Sunday, April 13, 2014

Put in my Place

I have never suffered from a deficiency in ego. Ever. As far back as I can remember, if I tried my hand at something, I was the best at it. In fact, this blog is the best blog anyone has ever written (at least, in my mind). I have been called pretentious before, and it’s probably not that far off the mark, but my response is simple: someone has to think we are good at what we do - why not think that about ourselves? Anyway, today’s post isn’t about how good I am. It is about how good someone else is. 

As a bassoonist in middle and high school, I always believed I was the best. People beat me in competitions from time to time, but I had a rule: they could only beat me once. If someone beat me, I would beat them every time afterwards. Only a few people managed to break this rule, and I always carried a grudging respect for their talents (one who didn’t break the rule is now the Principal bassoonist in the Houston Symphony, so I think we know which of us ultimately won the war, even if I did win a few battles).

I carried the same intensity into college and worked to place myself at the top of the bassoon hierarchy on campus. I felt comfortable being the best. Unfortunately, I lacked the vision to see the bigger picture. My short-sightedness refused to recognize talent beyond my own borders and it held me back. I lost some local orchestra auditions and didn’t understand how the audition committees failed to recognize my skills. At the end of my undergrad, I auditioned for grad school and wasn’t offered the fellowship I wanted - again, I blamed it on the lack of vision in other people. I refused to see the problem was me.

Fast forward to now. I am playing a Palm Sunday gig on contrabassoon this weekend with two other bassoonists. In the past, I have always compared myself to the others with whom I’m playing. Of course, I always feel my skills match or better those around me, whether true or not. Until this week. 

Amanda Swain - the first bassoonist - plays amazing. This is the first time I can remember not even trying to compare myself - because I can’t. Her total mastery of the instrument is remarkable. She sings through the horn, and though the contrabassoon part is 95% rests, I sit and listen happily in the best seat the house offers.

I haven’t felt put in my place in a long time and I am glad it happened. It needs to happen more.

So far, I have gleaned two lessons from my experience this week.  The first I wish I had learned at an earlier age (though it is never too late to learn a lesson like this). Surround yourself with people better than you and learn from them. They provide a fire to your passion, they offer vast learning experiences, and, as long as you keep the right frame of reference (not the one I had in college), they will lift you higher than you can lift yourself.

Trying to always feel like the best is exhausting. The second lesson: recognize your skills and be honest about them. Feel good about what you do well, but don’t let yourself become blind to areas needing improvement. Only play the comparison game as a means to better yourself. Don’t manufacture a fake throne on which to place your misguided behind.

I feel relieved at my discovery. I’m now allowed to put down the burden I unknowingly carried all these years and enjoy myself. I have freed myself to improve if I choose to do so. Finding the path has become so much clearer.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Knowing Yourself

Given a mirror, most of us could do a fantastic job describing ourselves to someone else. We could sit down at a sketch pad and ink out a fair approximation of our physical likeness. Our faces have floated across the sink day in and day out for years, and though our features wear more wrinkles than in our youth, we always know our face.

I am not so sure we could describe our personalities as well.

Years ago, Samantha introduced me to the DISC personality model. DISC uses four distinct personality aspects driven by different motivations, and helps leaders identify how to communicate with and motivate their people. 

  • D stands for Decisive. D personalities focus on quick problem solving with the highest payoff. Assertive and direct, they accept risks.
  • I stands for Interactive. I personalities focus on people to people skills. An I personality has never met a stranger commands a room with their outgoing presence. They are impulsive and open with anyone.
  • S stands for Stabilizing. This personality type places importance on environmental pacing. The S prefers a controlled, deliberate, and predictable work/social environment. Security and and disciplined behavior motivate them. They demonstrate loyalty and patience and dislike change.
  • C stands for Cautious. C personalities appreciate protocol, standards, and rules. They are perfectionists, neat, balanced, and analytical. They respond well to respected authority and adhered to the adage “rules are made to be followed.”

For the longest time, I thought our personalities had an all or none approach. Based on quick testing, I connected more with the S personality. I appreciate stability in my life, abhor extreme change (unless instituted with extended deliberation), and want success to provide a safe and steady environment for my family.

Recently, I took a more comprehensive personality test on Tony Robbin’s website (it's free, click here to try for yourself). I discovered we are all combinations of each one, sometimes balanced, often dominated by one or two with the others operating in the periphery. We reflect facets of each one and demonstrate different elements depending on our circumstance.

Discovering personality is a spectrum, rather than a pigeonhole, has become remarkably freeing. My results gave me the opportunity to see myself differently, appreciate elements of my personality I had ignored. It felt like discovering the mirror I used every morning to see my face had been warped all this time. Now, I am able to truly see, and appreciate, my full personality.

My test results confirmed my S personality - 99%. I had guessed I would also be a high D based on my drive to succeed, but I wasn’t - 14%. My drive comes from different motivations. My I personality score registered where I expected - 53%. The big surprise, and the most liberating result, came from the C quadrant - 99%.

For some reason, I had long viewed the C personality as bad, though I had no reason to. I viewed C as controlling and too interested in perfection. Rules seemed boring. After reading the results and the analysis, I can see where this aspect of my personality has struggled to assert itself - and where I have always squashed it. Knowing I am a C personality has given me permission to accept and create order in my life.

I trimmed my crepe myrtles yesterday and understood why I like it so much - I create order from chaos. I know why I hate looking in my pantry - it is a mess and I don’t have time to fix it. I frown on people who whistle and catcall at orchestra concerts. I respect symmetry and balance in art. I like doing my taxes.

I feel like I can now explore aspects of my personality I have previously eschewed simply because I didn’t know about them. Looking back, I see where they have struggled to emerge and I have ignored them.  Now, I can recognize my own personality and create an environment around myself aimed at success and happiness.

It is nice to know who I am. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

We make the world possible through dreaming.  Without persistent dreamers, the kind who fall down and get back up, the kind who others kick to the curb with doubtful feet only to emerge stronger than before, this world would have long ago become stagnant.  Some dreamers revolutionize the entire world, some only small clusters, but regardless of their impact, they share one quality I constantly respect and envy - the ability to push through the inevitable challenges the universe offers, resilient and strong.

I haven’t logged a blog entry in quite a while.  I have dedicated my fingers towards a different goal the last two months - that of working towards my own dreams.  November is National Novel Writing Month - or NaNoWriMo for short - and for years, as the writer bug tickled my insides, I have wanted to tackle the elephant sized goal of writing 50,000 words during the month.  Despite my best intentions, I had allowed those curious and unfortunate scourges every dreamer recognizes - doubt, procrastination, poor planning - to derail my plans.  Without ever beginning the challenge, November became a month wrought with personal frustration. 

This year, however, I approached the challenge with a renewed spirit.  In March, I finished the first draft on my first novel The Selection, and though it needs more work than I care to imagine, the act of accomplishment launched my brain into overdrive.  Story ideas pummeled my insides.  I saw new characters at every turn.  The world opened up before me as I found the first glimmers of belief in myself.
I have no formal creative writing education, and while many authors over the years have made a go of publishing without a shred of instruction, my own psyche has always defaulted to the classroom when considering the unfamiliar.  I couldn’t feel comfortable without one attempt at finding a teacher who could tell me everything I do well and poorly.  So, I signed up for a writing workshop.  I learned a lot.  But what I learned most of all didn’t originate from the class itself.  I learned that the best way to learn how to do something is to do it.  Many times.  Many, many times.

Thinking back, I had heard that same exact lesson from my college bassoon instructor - Jeff Robinson.  He taught me two important lessons that strangely have more to do with life than bassoon performance.  The first regarded reed making - you haven’t made one reed until you have made one thousand.  The second - if you want to make it as a professional musician, you need to spend two straight years practicing four hours a day. first lesson was my least favorite, and not just because I loathe making reeds.  Knowing one thousand mistakes lie ahead  absolutely bruises the ego.  Once the one thousand and first reed sits on the vocal making brilliantly sounds, the previous one thousand become worth it.  Those mistakes allow you to fail forwards.

I have recently encountered the second lesson in one of Macklemore’s raps, Ten Thousand Hours.  The lyrics are ripe with inspiration, but my favorite lyrics speak to the meaning of the title:

The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paintThe greats were great cause they paint a lot  

Spending 10,000 hours working through the process, through the craft, eventually leads to the right kind of product.  

So, with these thoughts it mind, and with the specter of November failures hanging over my shoulder, I dove in.  I had to fight the internal editor who wanted to go back and fix.  I had to fight the persistent desire to check facebook, to see what drivel the TV had to offer, to read the news.  I occasionally succumbed to creative avoidance, but twenty eight days in, on Thanksgiving day, I had more than 50,000 words down and a nearly completed novel.

I sit here, eager to return to work and finish the first draft.  I write my blog today not for a pat on the back, but to remind you to never abandon your dreams.  No matter how old you are, how long you have put them off or hidden from them, your dreams are alive.  Embrace them.  Let them live.  You will never feel so alive as when you let them free.  I know.  50,000 words taught me.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Just Breathe
Many of my students come to me with breathing problems.  Not asthma, or allergies, or anything like that, but with an inability to take a breath the correct way while holding an instrument.  I watch them ratchet their shoulders to their ears, expand their chest upwards as high as it can go,  constrict their throat muscles until their tendons stand out against their skin.  I would be in pain if I took a breath like that.  They are trying to hard.  They are forcing it.

Now, please don’t get me wrong, their band directors deliver the correct information.  I just seem to be a magnet for students who ignore it or don’t understand how to put the information into practice.  Even after one on one instruction, students still have trouble doing it correctly.  They can recite the breathing process, can explain to me how their body works when they breathe, but then when they try, they still force the air into their lungs the wrong way.
Do that with your muscles flexed!
When forcing something, tension arises.  Our bodies work better when relaxed.  Ever stretched before?  Do tense muscles make stretching easier or harder?  Do you run with all your muscles flexed, or do you relax and let only the muscles work when they need to?

Ever tried to make someone else do something they didn’t want to do?  Teachers know about this.  Parents know about this.  I am sure everyone has experienced the same thing in their life.  The other person pushes back.  Our bodies do the same thing, resisting as we try to force them to do something.

To circumvent the problem of forcing, I will change the subject.  I ask them about their classes, or vacation, or their weekend, or whatever.  I get them talking and they take a break from thinking.  Then, after a minute or two, I ask them to pay attention to how the air moves into their body while they sit there.  I don’t ask them to breathe, I just ask them to notice.
It always works.  They discover that their body knows how to breathe on its own.  The air flows into our body, through our trachea and into our lungs.  The stomach moves as our diaphragm displaces our internal organs.  The chest only moves at the end of a full breath as a result of the lungs lifting against the rib cage.  Our shoulders never move because they are not attached to our lungs in any way.  

Now that they see how it works, they just have to allow their body to breathe the same way with an instrument in their hands.  They have to take advantage of what the body already knows and not force it to do something different.

I have seen this same lesson work in my own life.  Whether interacting with other people or trying to change habits in myself, forcing is never the answer.  Letting go, releasing the tension, and allowing change to happen has always worked better for me.  Think about Star Wars.  How does Luke Skywalker finally use the force (an ironic name for something that requires the absence of force)?  He stops trying.  He lets it work.
I know.  That is Darth Vader.  He is relaxed, too.
My kids always become better players when they learn this important lesson.  They learn that it applies to their fingers and technique - tense muscles don’t move as quickly or smoothly as relaxed ones; their tongues - a thick tongue resists nimble motion; and embouchure - we can never force the reed to vibrate, but we can support it while it does.  

Learning to allow things to happen instead of forcing them develops them as musicians.  The same lesson lesson can help us to be better people.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

How many times have you smiled today?  Five?  Ten?  One hundred?  Zero?  Did your smile stretch the corners of your mouth, bunch up your cheeks, and spread around the room.  Did you smile with your whole body or just your face?  Did your smile alter the organic chemistry inside your brain?  Was it fake or real?  While the act of smiling seems so automatic and absent of importance, I recently learned the power contained in a smile is anything but ordinary.

Ron Gutman spoke to the TEDxSiliconValley Conference in 2011 on the topic of smiles.  His short talk contained everything we need to make our days happier and our lives longer.  Please allow me to share a summary of the studies he presented.  

People who smile are viewed as more likable, courteous, and competent.  The brain activity created through a single smile is equivalent to eating 2,000 bars of chocolate or receiving $25,000 in cash and lacks the caloric consequences or tax penalties.  Smiling cleanses the blood stream of stress enhancing hormones and increases mood enhancing endorphins.  Smiles are evolutionarily contagious.  We are programmed to smile when others are smiling.  Children smile up to 400 times a day while nearly 50% of the adult population smiles around or less than 20 times a day.


The summary: find more time to spend around children as they will help you live a longer and happier life.

Smiles are also predictors of our marital success and our longevity.  A study of baseball cards suggested that people who pose with a beaming smile will live seven years longer than people who don’t.
Too bad hair size isn't an indicator of
longevity and happiness.

Flip back through your yearbooks and take a look at your smiles.  How long are you going to live?  Please don’t think you are condemned to live the life dictated by a high school or college yearbook.  You can right your ship if you feel it is headed in the wrong direction.  Just smile more.  Studies have shown that if you fake a smile, your body will actually adopt the feeling associated with the action, altering your mood and your outlook.  Fake it until it is real.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Thirty Four
As we near our birthdays, I imagine most adults perform some sort of year end review, a progress report of sorts, just to see where we fit into the scheme of our own life.  We evaluate how close we are to accomplishing life goals.  We chastise ourselves for missing opportunities and not being where we should.  We congratulate ourselves for the life we managed to craft out of the various opportunities the world has thrown our way.

I turn 34 this coming Tuesday, and while I know I am still a spring chicken to many and a wise elder to the rest, I was curious how I fit into the world age dynamic.  So I turned to the interwebs to give give myself some perspective on how I should feel about my impending age.

At the ripe old age of 34, I pass into the latter half of my life.  According to the average world life expectancy, 67 years and 25 days, I have begun my descent.  Anyone looking ahead to some sort of surprise birthday party at 40 complete with black streamers and compliment of black helium balloons has missed the boat.  I am officially over the hill.  

Compared to men the world over, I am in worse shape.  Little did I know that I surpassed the middle of my life a year and a half ago.  Whoops.  Apparently, women have it much better than men, outlasting us by four years.  Good to know Samantha won’t be over the hill for a number of years yet.

Apparently, I am also in the older half of the population as well with over 50% of the population aged under 30 years.  I guess it is time to hang out on the front porch with a water hose and yell at the kids who walk in my lawn.

So, I will say thank God I live in the United States where I still have another five years until I officially pass over the hill at the age of 39.  Too bad I don’t live in Japan where I can postpone that party until 41 and a half, or any of the other 32 countries whose populations live longer than us.  I am definitely not looking a gift horse in the mouth though, since I would have been over the hill in Sierra Leone ten years ago and would be looking forward to only 13 more years.

From the more personal side, if I were my Dad, I would have three kids - the oldest a handsome devil aged 13, the youngest just entering his terrible twos.

If I were Oprah, a whole lot more people would read this blog.  Other than that, I would have been the host of my own show for only two years.  This would be the year I launch my own production company, purchase the rights to my show, and move it to ABC.

If I were J.K. Rowling, I would have just published the third Harry Potter novel, but I wouldn’t have seen young Harry on the silver screen. I were Daniel Radcliffe, I wouldn’t have played Harry Potter.  In fact, I wouldn’t have been born.  

If I were Harrison Ford, the world wouldn’t yet know me as Han Solo.

If I were Beethoven, I would be midway through my transition into deafness.  If I were Mozart, 93% of my life’s work would already have been published and the Oscar award winning movie about my life would still be 194 years in the future (the year 2207 for those of you not wanting to do the math).  If I were Franz Schubert, I would have already succumbed to syphilis.

If I were Jesus, I would be sitting at the right hand.

But, I am not any of those people.  Take it or leave it, I am who I am.  Two days from age 34.  I am not worried about how many more days I have left on this planet, or what I have done or not done up to this point.  I plan on living each day to the fullest and letting tomorrow take care of itself.

Happy Birthday to me.  Thanks for coming along on the ride.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Paradoxical Commandment #10 summary message contained in the Dr. Kent M. Keith’s Paradoxical Commandments resonates with an appropriate measure of cynical optimism.  In some ways, it seems as if he implores us to do our best while expecting the worst.  After only a surface reading, I would agree, but when taken as a whole, the commandments reveal a deeper truth rooted solely in optimism.  Paradoxical Commandment number ten continues in the same vein:
Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway.
Dr. Keith’s commandments seek to weaken pessimistic arguments against them by including the very arguments in the commandments.  This best of/worst of pairing creates the paradoxical nature the commandments embody.  Dr. Keith acknowledges humanity’s own tendency towards the negative, the trend we feel to pull others down, and he tells us not to worry about it.  Our own nature combats this very same paradox on a daily basis.

Imagine the commandments without the negatives:
  1. Love
  2. Do good
  3. Succeed
  4. Do good
  5. Be Honest and Frank
  6. Think big
  7. Fight for the underdogs
  8. Build
  9. Help People
  10. Give the world your best
Without the negatives, the commandments ignore our own nature, losing much of their power to connect with us.  We know these are actions we should take, but our weak egos immediately throw up defensive fortifications based on previous experience:

  1. People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered
  2. People will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives
  3. You will win false friends and true enemies
  4. Good is forgotten quickly
  5. You will be vulnerable
  6. Small men and women with small minds will shoot you down
  7. People only follow top dogs
  8. What you build will be destroyed
  9. People may attack you
  10. You will get kicked in the teeth.

These are our ego’s defenses.  By splashing them on the page paired with our desired attributes, we eviscerate the ego’s defense.  We know these are all possibilities, but we don’t care.  We give the world our best anyway.

As your daily life unfolds in front of you, ignore the negative possibilities swirling around your every action.  Focus instead on the power of your good, on the vast love you hold for your fellow man, and on the possibility of success in your life. 

You are strong and you are powerful.  No matter what the world throws at you, be and do your best.  Do it anyway.

- I first encountered an adapted version of the “Paradoxical Commandments,” titled “The Final Analysis,” while listening to a Wayne Dyer audio CD in my early twenties.  The meaning and message struck me as true, helping guide my thoughts and actions as I developed from a big kid into a real adult.  Later, I discovered the poem was not actually written by Mother Theresa at all, but adapted, framed, and hung on the wall in her Calcutta orphanage.  She cared about its message enough to use it to empower the weak and marginalized children to whom she gave her life.

The Paradoxical Commandments are reprinted with permission.  © Copyright Kent M. Keith 1968, renewed 2001