Thursday, March 26, 2015

On "I don't know", the power of Yes, and Fake-It-'til-You-Make-It

     This afternoon I walked the short walk to work, and a slight first-day-of-school feeling nagged at my stomach. Today was my first day in my new permanent position as a Junior Piano Class Assistant Instructor. I'd done some subbing last Monday (and indeed, I've been hanging around this music school in various different capacities since last year), but today I'd be working with the two classes and instructors I'll be with until June. There's a fair bit riding on this: If I do well in these classes (and in my other job as an outreach assistant) there will probably be more jobs there in the future and I will have regular work close to home. I keenly want to make a good impression.

     On the other hand, although I was a bit nervous I could tell I was feeling a lot more calm about my new job(s) than I would have felt even a year ago. And although I wanted to make a good impression I was cutting myself some slack too: I would make some mistakes and I would improve, but no one was expecting perfection from me all at once. So what changed? Why am I generally not the nervous wreck I used to be when starting something new? I've been thinking about it a lot in the past couple of years and I believe it really comes down to one thing: I care less about what people think about me. 

     A sensitive older child, I practically tumbled out of the womb wanting to please. My parents' (infrequent) anger or disapproval upset me deeply, even though I would stand up for what I believed in (my mom claims she could never get me to go to my room because I would argue vehemently against it every time). In some ways I was tough and independent: I didn't care what other kids thought and I went my own way even if it meant being thought "weird" or "different". But I've always hated, hated having people be disappointed, angry or disapproving of me, and it's made me timid about some of my choices because I've been afraid to fail. Fail and incur those bad thoughts in others. 

"I haven't an enemy. What a spineless thing I must be not to have even one enemy!" - L.M. Montgomery, The Blue Castle

That quote has stuck with me for years. 

     But that's the marvelous, liberating thing about getting older: you just stop caring as much about what people think. I can remember walking self-consciously through the bookstore where I used to work in my teens and twenties, a rictus grin pasted on my face because I felt awkward in my body. I can remember bursting into tears because I'd gotten my schedule mixed up and missed a shift at work. I can remember getting all twisted up inside because I had to get mad at a cast who wasn't practicing their music hard enough. 

     But we condition our brains, through years of repetition: we succeed, and we enjoy, and we succeed again. And we fail too, and we learn that it will not destroy us. We make a few enemies along the way, and we grow the balls to stand up for our side of the argument. We learn a few useful things:

  • Doing your job well is more important than trying to be well-liked.  Sometimes you have to get tough. Sometimes you have to be a bitch. I've learned a lot watching my friend Gord with his piano students. He's tough on them, he doesn't take any shit, and they adore him. Being popular doesn't always get results or respect. Actually, being tough will get you respect. My new job is about helping to enforce order and attention in the classroom, and I'm not always going to get to be nice. That's ok. 
  • It's okay to say "I don't know". My sister-in-law and I were having a conversation about this today. She said that when she's teaching and a student asks her something she doesn't know, she'll use that as a tool to see if they can go and research the answer on their own. Being the teacher doesn't mean you know everything... and that's ok. I used to think I had to have all the answers; now I know I can relax a bit. 
  • People will make assumptions. And that's awesome.  As teachers, directors, whatever, we are "gifted" with a certain amount of authority. Unless you really screw up, having the title of 'teacher' or 'music director' helps set you in a certain place in the hierarchy. I'm not saying you should abuse that, I'm saying that you already have some authority. People will assume you know what you're doing! Use that as a natural confidence-builder. You probably got this job for a reason. 
  • Fake It 'til You Make It! I know a guy who bluffed his way into teaching a course on a subject he knew very little about. Every night before the class he would read just enough of the textbook so that he would stay ahead of the students. Now he's winning awards in his field. He had the confidence to bluff his way through until he really was an expert. I refused to teach for years, saying "I don't know how to teach." What a cop-out! Now I've got a few accordion students and I'm learning how to work with kids in a group piano class setting as well. I don't always know what I'm doing, but so what? I'm a good musician and I can pass that on to other people. The technique of teaching itself is something that will only get better the more I teach. And I'm discovering that I love it! 
  • Say 'yes' to things that scare you. Nowadays, if I feel a little frisson of fear when contemplating a job offer, I try and say yes to it. Why? Because I know that it will stretch me, challenge me, and make me more experienced. The reason I feel so much more confident these days is that every job has been a new challenge that's made me grow. Even if the growth was sometimes painful. 
  • Failure isn't the end of life as you know it. Every time I've gone in for some post-secondary education I've absolutely hated it. Bad timing, wrong course, you name it... I don't really know why it hasn't gelled for me, considering that I'm reasonably smart and usually pretty sociable. I really didn't like a lot of the time I spent at Cap a couple of years ago, but it taught me that I was a musician even if I hated music school, and that I wouldn't die if I didn't succeed. I've heard terrible stories and rumours about certain actors, directors, you name it... and guess what? They're still working. If they can still collect a paycheque after the things I've heard, I'll probably be ok. 
  • Know your limits. When I was interviewing for a job at this music school, my friend Gord (who had basically done such good PR on me that they couldn't not hire me) told the powers that be that I would be a perfect piano teacher... and guitar teacher. When my future boss asked me if that was true, I laughed and said no. I can mess about on the guitar, but I have no business teaching it to beginners. Same goes for singing- although I am a good singer I have little knowledge of the science behind it. I have a strong voice and I know how to use it... but I don't want to be responsible for teaching a faulty technique that could harm someone's vocal chords. Until I know more about how voices work, that's off-limits. 
And finally...
  •  Don't compare yourself to others. When I work with some of the incredibly self-assured and confident 20-somethings in this business I can't help but die a little inside. If only I'd been that confident at their age, I sigh. But we're all tied up in knots about things, we fear failure and the things that we take for granted can be terrifying to someone else. A lot of what we see in others is a facade anyway. 
If only I could go back in time and tell Younger Me to just relax a little more and stop worrying so much! When I think of the energy I wasted worrying... But that's part of the journey, and I wouldn't have believed it then. I can only hope that Future Me is a defiant old woman, shaking her fist at nay-sayers and making a few enemies just for the hell of it. Because it will have been a long time coming. 

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