The Habit of Motivation and Barking Against the Bad

Lobby card showing Mary Pickford about to punc...
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Every moment of one’s existence one is growing into more or retreating into less.
~Norman Mailer (1923 – 2007)
If you have made mistakes, even serious ones, there is always another chance for you. What we call failure is  not the falling down but the staying down.
~Mary Pickford (1893-1979)

Plumbing the depths of motivation is a long unending process. Previous posts in this blog contain other aspects of motivation, including some theories about why we persist in difficult tasks. Today I want to shoot from the hip and talk about my own informal experience with and opinions about motivation. No theory. No rigorously tested hypotheses beyond those done subconsciously or haphazardly. Just two things that are on my mind.

Of fundamental importance is the fact that, for me, motivation is not unlike habit. Habit seems to be an often overlooked but highly important aspect of motivation. It’s like habit is motivation’s subconscious. Even when I don’t really feel like practicing the habit of going to my room for at least 20 minutes a day kicks in, and off I go, djembe slung over a shoulder and my trumpet in hand. Like a self-imposed time-out I send myself to my room and do my practice. The difference is that I’m glad for the time-out and once it’s over, even if it’s only 15 minutes, I’m glad I did it.

Another important influence on motivation for me is the balance between critical listening, which is a nice way of saying listening for mistakes, identifying where I don’t get it whether it be something musical, technical, conceptual, or some other issue. Barking at the bad, as Emerson called it. Total focus on where you’re weak undermines self-confidence, which in turn digs out part of the foundation underneath my motivation to play, like a dog digging for a rat at the edge of my cabin. It’s not going to bring the whole structure down, but it does weaken the foundation and make it more vulnerable. For me, there’s got to be balance between spotting where I’m weak and celebrating my progress. If one were to overbalance one way or the other, shoot for more celebration. With focus on what’s getting better, both long- and short-term, I take on a sense of accomplishment, however slight, which feels good and motivates me to continue.  Implicit within that focus on the good, is an awareness of the not-good-yet, an indirect acknowledgment of the areas in which still need work. Posted on my practice room wall are pictures of musicians and my favorite reminders, like the following:

Don’t waste yourself in rejection, or bark against the bad, but chant the beauty of the good.

~Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

Have fun, happy holidays, and good luck with your practice!

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