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Could You Be Too Proficient at What You Do?

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Could You Be Too Proficient at What You Do?

I recently attended a rock concert where the lead singer, who also played the guitar, messed up one of the band’s most frequently played songs so badly that he decided to stop the performance midway.

He hadn’t made an obvious mistake, but the music just didn’t sound right. Then, addressing the audience of 47,000 surprised people, he announced that he might have found a solution to the problem. He raised the wine bottle which was standing near him on the stage and took a few slurps from it.

Drinking red wine as a solution was most certainly intended as a joke. We could debate whether it is a good idea to drink alcohol while performing music, or just as well when doing any sort of work but this little event made me think.

Playing too well.

I was about eight years old when I started to learn to play music myself. I played the piano, and soon enough I came across a dynamic piece I fell in love with, The Wild Horseman, composed by Robert Schumann. I learnt this piece by heart very quickly, and whenever I had the opportunity, I played it in front of an audience.

I performed it confidently and flawlessly, so much so that some people who heard it drew the conclusion that I must be a highly talented child musician. The truth is that I wasn’t; music was never more than a hobby for me. But when I played that piece, I excelled.

Then one day I noticed with horror that I started to hit the wrong keys when playing the piece. I made more and more mistakes, and the harder I tried to focus, the worse my performance became. My fingers became stiff and slow, and somehow they didn’t even feel like my own fingers.

At that time I learnt from my piano teacher that musicians actually often experience what I was going through. It is possible to play a song so many times that something snaps inside you, and what used to be an easy routine in the past not only becomes hard work but an impossible challenge.

When you experience this, experts suggest that it’s best to put the song aside, forget it completely, and then eventually learn it again from scratch.

Cycles of learning.

This must have something to do with the way you learn and play music and not just music, of course, but many other skills.

At first, you learn to play consciously, following the sheet music. Then you try to memorise what you do and learn to play by heart, which still takes a lot of concentration. Then your fingers somehow start to play independently from your mind; you could call this muscle memory.

And finally, that dreadful moment may occur when all these inexplicably fall apart, and you can’t rely either on your conscious or your unconscious mind to play well. You hit a barrier which you can’t push through, whether by focusing more and trying harder or by relaxing more and being fully present. Your best option is to let go.

I find that we go through similar cycles with many of our life and business skills, and as we transition from one stage of competence to another, it’s worth paying attention to our approach.

We need to notice, for example, when it is time to let go of the ‘cheat sheet’ (or whichever kind of aid we use) and start trusting our memory or knowledge. We also need to notice when it’s time to stop thinking hard and act more intuitively, guided by our unconscious. Finally, we need to acknowledge when it is time to put that skill aside and relearn it again later, perhaps at a different level.

Starting fresh.

What happened on the stage that night? After a few jokes the band started to play that song again, and it was amazing. I can’t say it was perfect, because each of their performances is different, tailored to the audience. But those musicians on stage played from their hearts and their guts and created an experience for those 47,000 people that they had never experienced before.

You never know what will happen next. Perhaps one day the band will put that popular song aside for a few months or years, and then create a fresh, even more, impactful version. That wouldn’t be the first time it happened.

Can you think of any aspects of your business or services which might also benefit from a little break, and then a fresh start?

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