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Growth: Romance vs. Reality

Playing guitar takes a lot of work. Playing any instrument has challenges. Many of my students struggle with improving, even in optimal environments. They often voice their concerns in such a way that reminds me of their inner sensitivity (this is at least partially responsible for why they are drawn to the self-expression of a musical instrument in the first place). When appropriate, I like to remind my students that they have a healthy response stemming from a deeper awareness of the instrument than they can presently command. I remind them that possessing this awareness is good; the musician inside them is awake and responding to the process, and they need to stay patient while their skills develop.

This post addresses some of the overarching challenges I have encountered while chasing my goals and growth. My perspectives still need to be revised, and I am no expert in psychology. I had often fallen victim to the idea of growth or a goal and was hard on myself when things did not end up as I first expected. Whether or not you are learning an instrument, I hope you find this article helpful when chasing your own idea of success, musical or otherwise.

The idea of growth

What is the idea of growth, and how does it differ from the reality of growth? How can we discern the difference between the two to achieve our desired goals better? Below are my thoughts on what I have observed so far.

When I envision a goal, I estimate what that future might look like to the best of my current ability, given the information I have at the time. This vision of a specific destination becomes my goal, and I retain an idea of what the growth will look like for me once I arrive. This visual is just a guess from the trailhead, and the path never goes as we envision. 

Pursuing a complex long-term goal has a huge limitation: moving towards the goal makes it impossible to keep fixed on it. The focus required to perform the tasks in front of me takes priority over my ability to navigate; I need help to drive and read the map simultaneously, but there’s only me behind the wheel. Navigating like this is even more difficult in a world of cultural influences, shouting about what I should believe, buy, value, and do with my life. It’s a wonder I can stay on the road at all.

Navigating towards a goal is like learning to dance or play an instrument; first, you have to learn the basics, and they take all your focus. Once those basics become automatic, you understand why and how they work. Once you’ve got the steps on autopilot, you can look a bit at the scenery and get your bearings.

It’s easy to forget that the goal I set was based on little factual information, on an idea of what I wanted at the time. After some initial pursuit, things began to take shape, but when what I saw wasn’t lining up with my initial vision, I judged myself for not meeting my expectations. Sound familiar? If we become too focused on our idea of growth, we will fail to notice the natural growth happening.

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Romantic goals?

I also like to entertain romanticized goals. Romantic goals are like that beautiful stranger across the room at the bar, giving you the eye; we know nothing will happen, yet we cannot keep ourselves focused on anything except the possibility of what could happen. We all have romantic goals; they are fun to entertain and keep us chasing the dangled carrot, but if we examine them, we quickly discover they are only fantasies of happiness.

For example, I dream of buying a sunburst vintage Jazzmaster many times throughout my day, but I have yet to pull the trigger. Fender is selling me the romantic image of music wrapped up in a physical object, not the hard work and dedication it takes to manifest my music. Marketing departments know this well; they know it’s easy to sell me a guitar based on how it would make me feel because feelings are the most accessible call to action concerning my musical desires (and the money in my wallet).

Furthermore, Fender and I both know it is easier for me to earn the money to buy a new guitar than it is for me to commit to a practice routine every morning for years without any guarantees it will turn into a successful music career. Romance is a compelling selling point, and our lazy brain would prefer to select the most straightforward answer to the complex equation of growth (“BUY NEW GUITAR!”), when it needs to learn to be comfortable with not knowing how the future will unfold.

Actual growth

Sometimes we have a realistic idea of progress but come up short because we mismeasure it. How do we even begin to measure growth in some universal way? We can’t. My idea of growth is going to be different from yours. Everyone will have unique metrics, so remember: don’t compare yourself to others.

Here is what I have learned while measuring my growth: progress is dynamic. Progress appears in forms as varied, subtle, and nuanced as life itself. Real change happens gradually, and the results are sometimes obscure. When I feel like I am not growing, I like to remember my old self years earlier; the difference is apparent. Often there are no endorphin bumps from hitting the rep count, no feelings of accomplishment from checked off, and no immediate rewards. Sometimes there are no indications of growth at all. Remember that your growth won’t look like my growth, and knowing that will help you to notice a real change over time.

Why do we keep approaching our goals this way? As human beings, we like things predictable so we can feel in control of our survival. Knowing where predators are and when they might be coming to attack us allows us to prepare for the fight. However, when we apply this approach to how we pursue our work, it doesn’t translate. We want to know what the future holds to guarantee our success, but we simply can’t see the future. All we can do is move toward our goals with our eyes open.

I already have a beautiful Jazzmaster, so why do I want another one?

I already have a beautiful Jazzmaster, so why do I want another one?

My growth

Being a music teacher is a challenging life path. I am still under the immense, constant pressure of a world that invalidates artists, yet I continue because, despite the hardships, music is my truth and what resonates with me most. I have stuck on the path, despite it looking different than I envisioned. That’s a win.

Pursuing my goals with an open mind has helped me discern between visions of growth and actual growth, between how I think I want to travel and how I naturally travel: Round peg, round hole. What is the way you love to travel? What gets you in the zone?

So why the long-winded rant on the soap box? Well, I promised in a prior post that I would have a song completed by the new year. I didn’t hit my goal, or at least not exactly in the way I had envisioned (one song produced and completed), but I am ok with my progress. I decided I wasn’t going to be hard on myself. I understand that environment has a lot to do with how successful I can be, and some of this is beyond my control. I haven’t practiced as much as I wanted, but I have grown in ways I couldn’t predict, and I have surprised myself with some excellent song ideas! I will get there, and so will you.

Whatever your goals are, I hope you discover how you love to travel toward them. I may get that Jazzmaster one day, but in the meantime, I have to get back to practicing.

Take good care.

You can reach me in the real world here.


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