What Success Actually Looks Like

I saw this image on the door of a voice teacher last year, and it made me laugh and think:

All too often we hear our parents, teachers, and friends say that “the road is not straight,” but I’ve found that all too often we forget about this graphic while we’re working on things. Generally, there’s an expectation that after you get out of the practice room things will sound better than they did when you entered, or that by working on something it will be that much closer to being “finished.” And yet I think most people have experiences where they have to go backwards before going forwards, and where working on something brings up more questions than answers.

As my teacher Bill Carrothers likes to say, learning anything truly meaningful is not like “catching a fish.” You do not expect to grasp progress right away, for it will slip right out of your hands. Rather, you have to patiently wait for it to come to you, however convoluted the process might seem. This isn’t to say that efficiency and focus aren’t important-in fact they’re key qualities that separate the best from the adequate. But if you expect immediate rewards for your work, you’ll often be disappointed!

Bill divides this less obvious trajectory into three steps.

Step 1: I like to call this the “level up” stage. You feel as if you’ve just gotten some new skills and are feeling pretty good about what you’re doing. In fact, sometimes you surprise yourself with just how much you can do.

Step 2: What I call the “awareness stage,” you start to notice some things about your playing that bother you, and you realize there are things that you need to add to your toolbox. This is the phase where you figure out where you want to go next.

Step 3: The burning phase. This is when you can’t stand your playing and grow frustrated with your progress. It often feels like nothing’s happening because you aren’t able to get past the plateau you’re on. However painful at times, this is the good phase. It means that you are in the process of changing from the inside out. Then, sometimes abruptly you figure something out and you’re back at phase 1.

I’ve noticed variations in this cycle in my Jazz playing, Classical playing, and in other aspects of my life as well. Basically, it consists of me gaining confidence in something I’m doing it, gradually losing it through playing around with new ideas, and then gaining it back again.

Of course the process is different for everyone, but I will gamble this: it ain’t linear.

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