On Discomfort

When I pick up a new piece of music, I break it down into sizable chunks. What kind of structure does it have and can I break it down into something simple like an ‘ABACA’ pattern? If it does, I would learn that ‘A’ part first. Are there complicated rhythms or strange fingerings? Break it down even further. I only start playing when the piece is in manageable chunks.

Do I feel satisfied I can play this chunk? Yes? Then I would move on to the next chunk. After learning a few chunks, I would combine these chunks and try to merge them together in one take. The take will probably be terrible, so I go back and work on the areas I have the most trouble with. This is the process of jumping in between low and high level of learning something new. I can not play the composition well enough until I have dived deep in this form of practice.

At first glance, I see the composition as a whole and I think I could never play this piece. I’m usually at a high level of discomfort. “The wall is too high to climb,” I think. But when I give a second glance, I start thinking strategy. How could I break it down to manageable components. When I’m through, I’m at a lower level of discomfort and have many small challenges that’s a lot more manageable. The hours of practice don’t matter. You have practiced enough when you feel very comfortable with the piece.

I’ve been told many times in the past to get out of your comfort zone. But when I apply this advice, I wonder, how far out of your comfort zone should you go? I say, go as far as you can before you feel that feeling you want to quit. This is part of a bigger concept called flow, developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a professor of psychology at Claremont College.[1] Flow is the state of being fully immersed and involved when one performs at an activity. It’s a balancing point and you will inevitably feel it when you are so involved with the activity, you lose track of the time. I attempt to strike that right balance by taking an educated guess on my complexity threshold. More likely than not, I will estimate incorrectly, and that’s when I will adjust myself.

Here’s a fun example of how you can follow this pattern with a trivial activity. This past Wednesday night, I spent 30 minutes solving logic puzzles online. Once I completed the logic puzzle, the page would redirect and show a summary of my results. This includes graph showing a normal distribution graph of complexity of the puzzle and the time to complete it. There was a star to indicate where you compare to other logic puzzlers. During my first puzzle, it took me over 5 minutes to solve the puzzle. My star was in the right tail end of the percentile on the graph. By the end of the 30 minutes, my star was on the middle, meaning around the 50 percentile, i.e. average. I proved to myself I can get better at solving logic puzzles. If I go back and do more puzzles, I would move up the difficulty to medium, but I know I’m doomed to be on the tail end of the medium puzzles when I first begin.

Another case: this letter. One of my biggest faults as a writer is my inability to edit what I’ve written. After typing my stream of consciousness, I think the first draft must be the best draft. However, the harsh reality is I don’t want to read my own writing because I’m afraid that it’s all shit. Hell, I will admit it now. The first draft I wrote for this letter was a piece of shit. It’s as Anne Lamott says in her book, “Bird by Bird”. “All good writers write [shitty first drafts]. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.” The second reading through my letter, I started to notice grammatical, sentence structure and diction mistakes. The third read through I noticed the problems of how the letter flowed.

I’ve been writing for myself over three years non-stop. I have a daily deadline to write in my journal, and I haven’t missed a day since March 13th, 2011.[2] It’s all been stream of conscious writing though, so there’s not much afterthought in what I write. In an interview with Current a few years ago, Ira Glass talks about beginners and the phase of crap. When your starting out in a creative profession, nearly everything you make is awful. The distinguishing factor you have going for you is that you know you have good tastes. I’m in that awful phase with my writing. The big difference between when I started writing and today is I’m finally sharing my work and getting feedback on what to improve. By applying the feedback, I can discard what makes a piece a failure and focus on the elements that make great writing. If you really want to learn from mistakes, Jason Fried of Basecamp (formerly 37Signals) writes what failure really teaches us is what not to do while success teaches us what to do. I’m striving to reach a point where my writing is more than just crap, and that it adds meaning and value to my readers.

The feeling of discomfort pairs well with the feeling of flourishing. And the opposite seems to be true; the feeling of comfort pairs well with the feeling of being stagnant. One of the ways to combat the plateau phase is to embrace discomfort. In “Infinite Jest”, David Foster Wallace describes this type of activity for a complacent type playing tennis.

Then [there’s] maybe the worst type, because it can cunningly masquerade as patience and humble frustration. You’ve got the Complacent type, who improves radically until he hits a plateau, and is content with the radical improvement he’s made to get to the plateau, and doesn’t mind staying at the plateau because it’s comfortable and familiar, and he doesn’t worry about getting off it, and pretty soon you find he’s designed a whole game around compensating for the weaknesses and chinks in the armor the given plateau represents in his game, still—his whole game is based on this plateau now.

And little by little, guys he used to beat start beating him, locating the chinks of the plateau, and his rank starts to slide, but he’ll say he doesn’t care, he says he’s in it for the love of the game, and he always smiles but there gets to be something sort of tight and hangdog about his smile, and he always smiles and is real nice to everybody and real good to have around but he keeps staying where he is while other guys hop plateaux, and he gets beat more and more, but he’s content.

– David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

Although I am saving the plateau phase for another letter, I wanted to touch on it briefly. David Foster Wallace understands the comfortable feeling and how it can stall their growth. Instead of trying to focus on how to better themselves, they may lose their matches and don’t let failures teach them something. The person has a good attitude about losing and doesn’t pass judgment, but he or she has no vision to desire a better outcome[3] Take it from chess world champion Emmanuel Lasker. “A bad plan is better than no plan at all.”

To conclude, I want to leave you with questions to ponder about. Do you recognize this discomfort in your life? Are you passing non-judgment to the feedback you get? How can you improve your current skills?

[1] His Ted Talk is spectacular. His book is a reinforcement of his ideas with more examples and clarity on the general concepts that flow includes. I wouldn’t recommend it cover to cover, more of a book to skim and find sections to hone in on.

[2] White lie. I have written entries the day after I was supposed to. Also, when I’m traveling overseas, I’ll be too confused by the timezone and may crap out on what day it is exactly.

[3] I adapted this concept from Tim Gallewey’s book, The Inner Game of Tennis