Misdirected effort? How to get back on track.

Misdirected effort requires us to stop and think againAre you running into a brick wall in the practice room, out on the tennis court, or on the pitch? Do you find yourself working on something, but to no avail? It is very likely that you are suffering from a case of misdirected effort!

Misdirected effort: a case study!

High school English was once of the most frustrating experiences of my life. I was studying for my HSC (sort of the equivalent of the UK A levels), and I really wanted to improve my marks in my English essays. But it didn’t seem to matter how many extra hours of study I put in – my marks never really got any better.

Have you had an experience like that? I have had similar experiences as a musician, and my students certainly have reported frustrations in a similar vein. It’s annoying not to see improvement. Lack of progress can be utterly demoralising. And often the problem could be solved so very easily.

The question we fail to ask

Back in high school English class, I failed to ask myself a really important question, mostly because I was too busy reading literary criticism texts to improve my scores. My students fail to ask themselves this too, again because they are too focussed on what they are doing. I’ve known sportsmen, even maths and science students who missed this question too.

‘Am I directing my effort to the right place?’

According to Prof Barbara Oakley, this phenomenon even has a name: the Einstellung effect. It’s where an idea that you already have in mind prevents you from finding a better idea or solution.[1] In effect, you are so wedded to one way of working that any other doesn’t even have a chance of entering your head!

Why do we suffer from misdirected effort?

But why do we behave in this way? According to FM Alexander, it comes down to our belief systems. He said in 1923,

“We all think and act (except when forced to do otherwise) in accordance with the peculiarities of our particular psycho-physical make-up.”[2]

Now it might seem obvious to say that people will think and act according to the make-up of their genes, beliefs and life experience, but note the word he uses to describe them: peculiarities. He isn’t being pejorative or mean – he’s just saying that sometimes we don’t believe things that are hugely sensible. We construct ideas about what we can and can’t do based on experiences (which we may have misinterpreted at the time), memories (which we may not have recalled accurately), and things we’ve picked up from all manner of places (and which may not be true).[3]

So if you think about it, it is hardly surprising that sometimes we get stuck on a particular idea or course of action, and are thoroughly unable to even see that we are stuck!

Solutions

The key to getting unstuck is to develop the mental discipline of stepping back and asking yourself if there is something that you are doing that is getting in your way. This was the very first question that Alexander asked himself when he wanted to solve his vocal hoarseness, and it’s a great question for us all to use.[4]

Marga Biller, project director of Harvard’s Learning Innovations Laboratory, came up with these four questions that I think expand on Alexander’s question in useful ways. They were originally intended for teachers dealing with organisation change, but I think these questions are great for anyone. Here they are:

  1. Do I need to think, behave, do or perceive in a new way?
  2. Is there previous learning that is getting in the way of my thinking, behaving or perceiving in new ways?
  3. Is what I am trying to learn a threat/challenge to my identity, to how I see myself or how I see the world?
  4. Would trying harder give me the results I am looking for or might it create more entrenchment?[5]

If we ask ourselves these questions, we have the opportunity to see what mental block we have put in front of ourselves. Once we know how we are blocking ourselves, we will know what areas to work upon so that we can direct our effort more effectively. This may mean approaching a difficult semi-quaver passage from the tail end instead of from the beginning, and working backwards. It may mean slowing down, and that may feel odd. It may mean stopping and taking a walk!

When we ask ourselves questions, we give ourselves the opportunity to change. And that is the key to sustained improvement.

 

[1] Oakley, B., A Mind for Numbers, Kindle ed., p.19 (loc 345)

[2] FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat, p.304.

[3] Levitin, D., The Organized Mind, Penguin, p.50.

[4] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, Orion, p.25.

[5] https://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2017/06/23/why-unlearning-old-habits-is-an-essential-step-for-innovation/

Steps to a great performance: constructing a confidence building success staircase

A success staircase builds your confidenceSo you’ve got a performance coming up, or you’ve set yourself a goal or a deadline in your chosen field. But how do you know it’s achievable, and how are you going to ensure that you do as well as you can?

Last week I talked about one of my favourite quotes from FM Alexander’s books: “confidence is born of success, not of failure.”[1] It’s a quote that’s worth unpacking, because it can teach us a lot about how to organise our activities, goals and performances.

Following on from my favourite quote, FM reminds the reader that confidence isn’t just a fuzzy feeling – it is based on a foundation of what he calls “satisfactory experiences.” And if we want those, we need to plan out not just the ‘scaffolding’ of the satisfactory experiences themselves, but also how we are going to ensure that each experience is satisfactory.

So our task, then, is to construct for ourselves a confidence building success staircase that gets us comfortably from where we are to our chosen goal.

Tip 1: don’t make the success staircase too long

Let’s start off by checking that you have a goal, and that you’ve been realistic about it. Don’t make your goal too scary to begin with. It needs to be a little bit scary, otherwise you’re just working within your comfort zone and not improving. On the other hand, if the goal terrifies you, you’ve gone too far. For example, if I chose to enter myself for a triathlon, I’d be pushing myself too far. I may love running and cycling, but I can’t swim and actually risk panic attacks if I get in the water (it’s a long story…).

Know where to draw the line!

Tip 2: Construct a success staircase with graduated, logical steps

One of the best ways of feeling confident in a performance setting is to have done it many times before. But this isn’t always possible. For example, on Saturday I was fortunate to hear a talk by Dr Terry Clark of the Centre for Performance Science at the Royal College of Music. He remarked that even Conservatoire musicians might only appear in a very few actual concerts over the course of their degree.

Thee likelihood of feeling anxious is greatly increased if you haven’t had much experience in a particular setting. So it makes sense to do your best to prepare yourself by making small interim goals intended to create a confidence-building success staircase. This way, even if you can’t do a trial performance under the full performance conditions, at least you’ll have done everything to make the step up to performance conditions as simple and straightforward as you can.

What might a step on the success staircase look like in practice? It depends on what you feel you need to practice. At the Royal College of Music, for example, students book the virtual reality performance space simulator in order to accustom themselves to the process of events immediately pre-performance; they even show up in evening dress! My recorder quintet have been known to enter the local Eisteddfod in order to play a tricky new piece under performance conditions but with a small and friendly audience. One of my students had his final year recital at 9am, and so worked at changing his practice schedule to accustom himself to performing at his peak earlier in the day.

These are my suggestions for areas to consider when you are constructing your success staircase (I am assuming you have a goal/deadline and have sanity checked it):

  • What are the principal things about your chosen goal that might be tricky? (Time of day; difficulty of piece; playing in heels; feeling nervous before performing…)
  • Can you create a set of steps that will build your confidence to get you to your goal (practice at a different time of day; organise a trial run in front of friends; organise a dry run in someone else’s house/small safe venue; do a dry run in your performance gear; etc)?
  • After each step, evaluate what went well, and decide what aspects you need to address for the next step to be successful. You may even find you need to add in a step or two to address specific issues.

And have fun!

[1]  FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, IRDEAT, p.384. The paragraph following the footnote is based on this quote from the same page:

“our processes in education …[must] enable us to make certain of the satisfactory means whereby an end may be secured, and thus to command a large percentage of those satisfactory experiences which develop confidence…”

Photo by Phil_Bird on FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Steps to a great performance: constructing a confidence building success staircase

A success staircase builds your confidenceSo you’ve got a performance coming up, or you’ve set yourself a goal or a deadline in your chosen field. But how do you know it’s achievable, and how are you going to ensure that you do as well as you can?

Last week I talked about one of my favourite quotes from FM Alexander’s books: “confidence is born of success, not of failure.”[1] It’s a quote that’s worth unpacking, because it can teach us a lot about how to organise our activities, goals and performances.

Following on from my favourite quote, FM reminds the reader that confidence isn’t just a fuzzy feeling – it is based on a foundation of what he calls “satisfactory experiences.” And if we want those, we need to plan out not just the ‘scaffolding’ of the satisfactory experiences themselves, but also how we are going to ensure that each experience is satisfactory.

So our task, then, is to construct for ourselves a confidence building success staircase that gets us comfortably from where we are to our chosen goal.

Tip 1: don’t make the success staircase too long

Let’s start off by checking that you have a goal, and that you’ve been realistic about it. Don’t make your goal too scary to begin with. It needs to be a little bit scary, otherwise you’re just working within your comfort zone and not improving. On the other hand, if the goal terrifies you, you’ve gone too far. For example, if I chose to enter myself for a triathlon, I’d be pushing myself too far. I may love running and cycling, but I can’t swim and actually risk panic attacks if I get in the water (it’s a long story…).

Know where to draw the line!

Tip 2: Construct a success staircase with graduated, logical steps

One of the best ways of feeling confident in a performance setting is to have done it many times before. But this isn’t always possible. For example, on Saturday I was fortunate to hear a talk by Dr Terry Clark of the Centre for Performance Science at the Royal College of Music. He remarked that even Conservatoire musicians might only appear in a very few actual concerts over the course of their degree.

Thee likelihood of feeling anxious is greatly increased if you haven’t had much experience in a particular setting. So it makes sense to do your best to prepare yourself by making small interim goals intended to create a confidence-building success staircase. This way, even if you can’t do a trial performance under the full performance conditions, at least you’ll have done everything to make the step up to performance conditions as simple and straightforward as you can.

What might a step on the success staircase look like in practice? It depends on what you feel you need to practice. At the Royal College of Music, for example, students book the virtual reality performance space simulator in order to accustom themselves to the process of events immediately pre-performance; they even show up in evening dress! My recorder quintet have been known to enter the local Eisteddfod in order to play a tricky new piece under performance conditions but with a small and friendly audience. One of my students had his final year recital at 9am, and so worked at changing his practice schedule to accustom himself to performing at his peak earlier in the day.

These are my suggestions for areas to consider when you are constructing your success staircase (I am assuming you have a goal/deadline and have sanity checked it):

  • What are the principal things about your chosen goal that might be tricky? (Time of day; difficulty of piece; playing in heels; feeling nervous before performing…)
  • Can you create a set of steps that will build your confidence to get you to your goal (practice at a different time of day; organise a trial run in front of friends; organise a dry run in someone else’s house/small safe venue; do a dry run in your performance gear; etc)?
  • After each step, evaluate what went well, and decide what aspects you need to address for the next step to be successful. You may even find you need to add in a step or two to address specific issues.

And have fun!

[1]  FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, IRDEAT, p.384. The paragraph following the footnote is based on this quote from the same page:

“our processes in education …[must] enable us to make certain of the satisfactory means whereby an end may be secured, and thus to command a large percentage of those satisfactory experiences which develop confidence…”

Photo by Phil_Bird on FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Water is not water: a swimmer’s view of staying in the present

swimming

When you swim, do you assume the water is always the same? Or when performing, is the audience just another audience?

Today might be the day you begin to re-evaluate!

I’ve just finished reading one of my Christmas presents – the autobiography of Australian swimming legend Ian Thorpe. He’s famous for his world record swims from the age of 14, his very large feet, and his decision to quit competitive swimming at age 24, at the height of his career.

The opening paragraphs of the book were a revelation to me, a non-swimmer who had never thought about water before. Here’s what Thorpe says:

“When I first dive into the pool I try to work out how the water wants to hold me. If I let it, the water will naturally guide me into a position; a place for my body to settle… This is the starting point for me, not just floating but lying flat on top of the water. Then I begin to initiate movement…”*

For Thorpe, water isn’t just Water, and a pool isn’t just A Pool. They aren’t constants. The water changes, and is different day by day. His first act when diving in isn’t to thrust forward and begin his swimming stroke. Rather, he waits for feedback from the water. He waits to find out what this water is like, today. How can he best swim in this water, on this day?

I was really struck by this because it reminded me of FM Alexander’s emphasis on analysing the conditions present as part of the development of what we now call the Alexander Technique. Alexander wanted us to take notice of what was happening around us, and then design a custom-built response. An off-the-shelf once size fits all solution wouldn’t be good enough, because Alexander said that in modern life “conditions change so constantly that they cannot be adequately met by any external standard or fixed code as to what is right or wrong.”**

So external conditions change. Water isn’t a constant, according to Ian Thorpe. At this point I began to think about other objects and places I or my students sometimes treat as unchanging constants. The thing is, the more I think about it, the fewer constants I can find.

An audience isn’t the same day to day.
A road isn’t the same day to day.
A musical instrument isn’t the same day to day.
A person isn’t the same day to day.

My challenge to you this week is a simple one: take a look at your daily activities. Are there any places/objects/people that you treat as being unchanging? Would it benefit you to try considering them changeable, and alter the way you react based on how they appear each day?

Oh, and if you want to read a wonderfully poetic musician’s take on the challenge of staying with present circumstances, read Patrick Smith’s blog.

* Ian Thorpe and Robert Wainwright, This is Me, Simon and Schuster, 2012, p. xi.
** FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the IRDEAT complete edition, p. 472.
Image by Salvatore Vuono from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Don’t settle for mediocre: FM Alexander on success

cake

How often do you settle for the thing that is okay, instead of pushing on further and risking being brilliant?

This happens to me every time I bake a cake. I love the baking, hate the decorating. My ideal cake is one that you can smother in icing sugar or cocoa powder and take straight to the table. Sadly, that means that often my cakes aren’t as appealing to look at as they ought to be, because I have not put in the extra effort to make them really special. When I watch the bakers n my favourite TV programme of the moment, BBC’s Great British Bake Off, I am filled with awe.

FM Alexander addresses this problem of tolerating mediocrity in his second book. He writes about how a student will have conceived of what the problem is (decorating is too difficult), will think about the reward for not having this problem (no messy icing sugar everywhere, no wasted time), and will come up with a ‘fix’ to get to the reward fastest (dust icing sugar over the cake).

The problem is that it doesn’t work. The cakes always look sort of reasonable, but not special. I can try to tell myself that I have done my best, but in my heart of hearts I know I’m kidding myself. I might be satisfying my belief structure (decorating is hard) and my conscience (I did my best), but in the end it just won’t wash, and it won’t get me beautiful cakes. To do that I need to do something new. To quote FM,

If [I] once stopped to reason the thing out, and based [my] judgement on the experience gained from the knowledge of previous failures, [I] would have to discard these orthodox plans and seek new ones. This would not be the easy way. It would be the difficult way.*

In other words, in order to go from making just okay cakes to knock ’em dead cakes, I need to reason out a new strategy. I need to take a reasoned, thought out risk.

And it might not work. The icing might go horribly wrong. But at least my cake wouldn’t be just okayish any longer. And the more I work on my new plan for icing, the better are my chances of success.

So when I get back home, I am going to try some new cake decorating ideas. Hw are you going to move beyond okayish and towards extraordinary?

* FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, IRDEAT edition, p.295.
Picture by Jennifer Mackerras

Make Allowances! Patience, Creativity and Alexander Technique

This is the third post in a short series on what FM Alexander can teach us about steps to creativity. The first post was called Make Mistakes! Last week’s post was called Make Decisions!

cat

A friend of mine sent her 4 year old son for his first day of school. When she picked him up, she asked him how the day had been. “It’s not right, Mummy,” he replied. “They haven’t taught me to read yet!”

It’s a funny story. We laugh because my friend’s child had unreasonably high expectations, both of the teacher and of themselves. But how often are we guilty of just this sort of impatience, this brand of unwillingness to make allowances for ourselves and others?

I subscribe to the newsletter produced by Michael Bungay Stanier, productivity expert and author of  Do More Great Work. He told the story this month of how he (briefly) considered writing the year off as a failure after he fell behind schedule with his plans of writing four books this year.

Often my students come for their lessons and complain bitterly about how the thing they most want to improve in themselves hasn’t shifted, or hasn’t shifted fast enough. They wonder why they are so stuck. I look at them and marvel at how fast they are changing.

Wondering why we aren’t fixed yet / finished yet / better yet is really a potent form of cognitive distortion. We are demanding of ourselves perfection, and becoming impatient when we fall short of the mark.

There are two important things to remember about creativity and change.

 

1. It isn’t a linear, constant progression.

Oddly, most of us seem to expect our progress to be a constant, steady movement forwards over time. This is a fallacy. Progress in the real world so often happens in fits and starts, giant leaps punctuated by long gaps of frustration.

Why?

First of all, we are human beings with lives and families and commitments. There are so many external variables that could go awry.

Second, because we are human, sometimes we get ourselves stuck. FM Alexander likens us to a man standing at a crossroads. We’ve tried one road and know that it doesn’t lead to where we want to go. But sometimes we would rather try that road again and again rather than take the other road. Or as AT teacher Frank Pierce Jones put it, “changes take place when you are ready for them and can permit them to happen.”

 

2. Success is guaranteed.

Yes, you read that correctly! This is what Alexander wrote:

Where the “means-whereby” are right for the purpose, desired ends will come. They are inevitable. Why then be concerned as to the manner and speed of their coming? We should reserve all thought, energy and concern for the means whereby we may command the manner of their coming.”

If we are following a good process, if we are following it faithfullyand with a sense of direction and control, we are guaranteed to have a positive outcome. Eventually.

So what is your relationship with perfection? Are you willing to allow yourself the time you need to do the process well, and leave the results to come when they are ready?

Image by Federico Stevanin from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

Alexander’s Three Steps to Success in Anything

person-writing

Is there something that you love to do, that you’d like to do better? Maybe it’s your Alexander Technique. Or maybe writing, or singing (my two current obsessions), or running… Maybe you’d like some advice on how to do these things better? Well…

Over the past week I’ve read three separate blogs by three thoroughly different writers, and all three have had the same theme: the importance of doing the work.

The first was by Seth Godin, and was called Talker’s Block. He wrote about the fact that people don’t eveer complain about not being able to talk – they just get on with it, because they don’t necessarily care about the quality of every word they speak. Yet writers can fall into the trap of caring about every word they write, to the point where they can stop writing altogether. What would happen if they just wrote a certain amount every day, and worried about the quality later?

The second article was by Chris Guillebeau. He wrote about the fact that writing a very large number of words, and more importantly, writing them regularly, was the key to his ability to write effective prose fairly quickly. The quality didn’t come first; the word count did.

Finally, author Sarah Duncan told a story about artist JMW Turner, who while out sketching was accosted by an admirer who wished to buy his sketch. When Turner asked for sixty guineas for a sketch that took 10 minutes to produce, the admirer was astonished. ‘Ah yes,’ JMW Turner is supposed to have replied.  ’10 minutes, and 40 years of experience.’ In other words,if you do something often enough for long enough, you are going to achieve a level of proficiency. Maybe even mastery.

This is something my singing teacher has been trying to tell me for… well, I am embarrassed to tell you how long. He doesn’t emphasise quantity of practice. He emphasises consistency and regularity.

You need to do the work.

This is something that FM Alexander also emphasised, and was the key to the creation of the work we call the Alexander Technique. If you read the chapter called Evolution of a Technique that describes the process of creation, you will notice all the references to time or consistent practice and experimentation. For example:

“I repeated the act many times…”
“I recited again and again in front of the mirror…”
“…all I could do was to go on patiently experimenting before the mirror. After some months…”
“It is difficult to describe here in detail my various experiences during this long period…” *

And all these references occur within three pages. There are plenty more in the rest of the chapter.

Doing the work

Okay, you say to me. We get it. If we want to be good at this Alexander stuff, or anything else for that matter, we need to work. But how do we do that?

Helpfully, Alexander told us that, too. He is quoted by a number of writers, including his niece Marjory Barlow, as saying this:

You can do what I do, if you do what I did.

So we need to:

  • Experiment. Try stuff out. Play. Have fun.
  • Do it a lot. By which I mean, do a bit every day.
  • Give ourselves the luxury of time. We live in a culture that expects instant results. This is far too great a burden to place on ourselves. If we give ourselves time, we take away a layer of stress and pressure to succeed. And that means, funnily enough, that we’ll be more relaxed and open, and therefore in the best condition to achieve success.

Success, according to Alexander, isn’t rocket science, and it isn’t a mystery. It’s just a matter of doing the work.

And we can all do that. Can’t we?

 

FM Alexander, Use of the Self in the Irdeat Complete Edition, pp.413-415.
Image by kristja, stock.xchng