alexander. We tend to believe that if we see a teacher or a great artist do an activity in a particular way, that it is possible for us to copy them accurately. But FM says this is a delusion. (UoS, p.418) We are not the same as our teachers – we have subtly different physiques, different experiences, different ideas and beliefs. We are different psycho-physical beings. We could not copy our teachers exactly unless we were able to copy their entire general use of themselves!

Moving beyond imitation

So how are we to proceed? If we can’t copy our teachers, what can we do?
Well, I suggest we do what FM wanted his teacher trainees to do: watch closely what he did, and look to the reasons and principles behind why he was doing what he was doing. Once we understand the reasoning behind what our teachers and coaches do, we can have a go at applying it to our own practice.

In conclusion, here are the steps to follow:

  1. Make sure you understand clearly the goal of the activity.
  2. Make sure you understand the reasoning behind why your teacher or coach does the activity in the way they do.
  3. Attempt to apply this reasoning process in your own attempts at the activity.
  4. Get feedback from your teacher or coach on how well you are doing.

Give it a go, and let me know how it turns out.

*All quotes and page references are from the Irdeat complete edition of Alexander’s books. If you want more information on the books, please contact me.
Image by Luigi Diamanti, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Burning the biscuits: how risking failure fuels improvement

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.

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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 introversion and performing success mutually exclusive?

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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.

 

Image by Salvatore Vuono, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

There is no magic bullet: true grit as the key to achieving your goals

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So often, if we’re really honest, we would love to be given the magic bullet that will fix our problems quickly.

The secret to playing that semiquaver passage.

The key to losing those last few pounds(kilos for me – I’m a metric girl).

The one thing that will make that bit of writing better.

Because if we were given that magic bullet, we wouldn’t have to go through the stress, struggle and frustration of not being sufficiently good enough. We’d be able to skip that nasty bit, and go straight on to the ‘doing it easily with no effort at all’ stage, quickly and easily. And there’d be no problems ever again…

Reality check 1: there is no magic bullet

There just isn’t. We know this. Dreaming about it is fun for a while, but ultimately doesn’t help us progress in our endeavours.

Reality check 2: even if there was a magic bullet, it wouldn’t mean the end of struggle

The simple fact of the matter is that, if we are progressing, we will always be running up against things we can’t do yet. This means that we will always experience some level of frustration.

I think the notion of the ‘struggle-free zone’ is a false belief based on the idea that there is some kind of condition of ‘perfect’ where, once our problems are sorted, everything will be easy. But a lot of problems just aren’t like that. There are a lot of activities and problems in the world that have no end point. For example, in his book The Myth of the Garage, Chip Heath relates the story of the program manager for the anti-smoking initiative in North Carolina, and how she approached the goal of reducing smoking across the state.* Even with the best will in the world, the chances of 100% success in stopping smoking across an entire state seems highly unlikely! To use a very different example, most actors will tell you that you never really finish working on a character – there is no point where you know everything that there is to know about Hamlet.

And on one level, we know this to be true. We know that, to quote FM Alexander, “if a person is to make [a] change successfully, it must be by a gradual process of change from day to day”**

The difficulty is that we don’t get much in the way of feedback when we’re in the midst of this gradual process. Students often report having the experience of feeling as though they aren’t making sufficient change when they’re working by themselves, or that they aren’t ‘doing it right’ because things aren’t changing as fast as they hoped.

And this is where grit comes in. Chip Heath describes grit as “endurance in pursuit of long-term goals and an ability to persist in the face of adversity.” What I like about this definition is that it has no reference to results, only to pursuit of goals. The reality of the creative life (actually, not just the creative life) is that most things aren’t easy, and very few of them have definite end points. We are making improvements one step at a time, one decision at a time. We don’t get (to borrow Heath’s words) the obvious “psychic payoff” of a categorical success; just the knowledge of another step taken.

How do we avoid the mystique of the magic bullet?

By making sure we keep our heads straight, and asking ourselves some simple questions.

  • Is it a problem with a definite end point? (Baking a cake? Yes! Learning and performing a piece of music? Probably no)
  • Am I prepared to look for, accept, and celebrate even small changes that move towards my goal?
  • Can I find a way of helping me measure small improvement? (Recording my practice sessions, finding a friend to listen to me every couple of weeks, etc)
  • Can I programme a periodic review, so that I can look back and assess how things are going over a longer time period?

Try these ideas out, and see if they help you deal with the frustration of the daily battle for improvement. Value grit, and eschew the magic bullet. And be sure to let me know how it turns out.

* Heath, C., The Myth of the Garage, Kindle ed., loc.747.
** FM Alexander, Universal Constant in Living in the IRDEAT ed., p.585.
Image by papaija2008 from freedigitalphotos.net

The talent myth – why we really can have a go at anything we choose

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Have you ever been faced with a complicated bit of arithmetic and thought ‘I’m just not good at maths’? Or struggled to run to catch the bus, wheezing and thinking ‘I was never sporty’? If so, then you may need to think again. The talent myth has you in thrall.

The talent myth – or the recognition that people having an ‘inbuilt’ natural ability is just a false belief – has become a bit of a commonplace in the past few years. Readers of Matthew Syed or Malcolm Gladwell are familiar with the concept of the 10 000 hours rule, and the concept of ‘putting in the hours’ to achieve mastery is well on the way to becoming a cliche in self-development blogs.

But the idea that talent is not a fait accompli delivered by genetics, but rather a quantity that can be developed and trained in anyone, is not a new one. Shinichi Suzuki, founder of the Suzuki Method, firmly believed that there is no such thing as natural ability – that any child could exhibit remarkable abilities if they received a careful and nurturing environment in which to grow and mature.*  Notably, though his Method is now almost synonymous with musical training, he himself described his system as Talent Education.

Reading this, I was inspired to read again FM Alexander’s beliefs about children and education. Alexander is more careful about allowing there to be limits to a child’s potential within its genetic make-up. However, both men, when faced with the question of whether genetics or environment is the more important factor influencing a child’s future success, come down firmly on the side of environment.

And environment, dear readers, means us – parents, educators, friends, and general public. If Suzuki and Alexander are right, we create the conditions in which children develop their gifts – and their deficits – and then laud the gifts by labelling them ‘talent’. That’s the talent myth.

So how does the environment in which a child grows up create such a major impact on success? This is FM’s view:
The child of the present day … is the most plastic and adaptable of living things. At this stage the complete potentiality of conscious control is present… Unfortunately, the usual procedure is to thrust certain habits upon it without the least consideration of cause and effect, and to insist upon these habits until they have become subconscious and have passed from the region of intellectual guidance.**
In other words, children either choose or are forced to take on board ideas about what is right and normal, whether or not there is any logical reasoning behind them, and with no regard to whether the ideas will cause harm in the long run. And then they accept the ideas as normal, and choose how to act based upon them.
And this can generate odd effects. Things that we came to accept as true about ourselves when younger become unquestioned ‘facts’ as we grow up.
Suzuki tells the story of a young violinist who had come to believe that she had clumsy hands because she couldn’t play a passage as fast as she wanted. By an artful process of questioning and demonstration, Suzuki showed the girl that there wasn’t anything wrong with her fingers, merely about her idea of what her fingers could achieve.  When Suzuki gave her a different practice process to follow, she played the passage easily and without complaint.***
FM Alexander summed it up very simply in his second book:
I have no hesitation in stating that the pupil’s fixed ideas and conceptions are the cause of the major part of his difficulties.****
If we are to take Suzuki and Alexander at their word, we need to at least entertain the idea that our ideas about what we can do and what we can’t are just that – ideas. They are a product of our childhoods, of our schooling, of our friendships, and of our experiences. But there is nothing to say that our ideas are right, or accurate, or based on any firm foundation.
What if ‘tone deaf’ is just an idea?
What if ‘not sporty’ is just a label?
What if ‘not sciencey’ is just a decision we’ve made?
If this is true, then we’d be free to change our minds, and make a decision to create an entirely new version of ourselves.
And wouldn’t that be fun?

 

* Suzuki, S., Nurtured by Love, Exposition Press 1969, pp.46-7.
** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.73.
*** Suzuki, op.cit., p.48.
**** Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, IRDEAT, p.294.

Don’t be discouraged by failure: tips for a great year from Alexander and Caesari

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This week I’m completing my mini-series inspired by the singing teacher Caesari’s warning to singing students.

Let the student beware, however, of three prominent evils:
Unbridled enthusiasm which leads to precipitancy and excesses;
Impatient expectation of rapid measurable results;
Discouragement in face of temporary or occasional failure.*

Firstly I talked about the dangers of unbridled enthusiasm. Last week, we looked at the second of Caesari’s warnings, that of being impatient about results. To end the series, we’ll investigate the dangers of being discouraged by failure, and consider whether it might be more sensible to learn from failure instead.

Why we hate failure

We hate it because it sucks, and it feels bad.

Let’s flesh that out a little. If we fail, it means that we had a goal. we wanted to achieve something, probably something important to us. We planned, we invested ourselves in our goals emotionally, we put in the time. When the time came, we attempted to follow our plan, and it went wrong.

When it all goes wrong, we feel downhearted because we didn’t reach our goals. This is normal and completely reasonable. We didn’t achieve what we wanted to achieve, and we feel the loss not just of the goal, but of the time invested and the emotional energy spent. FM Alexander was no stranger to this stinging sense of disappointment. While trying to work out what he was doing while using his voice to cause his vocal problems, Alexander often took wrong turnings or failed to do what he intended. And when he failed, he definitely felt it: “This indeed was a blow. If ever anyone was in an impasse, it was I.”**

Running from failure

Failing hurts because we didn’t achieve what we wanted. But more than that, very often we take it personally:

“I didn’t make the team, so I must be a bad player.”
“I didn’t get that high note. Everyone knows I’m a rubbish singer.”
“My book didn’t sell. I should quit writing now and stop making a fool of myself.”

Notice that these hypothetical people go one step further than just feeling disappointment. They utilise one or more cognitive distortions and draw incorrect and unfounded conclusions that bear little relation to the event. They manufacture feelings of embarrassment and shame, and then run from them. They may even quit the activity rather than face failure again!

Please don’t quit – there is a better alternative…

Learn from failure

One of the most striking character traits of FM Alexander – in my opinion – is his determination. Because he was passionate about his chosen career, he kept fighting to solve his vocal problems even in the face of a stream of failures and disappointments. He keeps writing sentences like this:

“Discouraged as I was, however, I refused to believe that my problem was hopeless.”***

Do you, like me, find that sentence tremendously encouraging? I love the way that Alexander could feel the disappointment, then put it to one side and keep reasoning out new courses of action. More than that, Alexander realised the value of his failures as a resource:

“I practised patiently month after month, as I had been doing hitherto, with varying experiences of success and failure, but without much enlightenment. In time, however, I profited by these experiences…”****

Even though he didn’t know how the failures could help him at the time, Alexander knew that the experience would be useful at some point. He knew that failures could help him progress, even if he didn’t understand how at the point when the failure occurred. By analysing the failures, he could begin to understand how they occurred and why.

Learn from failure by…

  • Collecting your failures. Store them up.
  • Analyse them. Are there patterns? Any obvious errors or things that you overlooked?
  • Getting feedback. If you have a teacher, coach or mentor, ask them for feedback. And try to have someone in your camp who will cheer you on even when you lose or fail.
  • Use the information you’ve gathered and create a plan for your new attempt.

For example…

If you didn’t make the team, there may be any number of reasons. Maybe there were better players there on the day. Maybe you made a mistake or two. Maybe the coaches just decided you needed more time to prepare. It does not mean you are a bad player. Ask your coaches what you should work on to improve your game, and keep playing.

You didn’t get the high note? It’s a shame, yes. Some of the audience might notice, but most of them won’t. And will one missed note destroy the integrity of the rest of your singing? Probably not. Keep practising. Work out why the top note didn’t work, and then perform again.

There might be any number of reasons why your book didn’t sell, and the quality of your writing is only one of the possible options. Have you investigated the others?

Don’t run from failure. Feel it. Learn from it. Learning how to learn from failure is probably one of the biggest and most significant steps you could make on your road to success.

* E. Herbert-Caesari, The Alchemy of Voice, Robert Hale, London, 1965, p.22.
** FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.420.
*** ibid.
**** ibid., p.418.

Impatient about results? Tips for a great year from Alexander and Caesari.

checklist

This week I’m continuing my mini-series inspired by the singing teacher Caesari’s warnings to singing students. Last week I talked about the dangers of unbridled enthusiasm. This week, we look at the second of Caesari’s warnings, that of being impatient about results:

Let the student beware, however, of three prominent evils:

  • Unbridled enthusiasm which leads to precipitancy and excesses;
  • Impatient expectation of rapid measurable results;
  • Discouragement in face of temporary or occasional failure.*

 

We’ll look first at why we want measurable results fast, then at why this is unrealistic. Finally, I’ll leave us with a couple of ideas to help counter our thirst for results.

 

Impatient about results: I want improvement, and I want it NOW!

On any new activity or goal we’re working on, or even if we’re working to improve something we’re already doing, the one thing we’re looking for is improvement.

If I take singing lessons, I want my singing to get better.

If I go to French classes, I want to come out after a few lessons with at least a smattering of French.

If I go running, I want to start feeling fitter.

But we don’t just want improvement. We don’t just want results. We want those results to be measurable, and we want that measurable improvement quickly. We suffer, to use Caesari’s words, impatient expectation of rapid measurable results.

And life often just doesn’t work that way.

 

Why results (often) don’t come quickly.

Even if we are learning a whole new skill (as I did last year with tennis), we still are likely to have preconceptions about what the activity involves, how it is meant to be done, how successful we are likely to be, and what body parts we are going to have to use to do it. We are full of preconceptions.**

Part of learning anything is learning to give up what you think you know in order to take on board the ideas that you could never have dreamed of. And this is sometimes a hard task. We are almost preconditioned to hold on to the things we know – they are ours, we thought of them, and we like them. Letting go can be difficult. And yet this is what we must do.

Sometimes it will be fast. We will make terrific process.

Sometimes it is slow. It feels like it is taking forever. Sometimes I feel like I would rather chew my own foot off than have to wait any longer for improvement in the areas that I’m working on! But change comes. In its own time. And it probably won’t look anything like what you thought it would.

At this point, it is practically irresistible to begin feeling impatient about results, get frustrated, ‘chuck a wobbly’, ‘throw your toys out of the pram’. But let’s not, just for a moment, because it’s usually at this point that I remember my all-time favourite quote from FM Alexander.

…where the “means-whereby” are right for the purpose, desired ends will come. They are inevitable. Why then be concerned as to the manner or speed of their coming? We should reserve all thought, energy and concern for the means whereby we may command the manner of their coming.***

I love this quote because it reminds me that if I’m following a well-designed process, if I’m keeping my enthusiasm in check and using my head, then I cannot fail to have success. I just don’t know how long it will take.

 

How to avoid impatient expectation of rapid results

These are my tips:

  • Keep a list (either mental or on paper) of things that have improved. My own favourite example is playing musical passages that I used to find too difficult, but that I can now play easily. Look at the list whenever you start to feel impatient, and remind yourself of how frustrated you used to feel about the thing that is now simple for you.
  • If you feel frustrated, take a break. Go for a walk or a run. Put on some music and dance around the house. If you release some of the mental energy, you may well find that you’ve solved the issue blocking your progress without having to ‘think’ about it.
  • Remember that frustration and impatience are also signs of growth. When you think about it, this makes sense. If we always stay within what is comfortable and easy, then we don’t ever reach the limits of what is possible for us.

Impatience and frustration, of themselves, are not detrimental. What is truly destructive is allowing impatience and frustration to be the excuse to quit. Why not dance instead?

 

* E. Herbert-Caesari, The Alchemy of Voice, Robert Hale, London, 1965, p.22.
** See FM Alexander’s wonderful chapter ‘Incorrect Conception’ in Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual for a fuller description of this.
*** FM Alexander, The Universal Constant in Living in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.587.