How Can We Develop a More Courageous Mindset? (Plus, the Secret of Life)

I was at a really intriguing music conference this past week, where one of the sessions centered around the fear of failure. The question was, how can we help young musicians, particularly in colleges and conservatories, develop a more courageous, resilient, and risk-willing (or whatever the opposite of risk-averse might be) mindset?

Why should we care about such a thing, you ask?

Well, it’s been argued that success in today’s marketplace is increasingly dependent on the level of creativity and innovation we bring to the table – not just in music, but education, engineering, medicine, business, and heck, pretty much everywhere else.

And if it’s true that “If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative” (Woody Allen), learning how to develop the courage to take risks, go for the edges, and face the possibility of failure is a key skill that our futures all depend on.

But, as one of the students in attendance asked, “What if we’ve set a goal for ourselves that is unattainable? Where we just may not have the talent, ability, or good fortune to ever get there?”

Hmm…that’s a toughie. How would you respond?

The end of history illusion

There is an interesting study which came out just last week that I think provides some interesting insight. It was called The End of History Illusion and described how 19,000 participants, ranging from age 18 to 68 consistently underestimated how much they would change over the next decade.

They were asked to evaluate how much they had changed over the last ten years – from their personality, to core values, and likes/dislikes. Then they were asked to predict how much they would change in the next decade ahead. Interestingly, no matter how young or old they were, even though they acknowledged how much they had changed in the previous ten years, they consistently underestimated how much they would change in the next ten years.

What does this have to do with courage?

I suspect that we not only underestimate how much our personality, core values, and likes and dislikes will change, but how much we will change in the domain of expertise and skill development as well.

For instance, ten years ago, I swore to my wife that we would never live in NYC, let alone raise kids in such an environment. I insisted on grass, a yard, grocery stores with wide aisles, malls, Target, Costco, cockroach and rodent-free housing, and a place to kick around a soccer ball with the kids. Well, turns out I don’t like maintaining a yard, prefer walking to the grocery store than driving, and love raising kids in the city. In fact, as of this moment, I can’t imagine wanting to live anywhere other than NYC. Of course, given the end of history illusion, who knows what I will be saying in another ten years…

Likewise, it’s mind-boggling to think of all that I’ve learned, and the skills I’ve developed in the last ten years. Never in a million years would (or could) I have envisioned most of what I now do on a daily basis.

The problem with not being psychic

Even though we will probably learn, grow, and develop just as much in the next ten years as we did in the previous ten, because we’re not psychic, it’s nigh impossible to imagine exactly who we can or will become in ten years. Given this massive blind spot, we are likely to underestimate the capacity of our future self, and thus make decisions about our future based on who we are today.

Meaning, we are likely to avoid taking on projects or pursuing avenues that appear to be out of our league – or more accurately, the league of present-day us.

But, haven’t you ever taken on a project without realizing how difficult it was, and then got so deeply entangled in it that you had no choice but to rise to the challenge and deliver results even if you may have been in over your head?

Isn’t it remarkable what future you is capable of, if you just give him or her a chance?

To borrow from one of my favorite quotes, “How often in life we complete a task that was beyond the capability of the person we were when we started it.” (Robert Brault)

To go back to the student’s question above, we can’t possibly know in advance with 100% certainty what we are or are not capable of. And if we fail to start until we can know for certain, we’ll likely never start anything worth doing. The more important question is whether the path or avenue excites, inspires, or motivates us. That drive, that intense need to pursue something, fix something, change something, learn something, can be priceless.

Take action

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “He who is not everyday conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life.”

If indeed we are to make the most of our gifts, talents, and abilities, and if indeed growth occurs at the boundaries of our comfort zone, then doing one thing every day that makes us uncomfortable, that stretches us slightly forward, will help us become the person we have the capacity to be.

Whether it’s simply smiling at a stranger, asking the checkout person at the grocery store to double check a questionable price, or stopping in the middle of a crowded street to pick up a penny, these tiny acts of courage will become a habit, which in turn will become part of your character and give rise to a more courageous future you.

It may help to remind yourself that these daily acts of courage are not about success or failure. The more important question is, do you want to be the kind of person who acts courageously despite the fear? Or the kind of person who succumbs to the fear, and fails to act?

I think all of us know which person we’d rather be. It just takes some practice, patience, and committment to make this a habit. Heck, I’m still kicking myself for failing to pick up a penny I saw on the street earlier this week. Which reminds me, a dose of self-compassion certainly doesn’t hurt either…

photo credit: jinterwas via photopin cc

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18 Responses

  1. I’m often amazed at how few young conservatory colleagues of mine fail to understand that an active pursuit of personal growth is the quickest and only way to develop further as a musician and, of course, a person. Many are outstanding musicians but are stuck from a developmental standpoint because they never question why they think a certain way about themselves or improvement or how they treat others, etc. They don’t let themselves improve because they don’t realize that one can radically change “innate” beliefs.

    A quote last week from an article about short-story writer George Saunders in the NY Times Magazine gets at the point: “Even for those thousands of young people who don’t get something out there, the process is still a noble one – the process of trying to say something, of working through craft issues and the worldview issues and the ego issues – all of this is character-building.” But many students don’t see that the study of music is a study into your own limits (and expanding them) as much as a way to figure out how to perfectly execute a gesture with character and expression. It is a vehicle to go deeper into yourself and towards a greater understanding of a very specific vocation.

    1. That’s a great quote from George Saunders. Indeed, I suspect the pursuit of mastery in any field, music or otherwise, is always a worthwhile endeavor, wherever it may ultimately lead.

      To use another quote attributed to Emerson (though I wish I could change the last word to “mastery”): “The sum of wisdom is that time is never lost that is devoted to work.”

    2. I have some sympathy for the conservatory kids — the world spends 18 years teaching them the mantra of “no mistakes, ever” and to be honest, that IS what juries will toss them for. Get it right, play the notes as written, etudes, scales, no you did that part wrong, etc. etc. etc. Graded classes and exams, A, B, C, etc. And then they turn 18 and suddenly, everyone’s going, “Why aren’t you creative? Why aren’t you thinking outside the box we’ve locked you in for the last 18 years?” 🙁

      They’ve spent 18 years being graded by adults, passing exams, and otherwise getting absolutely unambiguous judgment leveled at them. And after almost two decades of that, suddenly we change the rules on them. Be compassionate.

      1. Hear hear!

        I’ve often thought the same thing about how kids are raised in autocratic institutions where they have almost no say or control, which is often compounded by an autocratic home life. Then people wonder why at the age of 18 most of these kids don’t suddenly become interested, capable citizens active in democratic, representative government.

        These types of issues — such as creativity, autonomy, and productive interdependence — are precisely why I’m consciously deschooling myself from traditional pedagogic theories and striving to create a rich, supportive unschooling nest for our family, where natural learning based on passionate interests, innate skills, and self-chosen goals can unfold.

  2. “Failure” at what? According to whom? What is the “goal?” There are layers & shades of meaning in the concept in the first place. “Failure” at the mechanical/technical requirements? Or “failure” to achieve those of an artist who is mature and has been established in the profession for many years? Then time may be the problem rather than capability. “Failure” at achieving the “making a living” level? – Then I’d ask “at what?” Example, music ed people who find work soon after the Bachelor’s or Master’s degree are “successful.” However, those seeking a performance career have a different time & education / training framework. This is a very big concept that involves the intersection between numerous factors: initial career goal / technical expertise level / education & training desirable / networking & marketing oneself / all while keeping up one’s practicing, not to mention positive psychological factors.

    How to respond to the concern: With comments & questions that help the person pin down their precise concept of “failure.” If they have demonstrated true commitment & discipline in seeking their goal as musician, they may have a misplaced or premature judgment of where they are in the process.

    As for the unexpected opportunity: I was challenged a year ago to try a musical project that I NEVER aspired to or even considered in the furthest reaches of my long life as a musician. A complete surprise. I gave it a go, and turns out some unique aspects of my background made it a success, with requests for “more!” And (so far ) it has actually felt quite natural and fairly easy. – Just one experience that demonstrates that the unanticipated CAN happen.

  3. I keep thinking of Zoe Keating when discussions like this come up. When she was 18, she would have been considered an out-and-out failure. Washout, can’t take it, doesn’t have the guts, such a disappointment, and she was so promising, etc. etc. etc.

    Look where she is now — jetting all over the planet, getting genius grants, making a good living on her music, and things are only moving upward for her, and fast. No one in the world could have imagined that she would be making a living on her music, and making some of the most beautiful, imaginative, and cutting-edge classical music.

    When I was younger, I didn’t only NOT write music, I was positive that I couldn’t. I mean positive. I knew it like I knew my height, weight, and eye color. Turns out I was dead wrong, and I didn’t know it until I was 44!

    Besides, even if your original goal isn’t the one you wind up at (mine certainly isn’t, and I won’t pretend I’m over it or ever will be), you need to be moving to steer. Careers are like bicycles. If you want to steer or stay up, you need to be moving.

  4. I know this site is focused on self-actualization, and I enjoy the empowered attitude thus manifested and engendered. As an educator, I nonetheless find myself wondering how those of us who teach young artists motivate our students to take risks. The piece I take away today is that I need to find ways to reward risk-taking behavior. If small risks are never rewarding, the big risk will never be taken.

    1. Hi Kathryn,

      That is indeed the big question, isn’t it? How to foster an environment in which students can be rewarded for taking meaningful risks, despite the reality of grades, the need for high standards of excellence, and so on.

      I like this particular example from Randy Pausch’s book The Last Lecture: Be the First Penguin

      Perhaps other readers have ideas they’ve tested out with students themselves?

      1. The only thing that’s worked for me is to set aside a special “don’t worry about mistakes” time. There are times when I bust it to get things exactly right, and there are other times (not overwhelmingly often but definitely there) where I explicitly turn off the critical part of my head and just let myself make noise. It’s hard, especially on the piano where improvisation is hideously hard for me. On viola, I’m only playing one note at a time, and I have less pedagogical history with it. Improv and noodling on that is much easier for me, even though I’m really not that good on it.

        A periodic workshop where teachers and students can work together to do different things outside of both of their comfort zones might help. It needs to be outside both of their happy places I think, or else the teacher might not be able to resist the correcting reflex if they think the student is doing something wrong. (Telling a student, “Go beyond right and wrong! Oops, except you did that part wrong there,” is going to send a VERY mixed message.) Say neither of them is very experienced at dealing with quarter-tone music. Maybe they can both work on some Arabic music together from time to time.

        Basically, students will learn to take risks if they see the teacher as willing to take risks alongside them. A teacher who is not willing to screw up in front of their students will not be able to convince their students to do the same.

      2. You know that was a lot of words for a simple idea: if you want to teach your students to take risks, let them see you take them.

        Find a musician who plays some music outside your comfort zone, and invite them to your class. In class, have that person teach you, a public music lesson, how to play some simple piece of music that you aren’t familiar with. Erhu music. Arabic music. Jazz. Improv something. Let your students watch you and see how you cope with it. Get outside of YOUR comfort zone where they can see.

        Hell, maybe one of your students plays some unfamiliar type of music and they can suggest someone to invite in for this.

        If you want to teach your students how to risk, first explain how YOU risk. Then, find a way to let them watch.

  5. I couldn’t imagine being who I am today even 6 or 7 years ago. At least for me the period of life from college in 2004 to today has been an area of rapid growth and the past two years that I’ve been in Los Angeles has been even more meaningful.

    I love the idea of daily actions that make you uncomfortable. It’s not about conquering overwhelming fears flawlessly but about building the daily habit with overcoming smaller fears.

    Danger is real but fear is in the mind.

  6. I’ve only just begun playing music (the saxophone) at the ripe old age of 34, and your post spoke to me at exactly the right time!

    Being an expert at my day job and an absolute beginner in music, it takes a lot of courage for me to even play a few notes in front of other people. Unlike blissfully ignorant kids, I’m well aware of how bad I sound, and how good the instrument is supposed to sound. In need of the courage to be incredibly imperfect, your post inspired me. Thank you.

  7. Being a history buff, it brings to mind U.S. Grant in the Civil War. His outstanding characteristic as a Commander was that he was not afraid of failure (he’d been there). This was allied/related to his confidence in his ability to handle situations as they came up.

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