The Benefit of Taking a Break

When I started playing piano in January of this year I had no idea how fast I would progress. I set two goals at the beginning of the experience; the first, to practice every day and the second, (my hoped for outcome as a result of the first) to be able to accompany myself singing a song by the end of the year.

Now that it is June, I have been at it for just about five months and I am feeling confident that I will meet goal #2 even though I recently had a major setback on goal #1.

My mid-May vacation to Whidbey Island was on the calendar for over six months and, once I started practicing piano in earnest, that block on the calendar started looming as “that week when I won’t be able to practice” and then, as the time approached, “that week when all the work I’ve done so far will come crashing down into a heap labeled ‘Nice try. You’re starting over.'”

And so off I went on vacation, partly happy for the break in my piano routine and quietly concerned about the coming setback.

On my first full-day home from the trip, I didn’t go near the piano. I was busy playing catch-up, of course, but I know I steered clear in part to avoid being proven right, my hard won gains lost to my eight day hiatus.

On the second day home, I put in a good practice but it wasn’t pretty. My wrist and finger strength were diminished and I fumbled my way through scales and exercises that I had already mastered. A little sore and disappointed, I tucked the bench back in, closed the keyboard and resuscitated some optimism for the following day.

On that day, and in the week or so since I’ve been back, I discovered just how important it is to take a break from learning. Aside from that awkward first practice when I was re-introducing myself to the piano, my sessions at the keyboard have been marked by feelings of ease and clarity. I am seeing the music and playing it in ways that I could not do before I left on my trip, which tells me that the only explanation is that I took a break.

Not only did I not lose any ground during my time away, I broke through to a new plateau of competency because of it. It’s such a joyful feeling to arrive at that new place that it’s difficult to adequately express just how satisfying it is.

The seduction of competence is that to attain it we must do more and more and more, and that we must do it ever faster and more intensely. We don’t talk much about the role of taking time off, about the necessity of allowing our brains, hearts and bodies to get synced up, about trusting what is happening in the background when we challenge ourselves to do something hard, something new.

We don’t talk about it because doing is so much more fun than not doing. It’s so much sexier, attractive and stimulating. But it’s only one part of the equation. That other part, the walking away, that’s when the magic happens.


 

 

Happy (just not enough)

Walt Disney created and invited us to the “happiest place on earth.” Do you think he believed that the place itself – the castle and the rides and the well-manicured grounds – was the source of that happiness? Or do you think that he delighted in providing a backdrop, a scene onto which we could project our own visions of happiness with and around the people we love, the relationships that are the real source of our happiness?

Whatever Disney has become, I like the romantic idea that Walt attempted to live into the latter question, that he was simply creating a new environment, one never before imagined, within which we could stimulate and reenforce the best of ourselves and the best of those we love. That he could build an empire on that premise might have, but probably didn’t surprise him.

Walking down Main Street this morning, I carried a sense of opportunity that Walt and Mickey’s playground could and would provide that very stimulus for me and my family. That walk remains magical to me, a few moments of suspended reality and appreciation for an extraordinary vision superbly brought to life.

As the day advanced and the spring break crowd grew larger, I appreciated something else that Walt in all his genius could not possibly have imagined: that it wouldn’t be enough for us; that no matter how creative and fanciful, how daring and surprising, this island of fantasy and adventure could never stand up to the onslaught of the mobile device.

The happiest place on earth is real. The catch is that it only exists when and where we allow it to. And it seems, more and more, that we are not willing to do that. With every glance at the phone we are reminded of what and where and with whom we are not, rather than what and where and with whom we are. That kind of dissociation from the present moment, even at a place as remarkable as Disneyland, makes Disneyland less than remarkable.

Because it’s not about the place. It is always and only about the people. And when the people are present, curious and engaged with one another and their surroundings, that place – any place – feels magical. And when they are not, there is no amount of window dressing that can do a thing about it.

No one has taken the magic from us, we’ve done that to ourselves. And we alone will have to decide if we’re willing to take it back.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

How Many Times Have You Died?

“I don’t know exactly what happened to me after that car accident when my blood pressure dropped precipitously low, and in the end, I realized that it didn’t matter. I didn’t need to solve it or explain it. Maybe I died, maybe I didn’t.

I just don’t know.

What I do know for sure is that I have died many times is this life. As a lost and helpless boy, I died in a magic shop. The young man who was both ashamed and terrified of his father, the one who had struck him and got his blood on his hands, died the day he went off to college. And although I didn’t know it at the time of my accident, eventually the arrogant, egotistical neurosurgeon I would become would also suffer his own death. We can die a thousand times in this lifetime, and that is one of the greatest gifts of being alive. That night what died in me was the belief that Ruth’s magic had made me invincible and the belief that I was alone in the world.”

– from Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart by James R. Doty.

magic shop

You Have To Explain About the Thread

“The Way It Is”

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

– William Stafford –

I was captivated this week by the most recent episode of the podcast, This American Life. Specifically, a segment featuring the magicians Penn and Teller describing their process of developing a new trick. Teller, the conspicuously silent partner, has fallen in love with the idea of recreating a classic floating ball and hoop routine. Penn is less enthusiastic, as in not at all. As Teller works and works to make the trick worthy of their show by the standard they have agreed to over 40 years of collaboration he falls short time and again.

A breakthrough comes when they agree that the way to make the trick compelling to both themselves and their audience is to let the audience in on it from the very beginning. The trick begins with Penn’s announcement: “The next trick is done with just a piece of thread.”  And off goes Teller, beautifully and brilliantly manipulating a ball with nothing more than a piece of thread.

What Penn and Teller understood and acted upon – after years of work on one specific illusion – is what William Stafford implores us to do in the poem above: “You have to explain about the thread.” 

I am often in a position to do exactly that. In the classroom or at a speaking engagement I am frequently asked about my own thread. Why do I do what I do? How did I get started? What are the steps I took from there to here? I always respond in the same way, that I knew exactly what I was supposed to do with my life when I was 17 years old. A bright red thread emerged through my experiences in musical performance and student leadership. I was intuitively aware that the abilities developed and practiced in those early settings were the strengths I would call on throughout my adult life. I held onto the thread through the first few years of college but lost it completely once I had to marry my intuitive sense of it to the harshly practical world of “knowing what you want to do with your life.” I didn’t know how to manifest my nascent understanding of my thread into a next step. And I was too afraid to explain about the thread. I wasn’t willing to say, “This is my thread. I don’t know much about it but I do know a few important things, not least of which is that it’s mine. Will you please help me figure out where it leads?”

Instead, I let it slip away. As it turns out, it did not let go of me. We played peekaboo on occasion, a flirtation here and there, but it took over 10 years and an extraordinary confluence (aka, the thread working hard behind the scenes) of people and events to land me in front of a classroom of aspirational leaders. The specifics of that first class are hazy because my memory is dominated by the aliveness I felt at having my hands on the thread once again.

Most recently, my thread has led me to the college classroom and the opportunity to teach and mentor undergraduate students. The thread has a solid sense of humor. It says, “You struggled to claim me as your own. Others struggle, too. Here is your chance to help a few people struggle a little less, to find the thread a little earlier, and to gain the confidence and declare their commitment to hang on.”

There is no “magic.” There is finding your thread and there is holding onto your thread because “while you hold it you can’t get lost.” There is demonstrating to all who cannot see it that what looks like magic is just your commitment to trust where it will lead. Sometimes, like Teller performing for a full house, we hang on with artistry and elegance. Sometimes, like Teller in the early days of practice, we hang on in spite of our fumbling because our curiosity compels us to learn where it wants to go.  And sometimes we don’t hang on at all. But it is there, waiting to dispel the illusion that we can find our way without it.

What is your thread? Where is it leading?
Who have you explained it to? Who have you asked for help?
What makes it hard to hang on?
Is there someone whose thread confuses you?
Will you listen to them explain about the thread?

For further reading, here’s another reflection on “The Way It Is” by Parker Palmer.

DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.