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.


 

 

Learn to play, play to learn

IMG_6416Denise has been reacquainting herself with what it’s like to be a student. She’s started learning cello, taking two lessons a week. She loves the instrument as well as the chance to learn more about the student-teacher relationship. “As an adult you miss that sort of thing, a regular meeting with someone who’s helping you with some aspect of yourself and you feel very nurtured and cared about. You pay some shrink to listen to you every week, is what most people do. This week my cello teacher canceled a lesson, and I was upset about it. It’s a very intensely personal thing to study an instrument, and since adults are emotionally more rich and more mature, the nature of the relationship with a teacher tends to be that way as well. I’m so completely involved; it just takes you out of your life.” 

{Piano teacher, Denise Kahn, from the book Piano Lessons by Noah Adams}


An accomplished professional decides to learn something new for three clear and powerful reasons:

First, she wants to increase her empathy for her students, reminding herself of what it’s like to be in their shoes. Second, she wants to experience a mature and supportive relationship that will assist in her own teaching by helping her to (third reason) learn more about herself.

Her wisdom is demonstrated by her commitment to continuous learning about herself, others and her vocation.

This is the recipe for all who are committed to being the kind of human beings, perhaps the kind of leaders, who understand that to be well equipped for change and complexity means to willingly challenge our personal, relational, and professional status quo.

Finally, we’d do well to acknowledge that if the word “play” can be applied to something as difficult as learning an instrument, it can certainly be applied to our own pursuits.

What might happen if we played our way into and around these areas of learning? How might that alter our willingness to explore them even more deeply?

If it’s time to learn, it must be time to play. And it’s always time to learn.


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 to Practice / How to Lead

I asked my piano teacher to help me create a practice plan. I have noticed that each day when I sit at the piano, after a few warm-up exercises, I find myself uncertain how to make the most of the time. I bounce around from this exercise to that song, from this chord pattern to that one, inevitably feeling a mix of satisfaction for having spent the time and uncertainty as to its greater value to my education.

She practically beamed at the question. It was one of those “when the student is ready” moments that is just the right approach for this adult learner.

Her recommendation, regardless of how much time I have to practice, is to break it down as follows:

  • 25% – Warm-up
  • 50% – Focus on songs I have chosen to learn
  • 25% – Something new, something fun

As soon as she mapped this simple structure for me I relaxed with the knowledge that comes with a coherent game plan. She gave me a container, a way to structure myself that allows me to proceed with more purposeful and directed action.

On the drive home I concluded that this would also be an excellent approach for the daily practice of leading others.

What if, each day, you “warmed up” by briefly checking in with each member of the team? You could ask how the previous day finished up for them, how their evening was and how they’re feeling about the day ahead. Just a few moments with each person to greet them into this new day and remind them that you are there, also, attentive and engaged in their success.

What if you then focused on your  most important projects and initiatives? This includes your desk work, responding to requests, organizing information, planning for and attending the necessary (and unnecessary?) meetings in which you establish and sustain the forward motion of the work itself. What would or could be different about this core part of your day if you begin each day with the “warm up” described above?

What if then, no matter how busy the day becomes and how aggressively it threatens to get away from you, you took the time to do something fun and/or something new? This could include that reading you’ve been putting off, some quiet reflection about a difficult question or situation, a walk outside with a colleague, a celebration of a team member’s or project team’s accomplishment, a team building activity to break up the mid-afternoon slump, or simply a “warm down,” checking in with your team members at the close of the day.

Perhaps you’ve already done the math on this idea and found that in a 9 or 10 hour day that’s over four hours of “stuff” that is very much not you sitting at a desk and doing the work itself. And with that realization you may dismiss this out of hand as pie-in-the-sky thinking that is out of touch with your reality.

I would gently remind you of two things: first, your job as a leader is to help the team be successful which means that you have to be with them an awful lot. And second, you have more freedom in the design of your day than you may choose to admit. When you recommit to your team’s success and reclaim your calendar you will find as I am discovering with the piano, that a thoughtfully applied “practice” plan allows you to relax into the work in both unexpected and rewarding ways.


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.

Achievable Challenge

I started playing piano in early January. For the first month I did scales for 15 minutes a day to build up some strength and dexterity in my hands and fingers. But I didn’t decide to learn piano for the sake of scales so eventually I started messing around with some real songs.

My daughter recommended one of her early piano books in which I found a straightforward version of “Scarborough Fair,” the English tune made famous by Simon and Garfunkel. It’s been a perfect first test of my nascent piano skills. It requires me to get my left and right hands working on different things at the same time, has just enough changes to be challenging and is just easy enough – because a familiar tune – to be rewarding.

Well, just the other day my daughter sat down to the very same piece of music and played it in a way I had no idea was even possible. It was just beautifully interpreted, this simple piece of music so artfully rendered by her capable hands.

Immediately I had to try it just like her. And immediately I discovered that I couldn’t do it. Which is when I remembered an important piece of information: she’s been playing piano for 7 years and I’ve been playing for 2 months.

I believe that one day I will play the song like she did. And I also accept that where I am is good enough for now. The gap between here and there is probably pretty wide but it will shrink every day proportionate to how willing I am to do the work.

It’s easy to get ahead of ourselves, to go after things we’re not yet ready for. If we’re not careful that’s a path to discouragement and disengagement. The right mix, for ourselves and for our teams, is what I call “achievable challenge.” It’s got to be hard enough to keep our attention, inviting us to rise to the occasion, but well within our capability to actually accomplish.

{If you’d like to hear my version of the song you can do so here.}


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.

The Hardest Thing

“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”
{Seneca}


Sharing difficult feedback. Public speaking. Expressing empathy. Learning to play a musical instrument. Becoming fluent in a foreign language.

These are all “hard” things. And I have to put “hard” in quotes because right now you might be saying to yourself, “I don’t think ___________ is that hard?”

Maybe you play an instrument really well or love giving talks or have developed solid skills for giving tough feedback. You probably don’t see those things as hard anymore. You appreciate the work it took to get to your current level of confidence but “hard” no longer means what it once did.

My guess is that before you became competent you told yourself a story about just how hard it would be to get there. And that story – your imagination – depending on how richly it was detailed and how expertly it was crafted, stood in the way of your getting started.

I’m a beginner at the piano. I have not yet had a lesson (that’s coming soon) so I am using my daughter’s early lesson books for exercises to train my fingers and some “easy” songs to aid my learning. I have been at it for one month. In that short time my attitude has shifted from a lifelong belief that “piano is hard” (and therefore not for me) to a present sense of very pleasing satisfaction that I can already do things that I never imagined being able to do.

Until I decided to sit down at the piano for 15 minutes a day, I was living under the shadow of “hard” as an imaginative device to prevent me from starting. I now experience “hard” as an aspirational device to feed my curiosity and help me add one small brick at a time.

The piano is, of course, an objectively hard instrument to master, and mastery is the domain of a very few. But mastery isn’t my goal. Learning to play some songs I love is my goal. Connecting with my kids through music is my goal. Filling the house with Christmas carols is my goal. After six weeks of daily practice, those things no longer seem hard. They seem possible, exciting and a lot of fun.

What changed? I suppose I got old enough and just a little bit wise enough to realize it was time to stop suffering in my imagination and time to start succeeding in my reality.


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.

Why You Should Tell Your Friends About Your Goals

During a “year in review/year ahead” conversation with two of my best and most trusted friends and advisors, I shared that one of my goals for 2019 is to regularly post video content on LinkedIn. That conversation was about three weeks ago and it’s been gnawing at me ever since.

Having put it out there, I had to deliver the goods which is, of course, why I put it out there in the first place.

I posted my first video this afternoon. I’m glad I told my friends about my goal. Doing so made it possible, as if it had already been done.

It’s about being a beginner. I invite you to watch it here.


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.