A few weeks ago, I was talking to Mike from Departure Consulting about developing a songwriting class. We were discussing some of the pitfalls we encounter while teaching, and he brought up a colleague who had given him some advice on the subject. This colleague had taught the same class for over twenty years, and told Mike that each year he shaves a bit off the syllabus. This might seem like the class would take less and less time to teach, but in this colleague revealed that he was paring the course down so that each piece of information acutely reflected the core concepts of the class.
In other words, he was separating the wheat from the chaff. He was setting the angel in the marble free. There are countless clichés that amount to the same thing: we create a better product by adding components that serve the core message, and selectively removing components that do not. For some reason though, as the story was related to me, I saw it fresh; it was a nexus between so many vastly different components of my life.
The first thing that popped in my head was the card game Magic the Gathering. I’ve mentioned this multiple times before, but Magic is a deck-building card game. It’s been around for 20 years, and in that time, they have printed over 15,000 different cards. This can seem overwhelming to a new entrant into the game, but in most players work within a pool of cards (not literally) significantly smaller than that at any given time.
When building a deck, you want the best cards possible to be included. After all, by starting with the best cards, you have a better chance of playing with those best cards and winning the game. However, using this strategy over time, I have found that it doesn’t always work. Certainly I garner some wins by playing a slew of powerful cards, but sometimes the deck seems to be at cross-purposes with itself. A better strategy is often to identify exactly what you want your deck to do, and then only add cards that will lead you to that game state. For example, if you want to play an aggressive deck, omit the cards that are powerful but aim for a protracted endgame. In those cases if your deck works correctly, you should have won already. If I only add cards that support that core strategy and omit the cards that do not support it, my deck will often be better for it.
Last weekend I was lamenting that despite my increased tuba practicing, I have a hard time with breath control and extremes of volume in my low range. In other words, I get out of breath quickly when I play loud in the low register of the tuba. I began browsing the web for recommendations for improving efficiency in the low range, and found several examples of exercises. Then I noticed that all of these exercises involved focusing on that range with an awareness of how much air I’m using and how I’m using it. Here’s where I had one of those obnoxious epiphanies that I relearn every few months (weeks?): When I practice a specific thing, I get better at that thing.
Turns out, my daily routine was missing some focused practice of the low range. I was so entrenched in the idea that any practice was holistically good for my playing, that I wasn’t making modifications for specific goals. After about 20 minutes of long tones played fortissimo, I was able to hold low notes out more fully and louder. Once I identified my core goal, I was able to focus on that goal and eliminate the tools I was using that distracted from that goal.
Of course, one key element here is understanding what your core concepts are in the first place. Sometimes when we are unable to achieve what we want, the problem is not in our methods, but rather in our definition of the problem. We all know people who are perpetually dissatisfied in their relationships. Too often this is because they’re attempting solutions to a problem they haven’t identified. Until we probe and discover what our core message is, we can’t find a way to highlight it in our work.
So the next time you feel like you’re plateauing and find it difficult to improve, try taking it back to its fundamental core. Write out your goal in a sentence or two. Then write all the things you are doing within that discipline. Cross out the tasks that do not serve that core idea, and supplement with any tasks that do serve it. You’ll find your focus is renewed and your goals are more within your reach than you might have suspected.