Friday, October 26, 2012

Methods of Preparation

I feel like there are two methods of preparation for an event. 

The first is to be over prepared.  When I had a concert I would diligently practice my part over and over until I knew all of it by heart. Then I would mess with it to see if I could still perform it. Perhaps moving up or down an octave giving it a new sound and body position. Or adding syncopation. Or playing it as fast or as slow as I could. All to shake up what was becoming sedentary in my brain and muscles. These variations ensured I knew the part inside and out. 

This paid off quite well. Inserted restart points helped me get through a difficult piece. Once the piano had a stuck key so throughout the piece I had to pull it back up before striking that note again. Don't ask how I managed. I recall it being an almost reflexive and flawless performance. I also remember someone being quite surprised I pulled it off. These extra layers of preparation meant I was flexible enough and able to freely react to new situations are they arose instead of devoting all of my concentration on execution of the piece.

But these are the foibles of youth. Looking back I realize just how much free time I had to devote to these extra explorations. As I grew older my time shrank, I wanted to do more things, and I started to develop a sense of doing just enough to get by. What was the minimum amount of time I could devote and still have reasonable chances at success. So a relatively rock solid record of completely confident performances segued to usually successful events with the occasional mess up. Slowly I became aware of expectations and nervous sweating or lip shaking snuck into the performances. This is the other method. Prepare consistently and build up enough to make success relatively likely. This is often how physical feats are prepared. Most people I know (i.e. not competitive marathon runners) prepare for a marathon not by running marathons but running shorter distances. At the actual event they push their limits to cross that finish line.

So on one hand you can try to perfect your craft. You ensure that you will succeed by over preparing. By exploring the boundaries of your skills in such a way you build in a safety buffer for mistakes. The event itself then leads to a more natural feeling where expression is the key motivation. Or you can make the event the edge of your reach. Crossing the finish line is the goal, so you devote enough time to succeed even if you trip and stumble a few times.

One obviously takes much more time than the other. If you have the time and drive you can prepare and ensure success. If you don't, or can't devote enough time (it's usually the latter) then we often aim for passing. I wish we had enough time to flourish and thrive. But we don't.

Still, if you are dedicated enough and passionate enough you can still make an art of something. Whether it be making art, musical instruments, or programming code, if you devote enough time to create not just mediocre passing quality but extraordinarily refined pieces then I applaud you. And I am sure the rest of the world will as well.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Cheering for Complimenters

To be honest I usually am not depressed. I have bouts of depression, but my constant self-bashing is not an indication of constant self-loathing. I merely try to manage expectations and seek to present the truth. I know exactly how far I have to improve and am under no delusions of this fact.

That doesn't seem to deter the Complimenters.

I hope you know a few of these. Every time they see you they give a smile and cheer your entry. Whenever you praise them they don't dismiss it like I do, they turn it around and tell you how awesome you are in that same category. Somehow they always know exactly what to say to build you up and cheer you up.

Just last week we were at Midtown Stomp Swing Dancing. One of the guys in attendance is good. Scary good. If his partner is new he can guide them flawlessly through the basic and moderate moves. If his partner is skilled he kicks it up a notch whirling them around the floor and leaving them breathless. I once watched him in action and stood amazed, trying to watch for him to reuse a move so I could tease out how he did it. He didn't repeat most of them. When he sat down at the end of the song I complimented him going, "Man, that was awesome. Your partner definitely had fun. You're making the rest of us look bad!" He just looked at me and said, "Nah man, you the man. And now it's your time." Bam. Instant turnaround.

Suffice to say these people are awesome and make the people around them feel awesome.

It's not just in off-handed compliments. Complimenters are exceptional discussion leaders. They make sure to reiterate the points brought up and name the specific person who contributed. If there is a tangent or mistake in a point they carefully bring the topic back around without assigning blame. People are almost never wrong, they instead just missed something. Plus when they present their view it doesn't sound like a capstone trump card coming from the leader. You don't feel like you stumbled on their correct answer. They tease out the connections between everyone's points, reinforce the ones they liked and felt were important, but still give credit to the ones who brought it up as their idea.

Plus, they never seem to give up. I am pretty sure a few of them read this blog and so they know I do not need the compliments. But they keep coming. Another day another smile and a welcoming invitation to share about my day. Even when you keep your face neutral and hide away how uplifting that thought was, they seem undeterred.

So what makes these people Complimenters? No idea. I think it has to do with the intent to see the world from the brighter side. You actively look for things to compliment people on. These are not the Facebook picture spam generic feel-good compliments. These are targeted personal compliments. They require investment, thought, and custom-tailoring. When there is a negative, actively figuring out how to bring it around to the positive. Plus it isn't about them feeling better. It is about focusing and investing in the other person. It is uplifting others at no benefit to themselves.

I'm sure they could use a few Compliments of their own, so try becoming one yourself. Start with thanking and complimenting the Complimenters in your life. 'Cause they're awesome and deserve to feel good about it.

Friday, October 12, 2012

How I Self-Evaluate

In case it isn't obvious, a good portion of this blog is used as an expression of things going on in my head. Often times it tackles a subject where I find myself deficient. I have been asked how I do self-evaluations to discover these problems and attempt to fix them. This post will try to lay out the basics of the process. This only is a rough outline, so take it with a grain of salt. I don't have a checklist I follow nor a 5 Step Plan that I adopted. This is just what I tend to do based on self-evaluations of my self-evaluations.

First is to notice there is a problem. This can take a variety of forms. I may be feeling down for an unknown reason. There isn't a serious tragedy in my family, everything seems to be moving along as normal, but I wake up to the realization I don't feel happy. That might be the first clue. Another trigger is when I feel a strong emotion of hate or anger, especially towards an individual. I will often run into triage mode and try to tease out the why of that reaction. Sometimes I am merely ruminating on the events of the day and realize when things could have gone better. Not only in aspects where I made a mistake but also when I feel it could have been more awesome. In short, if I ever feel strong negative emotions I tend to try to find the root cause.

Next is to trace the problem. Let's say I get angry at another individual. After realizing this anger, I try to figure out why. Identifying the source is usually easy. They made a certain remark and I reacted. Perhaps it was the way they said it, or the body language associated. It could be a particular action such as arriving late or bailing on our plans. The hard part is tracing the cause-and-effect. As detailed in this You Are Not So Smart post, it is extremely difficult to pinpoint exactly why you reach a particular emotional state. Even when we think we know why we often times get it wrong. So when you begin the trace, keep this problem in the back of your mind.

The trace itself is difficult to explain. I've armed myself over the years with a lot of knowledge in psychology and behavioral issues. Also over the years of tweaking and prodding my mind I've started to develop a rough mental map of how I tick. So I am very aware of plenty of biases that might explain the current response I've identified. These can range from things that are universal, like a dislike of haughty individuals. Or they can be personal gripes, especially problems I know I have or have been working on.

Once a root cause is known there comes a decision. Is this a real problem that I should address? If I feel it is a fixable flaw then I will move to the next step. For example, if I think it is because of pride I will try to work on my pride issue. But if it is because of an injustice then there is no reason to beat myself up about it. This is also the checkpoint where I think about the other side of the problem. Am I over thinking this problem, and am I really at fault here? Perhaps it really is the other person is a jerk. Or perhaps I am just imagining a slight and overreacting. This helps temper my actions so I am not randomly fixing un-fixable problems.

Lastly, assuming it is a legitimate problem, I think about how to remedy it. This is extremely difficult. For starters I try to formulate a panacea for the symptom itself. So if I was angry with someone I relax and let the anger slip away. The tough part is developing a plan to remedy the core problem. This sometimes leads to very odd cognitive dissonance, bouts of depression, and in general feeling like crap. Other times it can create a goal that I will keep in my mind and try to work on over time. Another important aspect is to figure out the scope of the solution. For example, when I hear about modern-day slavery I get fairly angry. However, my solution isn't give away all of my money and possessions and donate them to charity. But it also isn't do nothing either.

This generic flow is perhaps best illustrated via example. Hypothetically, I get really annoyed with someone expressing their opinion on a subject under discussion. I notice this, pause, the try to tussle out why. After all, they are entitled to their own opinion, others are expressing theirs and it doesn't bother me, so why this opinion from this person?

Was it the person? Possibly. I don't particularly like this person. They rub me the wrong way sometimes. Why? Well, they seem to have certain personality flaws, they act in particular patterns, and maybe I see myself in that and resent that. Also they demonstrate certain traits that I once did but I now feel are beneath me or in my past. So I feel like this person is beneath me. That's a problem.

Was it the opinion? Hm, on the surface it sounds OK but there's an underlying connotation there. It sounds like a certain ideology I once had but now am ashamed of. I feel there is fundamental flaw. And that flaw is WRONG.

Should I do something? For the problem of the person, yes. I shouldn't feel like I am superior to another person, especially in a roundtable discussion like this. I will have to work on my pride and making sure to give an extra ounce of compassion for this person. I will need to identify the character traits I dislike and see in myself and work on those. For the opinion? Perhaps. Why do I feel like it is so wrong? Should I come out and confront the underlying assumptions? That might make this a pointless argument. They probably don't realize the flaw. They will see me as warping their opinion into something it is not. So I shouldn't directly confront and correct it. Do I stay silent? Is this a big enough problem to lead others down a wrong path? Hm, probably not. I suppose I should just bite my tongue and not worry about the details. And is it actually wrong? I'll need to look back on why I changed my opinion and ensure it is still sound.

This can set off a cascade of other self-evaluations. Also, almost always I decide if the problem is about me and what I should do about it to myself. I figure I only have control over myself, so I should work more on me and less on others. This is not a system for developing why I'm better than someone else, or why I have the right answer over others. It is a system to kick myself in the gut, yell why I suck, then pick myself off the ground a little wiser and a little better.

So yeah, welcome to my insane mind. I recommend you only try this if you are of strong fortitude and willing to look at all the gunk inside. Otherwise you will get to enjoy lovely bouts of Imposter Syndrome and depression.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Seeking Connection

Humans are very social creatures. It could be argued that everything we do is a form of signaling to others. We signal, "I belong to this group. I have these resources. I am a nice, kind person who will share with you." We develop social structures and circles of friends. We grow up in families and crave attention and acceptance. In fact, it is theorized self-esteem is an indicator of how strong we think our social bonds are and therefore our personal worth, not the other way around. So it should come to no surprise that we tend to be on the lookout for commonalities with which to build relationships.

I like to get excited about similarities. I pick up on simple commonalities and suddenly have a burst of hope that I might make a new friend. Simple things like people using the same Pyrex bowls to hold their lunches. Or noticing other Asians in the area (there are lots of Whites and Indians where I live, not as many Chinese/Japanese). Or noticing someone driving the same car. Even driving along the same route as you. Maybe they're going where I'm going, or live near where I live. How cool would that be!

I think this speaks volumes about us as a species. We really, really want to have connections. We really, really want to meet new people. A new person is a whole new set of possibilities. A potential best friend. An interesting companion. Perhaps a soul mate. Or a mentor. Or just the guy who gets you tickets to that one show and you have a great time.

Oddly enough we also fear these connections. What if people don't like me? How do I break into an ongoing conversation? Maybe I won't even see those people again. We value our connections so much we fear we won't have a good enough connection! We often can't take the risk. At least that's what we tell ourselves.

And yet I have never had a moment while taking with some friends that I wouldn't mind a new person joining. I have yet to meet a group who actively hates people on the outside (political/religious discussions being an exception). Perhaps I just hang with the right people, but usually groups are willing to take on a few extra. It means better chances of members hanging out. It means if I'm tired of some of them I can break off and hang with the others.

True, there are exceptions. Douchebags are generally frowned upon. Attention-seekers tend to be shrugged off. And if a group becomes too large sub-groups will form with the more like-minded individuals spending extra time together. If you're deep in a personal conversation it's nice when people respect that and just buzz off. Yet I have never once felt weird about adding a new face to the crowd at large. We always open the circle and accommodate the new person. They just have to show interest and stand near the circle.

Still we build up these complicated routines. Prepare all the right lines. Practice and review our interactions. It's all a giant house of cards and at the first sign of trouble we bolt, "dignity" intact. Instead of approaching the circle we sit with a cup in one hand and our back to the wall waiting, testing the group to see who comes to us. Who will put in the effort and make it worth your while for YOU to invest?

How sad.

Try being a little more bold. Ask for a name and remember it. Learn something and find common ground. You might find a new friend. At worst, you go your separate ways.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Becoming the "Other"

Sermons, lessons, and articles all have a very specific tone to them when dealing with "others".

A sermon might bring up an example of how some person did wrong. For example, I recently listened to one on how different people respond differently to your aid. In one case it was a poor person. After helping to pay their rent, it became infeasible to support them any longer and the speaker went over to tell them so. They were rebuffed with a series of slurs and thrown out of the house. He realized that by throwing money at the problem, he wasn't helping them get back on their feet. Different people will respond differently he said. There were other instances where even using the wrong information and wrong techniques people would improve and become whole. But with "correct" systems others wouldn't. It was an excellent illustration of why we need personalized efforts, of why it often is dependent on the individual you are helping, or why sometimes it is all out of your control. This was all from the viewpoint of us. This was the viewpoint of the trained to help "others".

Another anecdote was commenting on how broken individuals can end up as leeches. They come with a story of being hurt and being in need and no one was there. So, you feel for them and come alongside them. But then they latch on to you. They devour your time and energy and emotional endurance. Finally they pop off after you're drained and can't give any more. They are that way because they only consume and are broken. They are surrounded by love but they never seem to have enough or can't feel it. It was done with humorous enactments and we all have seen these "other people" in action. But again, this is from the viewpoint of us normal people. The ones being devoured and preyed on by those "others".

This article covers the subject of "The Distress of the Privileged" and clucks its tongue at those poor privileged slobs. They grew up in times past and suddenly the world around them has changed. They are no longer in the right, and in fact are accused of being the Bad Guys. Suddenly, they have a real distress and need to be validated since without their notice or consent the world around them has turned against them. But don't hate them! They are well-meaning good people who are just out of their element now. We should come to them with kindness and love and bring them over to our side. If only their eyes were opened, and they weren't rebuffed by hostility they too can join our humble ways. Address their distress but help them realize it pales in scope to our pain and distress. We should treat the "others" with love and not look down too much on their backward ways.

This very blog is founded on this principle. In one respect it is about my own views, musings I've had, and things I want to work on. But it is written in such a way that I still come out the victor. I am at least trying. I have evaluated and seen the faults and seek to change them. Unlike those "others" out there. Those fools who have yet to see how inefficient they are, unable to face fears or come to terms with putting on airs for the world at large.

Time and time again I see piece after piece about those "others" out there. Clucking tongues at their backwardness. Sighs at their silly notions. Laughs at their poor grasp on the facts. We nod knowingly and give each other slaps on the back safe in the feeling that we are the elite, well-adjusted, all-knowing, capable, clear-minded individuals who can help and correct these poor souls. Noblesse Oblige.

Too often though I can't share in that. Too often I wonder if I am not that "other" person. Am I ungrateful to the help I've been given and will scream and curse if it's all taken away? Do I leech off my peers and friends looking for an emotional hit from them contributing nothing? Am I one of the privileged stuck in times past?

And that simply scares the crap out of me.

Often times because I am quite explicitly the "other" person. For the majority of my life I identified as Republican (and all my liberal friends may now boo and hiss). So all those articles making fun of Republicans, taking quotes out of context, reading horrible horrible things into the comments and ideas they had were painful. I was filled with rage and indignation. I was wounded that they would dismiss my views so easily and think me such a fool. I hated it when people would approach me for conversation on one hand then post a down-the-line dismissal of my side on the other. I now sit somewhere between the two parties and simply get a sound beating from both ends.

Or some of the articles on how horrible heterosexual well-educated men are. We are evil or simply naive and knowingly or unknowingly are reinforcing an oppressive patriarchy. We are so afraid of losing our power we will go to great lengths to subvert the feminine power. Well, except those few feminist males. You're OK. On one hand yeah people should get on board with this. On the other hand I'm exactly the person they're talking about. And the language they use hurts.

You might argue that this is good. After all, tribalism is natural. It help reinforce the healthy community we are building. Plus, with my visceral reactions I am realizing my faults. I can identify with the "others" and become one of "us." I am one of those select "others" we have tried to reach for so long and now you are coming around! This should be an article about my triumph and keen sense of being able to learn from any circumstance, even when I'm told I'm part of the "us" crowd. Three cheers for me!

Still hurts.

Still scares the crap out of me.

Still exposes to me how little I've grown and how much further I need to climb.

I could just recede. I can curl up and stop listening. If only I wasn't noble and kept trying, or was dumber and didn't see, or didn't care and stayed down. There is so much I could do. And I really want to sometimes. And I do sometimes.

Have you ever experienced this? Stood in a crowd and suddenly realized you identify with the caricature being painted? Realized that if you don't smile and go along you run the risk of being the "other" paraded on stage for all to see? Have you ever taken a look at your own writing or piece and wondered what it is like to be the "other" you are painting?