Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Re-Learning Snowboarding

Last year I picked up a season pass for snow up in Tahoe. Over the course of the winter season I managed to make it up to the mountains nine different times. By the end of the season I was thoroughly enjoying myself racing down the slopes at breakneck speeds in the cool air.

This was the first season back on the slopes in over six years. Back in High School I went up a few times, becoming proficient at carving to some degree. It was enough times that I bought boots (to make sure I never had to deal with rental boots) but I never got my own board nor would I have considered myself very good. Competent so I wasn't sitting on my arse the whole way down, but not good.

Starting out this season was, well, rough. Thankfully not sit-in-snow painful. I still remembered how to strap in and get on/off the lift. But pretty much any edge transition at any reasonable speed resulted in a face of snow. Well, except when it was ice. And there was a lot of ice early this year. Ow... Making life even more miserable was that I knew I used to be better and all my friends were WAY better than me. The first few times we went up to the slopes I had to sit out a few runs and let my legs recover from the wear while they continued to shred it up. And before you go "oh you wimp" it was burning-up-doing-wallsits-of-doom feeling in my legs. My main concern actually was "will I make it down the mountain before I collapse" late in the day on a few of those early trips. Talk about being out of shape. Talk about painful "ugh, this is annoying and frustrating" and being very, very sore the next day.

Eventually I got better. Like, noticeably better. I started falling a lot less. I gained endurance by leaps and bounds. I began to be able to read the snow to anticipate drifts or patches of ice. Slowly the safety margin I gave myself to make a turn or avoid someone shrank from several feet into a few board widths. On several occasions I decided to just straightline, no breaking, and let out a huge whoop as I reached maximum speed. Near the end of the season I was ripping down some decent slopes, tried out the Half Pipe, trekked through some serious backcountry with tight trees, and felt like I was having a blast from start to finish.

None of this involved mental thinking. Careful pondering sorta helped. But really the majority of the learning was pure muscle memory. Naturally catching my balance when I hit a bump. Getting the feel of a run or an edge. Intuitively saying "I want to be there" and guiding myself there perfectly. Sure I set goals and intentionally pushed my limits. We had a phrase "if you're not falling you're not learning." But 90% of the learning was all instinct and subconscious.

In the same way a lot of life isn't about the pondering we do at a desk or in a chair. Sometimes you have to balls-to-the-wall and get out there.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Internal Struggles

From Rachel: Jennifer, thank you so much for your music. It's been a big part of my life, and I am so grateful for you. I'll try not to fan out too much as I ask my question: I'm reading a book by pastor Jonathan Martin in which he discusses the fact that, in our current culture, fame and notoriety are treated as necessities, while obscurity is considered the kiss of death. He writes "Our society tells us that if and when we get "there"--the job or position or degree we've always wanted, the notoriety we've always dreamed of--that's when all the important stuff will start happening. Not so. All the good stuff happens in obscurity." Is this how you feel about your seven-year hiatus from the music industry? What are some important, valuable things you learned during that time away from the spotlight? Thank you!

Retrospectively, one thing I’d say is that while it is possible to learn from the experience of being ‘in the spotlight’; it is not the most fertile soil for significant growth. The spotlight is where we celebrate and commune with what we’ve learned. The growth, the creation, self-exploration and processing, I just can’t see how we can possibly do that effectively with an audience. It’s too exposed. Being observed inherently shapes the outcome. We usually talk differently when we are being observed. We perform. That’s not bad; it’s just not the entire purpose or the end game.

The spotlight is a fickle beast. It’s rewarding to find avenues to express our mastery over what we’ve learned. Reaching for achievement is a great motivator when you’re breaking your back perfecting your trade. To complete, sell, and talk about a book. Or sing, record and perform a record to a cheering crowd. I can’t lie. It’s powerful, fulfilling stuff to be able to be ‘the guy’ responsible for moving the room. But I think there’s a backside if you go into those situations looking to be the object that is celebrated. Being observed is often too great a temptation to imitate the style of characters we want to be rather than investing in the hard work of mindfully becoming our unique selves. Save the spotlight for the celebration, for the moments where connecting MUST occur to move forward.

Maybe it’s the difference between performing as a kid and getting older, but I view ‘the spotlight’ as a far more public property that I ever did earlier in my career. I learned that some things, you just have to learn in private. That what you say in those public spaces becomes a shared portion of our gathering together. It’s a public trust.

So what did I learn? I learned that I must find a way to nurture my spirit in solitude, away from the audience. It’s important for me to spend time in contemplation, discovery, and in practice, learning what I purpose or intend when I am afforded that sacred public space. The celebration, if there is any to be had, is simply being able to come to a point where we are capable of sharing that experience with the outside world without prejudice toward or fear of others. The personal journey evolves into an ability to be hospitable, if not hopefully, loving toward others. I didn’t know that I was learning anything while I wasn’t performing all those years, but learned to describe it later, when I tripped onto Nouwen’s depiction of the differences between loneliness and solitude. (Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out) It is in those (thankfully) obscured places where we have the opportunity to objectively better ourselves, make peace with who we are without the fear of failure or judgment. It seems incredibly self-centered, but surprisingly, it can lead to an amazing reaching out toward connecting with others.

I'm sorry if that all sounds too esoteric. But it underpins so much of where I’m at today. On one hand, if all you want is some kind of recognition for how awesome you are at your particular skill or level of intelligence, then the only option is to be undeniably good at what you do. So yeah, practice happens out of the spotlight. You practice what you do until you are flawless at that one phrase, that one act--perfect in your descriptions of one event or area of expertise. But I think there’s more to life than just the executables.

The spotlight or the communal exhibitions of our human experience are necessary. It allows us to connect with others, build and reaffirm community. It can be a healing process or practical act of human expression in being ‘known.’ It’s a point of celebration of our achievements and passions. But it must be put into perspective. These are but moments-glimpses; a poem, a song, a photographic still frame in what is the long and rich story of our lives. To aspire to only that moment is to miss out on all the extravagance of life. It’s what we do into the lead up and aftermath to those moments that says more about us than fifteen minutes of fame ever will.
The rest of the Q&A is exceptional as well, but I wanted to focus on this particular answer.

It touches on a strong dichotomy that we experience every day. As a society we love and adore the public face. We all just want to be big rock stars. We want to win the prize and receive the recognition. We heap rewards upon those who are strong enough to stand in the spotlight and show their muster to the world.

This mentality has seeped into everything, even our private lives. We celebrate the honesty and transparency of video bloggers. We are driven to share every little aspect of our lives on social media. We want all of our accomplishments, everything from a piano recital to resisting the urge to eat a candy bar, to be laid out and celebrated. We clasp hands and encourage each other to share our deepest fears and desires; and upvote the ones strong enough to be vulnerable in front of all of those unknown judging eyes.

This is all very good. We should encourage sharing. We should encourage people to be courageous and honest with their peers. Sharing stories gives us waypoints in life. We celebrate the great moments and strive towards them with fervor. We get a glimpse into others' lives and realize how similar we are, providing comfort. We can be empowered that the great heroes of our age are human after all. We should walk hand-in-hand alongside our peers who suffer secretly just like we do. We realize we are not alone.

But still, I feel we are not made for the mountains. We are made for the valley. Our lives on display are for our performances. We build up the image of ourselves through our carefully crafted stories. We perform to seek applause. But it also means we have to interact with the audience. We are driven to fulfill their desires and conform to the advertisements. We select for stories of success and triumph. We prefer the postmortem that says it all turns out A-OK and everything is alright. We provide a kind of social public agreement on who we are and what we provide. We begin to conform.

But it is in the quiet and away from the brilliant lights that we develop. That is where the chores are done and endurance to persevere is required. Small incremental steps with tiny gains that no one, not even yourself at times, can see. In private we are allowed to unpack and examine the minutiae of our psyche, our beliefs, our accomplishments and talents. That is where we, alone, have to face angels and demons within us and sort them out. In the quiet mundane there is no celebration. There is simply struggle and peace.

When we step back out on stage we show the results of those quiet days. We show the new and improved muscles we built from tireless days in the gym. We dazzle the audience with a new turn of step that brings awe. We pound out amazing new tracks that sound like nothing anyone has heard before but instantly reverberates through their very being. But that is just the performance. That is the moment of inspiration and interaction. Perhaps we receive a high-five or an award. Perhaps all we do is get to share a bit of our life with those around us.

But in the end, those are just the waypoints. Those celebrations and bright lights are not a whole life. We consume them from afar from a million other lives and think "my life should be that." Never looking at the long journey it took, the days of mundane, the quiet growth in the background.

In private is where we can grow.

And grow we do. But it is not through sharing that we grow. Psychologically sharing our goals can reduce our motivation to accomplish them. We feel like we've partially accomplished something even though we have done nothing. Sharing about my struggles in life doesn't resolve that they exist. I may experience catharsis, and at best find sympathizers and accountability, but that does not resolve the underlying issues. We move under our own power and that takes private self-motivated actions.

I don't want to undermine the power of sharing. One of the greatest burdens and barriers to progress is feeling the insurmountable weight of the task upon you. This can be from the inherent weight of the plan itself. Or psychologically from the sense of going in alone. Or shame of past failures. Providing a stage to share and receive stories of success and rehumanizing those around us is a perfect way to get around this problem. Being able to release your burden is uplifting. Carrying another's burden eases their load and gives them the room to succeed. Lying down after a long week and sharing with a friend how miserable it was is incredible and healthy.

But sharing for its own sake is not enough. It doesn't matter how many self-affirmations you give. The story of your dark past is simply a story. To actually crawl forward requires time and effort.

It is hard, tiring, and many times you will want to give up as you crawl forward. I have felt many times completely drained and unfeeling. I would stand looking at the times that have passed and the trials that I put myself through and see no appreciable progress. I would ask why go through all this work for nothing to show. Recently I have been grappling with social connections and how much I'd like to improve them. For the past year a decent number of brain cycles have been devoted to understanding social interactions and trying to deepen friendships. But sitting at home alone it often times feels like nothing has changed.

This is where sharing does help. I was sharing this with a close friend and they told me they couldn't understand what I was saying. They thought I was a pretty awesome person. Gee. I would have never known. My little internal world said I was pretty cruddy and not going anywhere. Share to help realign your perception of the world.

This also is why it's good to set benchmarks sometimes. While working out a few days ago I was gasping for breathe and wondering if I had made any progress in the gym. Then I remembered moments like struggling to keep going after running a mile in Middle School or how much I could lift when I first started. These were measurable differences of the now against the past. Not everything has clear-cut metrics. I can't measure my likability and friendliness by how many Facebook Friends I have. I can't measure how good of a programmer I am by how many bugs escape my notice. But some things can be measured. Use those benchmarks to shatter the perception nothing has changed.

The work we do in private is rough. But it is important and necessary. Don't buy the lie of an always shared life as the best life. Live an examined life. Fight the internal struggles. Become awesome. Then share it with the world.