How to be successful: self-talk lessons from a two-year-old

I am fortunate to be involved in the lives of many small people. Though I've never had a baby, I have friends, clients, and family members at every stage of the child-rearing game and am intimately familiar with its details.

In particular, I am lucky to know many excellent mamas who treat their very young children with respect and dignity, allowing them to make age-appropriate decisions as often as possible.

A mama of a little girl who has recently turned two shared a story that we can all learn from as we strive to accomplish great things in life. Great things such as weaning and potty-training.

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Turns out that thing only you can do is also the hardest thing you can do

"Find something you love and let it kill you." - Derek Sivers

Thoughts of inadequacy and self-doubt had better not get near my most important work. (Library of Congress photo)I've been hooked on House since 2007 when I crawled into bed exhausted in the middle of the afternoon after Eclectic Music's first-ever November recital. I decided to reward myself (for pulling off the recital, not for crawling into bed) with a TV episode downloaded from iTunes. I remembered seeing promos for the premiere of House during the legendary 2004 ALCS and it looked interesting, so I thought I'd give it a try. Seven seasons later, I am still along for every DDx and going-into-a-commercial panicked use of the crash cart.

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Amanda Knox, appreciating freedom, and defeating the "shoulds"

"Free thyself from the fetters of this world, and loose thy soul from the prison of self. Seize thy chance, for it will come to thee no more." - Baha'u'llah

Vero Beach, Florida, July 2007.I'm thinking about Amanda Knox quite a bit - I guess I identify with her. After all, I was once a young and naive American woman. Assuming she is innocent of murder (and, considering that another person is already in prison having confessed to the crime she was accused of, that's not a big stretch), it could have been anyone. It could have been me.

And so I imagine what that must be like - to lose four years of your life to prison, having had to accept that you might have to spend your entire life there. And then - to be exonerated. To be released. To appreciate fresh air, green grass, your family. Freedom.

Of course, my very next thought is, I have that freedom. It is a gift I receive anew every morning, when I get to choose how I want to spend that day. So what am I going to do today to live it to the fullest?

It's amazing how easy it is to forget that freedom is there. That my choices created my circumstances, and that my choices can change them. And that even when I encounter obligations, I still get to choose my attitude.

One of my guitar students, who is a busy grad student in the sciences, came into his lesson this week positively glowing. He said, "I learned that when I feel like I'm doing better, I do better." He was thrilled with his progress because he had finally figured out how to let go of the idea that being hard on himself was going to make him learn faster.

Once we get out of our own way and lose the "shoulds" and "should haves," we are free. One aspect of the "prison of self" is ego. "I should have learned this by now!" "I'll be the slowest one in the race!" "I have what I always wanted, why am I so unhappy?"

Yuck. I've made some major life changes recently, and I have more discretionary time than I used to. Instead of enjoying it to the fullest, I've had moments of questioning my decisions, questioning my motives, and hours of spending a beautiful day inside because I couldn't figure out what I was "supposed" to be doing. How stupid. I might as well be working fourteen hours a day again if all I can do is whine.

Amanda Knox will certainly have a time of transition, and will probably encounter a lot of existential pain as she confronts anew the "what should I do with my life?" question that any twenty-four-year-old has to deal with. But she will never forget the overwhelming feeling of finally being released from prison, and she will never take it for granted.

I always think things like, "I should play my twelve-string more often," or "I should learn Portuguese," or "I should call so-and-so" or "I should make time to play piano today." I'd like to shift from "I should" to "I will." It's my life! I can do anything I want with it.

Be a beginner

Kira, an eighth-grader, has been doing amazingly well learning to play and sing pop songs, to the point where she can do it pretty much on her own now. So, I suggested that she start writing songs.

She said that she had tried to write a song but, "I didn't like it."

I said, "Wouldn't you be surprised if the first song by a beginning songwriter was something you wanted to listen to?"

I have a first song. I wrote it nearly twenty years ago, and I remember it quite affectionately even though I was somewhat embarrassed by it at the time. All in all, there is only a handful of songs from my first five years of songwriting that I would consider performing onstage now. Thankfully, though, I've became a better songwriter, and now there are many songs I've written that I'm actually proud of.

Where's the fun in knowing how to do everything right from the start?I'm still a beginner in other ways, however. Currently, I am trying now to launch a new program that will allow children to explore a variety of musical instruments and games on a drop-in basis. I wish that we had dozens of exotic and expensive instruments and a polished presentation. Instead, it's more like what the above-average kid would own if he were very spoiled by Grandma, with an enthusiastic but not extensively experienced staff member helping out.

But so what? Is it going to be perfect, right out of the box? Hell, no - there isn't even a box. I'm making the whole thing up as I go along. I have to, as Anne Lamott says in Bird By Bird, "write really, really shitty first drafts." I have to just let myself be a beginner, and perhaps Mastery will notice me laboring there in the trenches and bestow a little fairy dust on my endeavors.

I have no reason to think that my project won't work - or at least, evolve into something that will. I have taught many children, and everyone improves. Everyone gets better, even with vanishingly small amounts of effort in some cases. So I feel very confident in telling Kira that her songs will improve. I just won't tell her how long it might take.

In what respect are you a beginner?

Hat tip to E. R. Pidgeon for sharing the Lamott piece.

Diving Board Jitters: The Art of Starting

Even if you've never stood on the diving tower before a crowd of spectators, you might have experienced a situation in which just taking the first step was very scary. There can be a ton of inner noise that prevents you from taking action:

"Ok, now! Uh...NOW! Wait, let me just get...ready...okay, now! Never mind...hold on just a sec..."

I wrote about the discipline of stopping earlier this week, and today I want to discuss starting. It doesn't matter whether what you're trying to do is big (launching a new business, buying a house, going back to school) or small (asking a stranger a question, stating an opinion, sitting down to play a piece of music) - when you are under stress, the whole world becomes that moment in which you are paralyzed by diving board jitters.

The dive is the easy part. Photo by Greg Livaudais.

The last one - sitting down to play a piece of music - is one I know well and find fascinating. I remember once when I was eleven, waiting for the piano tuner to finish his job so that I could get back to the piano. As he was packing up his equipment, he invited me to play something for him. I sat down on the bench and froze - all of a sudden I realized that this was a performance. It got more and more awkward as the seconds ticked by in silence, with him waiting expectantly and me waiting for him to leave the room. I acknowledged (to myself) that I was being silly and tried again to start playing. But that kind of moment is like pouring fresh cement around your ankles - the more time that goes by, the more stuck you'll be.

Another issue that comes up when people begin playing music is a stutter-start. This would be the equivalent of losing and regaining your balance on the diving board. "Da-da oops. Da, oops, Da-da, oops, Da-da-da-da, daaaaa..." Sometimes this happens so fast that the player doesn't even realize it happened at all. This is the direct result of a brain that is moving too fast. There is so much interference from the mind that the body can't perform the task.

So, what to do about Diving Board Jitters? How do you quiet the mental noise? Here's what works for me:

  • Break it down. David Allen points out that you can't do a project. You can only do tasks related to that project. He recommends figuring out your next action - a tangible, actual thing you can do - taking that action, and continuing that process until the project is complete.
  • Slow down. Move slowly and think slowly, quieting the mind. Breathe. When you're under stress, your body plays tricks on you - you might feel sluggish when in reality, your heart is racing and your breathing is shallow. Keep slowing down until you feel relaxed and in control.
  • Contain yourself. It's just you and the task at hand. No spectators, no nosy relatives, no Facebook peanut gallery, no audience. What we call self-consciousness is really projecting what others think of us. Let it all go.
  • Reset your thoughts. "Here goes," a student will say, poised with guitar in hand. "This is probably going to suck." No! Why do that to yourself? I like to point out, "If I said that to you, you would fire me. Why do you say that to yourself?" Replace the negative thoughts with positive or neutral ones.
  • Allow contradictory feelings. When I was about to sign a huge lease recently, I tweeted that I was scared. My Twitter friend @ScubaDiva said kindly, "Think of it as exciting, not skeery!" Those two feelings are two sides of the same coin, and accepting and acknowledging both helped with my decision-making and self-care.
  • Welcome ritual and routine. Routine is setting aside an hour each morning to write your novel. Ritual is lighting the candle and pouring the cup of tea for each writing session. The baseball player has a warm-up routine with his coach, and a ritual of tapping the bat against the plate three times at the start of an at-bat. Routine lays out the path to success, and ritual helps you slip into the necessary mindset.
  • Create boundaries. Don't answer the phone when you're sitting on the piano bench. Don't check your email right before the big date. Don't say, "This will never work" as you purchase the new domain name. And don't yell, "Watch this!" from the top of the diving platform. Instead, spend that moment visualizing the successful completion of the task you are about to undertake.

There you are, relaxed and ready. Poised, confident. All eyes are on you, but your awareness is turned inward.

Now, let go, and fly!

Photo by Greg Livaudais.

Thanks to Greg Livaudais of Greg Livaudais Photography for the use of his gorgeous photos.