Sunday, January 21, 2007

Where Ironman Meets Mozart

When I was a kid, I had this unfortunate tendency to quit when the going got tough. Plenty of things came easily for me, so when things didn't go quite so smoothly, I guess I just made the assumption that it wasn't something I could do, and I quit. Even within subjects that were normally straightforward, if I struck a snag, I just gave up. Being a perfectionist didn't help, because if something didn't come out just right, I threw up my hands in frustration and walked away.

Sports changed my life. I know lots of people say that, to the point that it is a cliche. But more than changing my life in a broad sense (which also happened), becoming first a swimmer and then a triathlete began to change my essential approach to almost everything. Before that, I had always had an image in my mind of perfection, and if what I was doing, whether it was playing Mozart or painting a landscape didn't match that perfect image, my frustration became overwhelming and I would stop. In sports however, I learned that nothing is perfect. There is no perfection, there is only better. You can never run a perfect race, something can always be improved. Once you know this essential truth, you can accept that the only thing you can do is to make yourself better, in all aspects of life.

The other more critical thing I learned from sports was the principle of Incremental Change. You don't have to make yourself instantly better, you only have to try just a little harder today, and tomorrow your "normal" will be where "harder" was yesterday. Over a matter of time, once can go from barely being able to run/walk a mile to crossing the finish line of an Ironman. It's amazing how many implications this has in our lives. Whether it be work, hobbies, relationships, eating habits; once we know that the only change we have to worry about is a small and incremental one, then overwhelming problems stop being overwhelming and start to be manageable.

So the other day I was sitting at the piano facing a Mozart concerto that I want to be able to play fluidly. It's not there yet. But, unlike 30 years ago, I have the ability to take it one day at a time, to make each segment better in incremental ways. I now know that when I sit down a week from now, provided I've put in some diligent work, it will sound much better than it does today. I don't have to throw up my hands with an internal "I suck! I'll never be good at this!", but instead can tell myself "Just play the left hand three times, then play them together. It will be better. Tomorrow you can work on the right hand." I know this doesn't sound like much of a revelation, but to this perfectionist it's solid gold.

Passing these hard-won obvservations on to my kids has been a challenge as well. My kids have, quite unfortunately, inherited my perfectionist tendencies. Some lessons, however, are hard to put into words that don't sound trite and lecture-like. So more than anything, I've tried to provide opportunities for them to discover this themselves. Taking Karate together has been a place where both of them have had the chance to make this discovery. Things that were hard a few months ago come more easily now. And once a kid has had success in mastering one thing, they can take that observation to anything they want to tackle in life.

More than anything, I'm grateful for my college swim coach, who provided both the opportunity and the lessons that I needed to learn in order to be able to face my perfectionism bugaboo. Without him, and his edict that I tackle a triathlon, something that I thought I could "never do", my Mozart book might be slammed shut, my piano silent, and I surely wouldn't have crossed the finish line of an Ironman.


Scott Curry said...

You're an inspiration Robin. You'll have to add a link to an mp3 of you playing your concerto when you nail it down. I definitely want to hear it someday!

Cheers,...all the best with as my friend Jonathan Caron would say "stronger than yesterday" in a Brittany Spears twang.


Libor said...

Man I can relate to today's script. From another ostrich with the head in the sand if things go away, run away!!! :-P

Sheila said...

YES!!!! Some of the same things I learned from sports. Give up the perfectionism; be good with small chunks of progress; be good with the PROCESS and the outcome will be what it will be.

I play piano, too. Mozart ROCKS! Well, so does J.S. Bach, but I digress :)

Diane said...

I love the idea of passing that concept onto your kids... I try to remind my children of how hard riding a bike was at first, with training wheels, but now they can fly around without them. Many things that are worth having are hard... good for you to help the rest of us acknowledge and accept that fact.