Teaching fear

For so many of us, education boils down to fear.

First we have fear on behalf of our children, and then, at the appropriate time, we transfer the fear to them while still retaining a measure for ourselves.

We fear "not getting it." Not being good enough. We fear failing grades. We're afraid that we won't get into college, that we'll flunk out of college, that we'll choose the wrong major, that we won't get a job. 

We compete with other individuals, amassing AP classes and extracurricular activities in an academic arms race. And as a nation, we're worried that we'll be left behind as other countries train up generation after generation of highly skilled workers. 

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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.

Bold moves: clever, ridiculous, necessary

I just made a very bold move. I did it because I couldn't think of a good enough reason not to, and I was thrilled and freaked out by the possible outcomes of doing it. So whoosh! Off the cliff.

Pacifica, CA, October 2010I love the idea of laying everything on the line in business and marketing - my risk-o-meter is broken. But when it comes to making art, I am much more conservative.

The only reason I can think of is that the results are much easier to measure in business - really, the concept of a calculated risk doesn't make sense in art. Success and failure are easier to define.

I've been focused on business for so long that I've buried my musical goals pretty deep, or in some cases transferred them to my music-related business. But now I'm suddenly giving it some serious thought - what were my goals? Why did I not achieve them? And more relevant: What risks, too uncomfortable to consider, did those goals represent?

Among other things, I spent my twenties as an aspiring songwriter and performer. The great thing about being out of my twenties is that I can examine them as a thing separate from myself, like a movie (Casey's Twenties, a new film by Gus Van Sant) and see themes that I didn't recognize at the time. I see black-and-white thinking, distractability, a limited understanding of my strengths and weaknesses, a lack of solid planning, and a tendency to get stuck on things that require money or outside help.

Ironically, if I had treated my music career like a business, I might have achieved some success. I would have been able to view some of the things that actually happened as steps on the way to success if I'd only had the courage to define what that success would look like.

On the other hand, I also had trouble just sitting down and making music for fun. I don't need to make a damn statement. Nobody really knew about my music but me, so why didn't I just play? Perhaps I'd accidentally stumble upon something good. Or at least interesting.

Of course, it's not over. If I can figure out what I want out of my music career, I can make a plan, set goals, and be ready to leap when I find something that matters enough to scare the crap out of me. And just have a good time at the very least.

What do I want now? I don't really know yet. Michael and I went out on New Year's Eve and busked for a half-hour in Piedmont Park. That's rather bold, when you think about it.