I loved the X-Men comics as a child, so I was pretty excited when my 8-year old started getting into the X-Men a few weeks ago.

As we geeked out about the different mutant powers, and talked about which character we would love to be, we also talked about why so many sought to hide their strengths, and were ashamed and afraid of what made them so special.

What I think he finds so compelling about the X-Men is that each one has a unique singular strength. And yet despite their great power, they are in many ways also very human, with many of the same physical, mental, and emotional vulnerabilities we all share – from fear, to shame, loneliness, and so on.

Silly though it may seem, our X-Men geekfest actually parallels two themes that have been gaining significant traction in the field of psychology in recent years.

One, the importance of focusing on our strengths – not just our weaknesses. And two, the role of vulnerability in forging deep meaningful connections with others.

So how might these themes relate to becoming better artists?

Looking for what ails us

For many decades psychology was built on a foundation which centered around pathology, or what eminent psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman has called the “disease model.” It was all about finding flaws, weaknesses, and figuring out what was wrong with you.

This was important at the time, and did serve a purpose, helping to increase the rigor of the field and making it more evidence-based.

However, psychologists began to realize that helping miserable people become less miserable doesn’t automagically reveal a gleaming inner core of joy and chocolate-coated awesomeness. That is to say, the absence of depression isn’t happiness, it’s blah. Fine. Shrug. Meh.

Going from -10 to 0 is certainly a big deal, but isn’t it also important to know how we get to +10?

How do we help folks lead more productive, meaningful, and fulfilled lives? How do we enhance peoples’ natural talents and gifts and help them raise their performance to an even higher level?

Milking our strengths

It turns out it’s a whole different set of skills.

Sure, it’s important to obsess over all the particular technical or musical details which we struggle with. But are we also spending enough time identifying, nurturing, honing, and maximizing the things we naturally do best, that come easily to us?

Remediating our weaker areas until they are merely average won’t allow us to reach our potential. Owning our strengths, and really milking them for all they’re worth is how we become something special, or superhero-y (superheroic? is there even a word for this?).

Steve Kerr didn’t help the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs win a combined 5 NBA championships by posting up other guards or driving into the lane for dunks. He focused on long-range shooting, and ended his career as the NBA’s all-time leader in 3-point shooting accuracy.

Ben Wallace didn’t win a championship with the Pistons, become a four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, and break the record for number of games played by an undrafted player because of his shooting touch. He overcame the limitations of being undersized for his position and having the worst free-throw shooting percentage of all time by focusing on rebounding and blocking shots.

In much the same way, a colleague once suggested to a student preparing for a big orchestra audition that he stop seeing each excerpt as a test that would expose his weaknesses, but instead, to identify his strengths and begin looking for more opportunities to showcase his best qualities in each excerpt. To reveal, for better or worse, who he really was as a musician and allow the orchestra to see how he could be an asset to the section.

On some intuitive level we already know how important this is. So what’s holding us back?

Vulnerability

Dr. Brené Brown is a researcher and professor at the University of Houston, who has been studying vulnerability and shame for the last decade.

She explains in her epic TED talk below, that ultimately, we are afraid of being ourselves. Of revealing to the world who we truly are. And having the world tell us that who we are at our core is simply not enough. Check it out if you haven’t already seen it. 15 million-ish views suggests that there is something in her message that resonates with us on a pretty deep and meaningful level.

Violinist Ivry Gitlis expressed a similar sentiment in a recent Strad interview, commenting on the proliferation of “reliable” but unremarkable performances that don’t contain enough of the person behind the instrument.

Take action

Strengths

What is the thing you care about most, and do best? What is your “superpower”?

Consider each of your students. What is their superpower, the thing each of them does best, and makes them uniquely them? As X-Men mentor Professor Xavier might, how could this superpower be nurtured, cultivated, and supported to blossom into something truly remarkable?

Vulnerability

What would it mean to be a whole-hearted artist?

Would it mean being even more overtly personal beyond just your playing? As in sharing your poetry inspired by the music in program notes, for instance? Or speaking from the stage about why you chose the pieces you did, and how one of them reminds you of a time growing up when you felt like you were invisible, while your sister was getting all the attention?

I’d be curious to hear your thoughts in the comments below…

Additional Resources

Brené Brown’s follow-up TED talk (including one of the awesomest quotes ever): Listening to Shame

Brené Brown’s blog

Shawn Achor’s entertaining TED talk on positive psychology and his sister the unicorn: The Happy Secret to Better Work

photo credit: J. Star via photopin cc