• What Is Success?

    In my previous post, I talked a little bit about how I define success. The session I was describing was not, in fact, all that pleasurable. And yet, I consider it a success anyway. Why is that? What does “success” mean, and how do we define the criteria for achieving it?

    I began learning to play the violin almost 2 years ago. At first I learned quickly, because there were many “easy” basic things to learn. Progress felt quick and natural. But before long, my seemingly rapid development slowed. I hit a plateau. I couldn’t get my hands and arms to behave. I practiced the same tunes and exercises over and over and made the same mistakes each time. I didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. In fact, at times it seemed I was moving backward! And so I became very discouraged and frustrated.

    Around this time, I read a book called Brain Rules For Baby. There is also a book by the same author called Brain Rules which is more geared toward adults. I read and highly recommend both. The author, John Medina, is a developmental molecular biologist, so the content is science- and data-based, but the books are very accessible and easy to read.

    One of the lessons I learned from Brain Rules For Baby was that it is better to reward effort than it is to reward outcomes. Rewarding outcomes teaches children (and adults) that the means of creating the outcome are not important, only the end result. Children taught this way don’t learn to value the process or the effort involved in achieving the results, only in the “win.” This has a lot of negative consequences, including turning children into perfectionists. It teaches them to fear failure. It gives them a belief that if one is not intrinsically talented at something, then they cannot succeed. I don’t recall everything the author of the book wrote, and some of this may be my own viewpoint and not his.

    What I learned from this kind of reward system as a child was that if it’s the results that matter and not the hard work, then I should seek results that don’t require hard work but will still generate a reward. If I decided to try something new and it became difficult before I could see positive results, I would quickly become disenchanted and decide, consciously or subconsciously, that I didn’t “like” that activity. I would decide that it was just not my thing, or I just didn’t have what it took. And then I would return to doing things I was already good at and seeking rewards in those arenas. I became a perfectionist, fearful of being seen to fail at anything. This has haunted me all my life and affected my education, my career, my relationships, and my mental health.

    On the other hand, children who are taught to that there is value in trying, even failing, grow up to be more adventurous, more resilient in the face of challenges, etc. They are successful more often because they try more often instead of giving up when things seem difficult. They feel a sense of accomplishment for their hard work, even if the result isn’t as great as they might have hoped. This leads them to try again, to learn how to do better, and they are much more likely to succeed.

    I managed to apply this to my violin practice. It was not easy to change the habits of decades, but I think I’ve made good progress. Now I focus much less on how quickly I’m learning something, or on comparing my progress to others’, or whether or not I’m hitting certain milestones as quickly as I think I should. My natural expectations of myself tend to be unrealistic anyway, so I try to ignore them rather than beat myself up when I don’t live up to them. Instead, I consider myself successful if I practice the violin daily (or almost, anyway), attend my lessons, and try my best to improve. When I hit a plateau, which happens periodically, I remind myself that these things take time.

    It was a struggle at first. I had to stop myself when I started to feel frustrated and remind myself to calm down and just go through the motions, follow the steps, try and try again. That first plateau lasted a few months, with some days feeling like I was finally taking a step forward and other days feeling like I had taken two steps backward. But then one day it seemed like my troubles vanished and my body started doing what I wanted again. Things that had been a struggle for so long suddenly felt much more natural. I suspect that it simply took some time for my nervous system to adjust to what I was asking of it. Muscle memory and fine motor control needed to be developed. All of this was happening in an undetectable way. So while it seemed like my practice was doing no good, it was in fact giving my brain in inputs it needed to learn and develop.

    I try to remember this experience when things get challenging. I have hit other plateaus in my violin practice and in other areas of my life. I still sometimes experience moments of frustration, times when it feels like I’m failing. But once I realize what’s happening (a very important but sometimes difficult part of overcoming challenges like this) I can pull myself out of that old way of thinking and get back into a healthier mindset.

    So how is this relevant to Aneros? I am trying to apply the same technique to my journey here. Like with the violin, my body is learning to do something completely new. It will take time for my neural pathways to rewire themselves, and in that time it may seem like no progress is being made. It may sometimes seem like I’m moving backward. It is not possible for me to directly observe the changes happening in my brain and body, but I can be confident that they are happening based on the experiences of others.

    As others with more experience have said, every session is different, and even if things went great last time, that doesn’t mean they’ll be great this time. All I can do is try to do the things that seem to be effective, follow the advice of more experienced users, and trust that my brain and body are figuring things out, even if I can’t see it happening. Someday I will reach a point where the progress is visible, where things start to click. At that point, I can enjoy the fruits of my labor (well, mostly patience) and feel a strong sense of accomplishment for my patience and persistence.

    I hope someone reads this and finds it helpful in getting past their own frustrations and discouragement, whether Aneros-related or not. If anyone would like to hear more about this or if you need some encouragement, someone to vent those frustrations to, feel free to drop me a PM.

    Thanks for reading!

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