Returns on Investment

Ben Folds, the famous and popular songwriter and piano player, tells a story about how he first got a piano. He was a child, and his parents let him know they were getting a piano the next day. He was so excited he barely slept that night, going over in his mind all the music he would create once his fingers were touching that piano.

The next day was a shock. He could not in fact make the music he imagined right away. It took a lot of mistakes to get to where he wanted to go.

In one of my favorite books The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin, the author who was a child chessmaster and become a martial arts champion as an adult has a chapter on investing in loss. I love this book because of the two seemingly polar opposites of expertise. The game of chess is exclusively the world of the mind. Martial arts is realm of the body.

And yet Waitzkin sees how excellence and competition in both these disciplines have overlap. Both skills require being bad at it when you start. Both skills require repetition and intelligent practice to improve.

I get how Ben Folds felt when the reality of his inexperience crashed against his artistic vision. I can see what I want to do so clearly I can almost touch it. In fact I cannot touch it. It doesn’t exist until I gain the skills to create it.

I have to try and fail. And try and fail again. Maybe my failure will be slightly closer to the goal after a few times.

I will surely lose when I compete against someone better than me. If I were only engaging with people who were less skilled than I would not gain skill. I might in fact protect myself from engaging with anyone to keep the status of winner. If winning were the point, I could make sure to compete with lower and lower skilled people and shrink to stay in those divisions.

Losing makes me better. It is unpleasant to be knocked down, outplayed and outfoxed by strategy. But it’s that pain and that gut punch that motivates me to get better.

I have to keep losing to make progress. Winning was never really the goal.

structure and repetition

Both feet have to be evenly placed, but that’s not enough. The rest of my body—my structure or my posture—has to be balanced. Then I can flex my muscles and swing hard to land the kick with power

I am trying to reach for new things, things I have not been able to do before. Well, that’s not completely accurate. I’ve done these sorts of things before. And yet, as I am gathering myself to do them this time and in this place I find myself off balance.

What if I’m doing it wrong? I could be mistaken, and the confidence I had at the beginning was utterly misplaced. The ideas I have worked before but they will not work now.

These imposter feelings, these doubts and insecurities are the mental equivalent of bad posture. If I stand on one foot with the other just a little toe point to the ground, I’m much easier to knock over. Entertaining negative thoughts are the same way. If my head is full of doom and failure I am likely to make mistakes.

When I practice martial arts, I take the time to stand properly. I didn’t have the knack of it at first but with time I have learned.

New situations are the same way. I don’t know how to hold the right stance at first.

With practice, with time, I can get there.

Repetition and refinement are key. Also, listening to coaching and watching others. I have done this before. I can do it again.

I’ll get the swing and deliver with power.

Make no room

The good news is, I have landed a job and I start this week.

I’ve spent the last month living with the constant distraction of being unemployed. For me a job means safety. Like a meerkat popping up on her hind legs, I am surveying the horizon constantly. It that a threat? Is that an opportunity I need to chase down? Where is the danger?

Stay Alert. Look for disaster.  I can be sure it’s always coming. What is a moment away from killing me?

Never shut my eyes.

Without the safe haven of a job, my frightened prey instincts are zinging. I’ve re-calibrated the state of my world to red- DANGER.

But I am more than prey. I also have to chase down my own quarry. Fear can inspire me to do that work—to get skilled and stay moving. Lord knows, I’ve burned that fuel before.

It turns out that if I’ve got any distance to travel, fear is a very unpleasant companion. It comes with poisonous by-products. Honestly? I’m not sure the poisons isn’t the main product. Fear is a motivator, but it’s not the only one.

Avoiding the negative is a big boost. Like touching hot metal, my hand jerks away fast. Thank you pain, thank you fear, for getting me out of the danger quick!

My life has been arranged so that I encounter true pain seldom. I have shoes and oven mitts to protect my skin.

Unemployment is painful, but doesn’t require instant reaction. The solution to resolving the unemployment is actually the opposite of the fear story. I have to convince a business that I am the answer to their fears.

I had to switch from focusing on the fear to the positive solution.

Fear is easy. That hyperdrive to Get Away is a button ready to press.

 Maintaining awareness of the positive is a lot harder. My wiser higher self can see possibilities that fear hides. The fear has become the enemy. The battleground is internal.

I’ve had to create habits and practices to win the battle of positivity. Setting the stage for quiet remembering. Vaporize the fear by not looking at it. Practicing the stories of possibilities.

As I start practicing the discipline of attention, I start to see that fear has henchmen. Each of us have an instinctual army ready to leap up into action, it’s a reliable response. But that’s not all.

There are henchmen ready to manipulate that fear to their own purposes. Marketing and publicity seekers, ones who seek to gather and manipulate attention are using fear like a tool. Stories that worm into my mind and ask me for attention, getting my heartrate up and my mind racing. The news is a common villain. Certain people I know can be drags on my potential.

I’d be angry at these henchmen. But they only succeed when I cooperate. I do not consent. Even if I have to move it out of my mind again and again, I will say no again and again. Fear is not welcome.

This is my space. I say yes to my own possibilities.

It’s not like I can avoid it. I speak English, so my experience of the world is slanted by Homer. I’ve talked about him and his Iliad before.

“Rage! Sing, Goddess…!”

The wars, the passion and the poetry could never—still aren’t! —be exhausted. The British university students kept on with their Greek translations well into Victoria’s reign.

What could compete with Homer’s words?

What indeed?

William Morris, famous for his arts and crafts textile designs, was also a poet and novelist. HE had an Icelandic friend who introduces him to an ancient Old Norse manuscript, which included the Volsunga Saga.

It’s from the 1200s, talking of historic events from 800 years earlier in Central Europe. The adventures described were dark powerful stories of the Volsung family, a fierce multigenerational story of revenge and the will-to-power.

Unlike the Greeks, these heroes were not the playthings of the gods. The tribal ferocity had a timbre rooted in the cold and dark north–a strange yet familiar indigenous epic. It wasn’t only England that was looking for its own unique identity in stories and language. The Brothers Grimm are just one example of the search for essential national identity through old oral traditional stories.

In the late 1800s industrialism and colonization had toppled old assumptions. Where did people fit in their lives and in society? The people were re-examining the stories of their own ancestors, not the re-purposed stories of Olympian gods grafted into the culture so long ago.

The emperors of industry didn’t trace their family trees back to kings. They filed their power in books managed by clerks. Sign here:

to pay back the loan

that lets you own

the smokestacks and the men who feed them.

Where is the heroism? What does success mean without the story of who I am?

Wagner was finishing his famous Ring cycle opera series with the Twilight of the Gods, based on the same stories. The story chronicles the end of the world. The time of the gods—heroism, honor and love—was ending.

What brought about this annihilation? How did it Wagner show this collapse?

It began with the craven breaking a contract. The God of all, Odin, made a contract with the Frost Giants to build his dream home, Valhalla. But he made the deal with no intention of paying the price.

But in the new world of industry and capital, where trust has taken the place of lineage, a broken promise proved to be the end of everything.

The Grimm brothers, Morris, and Wagner were trying to find a shared heritage, but Wagner brought it back to trust or honor. What allows us to be alongside one another if not trust?

This story, of the ring and the broken sword that begun in Old Norse was picked up by a more modern and familiar artist: Tolkien.

As powerful as a contract is in the world of the new middle class, Tolkien found another layer needed peeling away. He was chest deep in these indigenous stories—he was a linguistics professor. But before he brushed out his first tweed jacket, he joined the fight in World War One, seeing the worst of the modern reenactment of battle. Blood and sickness and death alongside his modern life.

The Volusunga Saga told the story of unbound ambition, constrained only by the limited power of what a collection of humans could do to one another. Humans had progressed since. The industrial age for workers led to the industrial age for warfare. The same tools that kept the smoke pumping out of the factories kept the men in place on the front lines to die in ways and numbers unimagined.

The 20th century epic story of the Lord of the Rings of Power followed a small insignificant hero. He refused to use the power. He never forgot where he came from, longing to return to his beloved shire. His sense of belonging and the peace of his community fueled his commitment to not only refuse the power, but to prevent it from being used by others.

I can read the story of the Volsungs. I wonder what they would think of us, 1600 years later. We have more power than they could have dreamed. Can we refrain from using it? Have we turned the hero’s story inside out?