Don't Focus on Doing It Right, Focus on Learning and Practice

If you're stuck worrying about being right all the time, If you need to be seen delivering a superb performance every single time, you can't practice, you can't experiment, and you can't learn.

Learning requires being open to frustration and failure.

I was playing Ukulele at the weekly Sunday gathering with my brothers and sisters and their kids and my niece, Emma, was asked by her dad to break out the guitar. I asked her to show me what she had learned at her guitar lesson this week.

She played the melody to Jingle Bells in C. I could make out the melody, but she was losing her rhythm to find her notes here and there. She would pause to look to see if she was fretting the wrong fret, or fretting the wrong string, or plucking the wrong string.

Victor Wooten, a genius on the bass guitar, is often quoted saying that one should never lose the groove to find a note. I believe this is true no matter what instrument you are playing. Put another way, if we play our bad notes boldly...

Bad notes are nearly indistinguishable from Jazz if you can keep the Groove!

Bad notes are nearly indistinguishable from Jazz if you can keep the Groove!

I could see what she was struggling with so I suggested a few exercises for her to try to get used to the feel of the instrument under her fingers so that she wouldn't have to stop to look at the fingerboard and the soundhole.

  • One exercise was picking without fretting.
  • A second was to try not to pull the pick so far away from the string after picking.
  • The last was keeping a finger over each of the first three frets.

My suggestions, which seemed pretty innocent to me, sent my poor little niece into a meltdown spiral. She kept missing notes and she would play a few notes, get frustrated, and cry. Nevermind that we adults know that you should expect to be slow, clumsy, and miss notes until you have practiced.

At some point in her crying, she expressed that she couldn't play the right notes. She was pretty frustrated couldn't hear me when I said it's okay to miss notes. I also told her it was okay to put away the guitar if she wanted. That no one was forcing her to practice right this moment.

She didn't stop, but I kind of wish she had. I'm pretty sure the only thing she got practice at was being a martyr. That's not going to serve her well.

I wonder if my suggestion of practice also made her feel like I wanted her to play the right notes too. Whether I directly contributed or not, I think she has gotten used to being judged on being right rather than practicing hard and being comitted and trusting that she will get better.

I'm pretty darn certain that even as adults, we flail sometimes in a similar way. Heck, as adults, we outsmart the system all the time by hiding.

One way to hide is to never try anything new. New is difficult. New is frustrating. New we can't be perfect at immediately. Sound familiar?

If we want to stretch ourselves, we have to be willing to embrace our incompetence. We have to be willing to do it wrong. We cannot put a premium either on being right all the time or doing it right every time.

Please learn that thing you've always wanted to learn. And please don't hide by not trying things or not putting them out for the world to see.