Why Do Our Buts Carry So Much Weight?

I happened to hear a talk this week by a gentleman who is presently in charge of one of the premier performing arts institutions in the world.

His words and vision for the future of both this organization and the classical music industry were inspiring on many levels, but what resonated with me most were the stories of his own unexpected journey to such an esteemed position. A place which, if I understood correctly, he had never even thought to consider as a possible destination.

How did he get there?

One recurring theme in his stories was optimism. Not blind optimism, but rather, the certainty that if an idea was truly special, extraordinary, remarkable, and worth pursuing (as in, now that I’ve thought of it, I’m no longer content to live in a world in which this does not exist), he would find a way to make it happen.

It’s the same sort of optimism that is common to many other visionary leaders and successful entrepreneurs.

Why don’t more of us possess this quality? What’s the main thing that gets in our way and prevents us from making a bigger difference in our world and community?

Buts: The optimism-killer

Our “buts”.

Fresh, new, innovative, different, visionary, and potentially transformative ideas are usually received by others with initial skepticism and a slew of reasons why it won’t work. Case in point, the original iPad, and the negative pre-release press it received: LA Web Design Blog, MarketWatch, Gizmodo.

In much the same way, when we get a great idea about something we’d like to do someday, our own “but” is usually not far behind.

I really love that horn. But it’s out of my price range…

I’d love to enter that competition. But it’s an awful lot of repertoire to learn, but it’s so far away, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to even get a tape made in time, and what are the chances of me winning anyway?

I’d love to meet Yo Yo Ma and ask him a few questions about arts entrepreneurship over coffee. But I’m just little ol’ me, and how would I even get his contact info anyway? I’m sure he’s crazy busy and wouldn’t have time, plus he’s probably never going to pass within 100 miles of here anytime soon…etc.

Sure, sometimes our buts are valid, but that doesn’t mean the idea itself isn’t worth pursuing. We owe it to ourselves (and the world at large) to at least give our ideas and dreams a fighting chance.

The problem with our buts

The problem with buts, is that they tend to lead to inaction. They convince us that the best course of action is to do nothing, thereby maintaining the status quo and stunting our growth.

The buts are an extension of our tendency to underestimate ourselves. Or more specifically, to underestimate future us.

See, we know who we were yesterday. But we’re not especially well-acquainted with who we are today. And we haven’t the foggiest idea who we could be in the future.

In much the same way that my 4-year old has no way of knowing if she will like cayenne-spiced peanut butter and banana on cinnamon raisin bread sandwiches when she is 21, we have no idea who we will be in 5, 10, or 20 years either, and what that version of us will be capable of.

After all, we are not the ones who will be getting admitted to Curtis someday, or playing principal in the Chicago Symphony, or directing our own music festival, or organizing an online international contemporary harpsichord trio competition. That’s something only future us can do.

Our job is to educate and stretch the capacities of present-day us, so that future us will have had the requisite experiences necessary to be capable of taking hold of the reigns when the time comes.

In other words, our job is to keep our buts from getting in our own way.

As this speaker noted to the group, we will all be doing things in the future that we cannot possibly envision or predict in advance. Our best bet is to do our absolute best with whatever is in front of us right now, and keep an eye to the future by following our natural curiosities where they may lead us.

Take Action

Simple. Don’t let the buts have the last word. Acknowledge the but, but then rebut the but with a series of opposing viewpoints and alternate possibilities.

Here’s an example of how that dialogue might go:

Yes, the horn is expensive, but there must be a way to raise the funds. Maybe I could take out a loan, or convince them to agree to some sort of payment plan. Maybe I could organize some sort of fundraising event, or get donations, or find a sponsor, or submit a grant proposal, or sell copies of my own cd…..etc.

The one-sentence summary

“How often in life we complete a task that was beyond the capability of the person we were when we started it.”  ~Robert Brault

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

For most of my life, I assumed that I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, with time and performance experience, the nerves would just go away.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.


5 Responses

  1. Excellent post Dr. Noa!! Thanks for the encouragement to not get stuck in our thinking small! Also, love the elephant photo!

  2. A simple advice I heard was to replace “but” with “and.”

    It was a device to help build your improvisational skills. Instead of saying “Yes, but”, go for “Yes, and.”

    I’m tempted to replace all the but’s here with and’s. But I don’t have time? And I may have time!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You'll also receive other insider resources like the weekly newsletter and a special 6-day series on essential research-based practice strategies that will help you get more out of your daily practice and perform more optimally on stage. (You can unsubscribe anytime.)

Download a

PDF version

Enter your email below to download this article as a PDF

Click the link below to convert this article to a PDF and download to your device.

Download a

PDF version

All set!


The weekly newsletter!

Join 45,000+ musicians and get the latest research-based tips on how to level up in the practice room and on stage.



Discover your mental strengths and weaknesses

If performances have been frustratingly inconsistent, try the 4-min Mental Skills Audit. It won't tell you what Harry Potter character you are, but it will point you in the direction of some new practice methods that could help you level up in the practice room and on stage.