I’ve had a dream since childhood of performing piano in front of a crowd. I imagine playing so beautifully and masterfully that it captivates the listeners.
What’s an impressive skill or feat you dream of? What would your big talent show moment look like?
I daydream of being fluent in a bunch of languages, too. Of singing an epic solo in a concert. Of being a published author or a successful public speaker. Of being a black belt in a martial art. Of winning a race. Of being a good dancer.
If you’ve ever seriously practiced piano (or worse, been in a house with someone else practicing), you know it gets repetitive at best–downright annoying at worst. To learn a piece really well takes patient, slow repetition. Today I came to a little part–just a measure long–that was just so tricky for some reason! It didn’t look hard on paper, but it just wouldn’t flow! I spent over 20 minutes practicing those 4 beats–slowly, quickly, left hand, right hand, all together–getting it right ten times and then suddenly losing it again.
Point is: Glamorous doesn’t start out glamorous.
Being a concert pianist is epic. But becoming a concert pianist takes a lot of very un-epic moments. And by a lot, I mean hours and hours, weeks and weeks, years and years.
Progress can happen very slowly. Success is rarely immediate or even quick. Mastery doesn’t happen easily.
And I think that’s why we DON’T go for the things we really want.It goes something like this. . . .
You dream of being fit and strong, of feeling confident and healthy. You feel inspired and you start going for it. You make a plan. You get excited. You start eating healthy and working out. Healthy doesn’t always taste great. Pizza sounds delicious. You’re tired. Planks don’t feel good. It’s been a week and you don’t see much of a difference. A month goes by and you’ve got some momentum, but you really miss taking it easy and eating all the sugar and dairy. You don’t really know how to take your workouts to the next level. You don’t know how to work on this muscle or use that machine. It’s too hard. It’s taking too long.
We give up on our dreams for 3 big reasons: DISCOURAGEMENT. DIFFICULTY. BOREDOM.
But those big obvious reasons disguise themselves as insignificant little moments: I can practice this part of the piece later. . . . I can go to the gym tomorrow. . . . I can cut this run short. . . . I’ve studied long enough for today. . . . This blog post can wait. . . .
The flip side is that finally “getting there” is AMAZING! Living your dream IS glamorous! Just close your eyes and imagine it.
Every time I master a beautiful piano piece, the unglamorous hours of repetition suddenly make sense. The beauty and happiness and pride make all the work more than worth it. . . . Every once in a while, one of my blog posts resonates with a ton of people and the feeling of helping–of making a difference–makes all the unconfident weeks of writing and scrapping and re-writing and wandering and writing again–all worth it.
Life is slow and difficult. It’s not all a concert. Most of it is the nitty-gritty, “boring” work to prepare for those concerts. But those concerts can be breathtakingly epic!
“I’m not much of a reader” may be high up there on the list of most commonly spoken phrases in the English language. So much so, in fact, that I do a double take when someone actually tells me they enjoy reading.
Last week I blogged about some amazing benefits to becoming a reader, but I understand that for most non-readers, that just sounds a little bit like saying, “Here’s what you can’t have.” Reading can be difficult, frustrating, and time-consuming, especially the busier life gets with work, relationships, and other “adult” things.
Type “I want to read but” into Google’s search bar and it immediately drops down enough suggestions–“I get bored…I can’t focus…I don’t know what to read…I can’t”–that it’s apparent lots of people want to read but feel they can’t. If that’s you, you’re in good company. I’ve been a frustrated reader, too. Still am sometimes. So I’d like to share several ways I’ve learned to make the most of reading, without burning out.
1. Read variety. Google’s very top “I want to read but…” suggestion is “…I get bored.” If that’s you, trust me–you’re not the only one. Sometimes–for new or established readers, there’s a really educational book someone recommended that may be long and dry. Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t push through it. Put it down for the day and pick something else up until you’re ready to go back. At the moment I’m reading/listening to a book about the physiological response to long-term stress, a book about mindfulness meditation, and a novel about a band of miners trying to survive the harsh winter of the Colorado Rockies. If you want to read, but need a break from the tough stuff, find a fun book. Your reading muscles will get stronger.
2. Read in small doses. Like any “perfectionist,” I dream of this big day where I get to really do justice to a project or goal–like spend an entire afternoon reading on the couch. And that means I frequently put off reading–especially starting a new book–until I feel like I have “enough time.” News flash–you don’t have enough time! There will always be other things to do. The “right time to read” is a fantasy. But if you read for 10 minutes today, 5 minutes tomorrow, another 15 the next day–before you know it, you’ll have completed a book. If you wait for “enough time,” you probably won’t. Reading is also a lot easier in small doses (especially when you’re just starting). You can stay more focused and understand more. And starting out with long reading sessions can backfire when you later feel you can’t live up to that standard anymore. Small doses is a great way to start–and a great way to get out of a rut.
3. Read (and re-read) slowly enough to really understand. This may be the most helpful thing I’ve learned about reading. I think we’ve all shared this experience: You’re reading along, and all of a sudden you realize you have no idea what you’ve been reading for the last 5 minutes. It’s so discouraging! I’ve learned that if you commit to really comprehending every single sentence, you’ll get so much more out of what you’re reading. The catch is, you will read (and re-read) VERY SLOWLY at first! And that’s okay. When you don’t understand a sentence, read it again–maybe look back at its context. When you realize your mind has wandered, back up to the last paragraph you remember comprehending and try again (even if it was three pages ago). I have literally re-read the same paragraph at least ten times in a row because of distractions. Like a muscle at the gym–when you take the time to train it the right way, it will get better and faster. Eventually, focusing will be a whole lot easier. Remember: The goal of reading is not to get to the end of the book. Take it as slow as you need. Better to fully digest one meaningful paragraph today than waste an hour mindlessly scanning page after page.
4. Look up every word or concept you don’t know. It’s can be very frustrating trying to read some academic book full of big words or concepts about business or science or politics, etc. Sometimes I’ll just read right through and hope that eventually I get what it was talking about. Problem is–the more you skip over words and concepts you don’t know, the more confused and disengaged you’ll get. The good news is, it’s never been easier to learn as you go. Keep your smartphone with you, and whenever a word (e.g. elucubrate) or a concept (e.g. liquidity ratio) sails over your head, punch it into Google or Dictionary.com, learn it, and re-read the sentence. Don’t just keep reading and end up lost, take a quick Google break and add to your vocabulary and education.
5. Write down big ideas you learn and review them later. I think that we get more out of reading than we realize. Even the most experienced reader can get to the end of a book and feel like they can’t adequately recap everything they just learned. But I think all that stuff has taken root down inside you–at least if you’ve read slowly enough to comprehend it–and helps to shape your thinking. However, it can be very encouraging once you’ve finished reading–a chapter or an entire book–to look back and see what you’ve learned. It helps to cement valuable concepts in your memory and it encourages you to keep learning. I get the most out of reading when I write down big points (or little points that really resonated with me). You don’t have to write thoroughly. Sometimes I’ll even just jot down a tag-word along with the page number so I can go back and review it later.
6. Read, then practice, then read, then practice. Remember that reading is not, in itself, the end game. In his book, The Slight Edge, Jeff Olson talks about the learning cycle: First you learn a concept or theory, then you go put it into practice and learn it even better from experience. Then you go back and read about it again with experience under your belt that gives you perspective and context for your reading. Then you try it again in the real world. And repeat. A good example to consider: You can read lots of great books about communicating at work, but if you don’t put yourself out there and implement what you’re learning, they won’t do you any good. So you read a book about communication, then you start opening up more with your boss. It goes okay, but not great. So you go back and read more about it, and now it makes more sense, and you realize what parts you got right and what parts you got wrong. So you try communicating with your boss again. This time it goes a little better, but it’s not where it should be. So you go back to learn what you need to tweak. And the cycle goes on. “Knowledge without practice is useless. Practice without knowledge is dangerous.” – attr. Confucius
7. If all else fails, try audiobooks. Some people find that reading hurts their eyes or gives them a headache. Some people truly have overflowing schedules and can’t find a minute away from work and family to sit and read. Don’t give up! Try audiobooks! Most of us who find ourselves too busy to read spend lots of time commuting to and from work, family, or social activities. You can find plenty of great books on CD at your local library, or online audiobook memberships to try. My personal favorite is the Hoopla app–it’s totally free and all you need is a library card. It allows you to borrow 5 titles monthly. One of my favorite features is a little button you can hit that bookmarks the exact second you’re listening to so you can go back later to review it or write down ideas. Audiobooks not only are easier with a packed schedule, they’re also easier to not put down and walk away: Someone is just reading to you and all you have to do is let them. Try it on your commutes–you’ll be amazed how many books will fit into a year of driving to and from work.
I hope that some or all of these suggestions help you start (or keep) reading without burning out. And I hope trying these help you grow more personally from the books you read. If you have any other suggestions for making the most of the practice, please share what’s been working for you in the comments so the rest of us can benefit! Good luck!
“Knowledge without practice is useless. Practice without knowledge is dangerous.” – Confucius
I’m a runner. Running makes me feel alive. I run often and I run hard and it makes me feel strong and accomplished and really, really, really happy. But I’m not an extremely talented runner.
I used to jog a couple or a few miles at a time. If I could manage to make it to the two-mile marker without stopping, I was pretty happy. I averaged about 10 minutes a mile on what I thought at the time were long runs. On rare occasion I would run-walk an entire 13.1 miles–a half marathon–and it would take me a few hours. A couple years ago I started running harder. After a year of on and off practicing, learning more about running as I worked on it, I did probably my proudest run: About 9 miles at under 8:30 per mile. And I could sprint over a half mile in 3 minutes. And then I fell over one day and got a concussion, and it took months before I could push myself to anywhere close to what I used to do. I’m still not there.
I have actually learned a lot from my (fairly humble) journey as a runner (fairly humble because I’m really not a great runner and may never be–did you know that Olympic marathoners average under 5 minutes a mile for 26 miles straight? I can’t even come close to running just one mile that fast). I’ve noticed that while I’m running regularly, I’m happier and more confident and I feel better about the way I handle myself and direct my life. I think it’s because the more I run, the more I realize . . .
You can be passionate about something without being the best at it. Respect the passion you see in yourself and in others.
It’s a competitive world out there. It’s very hard not to constantly compare yourself to the next person, and the trouble is there will always be someone out there who’s more skilled than you.
Some of my friends think it’s amazing that I’ll go for a ten mile run. But some of my friends go for hundred mile runs. Here’s the thing: If you go for a jog–walk breaks and all–for a half mile, because you want to run, you are a runner.
It’s easy to silence ourselves, or let others silence us, because we’re not the best–or not even very good–at something we love. But if you love it, be proud of that. Respect it. It’s still amazing. Trust me, I know who I am as a runner. I’m solidly mediocre, and incredibly happy to be a runner.
And I never want to put out someone else’s flame by making them feel like it’s not big or bright enough.
You can push yourself harder than you think.
I remember the exact day I went from being a comfortable runner to working for it. It was a 5k around my town–3.1 miles. I was running pretty hard–much harder than usual. I knew I was going to have to slow down–maybe even walk–after the first mile. But then something in me told me to keep going.
I think it’s the first time running has actually felt like really hard work. I had to concentrate on taking deep breaths and just push myself through the pain. Then I had to focus on not letting my legs slow down as they started to fatigue. I had to run through the tummy thrills and nausea, deciding I was going to win the mental battle and keep going.
I ran those three miles way faster than I’d ever done before. I was on top of the world, and it completely changed the way I run.
The more I pushed myself as a runner, the more I noticed myself exercising strength of will day to day in all areas of life: Sometimes you have to have scary conversations that it would be easier not to have. Sometimes you have to say no to the sugary snack calling your name. Sometimes you have to choose between feeling safe and comfortable, and making a big life change you know you really want. There are so many areas of life where if you really do the emotional, mental, physical work–and don’t back down–and keep going–and keep going when it’s starting to really hurt–and just be determined–you’ll do so much more and so much better than you ever thought you could.
Don’t take unhealthy shortcuts. Be patient. You still want to be able to run a year from now.
If you google “Mistakes new runners make,” you’ll find things like this at the top of just about every list: “Doing too much, too soon; Being too ambitious; Too far too soon; Not resting; Ignoring the pain.”
It’s almost comical how many times I’ve hurt myself running and not learned the lesson. There’s a lot that goes into doing something in a healthy, functional way. For running, some of these are: “Warm up and warm down; Don’t stop moving right after running; Don’t stretch when you’re not warmed up; Take plenty of time stretching afterward; Let your body rest and recover; If you haven’t been running 3 miles, don’t jump straight to 6.”
We often get so amped up about the thing we’re working on right now in our life that we forget we have to do it in such a healthy way that we can still be doing it a year from now.
A few other ways you can take unhealthy shortcuts: Working 70 hours a week on salary to try to build a career–and burning out; Trying to make emotional relationship work fit neatly into your schedule–and finding out too late the message that gives; Suddenly committing to never eating anything unhealthy again–until you suddenly go on an eating binge because you just can’t take it.
Most great things in life take patience. A shortcut that gives you a burst of endorphins and confidence today might later leave you even weaker and further from your goals than when you began.
Consistent baby steps add up.
Saving a little bit of money regularly can make you incredibly wealth. Learning a little bit more every day can make you an expert. And running a little further and a little faster every week will add up. I know this from experience.
Very few people suddenly become amazing at their thing. Even people who seem like they have come out of nowhere to suddenly realize incredible success and popularity have probably been stretching themselves further and trying harder day by day for a long, long time.
“Any time you see what looks like a breakthrough, it is always the end result of a long series of little things, done consistently over time.” – Jeff Olson, The Slight Edge
If you want to go a long way, you have to take the first step. And then the second. And then the third. And if you keep taking those little steps, you’ll get there.
There’s a lot of beautiful world out there for you.
Sometimes you just have to open your eyes and look around you. Head outside and see for yourself.
Thanks for reading!
Whether you’re a runner, a writer, a cook, a teacher, a traveler, or a friend–be proud of who you are, never give up, and may more and more happiness be with you!