Growth and Goals, Romance and Reality

Playing guitar is difficult. 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 are having a healthy response stemming from a deeper awareness of the instrument than they can presently command over it. I remind them that possessing this awareness is a good thing; the musician inside them is awake and responding to the process, and simply needs to stay patient as their skills develop.

I decided to write this incredibly verbose post to address some of the overarching challenges I have encountered while chasing my own goals and growth. My perspectives are still rough, and I am no expert in psychology. Many times I have fallen victim to the idea of growth or a goal, and when things did not end up as I expected, I was overly hard on myself. 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.

An idea of what growth looks like

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

When I envision a goal, I create an estimation of 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 with it I retain an idea of what I think the growth is going to look like for me once I arrive at that destination, and off I travel towards my goal. Everything about this goal has been estimated based on the information at-hand, and it’s easy for me to forget this as I get immersed in the travel of it.

I have a serious limitation as I go about pursuing a complex long-term goal: the very tasks involved in moving towards the goal make it impossible for me to keep my eyes on the goal itself. The focus required to perform the tasks in front of me takes priority over my own ability to navigate; I just can’t drive and read the map simultaneously. Navigating like this is even more difficult in a world of cultural influences shouting what I should believe, buy, value, and do with my life. It’s a wonder I can stay on the road at all.

I equate the actual skill of navigating towards a goal a bit like learning to dance or play an instrument; at the beginning you have to learn the basics, and they take all your focus. Once those basics become automatic you begin to understand why and how they actually work. I feel that as humans we seem to be stuck at this beginning phase of navigating and rarely seem to allow our awareness to go beyond it, which makes sense because the steps of the dance are different for everyone, difficult to notice, and hard to measure. There is no formal class to attend, take notes and study from.

Often I found that the goal I was pursuing wasn’t accurately envisioned in the first place. After all, it was just an estimation–an idea of what I wanted at the time. Once I made some headway things looked different, but since what I saw wasn’t lining up with what I envisioned at the beginning, I judged myself for not meeting my own expectations. Sound familiar? We can be so focused on the idea of growth that we miss noticing the real growth.

image via

Romantic goals? Maybe in the right light

I also noticed I 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 they keep us chasing the dangled carrot, but if we examine them we quickly discover they are only projections of what we wish would make us happy.

For example, I dream of buying a sunburst vintage Jazzmaster many times throughout my day, but I have yet to pull the trigger on one. I know that what Fender is selling me is the romantic image of music wrapped up in a physical object, not the hard work and dedication it takes to actually manifest that 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 with regards to my musical desires and the money in my wallet, feelings are the easiest call to action. 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 manifest itself into a successful music career. Romance is a powerful, easy sell. The path of lesser resistance will win if we do not actively prevent it from doing so. Our brain also takes a similar path of least resistance. It would rather use its default survival wiring than struggle to think through difficult problems. 

Romantic goals can a good thing, and they can keep us moving in the right direction as long as we do not let them distract us from the hard work. Sometimes I just want to stare at a sexy guitar and think about that epic gig I’ll be immersed in one day, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that daydream, assuming I don’t conflate it with a real goal. If the goal feels too perfect to be real then it probably isn’t.

What growth actually looks like

Sometimes the progress we’re going for is totally realistic, but we come up short because we aren’t measuring it correctly. This can happen because we lack the right metrics. What are the right metrics? How do we even begin to measure growth in some universal way? We can’t, and we shouldn’t try to. My idea of growth is based on what I value, how I see myself, and how I want to evolve. That same idea of growth is going to be different for you. Everyone will have unique metrics based on how they see themselves fitting into the world, and this is a really good thing; what a boring world we would have otherwise! For this reason there is no handbook for calculating what growth should look like. We all have to figure it out for ourselves.

Here is what I have learned while trying to measure my own growth: progress isn’t linear like I want it to be. Progress appears in forms as varied and nuanced as life itself, in the subtleties of my daily routine. Real growth happens gradually, and the results weren’t always obvious. I have had times in my life when I felt as if I wasn’t growing at all until I recalled how the old me actually was, and then I saw just how far I had come. Sometimes growth cannot be measured in black and white terms; there are no endorphin bumps from hitting the workout rep count; no task-list boxes checked-off. Real growth is as unique as the individual. Accepting this has helped me notice the real growth I’m getting, and realize (albeit cliché) it is the journey, not the destination, that really matters.

Why do we like to keep using the same set of unrealistic expectations and metrics for ourselves even though they don’t seem to work very well? I posit that 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 adequately 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 so we can guarantee our success in it, but we simply can’t know the future; all we can do is speculate and stay open to whatever happens. Hopefully, in becoming more aware of this tendency we can gain more real control over the future (and the present).

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

So now what?

So if we have trouble staying on the path while pursuing our goals, trouble creating an accurate system of measuring them, confuse real goals with fantasies, and are hopeless control freaks, what do we do? How do we know when we are working towards our goals in the best way possible? It’s a really good question.

What I can share with you is this: when I am doing the right kind of work, there is a certain calmness and centeredness, a sense of being fully engaged in the moment; when I experience this I know that I am on my path. With my self-assessments I choose to measure my progress against my own personal benchmarks with a grain of understanding, flexibility, and kindness. I observe how my trajectory has shifted and do not attach judgement, and if I have shifted off the path, I ask myself why. Sometimes I may have changed course because a part of myself is trying to surface and explore a new path, and I certainly wouldn’t want to stamp out my inner potential by becoming attached to an idea of what I thought I wanted. I take the time to nurture my inner curiosity. The word that I keep coming back to is resonation. How does the journey I am taking resonate with who I am and who I want to become? How does your journey resonate with you?

How my growth is actually going

Over the years as a musician, an artist, and freelance teacher, there have been many times when I have evaluated my reasons for taking such a challenging approach through life. I have concluded that this is my truth; it the path that most resonates with me. Knowing the way in which I am designed to travel helps me to measure my own idea of progress against my own unique criteria, instead of comparing myself to others. I am still under the same immense, constant pressure of a world that invalidates the artistic path. The recalibration does not come naturally, but it is getting easier the more aware of it I become.

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 (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 at the moment. I haven’t practiced as much as I wanted to, but I have grown in ways I wasn’t able to foresee. I have surprised myself with some really good song ideas. I have had some curveballs (something that never seems to be added to the initial timeline we have in mind when charting a goal) and I have also been just living life, which is wild and unpredictable. I will get there.

Whatever your goals are, I hope you discover the way in which you love to travel towards them. One day I am going to buy that Jazzmaster, but in the meantime I have to get back to practicing. I hope that you are doing well too, wherever you may be reading from.

Take good care.

You can reach me in the real world here.

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