Word and Deed

One week into cosmetology school, my daughter told me about an exercise her class had done. They were asked to write down the things that were most important to them. Then they were asked to flip the paper over and write down what they do to demonstrate how much they cared about these things. Now, I’m into academia as much as the next egghead, but it sure was striking to me that in week 1 of beauty school my daughter and her classmates had their attention drawn to a vital principle that is so seldom taught in Ivy League institutions, prestigious conservatories or other hifalutin establishments: what do you say you care about and how do your actions reflect this?

I have written over the last year about the ethics of doing one’s best (click here) and about the power of intentions as the basis for outcomes (click here). Still, I keep going back to the consistency of word and deed. And for me the word consistency is the key. It’s one thing to demand somebody “walk the walk,” but for me it is perhaps a more nuanced thing, one in which it is often equally valid to scrutinize and adjust how we “talk the talk.”

In college I encountered numerous peers who influenced my line of thought in this regard. I met a great diversity of talented artists in different fields (classical music, jazz, modern dance, theater, visual art) and saw a diversity of outcomes. On the one extreme were those who solidly and consistently went about their business. On the other hand there were those who talked a good game but always seemed to be doing so not through their work, but rather at the bar or in the lobby outside the practice rooms. One friend in particular turned my head around through an alternative approach. He was neither an artist nor a student. He worked a demanding job and had little left beyond that. He claimed that he wasn’t particularly nice, loyal, ambitious or otherwise interested in the qualities that people would generally find praise-worthy. We became close nonetheless (in person he was not nearly as much of a schmuck as his own descriptions would lead one to believe), but even then he insisted that he saw friendships as largely a matter of in-person companionship and that he was thus not interested in maintaining long-distance friendships (which was indeed prophetic). What was eye-opening was the disarming honesty. He would explicitly say that his conscience was clear because he did not claim to be anything he wasn’t. While I wouldn’t characterize unrepentantly holding oneself to a low standard as particularly “inspiring,” it was refreshing in contrast with the relatively high percentage of people I knew whose idealism and stated ambition was in opposition to their actions. At least he wasn’t fooling himself.

Though I always have it on my mind, I have found myself referencing the vital relationship between word and deed particularly often lately while wearing my educator hat. Congruency between word and deed can be particularly difficult for someone pursuing jazz music, and that is ultimately one of the biggest reasons I remain committed to being a jazz educator. Of course I dig the music from an artistic standpoint, but the personal growth it demands is substantial, and as an educator I am conscious that nobody with an open mind can walk away from a period of wrestling with this music without also wrestling with his or her integrity.

You see, this music is hard. Deep thoughts, I know.

Specifically, the skillset is so vast and so convoluted that studying this music lends itself particularly poorly to instant gratification. To play jazz even competently requires an involved, multi-tiered learning process guaranteed to put us in close contact with our flaws and limitations. If you are particularly gifted then you simply get to have those demoralizing and humbling moments less often or get farther along before you “hit the wall.” Anyone who wants to feel a sense of “cool, I can do this now” could hardly choose a less compatible pursuit. So why would anyone want to put themselves through that to achieve in an area that provides so little external reward?

And yet the siren call of the music (plus, for some people, the sheer symbolic challenge of climbing a mountain this steep) leads some people to go for it anyway. But what does “go for it” mean? That can take on any number of forms, but the “word and deed” challenge can become more intense when the goal becomes more concrete. Whether you want to be in the conversation for high-level  gigs or just get proficient enough to jam with Uncle Sheldon sometime, there are corresponding actions. In jazz, generally, there are a lot of those actions and not a lot of satisfying shortcuts between us and the benchmarks. In short, for many people the “word” (the abstraction of wanting to play the music well and be validated as such) is appealing and the “deed” (practicing) is daunting.

Teenagers and young adults are particularly vulnerable to the challenge here from both ends. The level of discipline needed to excel as a jazz musician is not often demanded of young people in other contexts . . . and a young person who IS forced into that level of discipline by another pursuit (whether academics, high-level athletics or demanding employment) is likely to be so busy with that pursuit that the extra time needed to learn to play jazz on a high level can be hard to find. On the other hand, there can be a great desire to define oneself as being a proficient, serious musician. Many talented young musicians have this reinforced by “small pond syndrome,” wherein they ARE exceptional by the comparatively lower standards of their communities (often bringing legitimate but disproportionate praise), but then develop ambitions that correspond to a much higher level of expectations.

So when is it really an ambition and when is it a fantasy? It can be a fine line, but my job as an educator (and really as a concerned human) is to be strict in demanding that young people find internal consistency. Sometimes this involves helping an ambitious 17 year old decide whether or not to pursue a conservatory education or helping a college junior decide whether to “go for it” as a professional musician. At other times it involves counseling a 15 year old with humble ambitions but an inability to consistently make time to practice more than once a week. I often tell students that I have no investment in a particular outcome (be a musician or be an accountant, go to music school or not, practice or not) BUT that I feel a great responsibility to make sure their word and deed find that congruency. If that means practice harder, great. If that means change the goals, also great. But if I see that the actions are not those that will lead to achievement of the stated goal, then it’s “sh** or get off the pot” time, as they say, or at least time for serious self-reflection.

I am not insensitive to the emotional challenges in this – the humbling nature of studying jazz is trying enough, and if the serious pursuit of music is central to a young person’s sense of self (both internally and in the eyes of his or her community), then a challenge to that can feel downright threatening. As much of a pest as it sometimes makes me, though, I can’t be an accomplice to self-delusion. The pain of being forced to either dig deeper or admit that a goal just isn’t THAT important is still less damaging than the pain of getting one’s butt whooped for failing, out of sheer unpreparedness, to deliver the goods. And that doesn’t even take into account my responsibility not to have a hand in sending any more deluded people out into our already-troubled world.

My student attrition rate is certainly higher than it could be as a result of this, but better a lost student than a guilty conscience. Not surprisingly, though, some of my happiest students are hobbyist-level adults. I have had a number of adult students (professionals in other fields) who experience tremendous gratification with minimal emotional turbulence. Anecdotally, the two common threads are discipline (developed through whatever else they’ve done in life) and perhaps more significantly perspective (they are not aiming for the Village Vanguard or the admiration of their peers – the pursuit is generally personal in nature and realistic in scope). This is not to say that all of my adult students pan out this way – probably an equal number take two or three lessons, realize they won’t make the investment needed to achieve the desired outcome, and so they stop.

You could say that’s too bad, but the correspondence of word and deed ties in with the distinction between a wish and a goal. I wish I could speak French fluently, that I knew more about gardening and that I could play the drums. These are wishes because I’m not doing a damn thing about them. I have goals of being a better parent, musician, teacher and generally mindful human being – I fail often, but every day I work at these things. Defining the wishes as such may be sad, but it’s sad in the same sense that it’s sad to realize that, although as kids we were told we could someday be anything we wanted, our current trajectories do not suggest president, rock star or champion figure skater as likely outcomes. If you wanted to be one of those things and your actions aren’t taking you in that direction, then it is absolutely something to be grieved. And if after all that you just CAN’T give it up, that’s when the unquenchable desire hopefully leads to an increased commitment to the corresponding dues-paying that comes with any serious goal.

This is a lesson we all could stand to reinforce, and it’s one we don’t even need to go to beauty school to think about. What are the places where you struggle to find this consistency and what are the places where you have triumphed?

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  1. Noah, how do you do it? So much wisdom and thought-provoking words, just when I need it the most. I am so blessed to have you as a friend. Love you!

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