Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Slaves to perfection

Well, back from Clifftop after some meandering around WV, VA, PA, and NY. I've got some observations about things I learned at Clifftop. First though, I've been hinting around here long enough about being a slave to perfection. Having just been immersed in some mighty fine fiddling, it might just be the right thing to muse on a little here about perfection.

OK, OK. I've been leading up to this for too long. Here's what I'm thinking. My background is in nursing and training. I came late to my inner geek, but that's another story. Along the way, I've collected examples of ways that feedback and stress influences learning, either positive or negative feedback. Learning theory, particularly adult learning theory, offers some insight into how to teach. But, it can also influence how we help ourselves to learn. Self-directed fiddle learning as an adult is as good example as any of the principles of adult learning. has lots of info. In particular, there's a page from the University of Hawaii called 30 things we know for sure about adult learning.

In a nutshell, positive reinforcement is very important in acquiring a new skill. Positive language can be crucial. It's much easier for someone to learn when the instruction is "Do this", and more difficult to learn when the instruction is "Don't do this." There was a time when I took a few years of boxing lessons. Again, another story. But, the coach in those sessions was also an industrial psychologist. Translation: adult learning expert. He would always find something to praise about a students efforts. I've known a few other sorts of instructors who have that knack. Sometimes, I would marvel that they ignored the obvious faults in favor of praising some miniscule accomplishment. But the fact of the matter is that praise will change behavior much more effectively than criticism.

Do you (as a self directed adult learner) praise yourself enough? Or, do you get a little stuck in patterns of feeling bad because you don't see yourself measuring up to some 'standard' of performance? Do you shy away from trying something new because you're afraid of ridicule or displeasing someone?

That brings us to think about our fiddling goals. Again, I'll chime in here, that I'm learning more about fiddling because I want to have fun at it. My number 1 goal. I'm not trying to play for the symphony orchestra. I can have fun by hitting a few accurate notes. Ok, truth be told, sometimes the notes are not that accurate. It's not enough to stop me from joining in. (Dig around the old posts here and you'll find some advice about using mutes, if you're self conscious about your accuracy.) My point is, I'm not waiting until I'm 'good enough'. I'm playing the best I can now.

The other thing that I've been learning about lately is neurotic pursuit of perfection. As in obsessive-compulsive pursuit of unattainable perfection. (As in: seems to run in my family. Hope I'm out of the running.) OC folks are paralyzed in their learning because they just can't measure up to their self-defined standards. If that's your story, this blog is far short of helping you with your fiddling goals. I throw out the concept, though, to demonstrate the extreme effect of being a slave to perfection: you go nowhere. There ought to be a happy medium between trying to get to a new skill level or being paralyzed by a fear of failure (or criticism).

I got an instructional book about drawing a few months back. (Another hobby of mine that perennially takes a back seat to fiddling.) The author makes some good points along these lines. The lessons in the book start out simply and progress. She makes the points that you don't start by painting the Mona Lisa. You start by making some very simple scratches. And, now that I've put that down on the page here, I'm reminded of some drawing instructors that I've known. In the critique section of an art class, a good art instructor will find things to praise about the ugliest of attempts. (Hey, I would never call something ugly to the aspiring artist's face. I'm just calling it that here between you and I.) And, any sort of 'criticism' should be done in a positive way, leaving the person with an idea of how to improve their skill, and leaving them with their motivation and self-esteem intact or even better than when they walked into the classroom.

Again, just because I don't draw well, I shouldn't hesitate to try.

Some of our resistance to do things imperfectly go waaaaaaaay back to elementary school days when someone told us that we shouldn't color the sky brown, or shouldn't sing so loudly off key, or shouldn't dance so wildly. Yes, indeedy, those early criticisms can cause some scars. Actually, that's one of the beautiful things about learning to fiddle later in life. We can let go of those sorts of inhibitions. Adults tend more to disregard the inhibitions that younger learners worry about.

Here's some words to throw out of your vocabulary: bad, awful, screetch, torture, worry, wrong, ouch, pitiful, ashamed, embarrassed, poorly, retarded, boring, and the like. If you find yourself using those descriptors without patting yourself on the back on a regular basis, you may be a slave to perfection.

Here's some words to use more often: good, try, progressing, better, easier, nice, fun, interesting, sweet, terrific.


Fiddling Granny said...

Hmmm ... I'll be listening to what I say to myself more closely from now on.

I'm still trying to get past thinking about other stuff while I'm playing, after reading another one of your posts. Keep 'em coming!

Ter said...

Hmmm back ... I'll go re-read that post and see how many things are negative self talk. Thanks for stopping by.

Gabe McCaslin said...

I think positive statements are an important part of learning for all age groups, not just adults. Adults just have to overcome a lot more barriers (like negative thinking, measuring up, etc.) than kids do.

Thoughtful post, thanks!