Friday, April 4, 2014

Validation Junkie to Possibilitarian: An Ego Alternative for Musicians

 Validation Junkie to Possibilitarian: 
An Ego Alternative for Musicians

Once upon a time, I went to Chicago and performed in the Walfrid Kujala Piccolo Competition. There were four finalists performing in a concert with cash prizes awarded to 1st, 2nd and 3rd place.  

I came in fourth. 

I was devastated. 

My husband wanted to cheer me up, so he took me to the movies that night in Chicago and we saw the movie Up. For those of you that have seen this beautiful film, you know that the opening moments of the movie pull at your heart strings in a meaningful way.  Up is a timeless Pixar movie that has a way of helping viewers to see life from a different perspective. For me, it was the beginning of something special.

The next morning we began the drive home from Illinois to Texas and stopped at my mom's house in Oklahoma City on the way.  Still needing comfort for my disappointment about the competition, I shared with my mom how much I was struggling with approval issues, competitiveness and frustration.  I don't think I would have been humble enough to talk with her in such a vulnerable way if it wasn't for my bruised ego and the cathartic tears prompted by watching the movie Up.


Inspired by my desire to find a different way of approaching my music career, my mom mentioned that she had a book she wanted me to read.  She gave me her copy of The Art of Possibility written by Benjamin and Rosamund Zander. I was hooked from the moment I read the Emily Dickinson poem included before the Table of Contents. 

On page 13 of The Art of Possibility,  the authors prompt the reader to solve a brainteaser.  Already captivated by the concepts in the book so far, I was determined to be extremely patient and solve it.  I invite you to give it a try and NOT scroll down until you've put in plenty of effort!  First, copy nine dots in a three by three pattern in the center of a piece of paper (see puzzle below).  Then, read the instructions and try the puzzle as many times as needed.

Instructions: Join all nine dots with 
four straight lines, without taking pen from paper.

Before I share the solution to the puzzle, let me explain an affliction I had suffered in my life up until this exact moment.  For whatever reason, I had an addiction and compulsion to follow the rules.  A card carrying member of the people pleasing club, from an early age I had done everything in my power to gain validation by following the rules better than anyone around me.  I saw a world that existed within the rules I perceived to be mandatory.  One of the most significant ways I sought validation and tried to win by following rules was through flute competitions.

It all started in seventh grade when I become stuck as second to last chair flute in band.  Already accustomed to getting my validation fixes through other kinds of competitions, I was more than a little bothered by this.  I was convinced that, if I could figure out the rules and master this new kind of competition, I would be back in the universe's good graces and find a fresh supply of validation.

I quickly studied the system and realized, if I practiced enough, I would move up chairs.  I also watched the first chair flutist and noticed what she did (clear tone, played all the right notes and exuded confidence).  It took a little time, but sooner than later, she and I were duking it out for first chair on a consistent basis.  I repeated a similar process with every new musical challenge I encountered for many years (with various failed attempts along the way) until I read The Art of Possibility.

...and now back to the nine dot puzzle!

I bet I tried to solve the puzzle for a solid fifteen minutes (major accomplishment for my instant gratification mindset at the time).  I couldn't help it anymore and turned the page to find the answer.  What I saw blew my poor little rule following mind wide open. 


It turns out that, like many readers, I had assumed the four lines would be contained within the imaginary box I'd created with my mind.  The thing I had failed to understand was that the rest of the paper was a possibility. 


Here is a quote from page 14 of The Art of Possibility. "The frames our minds create define - and confine - what we perceive to be possible.  Every problem, every dilemma, every dead end we find ourselves facing in life, only appears unsolvable inside a particular frame or point of view.  Enlarge the box, or create another frame around the data, and problems vanish, while new opportunities appear."

When I saw the solution to the nine dot puzzle, something clicked inside of me.  If the rest of the page was a possibility, that meant I could find a way to feel better about losing the competition.  It meant a way to free myself from the ups and downs of having gotten my latest validation fix or not.  It meant that maybe my life as a musician hadn't even really started yet.

A few months later, I was standing in Barnes & Noble, looking for inspiration on a morning that sorely needed it. I noticed a book by Julia Cameron that I had seen countless times on the shelf before.  Though I have always considered my husband an artist (he's my musical hero!), I wasn't brave enough to buy the book because I wasn't brave enough to call myself an artist. This time however, after having read The Art of Possibility twice, I was softening.  I was becoming open to possibilities. I decided to buy The Artist's Way. 

To make a long and wonderful story short, I will just tell you that this book changed who I am as a person and a musician.  

The two tools that Cameron advocates in the book, Morning Pages and Artist Dates, have brought me more clarity, motivation and joy than I can possibly begin to describe in this post.  Since reading this book for the first time, I have not only had a ridiculous amount of fun painting lots of bad paintings, I've actually sold two good ones!  This is significant for me, because I'm a flutist, not a painter, and began painting with no rules or competition of any kind!  This new kind of validation was very different and felt really good. 

The ripple effects in my life from reading The Artist's Way are amazing to me.  The energy, creativity and momentum I gained prompted me to practice, write, paint and enjoy my creative process in ways I never had before.  I have journaled over two thousand pages. I have embraced the concept that I am more than just a flute player, more than just a competitor. I am a vibrant, expressive human being that has more music, ideas, stories, essays, art, and motivation in me than I can even really know at this time.

My favorite painting so far, Strange Doorways

I got the term "possibilitarian" from an artist I fell in love with somewhere around the time I read The Art of Possibility and The Artist's Way.  Kelly Rae Roberts is incredibly prolific, innovative and inspiring.  (To read more about her and her work, click HERE).  The word possibilitarian is so perfect for flutists, music teachers, composers and anyone in the arts, I'm sure she won't mind if we borrow it. 

Summary of how I became a possibilitarian:

1 - Though I loved music from an early age, I was addicted to validation and used chair tests, rankings and competitions to justify my existence in the the music world. 

2 - One important day, I failed and had to find a different way. 

3 - After feeling humbled and disappointed, I was moved by a beautiful movie, had a vulnerable conversation with my mom who handed me an amazing book, read that book, and let it open a door in my mind which opened me up to read another book that ultimately changed everything.  

To shift from validation junkie to possibilitarian (something that is still very much in process for me!), I had to shed a lot of my old thinking habits and open up to brand new ones.  I had to (begin to) let go of what judges thought about me, how I compared to other flutists and whether or not I was impressive enough to the world at large.  I had to realize that the real prizes come from my sense of pride in the good work I've done and the incredible, transcendent emotions I have the privilege to experience when I perform music at the highest level I can attain in the moment. 

I now trust that there's infinite possibility for me, which takes the pressure off of having to prove anything to myself or anyone else.

You can absolutely make this shift, with or without reading The Art of Possibility, The Artist's Way or even having to learn it the hard way through one too many attempts at seeking validation. The first step is simply to acknowledge that you may not have to win prizes, earn praise or prove to the world that you're good enough to be called a musician. 

Become open to the possibility that there might be a different way


Just in case any of you validation junkies out there are still doubtful, I should probably tell you that I won some of my best prizes after I let go of needing to win them. 

Happy Practicing!
Terri Sánchez

If you enjoyed this post, try reading about six different Practice Modes to consider as you dive into the world of possibility.