About two years ago, I decided I wanted to become a better basketball player. Specifically, I wanted to be a much more accurate shooter. Since I'm a stat geek and can't stand to do anything halfway, I created a little diagram of the court, complete with all of the places I'd practice shooting from, and how many of each shot I needed to make.
I try to complete this routine at least twice per week, and more if I have the time. (Just like practicing music, I don't worry so much about how much time I take, but about accomplishing each goal or shot on my list.) I'm sort of OCD about two things: One, I have to complete the entire routine, and, two, I have to make my last shot each day. It's superstitious, I know, but I can't leave on a missed shot.
So, one day in the gym I was down to the last shot. It was an NBA-distance three-point shot (four feet longer than a high school three), and I was struggling. I had attempted the shot probably twenty-five or thirty times, and I seemed to be getting worse with each try. Also, it was getting late, and I needed to get going to make it to work on time.
I had the inevitable conversation in my head. "Maybe today's the day you just don't get it done. It's time to go, and you're too tired to make this shot. At this point, you're just wasting your time."
That day, I almost walked off the court in frustration. But then that other voice (you know the one) started talking back. "Nope. You're not leaving until you get this done. You've made tough shots before, and you can make this one. You made this commitment to yourself, and you're not letting you out of it. Get out there and keep shooting."
I've had similar moments in my life, but at that instant I felt myself flip the switch. No longer tired and frustrated, I was focused, determined and confident. I wasn't looking for an excuse or setting myself up to fail and quit. Failing and quitting were no longer options.
On my very next attempt, I nailed the shot. Straight through the net like I was Deron Williams or Kyle Korver. It felt great, and I immediately grabbed my things and ran for work. Mission accomplished, as it were.
You hear athletes talk about it all the time, but I think musicians do it, too. And we should be doing it. It may be in performance, on the stage at an important moment. But in my view, it's much more critical to do it in practice. To flip the switch over and over and over when we're practicing hard things. When you get frustrated and want to quit, you simply tell yourself, "No. It's not an option. I'm getting this done."
Obviously, there are some limitations. I'm not asking you to play something way beyond your level just because you tell yourself you can. But if you break up your objectives into logical, sequential steps, then you should be able to accomplish today's step even if it pushes you beyond your comfort zone a little bit. And then tomorrow, do it again. Before long, you have developed the ability to look a challenge in the face and say, "I won't quit. I can do this."
Just like anything else, "flipping the switch" requires practice. Try something today that challenges you, just something small, and accomplish it. And tomorrow, do it again. Or, like Eleanor Roosevelt said, "Do something every day that scares you."
Happy switch flipping!
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