I had dinner with a friend yesterday and she told me about a colleague of hers who is going through a hard time. She’s bright, talented and extremely diligent. There is nothing to complain about when it comes to her work ethic and productivity. The issue is, my friend told me, her attitude.
This colleague is in a supervising position so the staff comes to her with lots of ideas for projects. But when presented with these ideas, her approach is one of “poking holes” in everything. She wants to plan for every potential setback, misstep or failure that might come up along the way, before she will give a project the green light. So people come into the office excited about something they want to do and leave feeling deflated and discouraged. And most projects get nixed before they’re even out of the gate.
As a result, her relationships at the office are becoming more and more strained, which is causing her understandable stress.
When my friend mentioned that her colleague is a former dancer, a light bulb went off in my head and I asked, “was she a ballerina?” My friend, surprised, said yes and asked how I knew.
It’s because the thought patterns she was describing are very familiar to me, too. I think in those same ways. And I suspect that the culture of learning in both classical ballet and classical music are similar.
Are you always looking for what’s wrong instead of what’s right?
In conservatory, we are trained to constantly think about ‘what’s wrong’. In a typical lesson or rehearsal, you spend a lot of time talking about what’s not in tune, what shifts you missed, what’s not together, what’s just not quite right. In this way, years of habitual thinking changes the filter through which you not only see your craft but also the world.
In his essay, The Doubting and Believing Game, Peter Elbow discusses the dichotomy between what he calls doubting versus believing methodologies in teaching and learning. (My friend, Taylor, sent me this essay while he was studying at Harvard – maybe you’ve heard of it? – and it was really eye-opening for me. Thanks, Taylor!)
The “doubting game” is the practice of finding flaws in ideas, more commonly known as critical thinking. This practice assumes that an idea is false and the learner/teacher must extract oneself from the examination of the idea. In essence, the individual approaches all ideas with skepticism and attempts to remains neutral in the examination.
On the other hand, the “believing game” is the practice of assuming that all ideas have merit and value. In this practice, the individual must absorb oneself fully in what is possible in an idea, seeking out every avenue to prove that an idea is true. In this way, the individual must identify with the idea and seek to find personal identification with it.
The doubting game is what classical musicians are very practiced at and it is a very important tool in high achievement in any field. But what Elbow argues in favor of is a balanced approach to learning and teaching, incorporating the more positive and ultimately, hopeful “believing” into traditional pedagogy that would, he argues, bring about better and more effective thinking.
It’s not an easy switch to flip, however, and I have found myself struggling to find the balance between these two methods.
Finding a balance approach
I agree with Elbow that it’s important to incorporate both to reach a more balanced approach to problem solving. But for one who is indoctrinated in the idea that hyper-criticism is also a mark of discernment and superiority (as the Sommelier might look down his nose at the Regular Joe who can’t tell the difference between a bottle of Chateau Margaux and his $7.99 Box o’ Wine), it can be difficult to feel comfortable in a subtler line of thinking.
But at a certain point, one experiences the law of diminishing returns, as my friend’s colleague seems to be facing. I, too, have been finding that a rigidly skeptical approach to my life and music and the world is not as effective as it once was and, in fact, can actually inhibit ones abilities to be fully oneself. But at the same time, this shift can feel very insecure and can induce a real identity crisis.
It’s freaking me out.
So, what do you think? Are you more a believer or a doubter? Does one work better for you than the other? Have you been able to find balance between the two? Do you think it’s even necessary to do so?
Share your thoughts with us in the comment area.