Where True Growth Comes From

The only way to ensure that progress is being made from one echelon to another is if pain is being felt. Not the kind of pain that renders a person immobile, but the kind that shocks the system just enough to make him stronger when he returns to his senses.

I used to have some misunderstandings about Growth. I thought it was something that, if you were consistent or even “passionate” enough, you could grow fast, and not really feel it. But the fastest growth is felt, and it feels downright painful.

True Growth must be accompanied by a certain kind of mentality, one in which you’re not really concerned with the bigger picture. Noticing the bigger picture can only overwhelm us and cause us to get discouraged. We might look at all the Pain ahead, and just decide that staying where we are is better.

In a way, we must be willfully ignorant. My PT told me today, “If you think about how heavy it is, you won’t do it.” This can apply to any undertaking. It doesn’t really benefit us to focus on anything other than what’s directly in front of us. We take the small actions, we push ourselves or allow ourselves to be pushed. But letting the gravity, or the density, or the scope, or the magnitude, of what we’re working towards, hold too prominent a place in our minds, is just too likely to throw us off.

And anyway, it’s still going to hurt.

Social Media: Tool or Threat?

Cal Newport, author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You, was interviewed by James Altucher on the podcast The James Altucher Show. In the conversation, Newport brings up a concept called “mental residue,” which is the phenomenon that occurs when we glance at our email or our cell phones for just 30 seconds just before we dive into a practice, discipline, or some kind of focus.

He says this “mental residue” stays with us for up to 20 to 30 minutes into our focus time.

I’m sure this could be expanded to include any activity we happen to be doing in real life – from having dinner with a close friend, to performing in the workplace, to writing a poem. If we allow our minds even brief stimulation, it could mean some serious mental costs.

This brings to attention the danger of Social Media. While some aspects of the “online presence” can be useful, every Impresario walks the line between falling prey to the focus deficit it can cause, and only using it strategically, to reach folks in ways that doing so in person could not.

Cal Newport argues that Social Media is not really useful or needed at all because it causes people to waste attention and therefore does more harm than good. I am inclined to agree with him, because at the end of the day, it’s the Craft, the Vision, that truly matters.

Nashville! and some thoughts on Focus

Here I sit, in a McDonald’s in Florence, KY, enjoying an iced coffee with hazelnut and anticipating my drive to Nashville tomorrow morning. It promises to be an adventure, one that began last Thursday when I finished clearing out the last of my belongings from my Louisville studio apartment I had occupied since last May. Throwing them into my newly acquired 1996 GMC van (yes, it is white, and yes, it is scary), along with everything else I own in the world, I slammed the side door noisily and hoisted myself behind the wheel, veering onto the ol’ I-71 North interstate, praying that the old powerhouse would bear me up to Cincinnati and then down to Nashville safely.

Well, it got me up to Cincinnati, so I am that much more at ease. At the Penguin Piano Bar, I’ve been working this weekend with CD Thomas, an entertainer with his own distinct piano style and a ruthless taste for jagermeister, and Jay Jones, a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer from Indianapolis. One more night, and then off to my new home.

The Nashville place is promising. Located just around the corner from Five Points, it sits in a safe neighborhood with off-road parking and a garage. The landlord, a musician himself, there is a practice space in the basement room, as well as a large amount of vintage ’80s recording equipment that he no longer uses. The other roommates are a traveling musician, like myself, a student at Vanderbilt, and a friendly photographer by the name of Iver Karabatkovic (he’s from Ohio). Also really looking forward to playing a lot with two friends, Cameron Monzon and Warren Lively, a drummer and a bassist who also recently moved from Louisville to Nashville in pursuit of their dreams.

I wanted to write a few words about the idea of Focus… I think that Focus is primarily one of the most important assets a musician can have in his or her career. Or any artist, for that matter. The idea of Focus can also be described as “loving the process,” and for anyone who practices meditation, Focus is a natural biproduct of any dedicated, consistent action. I see it as reducing everything in my life down to a single moment, the Now. To be completely engrossed in whatever is directly in front of me. A simple “fuck everything in the world except this One Thing” mentality. Except it’s not simple. It’s actually quite difficult, for me. Although, I seem to be understanding it better, simply by getting kicked in the past by letting myself be distracted by other thoughts, tasks, or anything, really. In fact, looking back, I can see that virtually every major blunder I’ve made in my life has been the result of not being completely in the moment, being distracted, thinking too much about everything other than what I was faced with in the moment. Conversely, every victory has been the consequence of being completely absorbed in the task at hand, conquering it fully before moving onto the next one.

Two days later… I had to go to work and so the following part is about to be written from a coffee shop in East Nashville…

Come to think of it, Focus is really a biproduct of something even deeper, and that is Presence. When we’re Present, we really can’t help but focus on what is directly in front of us, and then life begins to show us what we need to do, and Clarity happens. Because when we’re focusing on something, all other options fade into background noise, leaving a clear path in front of us. It’s not like I’m an expert on this, but I know from minimal experience that this is what happens. And then once we have the clear path, we have no choice but to walk it.

Right now as I write this, there is a Very Annoying Man next to me speaking loudly and distractedly ordering ice cream. He is clearly annoying the girl at the counter and does not seem to have the slightest concern for his obtrusive behavior. He shifts undecidedly from one flavor of ice cream to the next, while announcing that he will be spending all of his money here. Of course, he is a poster child of someone who is avoiding the present moment at all costs… and I, naturally, continue to write my blog entry and exercise Focus to the best of my ability in the midst of his distracting slurred speech.

And this is all we can do. Carry on, in the midst of distraction, in a world dominated by television, advertisements, and social media. More specifically, in the case of musicians: music demands such an extreme focus that we have no choice but to address this idea of Presence, because that’s where the best music is made. And at this point I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir.

I thought I would have quite a bit more to write on this topic, and I’m sure I will, but for now I have a van half full of personal belongings and a sunny East Nashville day to enjoy… until next time!