Monday, February 15, 2010

What Defines You?

Watching the Olympics provides a great opportunity to see the effect of attitude on performance. Last night, Iris and I watched the Paired Figure Skating Short Program competition. Although, we were watching world class skaters, the expressions of attitude varied dramatically. Some couples seemed to be completely at ease both with their performances and with each other. Others seemed to be quite tense and even fearful.

Interestingly, the couples who seemed most at ease also seemed to fare best in the competition. As the broadcast switched from sport to sport, this combination of being more relaxed and performing better seemed to go hand-in-hand.

Learning to Perform
I went to music school in Boston at a place called Berklee College of Music. In many ways, Berklee can be a tough place to learn music; it's highly competitive with really good competitors. The expectations and demands are high.

I remember the first day of my ear-training class where the teacher dropped the needle in the middle of a Coltrane solo and said, "Write this down." And some of my classmates did. So you learned to do it, or you didn't. When I was there, almost half the freshman class didn't come back the next year.

The cool thing about Berklee was this: if you really, really wanted to learn music and to work in music, Berklee was the place to go. They had more graduates working in music than any other school.

Attitude is Everything
Much of what I learned from my teachers at Berklee wasn't so much about the technical aspects of music as it was from how they approached music and the attitudes they brought to their approach. My composition and arranging teacher had been a really great guitar player whose carpel-tunnel had made it impossible for him to play without great pain. And yet, he seemed completely undaunted. While actively pursuing various measures to correct the challenges of carpel-tunnel, he began playing keyboards with his good hand.

One day, while talking about these nifty electrodes attached to his his wrist and elbow (it was the late 70's), he explained that prior to becoming a musician, he'd been a painter. He loved art and wanted to make a career of it. However, somewhere in the process, he discovered that he was completely colorblind.

His teachers told him that there was no way for a colorblind artist to make it as a professional. "No worries", he replied. He would simply work exclusively in monochrome (work in just a single color with varying degrees of light or brightness). He spent weeks working on various pieces that were just blues or just reds or just oranges, etc. He then brought some in for review proudly displaying what he'd done.

One of his instructors commented, "I thought you were going to work only in monochrome?" to which he replied, "Yeah, I did... didn't I?"

So, he decided to become a musician instead. No matter what, he always moved forward. His attitude was always optimistic and upbeat. He was a real inspiration.

Just a Little Extra Walking Around Money
My theory teacher was a gruff and curmudgeonly guy who totally knew his stuff: not just from a memorization or by the book perspective, but from a complete, working understanding that allowed him to visualize and hear every concept he taught. Everyone was pretty much afraid of him. In addition to teaching a Berklee, he was also one of the top local sax players in Boston. When national tours would come to town, he would often get picked up to fill in the local shows.

One day, after a performance the night before, he commented on attitude and playing sax. He said that, whenever he gets picked up to play with a touring act, he's much more likely to make a mistake than the guys doing it all the time. And yet, when he does make a mistake it's gone. On the other hand, when a touring guy does make a mistake, it's a guarantee that he'll make at least two to four more.

He went on to say that, for the touring guys, the tour is the gig. For him, it's just a little extra walking around money. He didn't get all wound up about making mistakes; they were just mistakes. For the touring guys, mistakes were much more.

The Drunks, Druggies and Sex Fiends
Of course, not everyone at Berklee shared the outlook of the guys I mentioned above. There were people there for whom their music was who they were. They made themselves as people indistinguishable from themselves as musicians. The result was manic: when they were performing well, life was wonderful, and when they weren't...

I think that one of the reasons that you see so much abuse of drugs, alcohol and sex in music is that musicians so often lose their identity independent of their music.

Two Boat Anchors
Of course, the phenomenon of identifying yourself based on external factors is not limited to musicians and artists. When Iris and I were looking around for someone to marry us, we stumbled upon this really sweet Buddhist justice of the peace in Arlington, MA.

As we met with him to review our concept of the wedding and what we would do, he produced a couple of samples of wedding vows. As Iris and I read them, I could feel her head shaking in sync with mine. The vows were full of language regarding soul-mates and other halves and finding and completing one another. In unison, we said, "These will never do."

Yet, I imagine that, these being standard vows and all, many people actually use them. In essence they deliberately enter a relationship where neither partner stands alone, where they become mutually dependent. Do people really believe that they complete each other? (That's actually not rhetorical on my part.)

In business, we'll often describe the proposed merger of two struggling companies as tying together two boat anchors hoping that they'll float. I think this analogy is aptly applied to the "you complete me" phenomenon. Whenever "need" and "self-definition" enter the mix of reasons to be together, they have a way of forcing out all the others. Unless you have two strongly independent people who come together because of synergy (e.g., 1+1=3), then you're kind of doomed. Not doomed to failure or death or whatever, just doomed to the mania that comes with mutually dependent self-definition.

What Defines You
Each of us is defined in some degree by our activities, our passions, our families, our jobs and the circumstances of our lives. Yet, the degree to which we do so varies significantly. Further, I would wager that the volatility in one's happiness is directly proportional to the degree to which one defines himself externally. If you're highly defined by your work, your kids, your partner, your art, your weight, then you probably experience lots of ups and downs. If you're mostly just who you are independent of all the above, then you're probably pretty consistent.

Even your mode of self-definition can vary from time to time. I have friends who, when they're feeling physically strong and healthy, are the most confident and independent people you'll ever meet. Yet, when they feel less than strong or can't work out due to injury, they not only lose their confidence regarding their physical capacity, they lose their confidence in other areas as well: at work, in relationships, with money.

So, how volatile are you emotionally? Do you have highs and lows, ups and downs? Or, are you consistent day to day? Do experience dramatic change coincident with changes in circumstance? Or, are you an emotional rock that doesn't vary or fluctuate with changes in the weather?

If you do experience emotional volatility, what are the external factors that you're using to define yourself? Why are you using them? How would you define yourself without them?

Have a great week!


  1. Almost missed this wonderful stimulation, thanks Tef

  2. Tef, When you give the question: "Do people really believe that they complete each other? (That's actually not rhetorical on my part.)"

    Like yah, many do buy-into a sort of co-dependant mindless mind-set. I, in considering such vows, would be thinking, as I oftenly do, how I could put more of an Option-ease authenticity on the thought. I do that oftenly when attending various churchs, ceremonies, constantly scribbling rewrites of otherwise 'swallowed at first gulp' notions. ie You, (in my life,) help ME complete MYSELF.....we were destined to meet, to further our respective committments to ourselves, to continue our learnings, our ability to be of service, and our authentic joyfulness.


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