The choice to improve: You don’t have to be here
I recently read an older NY Times article about the stress of constantly striving to improve. As students work hard in school, I want to point out a few things about improvement. When experts tell us we can do anything if only we work hard enough, it places the blame on us if we aren’t improving. This is a horrible way to feel, and I want to take a moment to respond to the stressful concept of never being enough. Just a note that this article is on the choice to work toward expertise, not the choice to work or make a living wage. There are certainly times we cannot afford to quit a job. Instead this is about recognizing times we can decide we don’t need to be the best at everything or even anything we do. Furthermore, others point out how easy it is to turn research against students who aren’t succeeding and to blame them for failures that really belong to systemic obstacles and chance. Nothing about this research says that working hard is all it takes. There is no guarantee that circumstances or luck or tragedy or systemic problems won’t interfere, but for me, the power in these concepts is that everyone has the same potential and value as a learner (not to mention same value as a human), and so we should all be hopeful about our ability to grow–if time, interest, and other factors align.
The Choice to Improve
I talk a lot about improving and goals, and I read and share from lots of experts telling us how to do it. A NY Times article points out how easy it is to read about improving and find some kind of shame in not constantly doing so. And that is absolutely important to recognize. What this article doesn’t say, is many of these experts don’t tell us we NEED to improve. Just that we have the potential to.
So I just want to take a moment to remind you, you don’t NEED to do anything.
You can be totally happy not improving or not having career goals. Many people are. You can have tons of great experiences being mediocre on your instrument or in your field. Most people are, and they can still be happy and fulfilled.
Furthermore, your self-worth has nothing to do with your skill-level or career ambitions. If you have goals about improving, it means you want to improve your skill-set, not you.
Next, the stressful things you are doing may or may not be something you like. Maybe you love it but you’re so very tired. Maybe you hate it but it’s necessary for your ultimate goal. Either way, you still have the choice to continue or decide it’s not worth it right now. You are here because you thought these stressful things had value. But they are optional.
Finally, improvement is a literally never-ending journey. There is, literally, no destination in sight where you cannot possibly improve any more or learn any more in your field. You may decide that you’ve travelled far enough and don’t want to improve any more.
But many of us do want to improve–at least in a few specific areas.
We want to improve, we want to achieve goals. If that’s the case, we know more than we ever have about the science of learning, achieving, etc. But the information is just a tool. It’s not a guarantee that you will succeed, a signal that you should be improving, or a litmus test for if you are working hard enough and wanting it badly enough. This information won’t prevent life circumstances or tragedy from blocking your path. It won’t promise you to have all the information for you to succeed or to explain all the factors that go into success. This information on how to improve certainly won’t prevent you from deciding this is not something that fulfills you.
This information is just a guide to point you in the right direction on what is a long, difficult, and strange journey.
And it is one you don’t have to take.
You don’t have to be an expert on something to be happy. No one is forcing you to do this. You really really don’t have to be here working. Really. There are millions of happy people who aren’t experts at anything and that’s a totally valid and great choice. And it is a choice. So as we go back to school, or prepare yet another audition, or whatever else we do, just remind yourself you chose to be here and you choose to be here. And if you ever change your mind, that’s also great and allowed.
You can sit in bed with your cat all day (my biggest temptation), or live in the woods enjoying nature or travel the world working in hostels. Or you could be the “best” at sitting in bed with your cat, or the an expert at being self-sufficient in the woods, or the most knowledgeable on how to travel the world. You can ‘work for the weekend’ or be ‘good enough’ at a job you enjoy or try to be a millionaire or choose a different field to be an expert in. You can do any of those things poorly or averagely or with expertise. You can do literally anything. But for some reason you want to be here. For some reason, you want to improve here.
Also a great choice!
So when it inevitably gets hard, remember that you like this and you choose this. And if that stops being true, maybe you’ll choose something else. But as long as that’s true, you can work hard, and use books and articles and research on improving to help you with your choice.
I’ll leave you with the following conversation as printed from the book, Grit, between author and researcher Angela Duckworth and swimmer Rowdy Gaines:
“Gaines told me he once tabulated how much practice it took to develop the stamina, technique, confidence, and judgement to win an Olympic gold medal. In the eight-year period leading up to the 1984 games, he swam, in increments of fifty-yard laps, at least twenty thousand miles. Of course, if you add in the years before and after, the odometer goes even higher.
“I swam around the world,” he told me with a soft laugh, “for a race that lasted forty-nine seconds.”
“Did you enjoy those miles?” I asked. “I mean, did you love practicing?”
‘I’m not going to lie,” he replied. “I never really enjoyed going to practice, and I certainly didn’t enjoy it while I was there. In fact, there were brief moments, walking to the pool at four or four-thirty in the morning, or sometimes when I couldn’t take the pain, when I’d think, ‘God is this worth it?’”
“So why didn’t you quit?”
“It’s very simple,” Rowdy said. “It’s because I loved swimming…I had a passion for competing, for the result of training, for the feeling of being in shape, for winning, for traveling, for meeting friends. I hated practice, but I had an overall passion for swimming”” (Grit 132-3).
Jessica is a classically-trained clarinetist based out of Florida and Ohio who loves cats, vegan chocolate chip cookies, collaborating with artists of all backgrounds, and helping performers find healthy relationships with practice. She has a BA in psychology and BM in clarinet performance from Northwestern University and began her MM in clarinet performance at BGSU in fall 2017.