One way to define love is "sustained, compassionate attention". These words came from John Muir Laws, a naturalist, educator, and artist who inspires stewardship of the land by sharing his practice of nature sketching. When I read these words, I began to see the importance of my own art practice in developing sustained, compassionate attention for myself.Read More
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.
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,
I’ve been hosting SoulBodyMind Salons in my home, and the most recent session was centered on the theme of “Soul-Care”. I always start each of the sessions with a story or image that grounds the group in the journey we are about to take that evening. I had easily come up with stories and images for the body and the mind – ones that I had heard from my own teachers as I gathered knowledge in these areas.
But the soul – no one had ever talked to me directly about the soul before. This was the first time I would be attempting to ask the question, “What is the soul?” in front of a group.
I am simply fascinated by the phenomenon of soul, because everyone can relate to the word, although in a totally unique way. It’s a bit like the word "music". Ask anyone from any culture and any time period, "What is music?", and they know what it is. However, listen to the music from any culture and any time period and you will get wildly different experiences and sounds.
I was walking around my house, dusting the wood floor, pushing chairs in different directions, thinking about this question of “What is the soul?” and how I would explain this in a brief introduction, without either getting lost in philosophy or oversimplifying.
Naturally, I picked up the nearest object and began thinking of ways to incorporate it as a visual aid.
That object was a can of tomatoes. I had just gone to the grocery store and this one hadn’t make it back in the cabinet yet.
It still hasn’t.
When I looked at the can, I began to see how it could be the perfect tool to illustrate what the soul is.
I started the evening by holding the can up, and asking the group, “What is this?”.
They kind of looked at me strangely, as if to say, “Of course it’s a CAN! Is this a trick question? What could this possibly have to do with SoulBodyMind?” Some of them leaned in and squinted, as if to try to read the label.
Aha! Reading labels is one way we figure out what something is.
“OK”, I continued. “So what if you couldn’t read? Or if you’d never seen a tomato before? What would this label, with the red picture of a tomato ripening on the vine, and the words, ‘Organic Diced Tomatoes,’ mean to you then? How would you explain to someone what was in the can if they had never seen or encountered a tomato before?”
Chins tilted back and eyes blinked in reflection.
“And even with words,” I went on, “we can talk about what’s inside the can, based on our concepts and our past experiences of tomatoes and our predictions of what tomatoes are supposed to be like. But we actually can’t speak accurately to what is exactly inside this particular can without opening it up.”
“In order to open it up, what would we need?” I asked the group.
There was silence again, as if I were administering some kind of secret intelligence screening test.
“Um, a can opener?” one of them offered, sheepishly.
“OK, a tool! Good! We would need a tool of some kind to get through the impermeable surface of the can.” I tapped the metal walls for additional dramatic effect.
“So to really accurately say what is inside this particular can,” I offered, “we would need to go beyond the labels, beyond our memories and concepts and past experiences and predictions. We would need to access the right tool to get through the hard container and to get to the actual contents of the can. And then we would need to taste these tomatoes. And smell them and look at them of course. But if we're really honest, tasting is the only true experience of those tomatoes.”
And as I looked around and saw heads nodding, I added that our taste is a very personal and private experience. We can’t truly convey that experience to anyone else, even though it is undeniable that we are experiencing something very vivid that permeates our entire being. We can put words to it, but when another person hears those words, it conjures up what it conjures up inside them, which may be something completely different from what I experienced in the moment of my tasting.
Now we were ready to start experiencing “The Art of Soul-Care.”
Your soul is the tomatoes.
It’s a soft and squishy and boldly flavorful place inside this hard and seemingly impenetrable container that we call our body. We develop this outer shell that is seen by the world. We have labels attached to us, roles that we play, descriptions that refer to other people’s experience of us or our memories of ourselves or our expectations of what those words mean about us. But all those words and labels only point to what’s inside. They are not the same thing as tasting the tomatoes.
We can open up the can with the right tools. And then others might be able to taste our particular tomatoes. But what they taste and what we taste are our own experiences – all valid but also, quite possibly, completely different. We have no way to actually taste what another person tastes. The words we choose to name the taste might be similar to or completely different from someone else's words. But we each experience a taste nonetheless.
The point is to get a taste. Go beyond the labels, get the tools to penetrate the closed container, and taste for yourself.
You can tell other people about it, but don’t get too caught up in comparing your description of the taste with other people’s description of theirs. Learn to trust what you are really tasting. Learn to observe when you are only seeing a label, or trying to get inside a metal can without a can opener.
That’s what a can of tomatoes taught me about the soul.
[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.
Today I'm reprinting a blog post I wrote over a year ago, on my Truth Love Beauty blog. It resonates with me right now, which is comforting. The truth has a way of standing the test of time. It also reminds me of a topic I have not talked about on this blog - the observations and lessons I learned from teaching violin to more than 30 toddlers in the Silicon Valley for five and a half years. These descriptions bring me back to a time that was filled with joys and challenges, and ultimately catalyzed a whole new way of being and learning for me. Here it is:
Does all the woo-woo, positive psychology, self-help talk make you feel a little queasy or, at best, skeptical? Does an email with the subject line, “You can do it!”, make you want to “Report spam” faster than you can hit “Delete”?
When I worked with parents and their children in a coaching/teaching environment, I learned that there are many ways we adults try to encourage our kids. We all have a default style of communication that is a product of the various influences in our lives – our own parents, our many teachers, our older siblings, our bosses, our mentors, or even a conglomeration of all the ways we DON’T want to be like any of those people. What I’ve learned about effective coaching I first saw by watching children who were actually allowed to learn. It’s simple: all a kid wants is to know what it feels like to try, and to know that they’ll be OK if they fail. If you give them those two things, they’ll try over and over again with great enthusiasm, and pretty soon (or maybe a lot later) they will succeed.
The second half of this – letting them know they are OK even if they fail while trying – is tricky. I saw so many adults sit beside their child and just watch, hands folded across their chest, while their child tried, making no attempt to help, and remaining motionless in response to anything the child did. Sure, they were “there”, but I would sometimes wonder if they were actually in the same room as we were. I’ve also seen the other end of the spectrum, where a parent would literally lunge forward and want to take over, rather than allow their child to try something that they might not “get” on the first attempt. They preferred not to witness a failure than to allow the child to try.
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I never figured out a way to coach parents to see their own tendencies in these situations. First of all, I was too busy trying to do my job coaching, witnessing, and encouraging the child. Second of all, I was frozen in astonishment at some of the parents’ behavior, not knowing how to address these things in the time allotted, or in front of the child.
These are, of course, excuses. The truth is I did not know how to hold the space for adults to really open up to what was going on. In some ways, it takes more skill and more patience to get an adult to open up than it does for a child. Despite a great deal of one-on-one time and attention for each student-parent dyad, I did not create a structure that allowed me to address holistically all the influences that are at play in a child’s learning. I had annual “review” meetings with parents, but these were perceived as “performance” reviews for the parents, where they would wait expectantly to receive some sign of approval or validation from me. Only rarely did anyone feel safe enough during these meetings to actually share their fears, their inadequacies, or their deepest questions about the purpose of their enrollment. It was mostly a veiled love fest, a hopeful yet sometimes tentative confirmation of everyone’s desire to continue with the relationship as it was. There were always a few cases where I wanted to discuss some of my real concerns about the appropriateness of continuing as the teacher for a particular child. Somehow, it never felt safe for me to voice my truth in these meetings. I would agonize over these for many days and sleepless nights leading up to the meetings, and would search for the right words, which rarely came to me at the right time. Why was it that I had never created that kind of relationship in which the truth could be told without blame or judgment? Why did I not have those skills?
By the time I started waking up to these truths, and learning how to hold this kind of space, I also saw that it was beyond the scope of my work to heal entire families, especially under the auspices of producing a children’s violin performing group. Some might say that I gave up. Maybe. But what I know now is that nothing changes until you accept things as they are. And, healing happens one person at a time, starting with myself.
My discovery of the healing capacity of the mind and the body came not from my medical school education ten years ago, but from a more recent search for my own inner peace and joy, which was catalyzed by my physical body sending me signals of debilitating pain. Something was not working in my lifestyle, and I could have chosen to ignore it and power through, or remain curious enough to explore it. I chose the latter. It opened me to a path of mental clarity and inquiry that I know will continue as long as there are thoughts running through my head. I did not take pills. I did not see a doctor or therapist. I slowed down. I rested. I created space in my life to ask the questions I was genuinely curious about. I tried new things. Simultaneously I recommitted to my yoga practice that had been abandoned during the same period of time that my body developed its pain. The combination of mind and body training, which focuses on gentle, consistent work on flexibility, balance, and strength, is what awakens me every day to the calm energy of joy I have within me. I love this kind of training because it is training for life. Not just “modern” life, or American life, or life as a woman, but being fully alive as a human being on this earth.
Now just because I’ve gone through this amazing shift doesn’t mean I’m going to wave a flag at my clients and say, “You can do it!” and expect everyone to leap into their own states of bliss. I saw the many ways that parents say this to their kids.
The same words – “You can do it!” – might come out of one parent’s mouth, with a crisp, angular tone of voice suggesting something like, “You BETTER be able to do it, or I’ll look like an idiot for spending all this money on lessons and believing you could do this!”
Or another parent’s “You can do it!” might be said without much conviction and with more pleading, meaning something like, “I know you don’t want to do this, but would you PLEASE do it for me?? Just this once?? I’ll buy you anything you want after this if you just do it for me….please???”
Yet another parent’s “You can do it!”, voiced with some disbelief and shock, might be taken to mean, “Don’t make me look bad, because I know I spent all week sitting there practicing with you every day, and you could do it at home! Now DO it!”
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The meaning behind the words changes when it is said from a place of genuine love and compassion, without attachment to outcomes. “You can do it” can also mean something like, “I am not you. But I’ve been exactly where you are, not knowing whether or not I can, not being able to see how I will ever get there, feeling the fear of pain, of humiliation, of not being enough. And having faced all of that and moved through it, I know you can do it. I’m saying it not as a command, not as a way to alleviate my own stress, not to make this all about you, so that I can transfer the blame if it doesn’t work out. I’m saying it so that you hear my belief in your spirit, in your ability to find it in yourself to do whatever it is you need to do, to take whatever time you need to, and to be wherever you are right now. I’ll be right here to witness you – to celebrate with you, and to catch you when you fall – as you learn to trust yourself.”
Said from a calm core of peace, love, and patience, there is no greater elixir when we are feeling afraid.
[Originally published on my Truth Love Beauty blog here.]