Listen to my podcast on Self-Confidence with Sheena Yap Chan

Sheena Yap Chan is creating a valuable resource for women everywhere, with her podcast The Tao of Self-Confidence.She recently interviewed me, and I hadn't thought about the topic of confidence for quite some time. It had never occurred to me that I lacked self-confidence, because I had always been a high achiever. But in the interview, I realize that my source of confidence has shifted from outer accomplishments to an invisible inner source.

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Be Willing to Drop the F Bomb

IMG_3704 When I was a senior in high school applying to college, I remember one university had as its essay question, "What was your biggest failure and what did you learn from it?". I remember considering not applying to that school because I couldn't think of a failure to write about.

At the time, I was on the receiving end of a lot of attention and praise for never having failed (publicly at least). But now as an adult, I know the trap of living a life based on avoidance of failure. It's no success to have reached all the goals that have been set for you, to have checked all the boxes other people have laid out as important for you, and then to look in the mirror and not recognize yourself. Or to have your body screaming in pain or exhaustion.

Having been there and done that, I have rediscovered the vital importance of failure. Not "achieving" failure as an identity, but being willing to fail. I gave a workshop on Friday to a group of engineers, coaches, consultants, startup founders, and other change agents interested in how groups of people grow and learn. It was based entirely around sound, voice, and music improvisation - in other words, the most common fears of about ninety-nine percent of the population.

The name of the workshop was, "Play the Wrong Note: Daring Adventures in Learning, Failure, and Creativity". The title actually refers to a specific moment in my life when everything changed for me. Those four words - "Play the wrong note" - were the four most compassionate words ever spoken to me by a teacher. No one in a position of authority had ever said, "Lisa, I want to see you break the rules. And I'll help you." It turned out to be the most loving instructions I ever received, and the framework for an entire body of work.

It was about three months in to my sound healing training program. A weekend workshop dedicated to the art of improvisation. I thought I could just observe and let the others do this improvisation thing, which was clearly for "those people" but not me. So I hid behind the teacher with my violin tucked under my arm, hoping he would not see me or ask me to participate in this bluesy, jazzy jam that was happening all around me.

And, of course, at that very moment, he turned around and pointed right at me. "You! Solo!" he said.

I had no idea what to play. I wasn't into blues or jazz and had no reference point for what sounds to make. He could sense that I needed help so he said, "Play the wrong note."

My facial expression must have communicated the feeling I had, which was, "OK. But...which one?". There were an infinite number of wrong notes I could play. How would I know which one was right?

He smiled and took my finger in his hand, and moved it to a random place on the fingerboard of my violin. "Play that," he said gently.

I heard his instructions, but when I tried to play, my bow arm literally would not move. I was so hard-wired to play only the right notes - after daily practicing from age four - that my entire body would not allow me to play any wrong ones.

It was the perfect timing for me. I was ready. I had had a lifetime of good training, practice, and mastery. I was wired for success. But I had no wiring for freedom, fun, or failure. And in that moment, standing there, stranded, in the middle of a room with forty or so people making sounds, having a great time, and waiting for me to solo, I got it.

I could continue to avoid failure, or I could choose to grow into the unknown.

Later that day, in the same workshop, my violin case fell off its chair and onto the floor.

I took it as a sign and stopped avoiding the failures that were wanting to happen for me. I closed my violin school a little over a month later. I started practicing - first in the privacy of my own home, and using my voice, not my violin - making sounds that were all "wrong" to my trained ears. I started PLAYING again. Something I had not done in a long time, and maybe never on my violin.

The adventure that followed was a list of things I could never have planned for my life. I started playing only improvised music, in public, on a stage. I discovered hiking and backpacking. I went to the top of Half Dome and the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I started working at REI - the retail job I was never allowed to have as a teenager because I could earn more money teaching violin or staying home to practice. I won a gig as a gear tester and reporter for Backpacker Magazine, including a free trip to the Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City. I discovered Thai massage and Breema bodywork, which led to traveling to three countries I would never have dreamed of visiting before - Bali, Thailand and Laos. And through my practice of these forms of bodywork, I traded massages for studio days with a couple of artist friends. And I discovered that I could play with paint. Which led to a daily art-making habit. Which has (so far, in the year or so that I've been doing it) led to a juried show, a new blog, and a whole lotta new art supplies in my house.

I could not have written these down on a bucket list because I would never have let my imagination run that wild. Until I was willing to Play The Wrong Note.

And not just once, in a workshop. It was about making a decision to bring the learning from that moment back to my daily life. To find ways to practice that willingness every time the opportunity came up.

It started with music. Being willing to play the wrong note in my personal comfort zone. And then it expanded. Not with planning but as a natural consequence of becoming familiar with the willingness to be "wrong".

So this is my soapbox.

Risk taking is necessary. Being open and willing to fail is necessary. Not knowing is necessary. And these skills are not taught in school. They are not the skills that get you straight A's. They are not the skills that make you look "smart". They are not the skills that earn you the proud distinction of being a Good Daughter (or Wife or Mother). They are not the skills that you use to fill out a college or medical school application. They are often not the stuff of polite cocktail party conversation.

They are the skills of the maverick. The rebel. The free thinker. The one who creates.

So no matter how long ago it was that you experienced your last failure - whether it was just this morning or decades ago or not at all - it is never too late to dive right in. Start practicing the F word.

Take it from a straight A student. Me.

Curious about my "Play The Wrong Note" workshop? Read this blog post or listen to the Creative Conversation we had yesterday about it.

And if you're ready to start practicing Fun, Freedom, and Failure with writing as improvisation, check out my brand new coaching program here.

Wishing You The Fun and Freedom of Being Willing to Fail,

Lisa

Tiger Mother Amy Chua Sets the Record Straight

[singlepic id=449 w=320 h=240 float=center] So, for those of you who still haven't read the whole book, and may even find yourself getting sick and tired of all the "Tiger Mom" and "Tiger Cub" stuff being thrown around the web, here's something that might ease your suffering. Amy Chua wrote a column in USA TODAY entitled, "Here's how to reshape U.S. education."

First of all, it's short and very readable in a few minutes, honoring our short American attention spans, a la USA Today.

Second of all, Amy "follows the rules" and wears her academic hat here, citing historical geopolitical examples, statistics, and all those other techniques that make our rational brains feel taken care of. She sounds smart, succinct, and very put-together. To draw a wardrobe analogy, she would be wearing a navy blue suit and high heels in this article, while in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother we saw her with no makeup, maybe some running shoes, and her "fat jeans". In other words, she wasn't so pretty and polished.

Here, she only briefly hints at her own vulnerability, her own flawed human condition, by stating that she "learned her lesson the hard way" when her younger daughter (NB: the daughter who does not yet have a blog, and has not yet gotten into Harvard...she's only a freshman in high school) rebelled. She also hints at the vulnerabilities of her attackers - you know, the parenting bloggers and other self-righteous jumpers-on-the-bandwagon who feel the need to polarize every story into a right-versus-wrong debate - by saying this about parenting in particular, and why it's such a hot-button issue:

"We all desperately want to get it right and never know for sure whether we are. Perhaps it's because the stakes are so high, and it's terrifying to admit a mistake."

Ultimately, in the final paragraphs, she boils down her point of view into a very tidy philosophical statement of "East Meets West", imagining an ideal borrowing from the "best of both worlds" - the structure and discipline required in early childhood to establish a foundation of learning, and a gradual opening in the later teenage years to allow ample exploration of individuality and creative self-expression:

The great virtue of America's system is that our kids learn to be leaders, to question authority, to think creatively. But there's one critical skill where our kids lag behind: learning how to learn.

East meets West

If in their early years we teach our children a strong work ethic, perseverance and the value of delayed gratification, they will be much better positioned to be self-motivated and self-reliant when they become young adults. This is a way to combine East and West: more structure when our children are little (and will still listen to us), followed by increasing self-direction in their teenage years.

When I read these words, they sound familiar. I agree with them.

They were the ingredients I intended to bring into fruition when I started a violin school for toddlers in Silicon Valley back in 2004. With starry eyes and the willingness to put everything on the line (including a partner-level job in venture capital) for the creation of this dream, I set out to provide the ultimate combination of Eastern and Western philosophies. This was to be "more than violin lessons". It was to be "lifelong learning", using the vehicle of violin to teach discipline, teamwork, leadership, collaboration, listening, sensitivity, confidence, and mastery. Everything I could think of could be taught through the journey of learning to play violin and performing around the world.

I actually used the term "learning how to learn" in my parent seminars and recruiting presentations.

And I did attempt to teach people - parents mostly - how to practice. I designed "practice charts", created videos, held evening seminars complete with PowerPoint presentations, hosted summer camps with guest teachers, invited high school seniors as "examples of success" other than myself, traveled with entire families (our peak was 76 travelers and two full-size motorcoaches) from California to Chicago each year to perform at Orchestra Hall.

By trying to put Amy Chua's eloquent words into real-life practice with real-life people, I realized that no one person, no one system, can "make" anyone learn. People learn exactly what they learn, when they learn it. When they are ready to receive a particular lesson, they do. No sooner and no later.

Amy Chua's lessons came to her when her younger daughter was a pre-teenager, when everything fell apart in her tightly controlled, perfectly planned world.

My lessons came when I realized that I could not create THE perfect learning environment for every child, no matter how carefully I honed my interviewing, recruiting and selection process (designed to screen for parents who knew how to learn), or how much energy I poured into the individual dynamics of each child-parent-family system.

I could not teach anyone "how to practice" if they were unwilling or unable to go through the messy learning process on their own, make mistakes and admit to them, ask for help, try things and fail, and be willing to let go of attachment to outcomes. Including myself. In the end, the greatest lesson I learned was exactly how unwilling I was to be open to the outcome that my school would be imperfect, that it might not match up to the expectations and image I had created in my mind for what I would be able to achieve.

And so I gave up. I let it go. I quit. I had given all I could give, based on who I was at the time.

And now, more than a year after letting go, I am saying my first words about it in public, with some level of honesty and self-compassion.

Amy Chua talks about the "perfect" education system as combining lots of structure and discipline in the early years - when the children still listen to their parents - followed by opening and letting go in the teenage years. The challenge I found, when trying to put this into practice with real people, is that the "Eastern" parents couldn't trust the process enough to let go and watch their children learn from harmless mistakes, and the "Western" parents wanted to allow teenage-like behavior to blossom at age seven or eight.

I was at a loss for words, or programs, or activities, to address the diversity and complexity of issues that were playing out in front of me. Everyone seemed to need a different message, a different balance, and yet when the kids were put in front of the parents as a group, no one could stop themselves from comparing and despairing. The insecurities kicked in. The measurement of progress relative to other kids. The need for recognition in terms of trophies and plaques. In other words, all the things that kill learning and stop creativity in its tracks.

Since I had taken it upon myself to try to create one learning environment - one culture - that would meet the needs of every single student, parent, and family, I failed. I failed at an impossible task.

Worst of all, I was alone. I had created no community of support in terms of other practitioners who were "on the same page" as educators, facing the same challenges. I found a non-profit organization, called "Positive Coaching Alliance", that was doing parent and coach education in the arena of sports as personal development. I sponsored a workshop by their organization for the parents in my school, hoping to draw out the many comparisons between sports and music in their children's education.

But it was too late. I was stretched thin in terms of my energy, I was entangled very deeply in some toxic and manipulative relationships with a few very vocal parents in my school, and I had no one to confide in, except my own journals and blogs. I had no outlet for discussion of the harsh truths, the difficult emotions, the tenderness of the situations I was dealing with, the courage I was being asked to call upon - which I could not find.

The advice I got from my own teacher amounted to this: "Well, you just deal with it. That's the way it is. You've got no choice. This is what you've gotten yourself into. And your parents are ten times better than the ones I've dealt with my entire forty-year career, so be thankful."

It didn't feel helpful, and I couldn't find the feeling of "thankfulness", no matter how much I believed I "should" be thankful.

I didn't want to look forward to another x number of decades in this state of unrest, grappling for control, and feeling so responsible for the outcomes of so many lives (yes, I really did think I could make that big of an impact through violin). I knew firsthand - from my own childhood experience - the many toxic emotions that could be cultivated in a violin school, how comparisons, competitions, and insecurities could bring out the ugliness in even the most well-intentioned people. And I did not want to repeat that experiment.

I wanted to part of a solution, not part of a problem.

So I stopped.

My solution was to get to know myself better, to dive into my own vulnerabilities, to explore what was possible for myself when I allowed my own creativity to flow, and to really learn for myself what peace, joy, and freedom felt like. My solution also involved learning to see my own responsibility for creating the situation I found myself in, facing the painful truth that my thoughts and beliefs drove me to act in ways that caused my own suffering.

Reading Amy Chua's seemingly definitive answer for "how to" reform education in U.S., and seeing the many readers who, only now, are willing to acknowledge her wisdom, I'm reminded of our collective discomfort with the unknown, and our voracious appetite for certainty.

Now that I am at some distance from my career as a violin teacher, I feel less certain of what I would say to a parent about "how to" do that formidable job - the one where the stakes seem to be so high, where we seem to be so afraid of "doing it wrong". I feel less attached to sounding put-together and having pat answers to complex questions.

But I also feel more trusting of the process of life. I feel less afraid of other people's (and my own) reactions in the face of uncertainty. I feel more compassionate toward the pain and fear of looking our own vulnerabilities in the face.

Why? Not because I went to Harvard. Not because I made partner in a VC firm. Not because I "followed my dream", and built a business. Not because I now call myself a "life coach".

But because I'm committed to learning. To the complex, sometimes messy, sometimes difficult, sometimes ugly, and ultimately rewarding process of learning.

I'm now discovering, in small steps each day, what it's like to live life for the joy in each moment. I'm walking the talk. For me. I'm making my own mistakes, learning my own lessons, and loving myself more every day.

And that's the perfect education for me.

Tiger Mother Amy Chua Speaks...To Me!

[singlepic id=431 w=320 h=240 float=center] One of my blog readers took the liberty of sending my video on Amy Chua's book, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother", to Amy Chua herself! I never would have done this on my own, but that's why I put my stuff out there for others to read!

Here's Amy's email which was sent to that reader, Denise.

Date: Wed, 2 Mar 2011 08:36:51 -0500 From: Amy Chua Subject: Re: FW: The Music Within Us

Dear Denise:  Thank you SO MUCH for sending this to me -- and yep, Lisa totally got my book and yep, she is totally right that no one else has!!  (Only correction is that I never choose or even saw and never would have approved the awful WSJ headline..)

I think Lisa is BRILLIANT, and I love what she says and the passages and moments she singles out.  She even gets it about my dogs!!!

I am setting up a website for my book, partly because to try to correct misunderstandings, and I will post this video.  Please feel free to share all this with Lisa!

Best, Amy

I am not posting this so that you can read something written by a published author calling me "BRILLIANT". Although that's nice and all, the reason I am posting this is to encourage you to GET INFORMED before you form judgments and opinions and join in the fun of media-generated controversies. Form your own thoughts and opinions, reflect on your own life, and learn your own lessons. Do not stop at what the journalists and media or others are telling you. Do not believe what others say until you have questioned it with your own body, mind, and heart. Know that you are always free to create your own story.

[singlepic id=433 w=320 h=240 float=center]

News or Entertainment?

The "awful" Wall Street Journal headline Amy's referring to, which drew so much attention to the book, was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it generated huge amounts of controversy, and therefore discussion. On the other hand, it was a misleading excerpt that did not reflect what the book was actually about. After I read it, I laughed at the overwhelming number of "news" reports that interviewed Amy solely to ask the question, "So, are Chinese mothers really superior?" Anyone who has read the book would know that this is not what it's about. A more informed journalist might have said, "Amy, your book actually had nothing to do with arguing for or against the superiority of Chinese parenting. So why the misleading headline in the Wall Street Journal?"

But that would require a journalist whose incentives were actually aligned with informing people of the truth.

It reminds me of something I learned a few days ago on a call with a news producer for one of the morning shows on a national television network (hint: not "yesterday", and not "tomorrow"). She was teaching a group of life coaches how to pitch a news story and try to get more exposure for ourselves and our businesses. The summary of the call was, "Keep in mind that on television news, we are not trying to inform people, we are trying to entertain. Our objective is to produce television that will keep audiences from changing the channel so that we earn dollars from our advertisers. We want something controversial, and we want something that everyone is talking about. If you can't package your story to meet those criteria, we're not going to be interested."

I appreciated this very candid look into the mind of a "news" producer. It's not often that someone from within the corporate ranks of the entertainment industry will share information like this so openly. Maybe I expect "dirty little secrets" like this to be kept behind closed doors, so that we'll keep tuning in and watching television and generating advertising dollars to pay the bills for the national networks.

But think about what she said for a minute. Isn't she saying that everything created for television news is motivated by entertainment value, controversy, and popular opinion? And weren't we taught at some point (in those halcyon days of our youth) that news was supposed to be objective, fact-based, and devoid of personal opinion?

Our world has changed. We have collectively created an environment in which there is no respite from sources of entertainment. It takes even more self-discipline in this kind of world to think clearly, independently, and creatively. At the very least it requires a heightened awareness to realize what we are consuming, when we're told something under the guise of "news", when we're being entertained versus being informed.

Is it news, or is it entertainment? Can you tell the difference? It's up to you.

Tiger and cub photo by Keven Law, used under a Creative Commons license

Amy Chua book photo by the author

Announcing...Bad Asian Daughter!

[singlepic id=430 w=320 h=240 float=center] Last week I started a brand new blog called Bad Asian Daughter: http://badasiandaughter.com.

I came up with the idea and bought the url months ago, and even had a first attempt over at wordpress with http://badasiandaughter.wordpress.com.

This time, I knew what the message was going to be, and tumblr.com provides the best format for creating short, frequent posts in a variety of media - video, quotes, text, and my favorite, chats (sharing conversations in a screenplay-like format).

My intention is to create an inspiring, healing community for Asian American women who have tried their whole lives to be "good", done everything they were supposed to do, achieved success in the forms they were told to, and still find something missing in their lives. Together we will discover all of who we are, and unlock the keys to our own unconditional joy, peace, and freedom....B.A.D.ness and all.

The inspirational quotes are the most fun, since I love getting a daily dose of the very inspiration that has gotten me to this point in my life.

But the personal stories - the memoir writing - are the most difficult to write! I've found myself wanting to find the humorous voice, not wanting to sound TOO bad, and editing myself for various reasons.

What's interesting is that these many layers of fear are EXACTLY why this blog needs to be written, and why the voice of the "Bad Asian Daughter" - the person we are trying so hard to AVOID becoming - needs to be heard.

As long as we hide and sequester the dark corners of ourselves and label them "bad", we will never be truly free. No matter what we achieve. No matter what we own. No matter who we are with.

So Bad Asian Daughter is about embracing ALL of ourselves exactly as we are, naming exactly what we believe we're not supposed to say, not supposed to do, not supposed to want, and risking our own significance in the world by actually doing the thing we think we cannot do.

In the words of poet Mary Oliver:

"You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves."

B.A.D. is about the discipline of revealing to ourselves that we don't have to feel "bad" for wanting what we want, and living our own lives on our own terms. We can free ourselves from the mental prisons that have kept us small and afraid...and unleash all our goodness in the process.

Visit Bad Asian Daughter blog now>>

My Read On What Tiger Mother Amy Chua Learned From Her Tiger Cub -- SPOILER ALERT!

Are you wondering what Amy Chua's book, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother", is all about? Me too...so I actually read it.

SPOILER ALERT: I actually talk about parts of the book that are NOT MENTIONED in any of the myriad "book reviews" published in major news outlets, such as the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Wall Street Journal, the BBC, and others. And this video is more than five minutes long. But since so few reviewers have actually demonstrated that they have read the whole book rather than a conveniently spliced excerpt, I felt compelled to record these impressions. This is MY read on the story.