I’m overdue for a post and have a few backlogged recipes and Top 10 lists that I’ll be posting early in 2011. However, this time around I wanted to spend some time affirming a bit of hackneyed but valid traditional wisdom. Slow and steady. The tortoise has got it goin’ on. And even if the hare has a good day, it’s probably due to having taken “turtle steps” along the way to develop that ability. As I go through my usual end-of year crescendo of reflective thought, I realize that this notion has shaped one of the more intense periods of growth I’ve ever experienced, in ways I didn’t always perceive at the time.
Much of my teaching, especially in any one-on-one context, centers on helping students accept the “slow and steady wins the race” notion of skill-building. Nobody acquires a meaningful skill or accomplishes a significant goal without many hours of gruntwork and a gradual ascent (even if there may on the surface seem to be plateaus and leaps masking the big picture of the steady climb). From everything I have seen, any spurt of genius we might experience (at least any that comes to satisfying fruition) can be traced back to an extended and probably extremely unglamorous period of commitment to the often tedious little tasks relevant to the broader goal.
If you have kids (and love them and are a responsible person) you do plenty of mundane daily things in service of your larger commitment. Same for having pets. Or plants. A big part of my mission as an educator is to help people of all ages understand that if you want something then you have to make a long-term commitment to doing a bunch of small and often monotonous things over and over and over. “Talent” (as defined by natural gifts) is seldom a major factor (while I’m sure there are would-be musicians who pay all the dues and still “fail” due to inherent lack of talent, I haven’t met one), it’s mostly about desire and the corresponding willingness to commit in a sustained and meticulous way. If you don’t want it badly enough to do that, that’s totally fine, but call it what it is and recognize that there’s no way around that.
It’s a boring and unsexy way of looking at the process but it worked for Coltrane, right? And I like to see it (and present it to students in virtually any context) as an incredible bounty. You can do anything you want! You may decide it’s ultimately not worth the cost, but the menu is vast.
I have seen and experienced no shortage of musical examples of this phenomenon. I am blessed to have some extremely inspiring musicians in my life and every single one of them embodies this ethos of commitment and sustained gruntwork leading (over time) to artistic maturity, growth and the capacity to achieve profound and mature self-expression through music. At the beginning of 2010 I decided I needed to re-up that sort of daily commitment myself with my piano playing (after 2009 was largely consumed by composing “Know Thyself”), and so began a year where my practice routine centered around the systematic (and, in the short run, often demoralizing) addressing of some of the relatively weak things in my toolkit. Daily sight-reading? Check. Playing tunes and vocabulary in 12 keys? Check. And, not surprisingly, the advice I’ve been giving to students for years has been working pretty danged well when I use it myself (though there’s still, of course, a long way to go). “Turtle steps,” as my therapist would say.
This alone would debatably be adequate fodder for a blog post, but as I’ve been looking back at 2010 (and beginning to psyche myself up for the tasks ahead in 2011), I am seeing this phenomenon much more broadly in my life. Among the non-musical things that stand out when I look at 2010:
– I lost over 20 pounds
– I began a regular core strengthening program
– I picked up tennis again after a long hiatus
– I experienced improved relationships with my daughters
And so on – I could look at more tangible “accomplishments” (I wrote this, played that gig, etc.) but am more struck by things that represent broader changes in my quality of life. And each one was brought about not only by the moment of profound inspiration (don’t get me wrong, inspiration is great and vitally important) but by all the subsequent moments of following through and doing so at a slow, attainable pace.
Let’s start with the weight loss (something I’ll likely blog about on its own terms in 2011). I decided I needed to be fitter, in large part because my weak joints are not built to carry any weight, so the less the better. But I love to eat and I’ve seen plenty of gung ho “diets” that go up in flames after a few months or weeks or hours. My goal was to come up with a plan I could maintain and even enjoy, so I took one thing at a time. Fewer sweets. Wait a little while to adjust to that. Okay, now less processed stuff. Check. More exercise. More mindful portion control. More vegetables. Less cheese. And so on and so forth, one thing at a time, until in the late summer I realized I’d lost 15% of my body weight. Most importantly, I believe I can sustain it because I did it all at a pace that allowed me to remain balanced.
Back exercises? Ugh. Again, I know that simply resolving to do something is not the same as having the sustained, daily follow-through. In January, my occupational therapist in NY (who has been periodically saving my career from bodily breakdown since 1992) suggested I get on a core strengthening program (I was already by that point losing 1-2 hours of sleep per night to back pain), but emphasized that this would be a long-term thing and that I needed to find someone who wouldn’t damage my body due to ignorance of my connective tissue problems. It took until August for me to find somebody I could trust and to carve out the space to follow through on what I would be learning. I’m doing the work and the back is improving. And my pink, paisleyed exercise ball is really cute!
Meanwhile, at the same January appointment, she told me that I could resume playing tennis as long as I was smart and careful about it. I was really excited, but instead of running out to play in the snow, I spent several months upping my fitness in other ways in preparation. We got a hand-me-down Nordic Track (thanks Julie and Lars!) and I increased my weekly cardio workouts by 25-40% between that and swimming, all in gradual increments. When I finally got on the court, I was initially strict about how much and under what circumstances I could play, and it took very little to get me winded and turn my legs to rubber. Bit by bit by bit I have improved and gotten into shape, though, and I have stopped to enjoy each step in the way (calf muscles? how’ve you been ol’ buddy? I’ve missed you!).
Those who know me better realize that tennis is one of my favorite things in the world and that quitting was one of the most soul-sucking decisions I’ve ever had to make. As such, coming back to it has been a pretty inspiring (I dare say sacred) thing. Aside from the inherent joy of the activity, the re-entry has been really educational. I could go on about that (just ask Kate), but the most relevant thing here is the slow-and-steady part. I expected to be impatient to get back to where I was before (as a regularly-playing teenager whose joints hadn’t entirely gone haywire yet), but I actually had the opposite experience. That is, I was just so grateful to have my tennis back that I savored every moment – every wimpy forehand volley and every narrowly-averted ankle sprain and every shanked overhead and every moment of being doubled over, sucking wind because I was so out of shape. And each tiny improvement (after 2 months I could kind of hit a decent backhand again) was cause for inner celebration.
Strangely, the “slow and steady” in this case became the reward in and of itself, and not just the thing I needed to tolerate in service of the larger goal. I didn’t start thinking about new rackets and tournaments and such, I was just grateful for each additional chance to get out and hit some forehands that may or may not be a tiny bit better than last time. After a year of this, here I am at 37 with an incurable joint condition, yet in the best physical shape of my life. Go figure. But I also have stumbled upon a spiritual practice of sorts. Embracing the slow and steady moments (rather than simply enduring them) has started to bleed into other aspects of my life.
And then I started to realize that I had already been doing this as a parent. I certainly don’t claim to be a great father, but I do my best, and one of the things that I feel proudest about is my commitment to do the right thing (to the best of my ability to judge whatever that might be) over and over and over. Not because I have some grandiose vision of what my relationship with my girls will be 20 years from now, and not because of my freely admitted desire to disprove people’s assumptions about foster/adoptive parenting, but simply because it’s the right thing to do. But as I look back, my relationships with each of them are better than they were a year ago, and that makes me very happy. And while this may seem trivial, I got an innocuous (but huge to me) piece of validation a few weeks ago when Kate heard our youngest tell a friend that her parents never yell at her. My goal was never to “get credit” for behaving well, but I guess all that “daily spiritual practice” of staying grounded and trying to do the right thing has made some big-picture inroads.
I’m hardly a spiritual guru, so I’m hesitant to make any broad assumptions on this topic (beyond the “slow and steady” notion itself, which I find to be pretty hard to debate), but here’s what I feel to be true: the small-scale stuff is even more effective when embraced on its own terms, as opposed to merely being a means to an end. It’s a paradox, but it makes sense all the same. Ultimately, every time I follow through on something small but good (doing my back exercises, eating a carrot instead of chips, practicing a Bud Powell lick in 12 keys) it’s a positive thing and preferable to the alternative. However, if I can really be present for that action and bring some level of joy to it, I’m going to squeeze more juice out of it than if I’m doing it grudgingly while looking over my shoulder to see if I’m getting palpably closer to my larger goal. And moving in the direction of truly embracing the small stuff is self-perpetuating, since true engagement in the moment takes the pressure off – I’m limited in how fully engaged I can genuinely be in what I’m doing right now if I’m trying to get it over with or if I’m constantly judging it because of the pressure to hurry up and “get there.” Of course it’s important to “keep your eye on the prize,” especially insofar as doing so allows you to assess what smaller steps are relevant to your bigger goal and then periodically reassess based on how you’re going about the smaller steps. But what if the balance of power were shifted? What if the small stuff didn’t have to feel like drudgery, tolerable due to its relevance to a larger goal that we get to enjoy for comparatively few moments before going back to the salt mines? What if the joy and substance could be in the small moments, with the more “glorious” moments existing to provide validation that we’re on the right track and to infuse inspiration into the hard but worthwhile work? The most enlightened and accomplished people (whether artists or masters of spirituality or simply good parents) have presumably figured all of this out already (and put it in far more eloquent terms), but I’m still working on making sense of it all!
And so goes my end-of-2010 contemplation-cum-pontification. I simply hope for continued growth (at a turtle’s pace, of course) in 2011, both for myself and for all of you 🙂