Obsessiveness, Reluctance and Excellence

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When I was organising the mutual mentoring scheme for arrangers, I had several conversations in which people said words to the effect of, ‘Oh, I must get round to doing some arranging’. I found this an interesting response because it is so different from my own relationship with arranging – which is probably best described as compulsive.

My first reaction was more judgemental than I like to admit: that the response was tantamount to an admission of mediocrity. If an activity is something you feel you should get round to, you’re just not doing it enough to be any good at it. You just wouldn’t say that if the activity was a regular part of your life’s activity.

Then I noticed I was being uncharitable, so tried to think a bit more openly about it.

Not everyone needs to be obsessive about the same things as me, after all. (Mild understatement there: can you imagine how dysfunctional the world would be if everyone had the same obsessions?) I’m sure there are any number of things I think, ‘Oh I must get round to that’ about that other people cannot imagine how I could be putting them off at all. I was going to give a couple of examples, but as soon as I brought them to mind, I repressed them again – which brings me onto my next thought.

The ‘Oh I must get round to…’ response is interesting, because it’s not merely a statement of lowish priority (there are other things the speaker is generally doing instead that leave no time for the activity in question), but it’s actually a statement of both obligation and reluctance. The speaker feels that they ought to be doing this thing, and they feel a bit bad that they’re not doing it very much, but not so bad that they actually do it.

Now, sometimes the duty is imposed from the outside, and the reluctance comes from the fact that if you weren’t forced to do it, you wouldn’t choose to, because you’re just not very interested. Various bureaucratic bits of my erstwhile job fell in that category, as did the more repetitious batches of marking. But something like arranging doesn’t have this kind of external constraint – you don’t, in fact, have to do it if you don’t want to, so the dynamic between obligation and reluctance is much more interesting.

I think this experience is a symptom of being on the cusp between conscious incompetence and conscious competence at an activity that has the potential to get you into a flow state. Getting up into the cruising level of flow can involve going through a kind of threshold of painful nearly-there-ness, and once you’re up there, it can be equally painful to cross back over into ordinary life. When you’re at a skill level where your control over the technical elements of the craft is still somewhat intermittent, but you’re good enough to know when it’s not quite working, it can take much longer to get through that threshold than when you’re more practised and can blast straight through it.

So the sense that you ought to get on with it is motivated by the promise of flow, but the reluctance comes from an awareness of the psychological pain you’re going to have to go through to get there. And I think the only way to get past this stage, and get technically fluent enough to minimise the pain, is discipline. There’s a reason why beginner instrumentalists are told to do x minutes practice every day. The external rule carries them through at a stage where the internal desire has to contend with all these obstacles, and quantifying the practice time means the pain is bearable because you know when you’re allowed to stop. If you don’t make regular time for whatever it is you’d like to be good at, you won’t get good enough at it to just feel like doing it anyway.

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