Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Complication Fascination

On Monday night, Iris and I played showcase at Club Helsinki in Hudson with our band No Room for Jello. Having packed up our gear and loaded it into our cars, Iris, Scott and I spent a few minutes relaxing and chatting before heading out into the crisp, clear, twenty-two-degree evening. We'd had a great time playing; it was easily our best performance ever. After indulging in a bit of revery regarding how well we'd done, our conversation turned to things that we could do even better next time.

Iris noted that with an over supply of adrenaline, she'd rushed the pace of several songs during the first set. Scott talked about forgetting parts of some of the arrangements. I mentioned... hmm...  OK, I didn't really bring up anything that I could have done better. As we shifted from what we could improve to how we could improve it, a curious phenomenon occurred. I think I'll call it Complication Fascination. Both Iris and Scott skipped past some of the obvious and simple paths to improvement, opting instead to explore more esoteric and complex ones.

One thing about performing in a small group (No Room for Jello has just four fulltime members), is that everything you play is exposed; there's no place to hide. If you simply stop playing at times you're unprepared or uncertain, the musical gap can be more pronounced than a mistake would have been. So, in a small group context, fast improvement by everyone is critical to strong performance.

Scott and Iris are both relatively new to small group performance; I've been doing it for, err... decades. So, talking on Monday night, I had the simple advantage of more experience and having had to work through the types of challenges each of them was facing. I pointed out that, while there was merit to some of their esoteric assertions, it might be more productive to start with a couple of more mundane and accessible activities, e.g., daily practice versus cramming the week (or night) before the gig. Long-story-short, my mundane assertions couldn't hold a candle to genetic predisposition or the requirement of 10,000 hours to become expert.

Driving home, I said to Iris, "I think it's all a lot simpler than you and Scott were making it out to be."

She replied, "Yeah, you're probably right, but it's a lot more fun to make it complicated."

The next morning, Iris and I picked up where we'd left off, expanding our discussion to include examples of Complication Fascination that we'd observed over the previous week.

Delete All
A few days ago, our friend Brian stopped by the house. As we talked, he shared his challenges with hoarding. Brian is a writer. His hoarding is all about his writing; he hangs on to everything he's ever written just in case any one of them has something that could become great. His computer is cluttered with thousands of files that he'll likely never open. Yet he's loathe to delete even one. As files accumulate, he spends more time managing what he's written and less time writing.

During our conversation, Brian came to the realization that he hoards because he fears losing his capacity to write something as good as he's written (let alone better than what he's written). Seeing this, Brian decided that it was all crap, that he can indeed write much better now than previously, and that he'll continually improve as a writer. There was nothing to fear. Brian resolved to free himself from his past and move forward.

When I asked him how, he said, "By deleting all my electronic files, burning all my paper ones, and giving myself a fresh start."

Simple, right?

Yet as Brian's resolution passed his lips, Complication Fascination set in. Brian's eyes darted back and forth as he considered ways to keep just some of the files, you know, the ones with real potential. Perhaps he could store them all somewhere safe so they were out-of-site, but not forever gone. Before you knew it, Brian had translated a simple delete-all strategy into complicated series of schemes that were hard to follow, let alone implement. Complication Fascination had done its job.

What You Know is Broken
Yesterday morning as Iris talked about drumming, she mentioned that she'd become so tired during our second set that she'd had a hard time holding tempo while playing more complicated beats. Her realtime solution was simple and elegant. Rather than stopping or slowing down the songs, she simply played a less complicated rhythm. No one was the wiser.

As she pondered why she'd become so fatigued, she considered her diet, her sleep patterns, her intake of various allergens, etc. I thought aloud, "it's just because you were playing with your muscles tensed. It'll happen every time. All you need to do is play in a more relaxed state. That comes with daily practice."

Iris said, "Could be", and then continued with her other explorations. Every one of Iris' assertions made sense. Every one of them had the potential to cause fatigue. However, Iris had already acknowledged that she'd been tight as she'd played and I knew from experience (personally and with others) that tight=fatigued, every time.

I pointed out to Iris that one of the really useful tools I'd discovered while debugging large scale systems was to always start by fixing what you know is broken. Sure, other things can have influence or even be causal, but you don't get a clear picture until you fix the stuff that you know's broke.

Iris said, "Yeah, but what about..."

I began to respond, but saw that she was grinning.

It Can't Be That Simple
For years my dad's struggled with unhappiness for which the primary outlet is Vodka. As a result of his drinking, he's managed to burn through a lot of good will and social capital, so he frequently finds himself telling his story to a new set of would-be supporters. Each time he gets a new audience, his story lines become more complex and tangled.

Every once in a while, I'll get to be part of the audience. After the rest of the audience leaves, I'll talk with my dad about what he shared, asking him questions and pointing out discrepancies. We'll slowly unravel his twisted tale, and end up with something almost existential in its simplicity, e.g, so what you're saying is that a) you drink because you're unhappy and b) you're unhappy because you don't have any interests that you pursue.

My dad will look at me with a glimmer of hope as he latches on to the simplicity of it. The glimmer falters and then fades, dowsed by Complication Fascination. His countenance changes as he thinks, "It can't be that simple."

His reasons are many, but a big one is guilt. If it were that easy all along, then he could have had a completely different life. At 84, that's too much to bear.

We all experience Complication Fascination from time to time. It can be enticing. Yet, more often than you would expect, the simplest, most obvious solutions are also the most effective.

What complications have you fascinated?

Happy Wednesday,

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