The Most Valuable Lesson I Learned at Oberlin

I never planned on going to Oberlin, but nevertheless, that’s where I found myself one day as a lost and somewhat bewildered freshperson (yep, “Obies” were fond of their PC language). Oberlin’s liberal crunchy granola-ness threw me for a loop, and I was really turned off by the idealism I found myself surrounded by. A whole campus of folks who thought they could actually change the world? Singlehandedly? Sheesh. The corny recruiting poster that seemed to be everywhere on campus was a frequent source of irritation (and for those who cannot make out the text in this photo, it says “Think one person can change the world? So do we.”).

In hindsight, I suppose I became an Obie because it’s what I needed most to learn. Now that poster doesn’t seem so corny. The idea that we can singlehandedly change the world seems almost self-evident. What caused such a turnaround?

I learned that talent is overrated as a predictor of success.

For much of my life, I operated under the naive assumption that the cream always rises to the top, and if you were talented, you would be successful. But that’s not often the case. Think about the most successful people you know. Are they also the smartest, most gifted, most talented folks you know? Probably not.

So what can we take from that?

To me, it means that we are all far more capable of making a difference in the world and leaving a bigger footprint than we give ourselves credit for. But how?

Poet Nancy Willard once said, “Sometimes questions are more important than answers.” Well, if that’s the case let’s ask some questions, shall we?

1. Audacity

In his 1903 play Man and Superman, George Bernard Shaw wrote “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” This “unreasonable” quality, the audacity, and willful overestimation of one’s potential to shape the world is common amongst those who do in fact go on to leave a big footprint on the world.

But interestingly, I don’t think most deliberately set out to change the world. What happens is that they stumble across something that irritates them. They get a picture in their head of a world in which things are different. This image in their head becomes so compelling, so enticing, that the status quo becomes increasingly unacceptable, and drives them to take action and make the world more like the one they see in their head. Like Steve Jobs with the iPhone and what a phone ought to be. Larry Page and Sergey Brin with Google and what the experience of searching for information online should be like. Drew Houston and Arash Ferdowsi with Dropbox and how we ought to be able to access our important documents and files from any phone, computer, or tablet anytime, anywhere.

Key Questions: Ask yourself, “What gets under my skin? What about the status quo is a source of irritation?” Whether it’s world hunger, speed bumps, or the scarcity of high-quality organic underwear for children, write down and keep track of the thoughts that pop into your head.

You’re likely to have a rather long list, and many of the irritations or frustrations will be legitimate, but not compelling enough to motivate action. The fact that hot dogs come in a 10-pack, while buns come in either an 8 or 12-pack is beyond irritating, but I can still get to sleep at night and I’m not so impassioned about a world in which hot dogs and buns come in equal numbered packages that I’m motivated to make that a reality.

The discrepancy between the world as it is, and the alternate world as you envision it must be large and personally meaningful enough to make it worth your time, energy, and effort. You have to fall in love with your vision of a slightly better world. It has to be so compelling to you that you can’t not do everything in your power to make it real.

Watch this compelling Seth Godin video on rejecting the status quo.

2. Commitment

Einstein said that nothing happens until something moves. He may not have been talking about human behavior per se, but the same principle holds true. As nice as it may be to have compelling dreams and positive thoughts in your head, if you don’t take action, not much is going to change.

“I need to be a better sight reader.” “I want to be principal in a major orchestra.” “I’d love to have my own string instrument shop.” These are all nice sentiments, but pretty weak statements.

What do I mean?

They are all statements of preference, or wishful thinking. You’re saying I’m interested in the idea of being a good sight reader or I’d like to be a better sight reader, but you’ve not yet decided to do what it takes to be a better sight reader. You haven’t made a commitment.

An Isaac Stern story I have heard illustrates nicely the difference between wishful thinking and commitment. As the story goes, a concertgoer approached Stern after a concert and exclaimed “Oh, Mr. Stern, I’d give my life to be able to play the way you do!” Stern’s response , “Lady, that I did.”

Key Questions: Ask yourself, “What have I decided? What would I be doing today if I were truly committed to _______?”

What would I be doing if I were committed to carving out a performing career for myself? To winning a principal job with the Boston Symphony? To garnering a recording contract? To starting my own record label? Transforming the classical music industry? Changing the way in which students are taught music?

Again, choose wisely, because though we can do most anything we put our minds to, we can’t do everything. We must choose what resonates, inspires, and motivates us the most because these are the big fat juicy goals that are the most meaningful to us and are deserving of the time, energy, and commitment it will take to get there.

In fact, what decision are you making right now regarding this post? Are you going to choose to write out answers to these questions? Do the action steps below? Or put it off for “later”? Indeed, we make lots of decisions every day, but many of them happen on autopilot.

For instance, do you want to practice more, or have you decided to practice more? Do you want to get into better shape, or have you decided to get into better shape?

Furthermore, how does it feel when you say “I am committed to becoming a more dynamic and inspiring performer” vs. saying “I want to be a more dynamic and inspiring performer.”

Isn’t it amazing how much of a difference one word can make?

3. Action

Once you have made a decision about what you are committed to, and what you are and aren’t willing to accept in your life, action is required to make your imagined world a reality.

My kids stumbled across a TV show called Wipeout this summer. They thought it was the most hilarious thing ever, and had me look up episodes online, find YouTube clips, and create wipeout courses in our home. In the midst of all of this, I came across a fellow who wanted more than anything to be a contestant on the show. He had a website. He had YouTube videos. He got his family involved. His commitment blew me away. He decided that he was going to be on the show, and he went all-out. Held nothing back. His audition video really says it all. In fact, it ended up being voted the best audition video. It’s truly something to behold. Take a look.

Key Questions: Ask yourself, “Am I doing everything I can to make my biggest, juiciest goals a reality?” Really? Is there anything else I could possibly do to take another step closer to my vision? Any stone left unturned? What’s the very next physical action I could take to move me — even slightly – in the direction of my goal? Where am I holding back?

Take action

Ask yourself the above questions, write down your thoughts, and make concrete plans to take action. The world doesn’t benefit from us playing small. And yes, the world probably doesn’t benefit much from cocky arrogant tools either, but we are always in need of more audacious, committed, and bold adventurers, who have the courage to absolutely carpe the crap out of the diem.

But before you run off to change the world, take a moment to soak in the following examples of others who have asked themselves the same questions and taken bold committed action based upon the answers they came to.

1. Dropbox

This fascinating and inspiring piece on the founders of Dropbox illustrates all three of the ingredients described above. From a few lines of code started out of frustration on a bus trip to 50 million users and a 9-figure acquisition offer from Steve Jobs (which they turned down, by the way), this is a great story because it’s typical of what success looks like. As Beverly Sills once said, “There are no shortcuts to any place worth going”.

Read it here.

2. Steve Jobs

And speaking of Steve Jobs, here is perhaps my favorite speech, and easily one of the most inspiring talks I’ve ever heard – the famed 2005 Stanford commencement address in which he shares three stories from his life that illustrate his perspective on chasing one’s dreams and changing the world.

Watch it here.

3. Loren Halter

Lest you think that one has to become CEO of a Google or an Apple to change the world, read about how one Oberlin grad sought to change the world on a small island in the South Pacific that I had never heard of before.

Read it here.

4. You

When all is said and done, what would you love your story to read like? It doesn’t have to impress anyone or be worthy of a made-for-TV special. It only has to mean something special to you.

The one-sentence summary

“The key to immortality is first living a life worth remembering.”   ~Bruce Lee

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

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Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.


7 Responses

  1. Excellent post! You have an easy way of communicating with your audience. I may not agree with everything you wrote. I still believe that talent combined with hard work still seems to create the best of the best. At the same time, the rest of your post on serious diligence, vision, and action are excellent general principles that can be applied to a person’s desire to be the best at anything. These principles ought to be taught explicitly in schools, because not all children have parents who can role model these ideas. I know these are principles I am applying to my dream to be a writer by first blogging. Thank you for helping me to focus further on my dreams.

    1. Hey Monique!

      Indeed, talent must be there in some amount, but fortunately there’s more to the equation than that. It is interesting to think about how different we would all be if principles such as persistence, goal-setting, and so on were explicitly taught in school during our formative years. On a related note, I’ve started to notice some of these principles represented in recent kids’ cartoons. Or maybe that always the case, and I just didn’t pick up on it when I was younger? There is a recent My Little Pony episode that I watched several times because I was so taken by the lesson they wove into the storyline…

  2. A great perspective, reminder and encouragement. Six years ago I returned to clarinet after 42 year hiatus from a very mediocre beginning. Progress and opportunities now seem almost unbelievably good. I feel you speak to me as well as your students. Encouragement to your students looking a few decades out. Thank you and I look forward to more.

  3. I’m curious, what do you mean by “successful”? Different cultures, and different people within those cultures, have different notions of what that means.

    1. Hi Jesse,

      Good question. Success is indeed one of those slippery constructs like “happiness” that’s tricky to operationalize, and I think we all probably have different ideas or definitions of what we think success would look like for us.

      Looking back on this, I think I was thinking about success not just in the most generic sense, as in having achieved a level of achievement based on societally agreed upon standards like being in the top x% of one’s field, having won an Avery Fisher grant, etc. But also in the more personal sense, as in having had a big, fat, juicy goal, and successfully arriving at that destination despite the hurdles which may have been in the way.

  4. I always find your posts helpful, encouraging, and useful for pulling me (and my students too) out of unproductive and toward more productive attitudes and ways of working.
    This post goes beyond the others: it is inspired.

    1. Thank you Marilyn. It’s interesting, the further away I get from my time at Oberlin, the more I realize I gained from my experiences there and the more fondly I look back upon those years.

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