Will I change my personality? Alexander Technique and psychology

 

Occasionally I get asked questions by students that touch on the relationship between Alexander Technique, psychology, and the possibility of altering their essential selves. The questions can be summarised as follows:

  • Do we have an essential self?
  • Can we change that essential self through the work we do in Alexander Technique lessons?
  • If we can do this, will we all end up the same – perfectly functioning Alexandroids who think and move very similarly?
  • Or will we suffer mini personality crises and become different people altogether?

I can’t really speak to the first question: I have no idea if there is such a thing as an essential something that makes me ‘me’ and you ‘you’. But I do know that there is a very clear link between Alexander Technique, psychology, and physical movement.

Alexander Technique psychology? Try psycho-physical…

definition of Alexander Technique

In the Interactive Teaching Method, where I trained to teach Alexander’s work, we define the Alexander Technique as the study of thinking in relation to movement. Broadly speaking, in lessons my students learn that what and how we think determines the way we move. This is true both in specific tasks and in more general movement patterns. And if we change what and how we think, the way we move cannot fail to change too. The Alexander Technique is a toolkit that can, to paraphrase FM Alexander, help us create/discover/reveal a good manner of use of ourselves that will exert a continuous influence for good upon our general functioning.*

Alexander also says that we think and act “in accordance with the peculiarities of our particular psycho-physical make-up.” ** When he says this, I don’t think he uses the word ‘peculiarities’ pejoratively. I think that some of our peculiarities might be beneficial, or at least neutral.

But some of our peculiarities are not benign, or will appear so but have consequences that are harmful to us. Alexander believed that our misdirected activities are the result of incorrect conceptions, and that the Alexander Technique teacher’s job is to convince a student to give up the erroneous conceptions and instead use something more useful to guide us.^ Nowhere that I know of does Alexander require us to give up beneficial peculiarities (though he does ask us to hold our ideas lightly and have open minds).^^

Alexander Technique psychology: Alexandroids, breakdowns, or something else?

That’s a whole lot of words, but how do they help us tease out our questions? Does the Alexander Technique have the power to change our personalities? Will we turn into drones or, worse, emotional wrecks?

I’m currently thinking of it like this. John is a circle. Marsha is a triangle.^^^ They both have peculiarities in their psycho-physical make-up: I mean, John is circular and Marsha is a triangle!

Alexander Technique psychology described using image of John and Marsha

But it goes a bit deeper than that. John has bits of him that aren’t completely circle-like. Marsha is troubled by the bits of her that are more round than triangular. These are peculiarities too, but they are ones that get in the way of their true nature. John can’t enjoy his full circleness until he loses the edges. Marsha can’t achieve her potential as a triangle until she has a pointy top. So they both come along to Alexander Technique lessons to learn how to make the changes that will help them fulfil their dreams.

In the course of lessons, Marsha might decide that she was wrong about her triangle-ness. She might realise she was actually meant to be a trapezium. This would be a bigger change to her psycho-physical make-up, to be sure.

Some changes to our psych-physical nature are big, like realising we are a trapezium and not a triangle after all. Some are smaller changes, like taking the bumps out of the circle. But the principal thing that the changes have in common is this: they are changes that work towards an improving manner of use of ourselves. The end goal of the Alexander Technique is not to make us all the same. Rather, it is to give us the tools to become most wholly and uniquely ourselves.

*FM Alexander, Universal Constant in Living in IRDEAT ed., p.524.
** FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, IRDEAT ed., p.304.
^ ibid., p.293.
^^ FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT ed., p. 57.
^^^ HT Stan Freberg.

How to practice alexander technique (or anything)

How to practice with Alexander Technique

How to practice Alexander Technique is a question high on the list of any beginning student. What should I do? Are there exercises I can do? How long should I be thinking about it each day?

Today I want to demystify the concept of how to practice. Let’s look at how a musician might go about it, and see what ideas we can draw out of the musician’s experience of how to practice.

Imagine a small group music lesson with three young students. It doesn’t matter what instrument; we’ll imagine it’s violin. How do they get better? By practice! But each of them has a different approach to how to practice, and they aren’t all effective.

One goes to the lesson, then goes home and puts his violin in his cupboard. He doesn’t think about it again until just before the next lesson. He then does an hour or two of panicked practice.

The next student practices every day for about an hour. He runs through his pieces all the way through every time. If he makes a mistake, he stops and goes back to the beginning of the piece. At lessons, he never seems to have fixed the places the teacher helped him with in the previous lesson.

The final student practices most days, some days for half an hour, some days only for a few minutes. He’ll pick a piece, play it through to remember which bits are sounding dodgy, and then work on one dodgy bit. When he’s fixed it, he puts his violin away and finds something else to do.

Which student improves fastest?

Which student are you?

How to practice is about quality.

Quality of practice, not quantity, is the key. It doesn’t matter how many times you do an activity (like play a piece of music) if you’re doing it wrongly. And consistency of practice is very important. There’s a growing body of evidence behind what already seemed like common sense: that we retain information better when we work on it regularly.*

The other element that FM Alexander would add to the mix is what sportsmen call mental practice. When he was trying to solve the vocal troubles that threatened his career, FM would practice his new protocols for movement very many times “without attempting to do them.” This ensured that when he did attempt to carry them out, he had a good knowledge of the process he wanted to follow.**

How to practice – the steps.

  • Find a time that suits.
  • Find an activity that suits.
  • Organise yourself to practice mindfully – actually thinking about what you are doing. If you can, pick for yourself a small, achievable goal to aim for.
  • Find time to think about how to do the activity when you aren’t doing it.
  • Do it for a few minutes.
  • Stop.
  • If you reach your mini-goal, have a little celebration.
  • Repeat.
  • And – this is optional, but recommended – let someone know what it is you’re working on, so that they can ask you about it. Accountability really helps.

That’s the Activate You plan for how to practice Alexander Technique. Or, indeed, just about anything. Want to give it a try? Email me and let me know what you’re working on, and I’ll give you any help I can – even if it’s just sending an occasional message to make sure you’re still working!

And don’t forget to have fun!

 

*I recommend Barbara Oakley’s book A Mind for Numbers (Penguin 2014) for a detailed, lively and very practical description of the research and how to use the findings to improve one’s ability to learn.

** FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, Orion, 1985, p.41.

First principles: why starting from the top is good

first principles are a pathway to success

First principles – boring?

Working from first principles: you’ve been told to begin at the beginning, but especially if you already know a little bit about the subject area, is it really necessary? If you’re learning something new, or even if you’re doing a refresher in something you already know, it is really tempting to skip the early stuff. Often, first principles can feel like a bit of a waste of time.

I am currently doing a course written and presented by marketing guru and all-round amazing thinker Seth Godin. I’ve been freelancing for years, so after I paid for the course and I looked at the title of the first video, I must confess my heart sank a little. It said ‘Why be a freelancer’. I’ve been running my own teaching practice for years, so my first reaction was to assume I’d done that bit of thinking long ago, and didn’t need to go over it again.

But I listened, and I did the exercises, at first out of duty (I mean, I paid for this!), but very quickly out of excitement. Through going back to first principles, I was rediscovering the reasons why I started teaching and freelancing in the first place. I re-connected with the reasons why I do what I do. It was inspiring!

And that is the gift of going back to the beginning, and allowing yourself to start again from the first principles behind what you do. It gives you the chance to rediscover ideas that you’d forgotten, and hopefully to find again the passion that got you started in the first place.

First principles – different every time

And the beauty of it is that when you encounter ‘beginner’ principles as a non-beginner, they don’t look the same as when you first learned them. I remember when I went back to first principles as a recorder player, and asked myself what I needed to do to play so-called ‘pinch’ notes (higher register notes that require part of the left thumb hole to be uncovered). I discovered just how little of the thumb hole needs to be uncovered for the higher notes to sound. I discovered that I really didn’t need to do very much with my hands to achieve the notes. It was monumental.

This was the process that FM Alexander went through when he created what we now call the Alexander Technique. He was trying to solve vocal problems that caused him to lose his voice onstage. He took that fact – that the problem only occurred onstage and not off – made some hypotheses, and then set out to test them. Every time he ran into trouble, every time it seemed like he’d hit a brick wall, what did FM do? He went right back to the beginning, to those first hypotheses.* And he’d test them all again. Each time the act of going back was a spur to new thinking. He’d go back to first principles, but with the knowledge gained from the false starts.

So don’t be afraid of first principles. They will help you.

  1. Getting the basics right helps you to move faster in the long run – you won’t have to go back and correct mistakes
  2. If you do get stuck, going back to first principles means that you can experience them again on a different level – they’ll be different because you are
  3. Going back to the beginning gives you the chance to make different choices.

And remember – there’s no such thing as wasted effort. You can learn from the false starts just as much as the successes. Have fun, and if you’ve got a question, just contact me and do my best to help.

* FM Alexander, Use of the Self, IRDEAT edition, p.417: “I saw that the whole situation would have to be reconsidered. I went back to the beginning again, to my original conclusion…”

Image by tungphoto, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Reducing muscle tension: the whys and wherefores

reducing muscle tension

Reducing muscle tension (and mental commitment to that tension) is often a key component in Alexander Technique lessons. Frequently, a student will have a good experience related to reducing muscle tension, and they’ll ask: why am I doing this apparently pointless bit of muscular tension that actually hurts and gets in the way of me achieving what I want? If reducing muscle tension in this activity is good, then why don’t I do it? Why do I keep the old way?

It’s a great question, and deserves some thought. So… Let’s think about it like it’s an object in a house. Why do people keep physical things? They might keep an object because…

  • They think they need it. (My husband’s computer cable collection falls into this category)
  • They forget they’ve got it. (My son is a master at putting a toy in the bottom of a box, forgetting about it, and then rediscovering it the next time we do a major clean-out of his room)
  • They think it might come in useful. (Again, my husband’s computer cable collection springs to mind)
  • They’re afraid of what other people would say if they got rid of it. (Gifts from relations might fit here, or Great Aunt Edna’s hideous pottery pig collection)
  • They’re afraid they might need it at some point in the future. In other words, they’re afraid to get rid of it.
  • They like it.

There’s no right or wrong answer. If you like it and you want to keep it, who am I (or anyone else) to judge you? But if it gets in the way of your other stated goals (like having a clutter-free house) then we might reserve the right to question you about it. If you then decide that you like or want the object in question, then it isn’t anyone else’s business if you keep it.

The same goes with muscular tension. If you have an idea about the task at hand which leads you to move physically in a way that prevents you from achieving your goals, the Alexander Technique teacher’s job is to draw your attention to it. We will get in the way of the physical tension. We will present reasons why doing something else might be good. And then we will (or should) leave you to make up your own mind.*

Why? If what we are suggesting is better, if it will help you to achieve your goals more easily and more quickly, then why don’t we try to cajole you into doing something different? For the same reason that no one should make you get rid of your Great Aunt Edna’s pottery pig collection. It would be rude. It would be unkind, and none of our business.

And even more importantly – and this is where reducing muscle tension is different to pottery pigs – positive change (like reducing muscle tension) is nearly inevitable anyway. Alexander Technique teachers work from the principle that your body is geared towards health, wellness, and optimum performance. It takes time and energy to force your mind and body to do the unnecessary, harmful, unproductive stuff – you’ve really got to work hard to create it. So when you’re ready, you’ll stop.

And when you stop, we’ll be ready and waiting to cheer you on.

* FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT ed, p.88: “by teaching I understand the placing of facts, for and against, before the child, in such a way as to appeal to his reasoning faculties, and to his latent powers of originality. He should be allowed to think for himself, and should not be crammed with other people’s ideas .” FM wrote it about children, but it sounds good enough to apply to adults, too!
Image by Ambro from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Can you get better quickly with the Alexander Technique?

winner's flag

Is it possible to get better quickly – to make substantial and long-lasting improvements to your wellbeing and the way you move – using the Alexander Technique?

I read a blog recently by a colleague of mine which said that the Alexander technique is not a quick fix. in one sense this is true. It isn’t a quick fix in the sense that going to the doctor is a quick fix. If I have a throat infection, I go to the GP, spend a couple of minutes answering questions and having my throat examined, and go away with a prescription for antibiotics (probably). As long as I take the pills, the infection goes away pretty quickly. I don’t need to think about it much at all, beyond scheduling in the pills.

In this sense, the Alexander Technique is not a quick fix: you don’t go to an Alexander lesson pick up one or two tips, and then go away cured. The Alexander technique is not a magic bullet. It is, rather, a process involving change of thought. Which may look a lot like a magic bullet, if you change the right thoughts in the right places.

You see, I don’t want you to think that the Alexander Technique is long and arduous. I don’t want you to think that it is always difficult, or that it is always hard work. It is generally only as hard as you make it for yourself. Sometimes changes take a long time, but often in my experience, They happen very quickly indeed.

For example, early in my career I worked with a student who suffered from severe sciatica that caused her to have to spend days in bed. She initially approached me to see if there was anything that she was doing that was making the condition worse. The sciatic discomfort disappeared after three lessons, and she stopped having lessons altogether after lesson number seven. I haven’t seen her since.

Yes, you can get better quickly with the Alexander Technique.

So what do you have to do to get better quickly with the Alexander Technique? My colleague Nicola puts it very simply in her blog.* We get better quickly when we satisfy three simple criteria:

  • We are prepared to change.
  • We’re prepared to learn how to stop doing things the way we’ve done them in the past.
  • We are prepared to take the time needed to do this.

In other words, if you want to make substantive improvements in the way you are going about your activities, you need to have a genuine desire to change, the humility to admit that you might be doing them inefficiently, and the discipline and drive to work at change. FM Alexander put it like this:

“What is required is … a calm, clear, open-eyed intelligence, a ready, adaptive outlook, an outlook, believe me, which does not connote indefiniteness of purpose or uncertainty of initiative.”**

So if you want to make improvements to your wellbeing and the ease with which you complete your daily life; if, in short, you want to get better quickly, then don’t look for the magic bullet. The resources for change are inside you, ready and waiting.

 

* If you live in Edinburgh, please do contact my colleague Nicola for lessons – she’s brilliant and really lovely. 🙂
** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT edition, p.64.
Image by David Castillo Dominici, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Secret Weapon Powering Commitment to Change

Flautist

Do you fear that you don’t have the commitment to change the things in your life that you feel are holding you back, whether physically (wellness), professionally, or in performance areas?

Do you ever look at people who’ve solved major difficulties in their lives or work and wonder how they did it? Do you ever feel as though they have some sort do secret special power that you just don’t have?

People sometimes feel that way when they look at FM Alexander. He was a (mostly) self-educated actor who solved the vocal problems that threatened his career, and in the process created a whole new form of body-mind work that has helped countless thousands of people all over the world. He did it by conducting a lot of observations of himself, and doing a lot of thinking and experimenting. He was, clearly, fuelled by a commitment to change.

One of my newer Alexander Technique students is a flautist who uncovered a major technical difficulty with her flute playing and spent eight months re-learning how to play her instrument. She looked at FM Alexander’s work and said, “wow, he was determined. I could never do something like that!”

But, of course, she had! She’d just spent eight months of her life doing daily training, disciplining her mind and her body so that she’d be able to overcome a technical flaw that she’d spotted in her playing. To my mind, she had shown exactly the same dedication and application that FM had done. Clearly, my student was also spurred on by a commitment to change.

The secret of FM Alexander’s work to cure his vocal problems wasn’t genius. The secret of my student’s successful relearning of her instrument wasn’t luck, nor was it good teaching (though I am sure her flute teacher is excellent). Luck will only get you so far, and it doesn’t matter how good the teacher is if the student doesn’t do the work.

The student has to do the work. To do the work, they need to have the motivation to do the work. This is what commitment to change and the process of change is all about. And what lies behind that commitment? They have the motivation because they love what they do.

Loving what you do changes everything.

My student loves playing the flute. She will try most things in order to play better.
FM Alexander loved acting. He was prepared to stand in front of a mirror watching himself for months to find a solution to his vocal problems.
I loved knitting and playing my recorder. I hated waking up with my arms hurting. I was prepared to change pretty much anything in order to play and knit with ease.

What about you? Maybe you’re wanting to solve physical issues, or move further towards wellness. Maybe you’re wanting to improve at the stuff you do. Maybe you just want to have more energy at the end of the day!
Whatever it is you want, I can guarantee this. If you truly love what you do, you can find the commitment to change whatever it is that is holding you back from enjoying it to the full. I won’t promise that the road will always be easy. But it will ultimately be truly rewarding, and well worth the travel.

 

Image by citricusss from Free Images

Sitting all day – is it evil?

Businessman stretching in an office

Is sitting all day evil? There are increasing numbers of articles in fashionable magazines and on trendy websites that will tell you that yes, sitting is intrinsically evil and can kill you. The Huffington Post, for example, seems to run an article on the evils of sitting every couple of months.

I mean, we always knew that sitting, especially sitting all day was a problem. Huge numbers of people experience discomfort through sitting, especially at their desks and computers. Backs, necks, shoulders all seem to beg for mercy. But now we’re told that sitting isn’t just uncomfortable – it can actually shorten your lifespan.

Is it true, and what can we do about it?

 

Sitting is the new smoking.

That’s the advice Marc Hamilton, director of the Inactivity Physiology Program at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana, gave to the magazine Runner’s World. Apparently, sitting for long periods may cause an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase to decrease in the bloodstream. As this enzyme clears noxious fats out of the bloodstream, this is bad news. Apparently this sends out harmful biological signals that could be implicated in cardiovascular disease.

According to the articles I’ve seen, sitting still for long periods has been linked to not just obesity, but cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, though personally I’d want to see more studies come up with similar results before I got too worked up about the evidence.

But before you panic and throw away all your chairs (as some people have done, and would advise you to do – see this article), let’s examine the issue with the clear-sightedness that FM Alexander would want us to use.

 

Problem number 1: chairs are not cigarettes

Sitting is part of our normal range of movement behaviours. It’s one of the things we are designed to be able to do. If we say that one movement behaviour is intrinsically bad, how many others will we find that are just as evil or worse? What about rock climbing (all that looking upwards), or playing the violin (having your head tilted to the side can’t be good for you, surely) – should we ban those, too?

If there’s a problem with sitting all day, that’s not the chair’s fault, but ours for thinking that doing any one thing for prolonged periods isn’t going to have repurcussions. It’s a bit like food. I love chocolate, but I don’t eat it every day. I love carrots too, but if I ate them for every meal I’d soon turn orange. Who tied us down and forced us to sit in the one spot all day long?

 

Problem 2: Will exchanging standing for sitting be any better?

Instead of sitting all day, why not stand up or work out? A lot of authors out there on the web are telling their readers to exchange their chairs and conventional desks for ‘standing workstations’ or treadmill desks. Is this a good idea?

Well, it depends. FM Alexander would tell us that many of the problems we experience are not context-related (relevant only to a specific activity), but are the result of a deterioration in the general manner of use of ourselves. In other words, there’s a way we like to use our bodies – maybe tightening neck muscles, or raising shoulders, or jutting pelvis forwards – that we bring into every activity that we do. And in some of those activities that general way we like to use ourselves becomes problematic.

If this is the case (and Alexander Technique teachers down the decades have anecdotal evidence that this is true), then just swapping standing for sitting isn’t going to help, because we’re going to bring our poor manner of use along into the new activity. If we keep our shoulders raised all the time, we’re going to do that while we’re standing, and the knock-on effects of that through our whole system is going to generate achiness in just the same way it did while we were sitting. It might move or be subtly different in some way, but the cause is the same.

 

So the whole ‘sitting is bad for you’ campaign has two major flaws: the chair didn’t make us sit for prolonged periods, rather, we did; and there’s nothing to say that standing or using a treadmill desk is going to be any more beneficial in reducing overall harm to our systems.

What, then, should we do? I’m going to give you three top tips.

 1. Don’t sit still! Take breaks!

Chairs are just a tool, in the same way that a computer keyboard is just a tool, or a hammer is just a tool. We need to decide how to use them safely. So don’t sit still for long periods. Get up and walk around once an hour, even if it’s just to the water cooler and back. If you can’t trust yourself to remember, set a timer.

 

2. Think about your general use of yourself.

Do you hunch your shoulders? Do you jut your pelvis forwards, or crane your head forward on your neck? Do you permanently have one shoulder raised so your handbag won’t fall off… even if your handbag isn’t there? Start taking the time to observe yourself dispassionately, or see an Alexander Technique teacher for some advice.

 

3. Keep an open mind.

Read the articles. Check out the research. Make sure that you understand the issue before you do anything drastic like junk your furniture or spend thousands on a treadmill desk. Do what seems best for you in your circumstances, taking the research into account. You may well decide that the cardiovascular benefits of a treadmill desk are exactly what you need! But don’t be rushed into anything without thinking about it.

 

Maybe Hamlet had it right when he said “there’s nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Let’s stop blaming the tools, and start reasoning out how to use them effectively.

 

Decision making and the power of choice – why loss shouldn’t hold us back

kittisak
Do you find decision making easy, or is your power to decide crippled by the knowledge of the loss of the alternatives once you’ve committed to one option?
A friend of mine told me the story recently of a student of hers, who had had the misfortune to lose all her university coursework in a house fire (she was lucky to have survived herself). With a supreme effort, the student was able to do extremely well in her final assignments, but narrowly missed getting a First.
The student asked my friend if she should appeal. My friend replied that she’d have a strong chance of having her degree lifted to a First, but that it would take time and mean her not graduating at the same time as her friends. Which was more important to her?
The student decided to graduate with her friends, and to give the higher grading a miss. When my friend saw the student at the graduation ceremony, the student was having a wonderful time with her friends. She was at peace with her decision.

Decision making as loss

I love this story because it gets to the essence of something I’ve been thinking about recently (thanks to a lovely post by my friend Susan T Blake). Decision making can be so very difficult sometimes, because every decision we make has with it an element of loss.
Sometimes that loss is small (flat white or latte?). But sometimes the choice is far more difficult, as each option has a significant joy, and its loss a significant cost. The student gave up a First – that is a loss. But to choose the First over graduating with friends would have entailed a different loss – the loss of fellowship and shared experience.

The fork in the road

One of the most important concepts in Alexander Technique is that of ‘the fork in the road’, where we find ourselves having a choice between two alternatives.* The most usual one in an Alexander Technique lesson is the choice between the old, familiar way of thinking/moving, and the new and unfamiliar way of thinking/moving. My job as a teacher is to stand at the fork in the road between these two alternatives, and point to the path of the new and unfamiliar, suggesting that it might be worth trying out!
There are, however, other kinds of choices, and other forks in the road. Sometimes someone will present you with a choice (a First or a peer group experience), and ask you to make up your mind which option you want to take. Sometimes you may even present yourself with the choice.
But these choices are sneakier than the one Mr Alexander paints for us. Unlike Alexander’s fork in the road, where the man knows the destination he wishes to reach, in the First/friends choice the destination is not defined. We are being asked (or asking ourselves) to make a choice when we don’t immediately know which one gets us closer to where we want to go.

Decision making and core values

These choices are difficult because the outcomes are not clear. We don’t know what will suit our needs best. And we may be placed (or place ourselves) under pressure to make a decision quickly, before we have had sufficient opportunity to decide which option aligns best with our core values.** And sometimes the difficulty of the choice stems from the fact that it highlights an area where we haven’t really considered what values are most important to us!
So what should we do?
  1. Stop and breathe. No one should expect an instant answer!
  2. Consider the options given. What core values or principles do they represent? For example, a First = academic excellence. Friends = value on social ties and affections.
  3. Check these against your own core values. Which option fits best with your own value structure? Or is this a chance to decide what our core values are?
  4. Decide if there might be any other, better, courses of action. Just because you are presented with two options doesn’t mean there aren’t more options possible…
  5. Choose something and commit to the consequences.
And take note of that last step. Yes, whatever you choose will entail losing the benefits of the choice not taken. My friend’s student didn’t get quite the degree they merited, and that is a real and genuine loss. But what would have been far worse, and far more damaging, would have been to choose an option and then spend time regretting the loss of the other.
And there is one thing that is even worse. Yes, even worse than regret.
Just standing at the crossroads and not ever deciding. That is the most deadening option of all.
*Alexander, F.M., Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.299.
** ‘Core values’ is a term I borrow from life coach and all-round fab guy Tim Brownson. He writes a superb blog at http://www.adaringadventure.com/blog/
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mage by Kittisak from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Revealed at last: 2 liberating secrets about being a newbie (at anything).

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Secret number 1: Newbies are allowed to ‘suck’

Here is the liberating truth. If you’re a newbie, you’re allowed to ‘suck’. You are allowed to be joyfully, liberatingly bad at the activity you’re trying.

Of course, most of us don’t give ourselves this pleasure. Instead, we expect ourselves to be good at this new thing. Not just passable, you’ll notice. We want to be good.

And this is just a little bit crazy.

Think about it. You’re walking onto a tennis court for the first time in your life. You’ve seen it played, but you’ve never picked up a racquet before. You don’t know how to hit the ball, don’t know how to serve. Is it reasonable, then, to expect yourself to be able to hit backhand winners down the line in the style of Roger Federer? Probably not!

But this is what we so frequently do. I clearly remember giving up chess at age 7 after my first ever attempt at a game because I wasn’t instantly successful. I can think of other occasions where I’ve seen children and adults make similar decisions.

Can you think of a time when you’ve done something similar?

FM Alexander had just such an experience when he was trying to find a way of undoing the vocal hoarseness that was threatening his acting career. He thought that just because he’d used his vocal tract in a certain way for a prolonged period, he’d be able to change the way he used it and do the new thing just as accurately, just as easily. But it simply wasn’t the case.

Alexander realised that he wasn’t the only one to make this error, and named the phenomenon a universal delusion:

because we are able to do what we “will to do” in acts that are habitual and involve familiar sensory experiences, we shall be equally successful in doing what we “will to do” in acts which are contrary to our habit and therefore involve sensory experiences that are unfamiliar. *

Just because I can play tennis does not mean I can play badminton. Just because I can drive a car, I shouldn’t expect to be able to ride a bicycle. Just because I can play recorder to a fairly decent standard, I should NOT expect to be near-instantly performance standard on an oboe – I would almost certainly sound like I was strangling a duck.

And that would be okay, because I’d be new at it!

 

Secret number 2: you might be a newbie and not even realise it!

Sometimes we are really bad at recognising that we are doing a new activity. We can be fooled into thinking it’s just the same thing as something else we do successfully, when in fact it is a different activity, involving different techniques and a totally different means of approach.

I realised the full force of this the first time I picked up a renaissance recorder and tried to play some really tricky consort music with it. Yes, it’s a recorder. But it has subtly different fingerings, a different bore requiring different breathe pressure, and a different orientation of arm joints to reach the holes comfortably. It is a different activity.

This principle also cropped up just the other week in the presentation skills class I’m teaching at the moment. It is tempting to think that because we all speak to each other all the time quite successfully, that doing a presentation or a speech is just an extension of the speaking we do all the time. But it isn’t.

Just because we can all speak DOES NOT MEAN that we know how to deliver a presentation to a group of people. Talking to friends and giving a work presentation both involve talking, it is true. But the presentation isn’t the same activity. It is a different skill involving different technical aspects and completely different levels of preparation. And if a person goes into a presentation not realising that it’s a new activity and then has a bad experience, it can sow the seeds of anxiety which could develop into full-blown stage fright. And all because they’d miscategorised the presentation as something that they knew how to do.

Before you do that activity, ask yourself:

  • Do I really know what I’m doing, or are there enough ‘uncharted’ aspects to make this a new experience?
  • Have I prepared sufficiently?
  • Am I okay with not being outstanding at this activity? Bluntly, am I okay with the idea of failing?

This isn’t about reducing standards, nor is it about settling for average. This is about recognising that everybody has to start somewhere. If you give yourself the luxury of mistakes and stuff-ups, you’ll be approaching whatever it is you’re learning with an unstressed, free and creative state of mind. And this, in turn, will give you the firm foundation to learn and progress.

 

* FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the IRDEAT complete ed., p.417.
Image by Qrodo photos (Flickr creative commons)

Beat performance plateaus by changing point of view

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Performance plateau?

Are you experiencing a point of difficulty in one of your hobbies or work activities? Perhaps you can’t quite hit that tennis forehand the way you’d like, or nail that top G reliably? Possibly you’ve always thought the problem was intractable, or that you’d reached a ceiling on your abilities.

But have you considered that the reason why you’ve plateaued could be because you’re getting in your own way?

Performance plateau: the young swimmer

I had a taste of this from my son the other day. On the way home from school, he said he didn’t like swimming any more. I asked him why. He said it was because the teacher kept telling him to put his head in the water while swimming freestyle lengths. “But I do put my head in the water!” he said.
“Really?” I asked.
“Yes! … Some of the time…” he said, rather less vehemently.
“Okay. When do you put your head in the water?”
“I put it in for a bit, then I lift it up to breathe,” he replied.
“Ah. Is that what the teacher wants you to do to breathe?”
“Well, no. But it’s the way I do it.”
“Do you think the teacher would stop telling you off if you did what she asked?”
“Yes,” my son said. “But I want to do it my way.”

 

“My way” – Performance plateaus as a state of mind

And there you have it in a nutshell.

Most of us, when we go about the activities that make up our day-to-day lives, have ways that we like to do them. The ways we choose are based on our personal preferences, our experiences, and our beliefs about the right way to go about things.

But what if we’re wrong? What if our way is not the best way? What if our way of doing things is, in fact, the cause of the performance plateau that we’re experiencing?

FM Alexander was able to write that, after 20 years of teaching experience, he had “no hesitation in stating that the pupil’s fixed ideas and conceptions are the cause of the major part of his difficulties.”*

Even worse than this, Alexander goes on to say that if a person has a very fixed idea of “their way” of doing things, they are likely to go on trying to do things “their way” even after the teacher has demonstrated that their way can’t be relied upon! My son, for example, knows that his swimming teacher is correct, and that his way of breathing is not helping him. But no amount of the teacher yelling at him is going to make him stop!

So what will?

 

A change of mind as the key to breaking performance plateaus

My son needs to change his mind. Currently he is held back by, to borrow Alexander’s phrase, his “fixed and unreasoning conception” about what he needs to do to breathe while swimming freestyle. He will need, in short, to give up his desire to feel right, in order to do the thing that will increase effectiveness.

 

Here are the steps to take:

  • A touch of honesty. Are you like my son – do you secretly know what is holding you back?
  • Thinking about teacher/mentor feedback. Are you consistently being given the same criticisms in feedback? Can you recognise these criticisms in your own performance?
  • Listening to teacher/mentor advice. Are you being given advice that you’re not following? Maybe you could have a go at trying it, if only to prove your teacher wrong!
  • Loosen up and be prepared to feel ‘wrong’. Sometimes, letting go of what seems ‘right’ is the only way forward. Loosen your grip, and see what happens!

Performance plateaus are not a lot of fun. Even though it might be scary, why not try tearing up the rule book you’ve got in your head, and have a go at the thing that feels ‘wrong’? And let me know how it turns out.

 

*FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the IRDEAT edition, p.294.
Image by Tup Wanders, flickr creative commons.