I remember sitting at a desk in my room in spring of my senior year, wondering where I should go for college.
I had an intriguing set of schools to choose from, but conspicuously absent from the list were the two schools that I really had my heart set on. And to that point in my life, receiving the telltale thin envelopes in the mail represented my biggest failure and disappointment. It doesn’t seem like such a big thing now, but at the time, it was a confusing mix of conflicting emotions and uncertainty as I tried to sort through this decision and not screw up the weighty choice ahead of me.1
Life is full of challenging, confusing, and uncertain moments. Situations where there are no clear answers, and it’s difficult to make sense of it all.
Like the breakup of a long-term romantic relationship. Or a conflict between friends. A decision about whether to switch teachers, studios, or even transfer to a different school. A growing rift between personalities in a quartet. How to deal with a stand partner who takes up too much space.
Conventional wisdom suggests that we should reflect on these experiences. To try to better understand our feelings and reactions to the situation and process them so we can achieve some sense of direction or closure. And certainly, there are times when this does seem to help.
But then there are the other times. Times when this kind of introspection just makes things worse. Leading to endless replays of the situation in our head, making us even more upset, and digging ourselves even deeper into the hole we’re trying to get out of.
So what are we to do? Just pretend it never happened and move on?
It can be a real boost to our self-esteem when we get 1st chair in youth orchestra, are accepted into the studio of a highly-regarded teacher, or advance to finals of an orchestral job for the first time.
But on the flip side, it can feel like a real kick in the pants when we lose that seat in a seating audition, our new teacher seems less than impressed with our playing, or we can’t seem to get out of prelims.
There are two common strategies that we instinctively use to handle such setbacks, and each of us has probably used them both at some point in our lives. But while both work ok in the short term, they have very different long-term trajectories. One paves the way for future success, while the other sets us up for more disappointment.
Hmm…so what are these two strategies, exactly?
Will that check clear in time to pay my Verizon bill? Will this plane get me to my destination safely? Was that brie in the fridge with the date I couldn’t make out really ok to eat?
We all worry about the “stuff” of our daily lives from time to time.
Most of it is innocent enough, but sometimes our worries go beyond the fleeting concerns that pass through our thoughts, and morph into a more debilitating type of worry – called “perseveration” worry. Where we get stuck in a worry loop, and like a broken record, can’t stop worrying even as it makes us feel increasingly stressed and anxious.
As can happen sometimes in the days (or weeks) before a big performance or audition, for instance. When we are plagued by thoughts like – What if I screw this up? What if I have a memory slip? What if my bow starts shaking and I can’t control it? What if I embarrass myself and stop getting asked to sub with this orchestra?
Some of us are more prone to worrying than others, of course. And some of us have a more difficult time stopping our worries too, once the vortex of doom sucks us in.
Why is it so hard to stop this kind of worry? Is there anything we can do to nip it in the bud? Or is worrying, while unpleasant, perhaps not such a bad thing?
I don’t know if any of my teachers ever said this out loud, or if it was just something I intuited, but I always had the impression that I was falling short of their expectations because I couldn’t bring myself to practice in a consistent and effective way.
So one day, I decided it was time to make a change. Time to buckle down and get really serious about practicing. I went to the bookstore, bought one of those hourly day planners, and sketched out exactly how I’d spend the next week. I mapped out when I’d practice, when I’d study, when I’d give myself down time, what I would work on, the whole nine yards.
It felt awesome to put it all down on paper. I immediately felt way more accomplished as I looked proudly at my uber-productive week ahead.
In reality, of course, my week ended up going nothing like how I planned it. And after a few such weeks, it began to feel pointless to even bother going through the motions of planning a week that I knew was never going to happen.
I found this all very frustrating. Why couldn’t I stick to a simple schedule? Was I not serious enough? Did I have motivation problems? A complete lack of self-control?
Or was I somehow going about this all wrong?