Quit before you're ahead

After last night's post on the discipline of stopping, I was still thinking about whether I had made a point worth making. "Am I talking about moderation? Everyone knows that moderation is a good idea. Am I saying, 'Quit while you're ahead?' Well, duh."

And then I realized: What I'm really saying is, quit before you're ahead. Just when you start to see results, have the discipline to let it go for now.

I ask a lot of questions when I'm teaching. "What strategy are you going to use to practice this?" I'll query, hoping that she'll be able to articulate the concepts I've been drilling over the last eighteen months.

"I'm going to keep playing it until I get it right!" she says confidently.

"NO!" I say, pretending to be a severe turn-of-the-century schoolmarm. "You will play it correctly the first time, and then repeat it only as many times as necessary!"

We don't want mindless repetition. That is bad. Either play it for fun or play it for results - if you've got neither of those, just stop. And of course, the same goes for running. There is a nimbus of good stuff just outside your comfort zone, but if you venture too far outside of that, you have reached the point of diminishing returns. The trick is that, for most of your training, you will end your run feeling like you could have done more. And that is good.

Or is it? I'm probably an expert at teaching music lessons (I've put my 10,000 hours into that for sure), but I'm not an expert at running. I'm just an experiment of one. But I know that last night, when I stopped running at 1.64 miles, I felt like a stronger person even though my legs have gotten weaker.

Where else should you quit before you're ahead?

The discipline of stopping

This person is slow - at realizing that too much of anything isn't good for you.I felt a twinge in my left shin, a hint of irritation in my right achilles, and looked down at my iPhone. My RunKeeper app, which keeps track of my route via GPS, was telling me I had gone 1.64 miles. "That's it, then," I thought, pressing the stop button and slowing down. "That's enough for today."

Day after day on dailymile, Twitter, and Facebook, runners whine about their injuries - and keep running. To those who struggle to get off the couch and into the gym, this must seem quite ridiculous.

Really, it is. But there's something addictive about running that makes people do stupid things. It's tempting to treat every outing as a time trial, hoping to go faster or farther (or both!) than ever before. Despite detailed training plans and sound advice from coaches, books, magazines, websites, and other runners, the overzealous athlete fails to listen to the body, and the body breaks down.

I have been there. I've trained as carefully as I thought was possible, and still ended up injured. No matter what, it's still too much, too fast. All summer long, I wouldn't have dreamed of stopping after 1.64 miles - where's my discipline? If I'm really hurting and can't make it to three, at least I should make it to two so I have a nice round number to record in my training log.

Coming off of nearly four weeks without running (due to an injury sustained while running, naturally) has changed my perspective. It's just not worth the risk - sure, I can push a little bit farther, but at what cost? I've already lost so much of my former speed and endurance that I'm no longer attached to it. If I run just a little bit more, because I feel like I have to, will it compromise the next run?

I'm building back slowly, and more than one runner has said to me, "Ah, I wish I had the discipline to do that." Imagine - a dedicated distance runner, maybe a half-marathoner, desiring the discipline required to stop once you've started.

Mr. Larson, I apologize for the copyright violation but this is the perfect illustration for my post. I reference this cartoon all the time in lessons to help my students realize when they are that guy.Knowing when to stop is a highly important and frequently overlooked skill. When I work with students on breaking a musical piece down into small sections, they often forget to choose their stopping point. This makes it harder to focus on the area that really needs work, because they'll just keep on playing until the end of the piece. It's better, and harder, to stop at a designated point even though you could keep going.

The discipline of stopping requires you to be aware of how you're feeling, and act accordingly. You can ignore fatigue, restlessness, boredom, frustration, and pain, but the bill will come due at some point.

Several years ago I was working with a six-year-old beginning piano student. She was learning to read notes, and so I gave her some flashcards to practice with. I carefully selected ten flashcards out of the stack of dozens and set them aside - these were the ten notes we had gone over so far.

When she and her father came back the following week, I learned that they had gone through the entire stack. It takes years for a child to build up to that point! Not surprisingly, she hadn't gotten much out of the experience. Also not surprisingly, but sadly, she discontinued lessons a week or two later. They didn't know when to quit, and the frustration caused by that experience was too much for her to overcome.

There are many other examples of this phenomenon: here I am, up past my bedtime, writing this post. But I'm pleased to say I did not clean my plate tonight at El Potro, I have not checked my email since 3:30 PM, and last night I quit reading the compelling Little Bee before that buzzy, hungover, too much feeling hit me. I am practicing the discipline of stopping, and look! - now I am done with this post.

Nothing to Show For It

I did a yoga DVD this afternoon. The instructor said at the end, of savasana (corpse pose), that it was one of the most challenging asanas. That's the kind of statement that's practically begging you to roll your eyes - I mean, how hard could it be to lay down on your back and relax, especially after a tough workout? But I know she's right.

As a music teacher, I see that my students have the same challenge. "You're trying too hard," I say. "Let it be as easy as playing one note [I got that from Kenny Werner]."

But to try not to try - you can't. You just have to let go, and then you're not holding on to anything so you panic and grab tighter. But if you keep coming back to it, you'll make progress.

Look for tiny increments of progress. Set micro-goals. Slower is faster. Don't use momentum. Clearly, this is an issue I have a lot to say about.

And where will all this careful, easy, mindful practice get you? Perhaps nowhere anyone else will ever be able to see. Perhaps you will literally have nothing to show for it.

What if there's no way to make your mark? (Tybee Island Sunset, November 2010)A slightly stronger pinky finger. A throat that clenches almost imperceptibly less on the high notes. The ability to play a cadenza with just a bit more surefootedness than you had last year.

Of course, meanwhile, your brother/friend/teacher/enemy can do it all and more, and better, while hungover on two hours of sleep.

It's almost enough to make you give up. For some, it is enough.

I've been thinking about writing an ebook about piano - like, Seven Ways to Be More Awesomer At Piano or something - so I googled a few "learn piano"-related phrases.

Yikes! It was like being solicited by a prostitute when you're looking for true love. Promises of "100s of times faster than other courses" and blinking ads and long-form sales letters. Not the right marketplace for my message of slow and systematic and taking a year to learn to uncurl your left pinky.

The worst part was the realization that those websites with their comprehensive courses in two easy payments of $39 are better than anything I've ever come up with, and it's possible that I will never create anything to rival them in scope, marketability, or even quality. But after a few minutes of feeling like a character in a Sofia Coppola film, I got my shit together and felt okay about just being me again.

Just being me: as in, I don't actually need to accomplish anything visible in order to be myself. I can make all kinds of little changes that you'll never see and never value, and that's okay.

Tybee Island Sunrise, November 2010The reason I was doing yoga in the first place is because I hurt my foot during a run on Christmas Day, and I can't run. I love the way running feels, but I especially love the way I can measure things - how many miles away from home I can get, how fast I go, how much better I did than last week. Now that I'm not running, I have nothing to measure except my perception of how much strength, speed, and conditioning I am losing.

Yoga is the opposite and the antidote: don't measure, don't analyze, don't compare - just keep breathing and observe. It's just you and your body and your breath - and you are whole and complete as you'll ever be.

Today, for a moment, in savasana, I got it - just for a second, I felt the way it would feel to surrender completely and dissolve into the earth, like the actual corpse I will someday become. The knowledge moved me to tears: I don't need anything else but what I have, and I don't need to be anything else but what I am, ever.