So often, if we’re really honest, we would love to be given the magic bullet that will fix our problems quickly.
The secret to playing that semiquaver passage.
The key to losing those last few pounds(kilos for me – I’m a metric girl).
The one thing that will make that bit of writing better.
Because if we were given that magic bullet, we wouldn’t have to go through the stress, struggle and frustration of not being sufficiently good enough. We’d be able to skip that nasty bit, and go straight on to the ‘doing it easily with no effort at all’ stage, quickly and easily. And there’d be no problems ever again…
Reality check 1: there is no magic bullet
There just isn’t. We know this. Dreaming about it is fun for a while, but ultimately doesn’t help us progress in our endeavours.
Reality check 2: even if there was a magic bullet, it wouldn’t mean the end of struggle
The simple fact of the matter is that, if we are progressing, we will always be running up against things we can’t do yet. This means that we will always experience some level of frustration.
I think the notion of the ‘struggle-free zone’ is a false belief based on the idea that there is some kind of condition of ‘perfect’ where, once our problems are sorted, everything will be easy. But a lot of problems just aren’t like that. There are a lot of activities and problems in the world that have no end point. For example, in his book The Myth of the Garage, Chip Heath relates the story of the program manager for the anti-smoking initiative in North Carolina, and how she approached the goal of reducing smoking across the state.* Even with the best will in the world, the chances of 100% success in stopping smoking across an entire state seems highly unlikely! To use a very different example, most actors will tell you that you never really finish working on a character – there is no point where you know everything that there is to know about Hamlet.
And on one level, we know this to be true. We know that, to quote FM Alexander, “if a person is to make [a] change successfully, it must be by a gradual process of change from day to day”**
The difficulty is that we don’t get much in the way of feedback when we’re in the midst of this gradual process. Students often report having the experience of feeling as though they aren’t making sufficient change when they’re working by themselves, or that they aren’t ‘doing it right’ because things aren’t changing as fast as they hoped.
And this is where grit comes in. Chip Heath describes grit as “endurance in pursuit of long-term goals and an ability to persist in the face of adversity.” What I like about this definition is that it has no reference to results, only to pursuit of goals. The reality of the creative life (actually, not just the creative life) is that most things aren’t easy, and very few of them have definite end points. We are making improvements one step at a time, one decision at a time. We don’t get (to borrow Heath’s words) the obvious “psychic payoff” of a categorical success; just the knowledge of another step taken.
How do we avoid the mystique of the magic bullet?
By making sure we keep our heads straight, and asking ourselves some simple questions.
- Is it a problem with a definite end point? (Baking a cake? Yes! Learning and performing a piece of music? Probably no)
- Am I prepared to look for, accept, and celebrate even small changes that move towards my goal?
- Can I find a way of helping me measure small improvement? (Recording my practice sessions, finding a friend to listen to me every couple of weeks, etc)
- Can I programme a periodic review, so that I can look back and assess how things are going over a longer time period?
Try these ideas out, and see if they help you deal with the frustration of the daily battle for improvement. Value grit, and eschew the magic bullet. And be sure to let me know how it turns out.
* Heath, C., The Myth of the Garage, Kindle ed., loc.747.
** FM Alexander, Universal Constant in Living in the IRDEAT ed., p.585.
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