Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Hobbies, Vocations, and Pursuit of Mastery

"How long will it take me to be good?"

A lot of people ask me that when they sit down for their first guitar lesson.

I've been teaching for 20 years, and here's my answer (and this applies to learning anything, not just guitar): it depends. On you. I can't plop guitar-playing ability on your head. You can't buy the ability to do something. I will guide you, show you the way, but you must do your part.

So, tell me this:

  • What do you mean by "good?" (able to strum a few chords and sing along? Able to play the lead guitar part of the Freebird solo note for note? Concert classical guitarist? Able to play with your teeth, while the guitar is on fire and you're holding it behind your head? What are your goals?)
  • How much do you already know? (Did you play another instrument, or do you already know some guitar chords?)
  • How motivated are you? Are you able to put time into this outside of lessons? How much time? what other priorities might you have that you might have to balance with your pursuit of learning to play guitar? (If you're a teenage dude who wants to learn guitar to get girls, you're probably very motivated and have lots of time to practice. If you're a married middle-aged guy, your motivation is probably to have a nice distraction from your stress- not as motivating as the biological drive to "get chicks"- and you probably have lots of things interfering with your practice time).
  • What kind of practice habits do you have? Will you be just playing guitar during that time, or also watching tv? Will you focus on learning new skills and not just playing the stuff you've already mastered?

The 10,000 hours theory
People can learn an incredible amount of information and develop a great deal of skill in a short amount of (calendar) time, if they are able to devote themselves to it, and give it full focus. I've taught a few very focused 18-20 year old guys more guitar in one schoolyear than I learned in my first 10 years of playing (of course, I was 8 when I started. Some concepts my brain was not ready for yet. And, though I practiced quite regularly, I was not playing guitar to attract the opposite sex).

The best-selling book "Outliers" (Malcolm Gladwell) touts the rule of "10,000 hours." Meaning it took 10,000 hours of study and practice a specific task in order to master it. One example: The Beatles, who performed live in Hamburg, Germany over 1,200 times from 1960 to 1964, amassing more than 10,000 hours of playing time (meeting the 10,000-Hour Rule). Beatles' biographer Philip Norman says, (By the time they returned from Hamburg) "'they sounded like no one else. It was the making of them."

There's even an improv collective in NYC that has a program called "10,000 hours" where you can sign up for improv jams and hone your skills, getting closer to that 10000 hours needed for mastery.

Let's do the math.
If you were able to work 10 hours a day, 365 days a year on your new skill (not impossible, but you would have to be pretty obsessed and have some viable means of financial support), that would be 3650 hours/ year. Meaning it would take about 3 years of total immersion in a task to reach complete mastery. Most people can't put in those kinds of hours, unless their job IS also the skill they are working on.

I recently heard someone say at the PIT (People's Improv Theater) that "Somewhere around the 10-year mark of doing improv, it all suddenly starts to click." 10 YEARS?! If we do the reverse math, that's 1000 hours a year, or 20 hours a week (with 2 weeks off!), and we're back at 10,000 hours. Theory seems valid.

Is mastery necessary?

Now, I want to bring up one other thing. Is it necessary to master everything you do? Well, of course not. I don't believe it possible - or necessary- to achieve complete mastery in everything you do. Am I a great housekeeper? No. But my home is also comfortable and fairly clean. Am I a great cook? No, not even a good one. I'm not even that good at dressing myself. Sometimes I'm just not stylish. But I don't really care about those things. I put enough thought into them so that I'm functional, but I reserve my energy and brain space for other things.

And sometimes the pursuit (or imposition of the pursuit of) mastery sucks all the fun out of a previously enjoyable pasttime.

At times, I have sabotaged myself by being a "Jack of All trades, master of none." Meaning, I was pursuing mastery in too many things at once. One of my college professors told me I was like "a race horse going in 5 directions at once." That is another trap that can sabotage success, and one I've fallen into numerous times: lack of focus.

Am I a Master of Anything?

I have put a lot of hours into songwriting, but have I mastered it? Well, no. I've written songs I'm proud of, and that have done well for me, but I know I still have things to learn.

Have I mastered guitar playing? No, but I'm good enough to accompany myself, play a few fancy instrumentals and teach beginner and intermediate players in most styles.

Have I mastered teaching? Well, I'm pretty good, if I do say so myself. I believe people get their money's worth from their time with me, and I get a lot of customers (students) from word of mouth (recommended by other students of mine). (BTW, I'm pretty sure I've put in 10,000 hours teaching).

Performing? The hours I've spent on stage and in workshops, and on live radio have transformed me from frightened mouse who apologizes for each song before playing it (or signs up for an open mic then runs away), to mostly confident and fairly funny performer who pretty consistently gets great reviews (and is often paid quite nicely). (BTW, I've probably put in 10,000 hours performing, though not in as short a time as the Beatles). I'd say I've reached and then reset my goals in the performing area more than once (in other words, achieved what I thought was success, then set the bar higher). There's always more to learn, and I keep learning.

Forget the 10,000 hours theory

FYI, you can't wait until you have already mastered something to start doing it. Doing it is how you master it (or, rather, "get good"). As one book title (sitting on my shelf) says "Ya Gotta Be Bad Before Ya Can Be Good." (Which reminds me, thank you old high school and college friends, for praising me and supporting me while I wrote all those depressing songs! I think you actually genuinely believed in me- thank you!).

So, whatever it is you wish to do, just do it. Find someone who knows how to teach, and knows the skill you want to learn (just because someone can DO something... don't assume they can also teach it. Ask around for a good teacher. Oh the stories I could go into here on music teachers from hell!).

Don't worry about how silly you might look, or "what if I make a mistake?" You will make mistakes. That's how we learn. Just figure out what made YOU want to pursue your passion, and what success means to you. And it doesn't need to take 10,000 hours to reach your goal. Mastery is not always the goal. Sometimes competency is the goal. It's OK to have a hobby. You can do something just for enjoyment.

If success to you is being able to strum and sing folk tunes, and you learn to do that in 6 months, GREAT! Now you have a skill and a pleasant social one at that. If you then decide you want to go further with the guitar, great. Or if you then decide to learn folk dancing, super. Or if you then decide "I'm just gonna sit on my porch and play these folk tunes after dinner every night," awesome. You define the passion, the motivation, and what success looks like.

I'd love to wrap this post up with something well-written and profound, but... that's about all I have to say on this for now. Please feel free to chime in with comments.

Carla
www.thesingingpatient.com
 

Monday, February 24, 2014

Posting questions in health forums, sorting through answers

There are a number of health forums (kinda like what we once called "chat rooms") on the internet now, where you can post a question and others (usually patients) chime in with what has worked/ not worked for them. There are forums for almost any specific disease you can think of, and often more than one.

When you post a question to such a forum, you're going to get a lot of answers, and you can be almost 100% certain they will conflict (at least in the lupus forum people stay on topic. There's no one turning every conversation into "Obama this" "right-wingers that." Geez, lupus patients are fighting brain fog and they can stay on topic in a forum! Are you listening, Yahoo News trolls? Oh wait now I'm off-topic. Ironic).

Here's an example of what you might get.

This question came from a lupus online forum:

"I'm writing for advice on neuropathy treatments.
I have just tried 10 k lazer treatments for the neuropathy in my feet and it made zero difference.
I can't stand up longer than 10 mins at a time and am adjusting to walking with a cane now.
If anyone can share something that has helped please let me know."

It was met with several responses:

1) neurontin didn't help me but lyrica does, though i still get break-through pain.

2) I have a friend who had neuropathy and falling and was helped by Cymbalta

3) I was on neurontin but was struggling with bad headaches so my neurologist switched me to amitriptyline. I also have IVIG treatments, they seem to work for me.

Here's my response:

I actually was helped by neurontin. but we're all different. And it wasn't generic at the time. I imagine it is by now, as that was 2002 when I took it. My feet used to burn like mad and keep me up all night, every night. They would finally stop burning about 6am, then the ^&%$ leafblowers and lawnmowers would start up at 7am (living in South Florida at that time).

People who haven't been there can't quite grasp how torturous it can feel. Which is why I was so grateful that the neurontin worked- I could finally SLEEP! (Once the leafblowers left, anyway- I've since learned to appreciate a bedside white noise machine).

I did read the warnings on neurontin, and I knew it wasn't a long-term solution. I wanted to be drug-free, even though the drugs were helping. So i kept looking for solutions, and I was helped a great deal by 2 things: Chinese acupuncture and chelation therapy. I was doing several things at once so I can't say which helped most, but those were the 2 things (besides doctor appointments and trips to walgreens) that I did the most.

Nowadays, I stay healthy by avoiding the foods I'm allergic to, and getting enough rest and exercise.
I am now on zero lupus drugs. and have zero neuropathy since 2002

I found it very helpful to keep track of my symptoms and pain levels, and what treatments/ changes I was making in a journal. I could measure my progress, and tell which things help and which don't, because it sometimes takes a while for things to make a difference. Like acupuncture or diet change- it can take days or even a weeks before you notice a shift.

You can create a journal with something as simple as a spiral notebook, a Word document, an app like Symple, or this customizable "Symptom Tracker" that I created (it's free):  http://thesingingpatient.com/free_offer/

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Ultimately, it's you who lives with any decision about your health care. So, the way I handle sorting through responses I get from forums is this: whatever pops out to me amongst the responses as feeling like a good thing to try, I give it a fair shot. I try stuff. Keep what works, toss what doesn't. And I keep track of my symptoms and what changes I am making, so I can connect the changes with the results.

My best wishes for great health for each and every one of you-

Carla

Carla Ulbrich

The Singing Patient

Humor, song and hope for people  who need it most- patients and healthcare workers

www.thesingingpatient.com

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Sisyphus VI: Pax Be With You

Sisyphus VI opens with a friendly sparring session with Orion. Sisyphus is in good form and enjoys the session.

Shortly after, a match is set up with Pax, who has been crushing everyone in her path.

Sisyphus' first strategy was to rope-a-dope Pax. Estimating that Pax was only going to have a 4-8 inch reach, Sisyphus went out at 2:45am to shovel away the first 2 inches (only took about 6 minutes), then went to bed. She thought she had outsmarted Pax, only, upon awaking, to be greeted with a foot of wet, heavy snow. She clearly underestimated her opponent.

Picnic, anyone? (From the set of Sisyphus VI)


Putting on her gear, her husband shouts,"Don't do it! You are NOT shoveling this!" "I'm just going to assess the situation," Sisyphus said. As she shut the kitchen door, she grabbed her shovel. Never tell Sisyphus NOT to do something.

Here, the plot becomes kind of a "Rocky VI meets Pay it Forward." Someone (we don't know who) had shoveled the end of her driveway- the part that would normally be impassable by car without shoveling first. So she, in turn, shovels her and her neighbor's shared walkway, which she had planned to skip this time.

As she shovels the center of the driveway, she realizes she's running out of places to put the snow. The pile in the yard is as tall as she is. If she just dumps it into the street, the plow will pile it at the end of the driveway when it comes through. But there's nowhere else to put it.

The shoveling scene is as long as the one in Maximus- a full hour. And you hear her inner monologue, as she's wondering whether she still had the eye of the tiger. The fun has left the fight. Maybe the season has been too long. Maybe there have been too many fights too close together. Maybe it's time to retire... A moment of contemplation, as she stands there holding the shovel upright, thinking about quitting mid-fight. But then a voice inside says "Never give up. I may rest for a moment, but I will not be defeated! I will not quit!" And although she may not feel like she has the eye of the tiger, she goes the distance. She finishes the fight. And knowing that, she can hold her head high.

The match ends in a tie.

Back in the locker room, Sisyphus hears that Pax wants a rematch. Immediately. As in 12 hours later. Are we really not taking ANY time between sequels now? Geez, talk about milking a franchise.

Sisyphus has new strategies lined up already: You know how they say "When God closes a door, another one opens? Or maybe He closes a door and opens a window? Well, now that my yard is 'closed' for snow dumping, I'll open a manhole cover and dump it down there." Well, that's creative. Wonder if it's legal. And also, next time she plans to wear an ipod, playing- you guessed it- Eye of the Tiger. Already cued up. This might be worth watching. I almost hope Pax shows for the rematch.

What did we learn? I guess you can climb a mountain or fight the fight and succeed, as long as you persist, even if you don't feel like a champion single every moment.

Did any of you see Sisyphus VI, or anything starring Pax?
What did you get out of it?

Carla Ulbrich

The Singing Patient

Humor, song and hope for people who need it most- patients and healthcare workers


www.thesingingpatient.com





Thursday, February 6, 2014

Sisyphus V : Of Ice and Men (really young men)

Just 2 days after Sisyphus IV comes...

Sisyphus V : Of Ice and Men (really young men)

In my opinion, this was way too little time between sequels. And that’s even a plot point in the movie.

Usual setting (NJ suburbs).
The opponent in this episode is “Nika.” The snow isn’t as deep this time, but it’s heavy. Ice, then 3-4 inches of snow, then more ice.

In this sequel, we learn that Sisyphus is a part-time guitar teacher. Every Wednesday (and today is a Wednesday), she commutes to a guitar shop 40 minutes away. School has been called off, and the roads are a mess, so she cancels lessons. Again.

Now, what about clearing that driveway?

Sisyphus was warned by her trainer to be mindful of her strained back muscles (from the fight with Maximus 2 days ago), and not to go back into the ring too soon. Maybe even consider retiring. Open up a restaurant and go table to table telling stories of the glory days. There was a long dialog between her and her husband about this- if not retiring, then at least letting someone else step in this one time. The husband’s back is injured, her back is still recovering from fighting Maximus 2 days ago...

Sisyphus looks wistfully out the bedroom window at her neighbors fighting the icy mess- and winning. Ah, the thrill of the kill! Of just being out there in the middle of it all! And just then her back spasms, reminding her of her trainers’ warnings.

She goes downstairs and looks out the front window. Having built up some good shoveling karma with the next-door neighbor for shoveling the shared walkway the last 2 storms, it appears the neighbor has reciprocated.


Job already half-complete. And so, she relents and allows the husband to call Joan, a neighbor who had offered her grandson’s shoveling services, to finish the job.

That’s when I realized that “Child Labor in the Jersey Suburbs” was actually a Prequel to the entire Sisyphus series! In that movie, released Jan. 3, 2014, the actress now named Sisyphus was just a bit part, one of numerous neighbors in a New Jersey suburban condo complex to hire a neighbor’s 10-year-old grandson to shovel their walks and driveways. Upon seeing the child’s age when he rang the bell to get paid, the woman later known to be Sisyphus felt so guilty about this poor scrawny young kid being pimped out by his grandmother to shovel practically the entire neighborhood, she vowed to take care of her drive and walkway herself from then on.

But having the job already half-complete, and knowing that this time, the kid (we still don’t have a name- he’s just called “Joan’s grandson”) is showing up with a friend to help, Sisyphus relents. She had already convinced herself the job wasn't as big this time.

I’m imagining the convo in the writers’ room,where they’re deciding whether to focus on Sisyphus or the 2 young boys shoveling snow. “Sisyphus V or Child Labor in the NJ Suburbs II? Sisyphus franchise has momentum, and we can’t have a lead role who’s named “Joan’s Grandson”- let’s go with Sisyphus V.”

The movie ends with Sisyphus sitting on the couch, having just completed physical therapy routine, with an ice pack on her ankle and a heating pad on her back, watching the Weather Channel. They are forecasting another storm for this weekend, and possibly one a few days after that. Maybe I read her face wrong, but I’m pretty sure she secretly hopes to be up for the fight. They are most definitely telegraphing yet another sequel here- or even two. At least for now, Sisyphus fans just can’t seem to get enough of this.

I guess this was a story about dealing with ones’ own mortality. Or knowing when to accept help. Admitting you’re not invincible? Like all movies, if the story is told well enough, everyone takes something a little different away from it.

{If you've read down to here and you're thinking "what the bleep is this about? Has she lost her mind?"- it's my fake movie review of my real life experience of dealing with the relentless snowstorms this winter in New Jersey. With some Rocky references. The previous "review" had Star Wars references. An exercise in maintaining Humor. Imagining my conundrums as if they were an indie film- or even a blockbuster series of films. It's how I keep my sanity. The time just flies when I'm shoveling! Or in this case, sitting at my desk answering emails. Try it- if you're doing something you hate, turn it into your favorite actor or movie being played out}.

Stay warm and walk like a penguin (that's how you keep from slipping on ice).
See you after the next sequel- coming soon!

Carla


Carla Ulbrich

The Singing Patient

Humor, song and hope for people  who need it most- patients and healthcare workers

www.thesingingpatient.com



Monday, February 3, 2014

Sisyphus IV: Shovelus Maximus

Well you all know I’m a fan of the Sisyphus series ("movies" of the “snow” genre).

For anyone who isn't hip to this great franchise, the main character, a 40-ish married woman (played by the inimitable Carla Ulbrich), is based on the Greek mythological figure Sisyphus (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sisyphus) who was punished for chronic deceitfulness by being compelled to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and to repeat this action forever. Only in this case, it's shoveling snow in a New Jersey suburb.

So far there have been 4 movies:

Sisyphus: One woman. One shovel. one big ol' pile of snow
(this one ended in a cliffhanger- she hasn’t worked out in a couple months- will she really go out and shovel another 6-8 inches later?)

Sisyphus 2: There’s more (a continuation of part 1)

Sisyphus 3: This Time It’s Personal  (favorite quote from Sisyphus 3(After the snowplow dumps the snow she just shoveled right back into her driveway.): “maybe you can’t step in the same stream twice, but you CAN shovel the same snow twice.”)

And today brought the release of Sisyphus 4: Shovelus Maximus.

This episode of the Sysiphus series had a totally different opening. At first, I wondered if i was watching the right movie.

In the first scene, we see throngs of fans heading to superbowl.
It’s 50 degrees out on Feb. 2, in New Jersey. Kinda hard to believe, but, hey suspend disbelief. It’s the movies.

Setting is Secaucus station (huge station very close to the “MetLife” stadum).
It’s so jam-packed it’s 100 degrees in the train station. People are passing out from the heat. Security just gives up on checking people’s bags, but it still takes 2 hours for anyone to get to the game from there. People on the train are chanting “Jersey sucks! Jersey sucks!” That’s when I knew i was in the right theater.

Cut to Monday (the next day). Sysiphus had a long busy weekend (not at the superbowl). She wakes wakes up early and sees snow, then rolls over and says to herself “i’ll take care of it later. There’s only 1-3 inches predicted.” Hours later, she wakes up and to drooping trees and 8 inches on snow on the ground.

My favorite line from this episode:
 “someone somewhere made a bet that weather.com prediction was accurate and lost big time.”

After a quick protein shake and some vitamins, she puts on a ski suit over her tshirt and sweats, plus a hat, scarf, and battery-operated heated gloves. However, unlike all previous Sysiphus movies, it’s relatively warm out- 30 degrees and no wind. She is totally overdressed and sweating like a pig.
Hearing her grunting at the heavy wet snow, an Indian neighbor walking by offers to help. Sysiphus declines out of pride, and because she has no 2nd shovel. That would mean not accepting help, but just letting someone else do it. She jsut smiles and says “No thanks -I’m almost done.” (She's not).

Meanwhile her husband (in a way, the real Sisyphus- perhaps a reveal in a later sequel?), pounds away inside the condo on his laptop and phone for his corporate job, feeling like a schmuck because his wife is shoveling snow while he sits inside. he doesn’t believe her when he says she actually enjoys shoveling snow (even though she used to enjoy cutting grass, before moving into a condo). he feels cheap for not hiring someone. she secretly enjoys the workout and sense of accomplishment. but if she had to shovel a 2nd driveway? no.

Also different this time, the snowplow, usually a foil, is working FOR her. that’s new. It’s coming around the circle the opposite direction from usual, taking the snow away from her driveway and dumping it in front of the yard/ further down the street. so not *everything* is working against our protagonist this time.


This time, a couple neighbors walk by, griping about the condo association. Why do we pay $300 a month and have to shovel our own snow- AND pay to use the pool? Good question, but that scene goes nowhere. Except maybe to show that Sisyphus doesn't get riled up by it.

For the first time in the series, the snow is heavy and wet, so the movie is reallllllly long. there’s an entire hour of just shoveling and interior dialog, broken up only by the snowplow or a neighbor walking by.

I have to ask though: why, EVERY SINGLE TIME, does she clear the walkway and driveway, then look surprised that she has to clear the car and then the driveway again? It happens every time- why is she still surprised? Though amusing, I find this part a little far-fetched.

I kinda wonder why they keep making movie after movie with the same plot, but i guess it’s better than going back and getting Sysiphus’ backstory, with a child actor and way too many CGI and special effects that not only are the dialogue and directing neglected, they seem to be forgotten about completely.

But who am I to criticize? I keep attending the sequels. I have been and will attend every sequel, even if it snows.

The movie ends with Sysiphus watching the news, and the husband bringing her a glass of water (no ice). There’s footage of Superbowl fans stuck in the Newark airport, about 30 minutes from her house.

Given the opening and closing scenes, I guess what we’re supposed to learn from this is human suffering is universal. Struggle is part of life. People stuck in a massively overcrowded train station, or an airport full of canceled flights, or someone shoveling snow off the same driveway for the 4th time in 3 weeks.

But I’m not sure she learned the lesson, as her last line is her yelling at the TV “Hey, at least you eventually get to leave!”

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Rumors are swirling about a sequel being made *this weekend* (already?! Guess they’re striking while the shovel’s icy cold!) with 4 FEET of snow. I’m skeptical, but if it happens, I’ll be first in line to enjoy the show.

Asked if she would be up for another sequel so soon, the lead actress did her best Sylvester Stallone impression: “Absolutely.”
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(Yes, this is what I think about when I’m shoveling- "what it would look like on the big screen?" It keeps me amused and enjoying the task past the point of where I would have naturally enjoyed it, which is for about 10 minutes).

Carla

Carla Ulbrich

The Singing Patient

Humor, song and hope for people  who need it most- patients and healthcare workers


www.thesingingpatient.com