Part of becoming an artist, or a true pro, is cultivating an internal locus of evaluation – our own personal concept of what success, excellence, and beautiful art means. What it sounds like, looks like, feels like. That is, after all, the basis of our artistic DNA, and what gives us our unique voice.
But if we stick our heads in the sand too deep, we can run into a different problem.
Our learning stagnates. We get stuck on a plateau.
We’ve all been there. Where we are putting in the time, and practicing harder than ever, but for some reason, we can’t take that next step forward. Frustrated, we begin to suspect that we must be missing something…some piece of knowledge, some tweak of our technique that that would help us break through the wall…but we have no idea what it could be.
So how do we break through these plateaus, and get unstuck?
When you go to graduate school in counseling or clinical psych, you begin working with real clients/patients in your second year of training. But to ensure you are actually doing good work, and to help further the development of your clinical skills, a big part of the next 5-7 years of your training involves working under the supervision of a licensed psychologist who signs off on your diagnoses, case notes, and meets with you weekly to review video of your sessions with clients.
I’d been taking weekly violin lessons for 20 years, and was used to being critiqued, so figured supervision wouldn’t be a big deal. Oof, was I wrong.
It’s uncomfortable enough to watch video of yourself in action on your own. It becomes a real challenge to your ego to watch video with your supervisor, whose job it is to be supportive, but also make observations about all the things you missed and ask you all the tough questions you aren’t experienced enough to know to ask yourself.
I always learned something, and supervision always helped me be more helpful to my clients, but it was hard not to beat myself up, wondering “How could I have missed that?” or “Why didn’t I think about that?”
Bruised though my ego may have been, the problem of course, is that we can’t work on things that aren’t in our conscious awareness.
I remember being confused when an interesting and thoughtful student once confessed to spending too much time working on imaginary problems. She went on to explain that these were the little tiny problems that she could spend forever on, but would only result in microscopic improvements in her playing while the high-value targets that would make a far greater difference in the quality of her playing were neglected.
We don’t ignore them on purpose. Often, we simply cannot see what the biggest areas for improvement in our playing might be.
Executive coaches utilize the conscious competence learning model to describe this phenomenon.
The first stage is unconscious incompetence, where we are blind to the things we need to work on.
The second stage is conscious incompetence, where we have an awareness and understanding of what it is that we need to work on.
The third stage is conscious competence, where we have worked on developing the new skill, but it still takes a great deal of awareness and concentration to execute. The skill hasn’t yet been automatized.
The last stage is unconscious competence, where the new skill has become second nature and is performed easily without needing to think about it.
We’re pretty good at stages 3 and 4, and can even navigate our way through stage 2 in many cases, but we can speed things up by getting outside help with stage 1.
Watch this 3-minute video of surgeon Atul Gawande describing this model.
When former #1-ranked tennis player Roger Federer decided to go it alone without a coach, it was big news. Many wondered what he could possibly be thinking. It’s assumed that the world’s best athletes should have coaches, and we think nothing of it.
But how would you feel if you were being wheeled into surgery for a major procedure, and discovered that your surgeon had hired a surgery coach to observe the operation? Would this put you more at ease, or heighten your anxiety and make you question your surgeon’s expertise?
It can be scary to open ourselves up to outside observation, to expose ourselves to critique when we feel like we are already professionals. But if we have reached a plateau, and can’t figure out how to take the next step, it might be time to shelve our ego for a moment and ask someone on the outside to tell us what they see.
After all, many top business execs have coaches. Vocalists have coaches. Even Itzhak Perlman has a coach (his wife, Toby, who also studied at Juilliard).
Do I have a coach? Well, unofficially yes. But I will admit that even though I trust my coach implicitly, know she’s my biggest fan, and recognize how much I depend on her input, I still feel my ego freaking out a little when I ask for honest feedback. But I’m always better for it, and besides, she (aka my wife) is going to tell me anyway even if I don’t always want to hear it.
Identify a coach you trust. A colleague, mentor, friend, or perhaps a spouse.
Screw up the courage to ask them for feedback on something that has you feeling stuck. Your playing. Your performing. Your teaching (somehow, this is often scarier than performance critiques). Heck, you could even get feedback on your parenting or negotiating skills or body language.
See what they notice. Were they the right person to fulfill this role? Did they see something that wasn’t in your conscious awareness, but might help you get unstuck?
The one-sentence summary
“In the absence of clearly defined priorities, we become strangely loyal to performing daily acts of trivia.” ~Unknown
Atul Gawande‘s terrific piece in The New Yorker about his experience with a surgery coach (includes more on Itzhak Perlman, and how much he relies on Toby’s ears): Coaching a Surgeon: What Makes Top Performers Better?