Sunday 26 September 2010

The Extremist In All Of Us

Have you ever gone a little nutty? Off the deep end? You've been bitten by the bug and everybody around you looks at you with the raised eyebrow that says, "What's gotten into him/her?" I'm certain that we all have our moments of enthusiasm when we first discover something and our rapture with this "thing" may take over our lives by being a tad obsessive. Ooo, do we need to hold an intervention?

Recognising a problem is the first step in solving the problem as I've heard it said. Of course, the word "problem" here is something of a personal nature and not the usual kind of problem like getting the top of a new jar of peanut butter or booking your flight to Rome. Am I lacking in self-confidence? Do I drink too much? Can I get along with the opposite sex? Am I obsessive compulsive? These are the types of problems where the aphorism of "recognising the problem is the first step" is applicable. Although, I guess recognising you can't get the top off of the jar of peanut butter is also the first step in solving the problem. Ha! Yes, if there's no problem; there's nothing to solve. If I didn't have this damn jar of peanut butter... :-)

For a long time I did not realise how much of an extremist I am. Now, reflecting on my personality and my history, I like to define extremism or my extremism as: All the way is not far enough. Sounds humorous and I mean it to be so. After all, how can anybody go farther than the maximum distance? How can anybody get more than 100%? Everything is everything; there's no everything plus one. [chuckles] But that has never stopped me from trying!

There is, however, a serious side to that statement and this serious side may conjure up all sorts of negative images which are probably associated with addiction. Alcoholic? Drug addict? Gambler? These are 3 types of behaviour which would very much fit with the idea of not knowing when to quit. Extremism can certainly be defined as not knowing when to walk away; everybody else has gone home but you just have to stick around for "one more time".

A curious thing about "one more time" comes to mind. That can also be associated with the idea of persistence. Yes, those who persist have something of an idea of "I'm not going to stop until I succeed". Now think about that one. If I'm trying to take the top off the jar of peanut butter and I say "one more time", it's persistence but if everybody goes home and I point to my glass and say to the bartender, "one more time", it's addiction. Well, at least it's something negative like extremism. I'm not calling another drink persistence! :-)

So, extremism is bad; persistence is good. Both have the idea of not quitting, of continuing when others have stopped. It seems that the result determines the quality, the good or bad of the activity. You try to swim the English Channel; you're tired; you can't go on; you continue; you drown and... well, that's bad: you should have known better and bowed out earlier. You don't stop trying to get the top off of the jar of peanut butter; you do eventually get the top off; that's good... and you now have peanut butter to eat!

Hmmm, continuing to do something and succeeding is persistence while continuing to do something and failing is extremism.

A man I'll call Rick has been bitten by the bug. At the age of 56 he "discovered" the Irish fiddle. I have heard the stories and witnessed this myself how every waking moment has been taken up with playing the violin. Get up in the morning, get a cup of coffee then go play for 30 minutes to an hour. Get breakfast then go to work. Come home, play for an hour. Dinner. Clean up then more playing. Weekends there is even more time to play and of course, week nights may also involve a lesson and even jam sessions. Keep in mind that Rick is married with 3 now grown-up kids and holds down a full time job.

Everybody, family and friends sort of look at him askance wondering why out of the blue, from zero to sixty in 5 seconds flat, he has gone from nothing to an almost religious obsession with the Irish fiddle. Normal? Odd? Do we need to hold an intervention? For the moment, let's say he's having a great time with a wonderful hobby.

In my "crazy twenties", I wanted to be a musician, a serious musician as in making my living. I had passed my teens in various rock bands playing guitar but my twenties saw me become serious after discovering my parents piano. I practised a lot and I do mean a lot. I studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto as well as at the University of Toronto; I even spent some time at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. However, by the end of the decade I realised I had a number of things going against me: late start (20 years old), limited talent (you need to start the piano when you're 5) and focal dystonia. I quit and set off in another direction. If I had fully understood earlier in the game the limitations of what I brought to music, I never would have attempted to do it full time. I would have left it as a hobby and gone off to make my living in some other fashion.

As such, I've always summarized this attempt at a musical career like this: if you continue and succeed, it's persistence. Since I continued long past the expiration date and ultimately failed, this was extremism.

It's an odd situation to be in. When should you quit? When should you continue? Anybody trying to be a good motivator would add something like, "If you want the peanut butter bad enough..." leaving the rest of the sentence unsaid: You won't quit until you get the jar open. The other side of the coin however is knowing when the risk of failure is high and why waste your time doing something when success is unlikely if not impossible?

Fail Early
Years later I ran across a lecture on I.T. project management which espoused the idea of "fail early". In a nutshell, the author was simply stating that by recognising as early as possible the failure of a project, one could minimize one's losses. This lecture was specifically about projects relating to technology, building a piece of software, for instance but the idea of fail early is certainly applicable to just about any project.

Example: You start building a house. After spending $100,000, you discover the house is right over a fault line and there's a risk of a quake and the house disappearing into a sink hole. You could shore up the house, attempt to compensate in some way or you could get out now. Invest another $300,000 and always face the risk of a quake or get out now and lose $100,000.

Example: You invest $100 in the stock market then the stock goes south and you end up with quite a bit less. You could invest more in the hope of recouping your losses or you could get out and minimize your losses.

Great idea. In looking back at my own experience of the failed career in music, I recognise now that I did not recognise then my inability could not be overcome by throwing more work at it. It wasn't a question of a little more effort would get the top off the jar; it was a question of building on a fault line. But there was that extremist in me: All the way is not far enough.

I've never played the piano again and it's been 30 years since I got out of music. My left hand has gradually gotten worse. While I used to be able to type with 10 fingers, many times I type with the 5 fingers of my right hand and just my index of my left. If I go very, very slowly, I sometimes can type with some of my fingers but if I ever speed up, my entire left hand locks up and I completely lose control of it. It's the oddest sensation. I could almost equate it to those times I've woken up after having laid on my arm and the blood flow has been cut off to the point where I literally can't move my arm. I roll out of bed and my arm just flops over and no matter how much I concentrate, I just can't move it at all. Ha! Very strange. I know I've got these appendages; I can see them but they just refuse to cooperate.

[sigh] But one must be philosophical about these changes in life. C'est dommage mais c'est la vie! (It's too bad but that's life!)


my blog: Irish Fiddle: Heaven or Hell?

Wikipedia: Focal Dystonia

my blog: Poor Me
I write about the unbelievable turn of events which dramatically changed the life of one 21 year old girl. When I heard this story, I realized I should never complain about my circumstances.

... Hé ! Hé ! Toute la distance n'est pas assez loin !


No comments: