Why liking yourself works

by | Dec 3, 2013

Once upon a time I gave myself singing lessons for my 40th birthday. I had always loved to sing, and I thought I had a pretty nice voice. I thought it would be grand to expand my somewhat limited range, become a better singer, and generally have more fun with music.

Well, at the beginning I was completely baffled. My teacher told me to let my tongue rest on the bottom of my mouth, for example. For whatever reason my tongue had taken up permanent residence at the roof of my mouth, and I couldn’t begin to understand how to make it lie down and behave, let alone do that and sing at the same time.

For this and similar reasons, practice was a challenge. How do you practice what you can’t do at all? Still, practice I did, and one day I noticed that my tongue lay flat as I sang scales. I was astonished and quite pleased with myself.

The next few months were very rewarding. Small improvements made big differences. I could hear my progress. And as my ear for music got better, my ability to appreciate great singing grew by leaps and bounds. (I’ll never forget the evening that I found myself soaking in a claw foot bathtub listening to Maria Callas singing the title role in Carmen. I understood loving to take baths, but it had never occurred to me that I would love listening to opera.)

And then something shifted. I began to measure my ability against the ability of world class singers, and as you might imagine, I fell short.

It seemed I couldn’t open my mouth without hearing what was wrong. Lessons became occasions for failure punctuated by great effort for little reward. My teachers saw that I was tensing up and trying too hard, but they couldn’t seem to help me relax.

I stayed at it for a few years, because heaven forfend that I be a quitter. But in time I stopped taking lessons. Shortly thereafter I started singing with a chorale and then with a small vocal group. Singing became fun again, and wouldn’t you know? My voice improved.

Fast forward to the summer of 2012, when I enrolled in an online cartooning course. I had no prior drawing experience, so there was nowhere to go but forward and up. I was such a rank beginner that it didn’t occur to me to measure my work against anyone else’s. And because I wasn’t judging myself against an external benchmark,  I was as proud of my completed assignments as any 5 year old who brings home a drawing for mom and dad.

Recently however I’ve noticed signs of encroaching dissatisfaction, what my teacher calls Bully Brain. So I paid particular attention the other day when my teacher posted a comment that he always loves his work at the time he does it. He knows that he’ll keep getting better, and he studies the work of cartoonists and painters who are more skillful than he, but he’s unperturbed by the gap between where he is now and his next level of mastery.

Wow. What a concept. Not only is it possible to delight in one’s present performance while enjoying high aspirations for future improvement, for him it’s a no brainer. He just doesn’t see a reason not to love his work in the present moment. No wonder he is so prolific. Why wouldn’t he be?

I don’t know what your version of voice lessons or cartooning is, but I’m betting you have at least one. I suspect that somewhere in your life, work, or biz, your appreciation of what is possible casts a long shadow on what you can be, do, or have now. And I’m here to say it doesn’t have to be that way.

It’s not achievement that causes us to be happy or unhappy with ourselves and our lot in life. It’s simply our thinking in the moment. And as far as I can tell, we all have both positive and negative thoughts about what we’re up to. Even my happy cartoon teacher has low thoughts, or he wouldn’t know about Bully Brain.

What my teacher understands is not how to control what thoughts he has, but that he gets to choose which thoughts to buy into. And he understands that choosing to buy into the thoughts that feel better helps you live and work better.

Rumi said, The interpretation that makes you ardent and hopeful and active and reverent is the true one. It’s a good perspective to keep in mind when deciding which thoughts to invite in for tea and cookies.

Photo by Mikko Kaaresmaa via Flickr