It’s not about you…

Whenever I climb I am followed by a dog called “Ego.”    ~Friedrich Nietzsche

I measure what’s going on, and I adapt to it. I try to get my ego out of the way. The market is smarter than I am so I bend. ~Martin Zweig


Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

Happy New Year, everyone! Hope you had a wonderful holiday season and may the next 52 weeks be filled with learning, adventure, and growth, whatever your motivation and goals may be. Speaking of which….

Motivation is the grease and the ball bearings in the wheels of our music practice. Without motivation, absolutely nothing would happen. It’s as essential as the breath you breathe. Thing is, motivation is a slippery notion that tends to slip away when you try to wrap your mind around exactly what it is, where it comes from, and how it works. There are the usual (and essential) things that help musicians stay motivated, like listening to great music, going to see musicians live and talking to them if possible, but this is surface stuff. Motivation goes much deeper. There are two important aspects of motivation I’d like to throw out for you to chew on: goals (specifically what researchers call goal orientation), and your implicit theories on both intelligence and “talent.” When I wrote this up, I thought I could put both subjects in one post, but that made the post too long, so today’s topic is goal orientation, and next week’s topic will be about how your beliefs have a profound impact on your motivation to practice. Important stuff.

Researchers and theorists identify two types of goals: task goals and ego goals. Task goals are simply based on the improvement of a particular skill or ability. They’re also called process-, learning-, or mastery goals. For example, your focus on getting that ii-V lick in Db under your fingers at 120 bpm is an example of a task goal because it’s focused on the specific task. Ego goals are those that involve comparison with others. This includes all forms of competition, whether it’s a formal competition with prizes or the inevitable comparison with others that exists only in your head. Examples are chair auditions in your band, solo/ensemble competitions, or hanging out at a jam session and comparing your skills to those of other players. Ego goals are broken down further into two types: ego approach (seeking to demonstrate high ability in relation to others), and ego avoid (avoiding demonstration of a lack of ability in relation to others).

It’s important to note that these goal structures aren’t points anchoring a continuum–that is, either you have one or the other–but exist simultaneously in a person as separate orientations. You can be focused on a task, and focused on not looking bad at the same time. Turns out however, that one focus is better than another. You can probably already guess which one.

Research in goal orientation usually highlights the positive outcomes of task goals when they’re based on “improvement, progress, mastery, creativity, innovation, learning…” (Pintrich & Schunk, 1996, p. 240). Ego goal research most often associates negative outcomes: anxiety, surface learning strategies, feelings of failure (this last especially with ego avoid goals). The ego approach goal (demonstrating high ability relative to others) can be a wonderful motivating factor but very few get those benefits and never 100% of the time. Ego approach goals are like Sigfried and Roy’s white Bengal Tiger: it’s great and glamorous and powerful but it might turn on you and rip your throat out. Ego avoid goals are never helpful because if we always avoid that which makes us “look bad” (a subjective term), we’ll never grow past our fears.

So, although ego-approach goals and task goals can both foster the motivation that leads to great musicianship, the ego goals shift the focus to the individual, away from full immersion in- and engagement with the music itself. Task goals make it about the music, and not about you. Both can and do work, but ego-approach goal orientations are tricky and they can turn on if you fail, or even if you only perceive failure where none may exist. Task goals are also more adaptive. If you don’t make that Db ii-V lick at 120 bpm, you can shift your goal to 110 bpm. Of course, it’s also nearly impossible for anyone but a Buddha to do away entirely with the ego goal orientation, but awareness of what it is and how it affects you is pretty important, at least it has been in my own practice.

And this leads to a final point, made by another researcher, but shared by many musicians and teachers, including myself, because it addresses my own proclivities, and the point is this:

If competitive structures pose little problem…to students with perceived high ability, we still need to ask what effect such practices have on the very young, the shy, the talented but insecure, the ordinary, the less aggressive, or otherwise “noncompetitive” student (Thomas, 1992, p. 431).

In my experience as a musician and a teacher, Music is more about collaboration and communication and community than it is about competition. These are the primary reasons that Music exists. The task versus ego dilemma is a delicious paradox because competition still holds an important place. Without cutting contests, jazz musicians might not have been pushed to achieve even greater mastery of their horn, and of Music. In general, it seems best to focus on a specific task at hand, and make your goals as much about the specific task, as much about Music as you are capable of doing, and use competition as a bit of spice to add some flavor or a little heat to the entire dish. A little goes a long way.

Next week, I’ll introduce you to how your own beliefs about intelligence and talent tie in to all this motivation business and how these notions you hold have a profound impact on your own practice.

All the luminaries mentioned in the video below were task-focused. If ther goals were based on ego, the adversity they faced would have crushed them and we would not even know their names. Focus on the task. Let the ego take care of itself.


Practice smart. Have fun.

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.


Pintrich, P. R. & Schunk, D. H. (1996). Motivation in education: Theory, research and applications. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Thomas, N. G. (1992). Motivation. In R. Colwell (ed.) Handbook of research on music teaching and learning, 425-436. New York: Schirmer.

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