How many times have you passed up an opportunity because you weren’t sure you were good enough?
You didn’t get up to play at a jam session once you heard how “good” the other players were. Or you missed the chance to really put yourself forward for a possible gig and found yourself talking down your abilities instead.
Or maybe you went and did it, but spent the whole time worrying that you weren’t good enough. Constantly wondering what the other musicians and the audience thought of you.
The way forward is slow and difficult
If you’ve found yourself in that sort of situation, it feels as though there’s no way to change it except through a long, hard slog of slowly improving your skills.
You might be tempted to shy away from the challenge before you’ve started – accept “mediocrity” and/or reduce the amount of performing you do.
Or you might grit your teeth and resign yourself to a painful process of improvement which tends to suck the joy out of practicing and playing.
Either way, you’re cutting yourself off from the possibility of enjoying where you are right now.
And there’s a danger that you constantly raise the bar of where you’re looking to get to. Every time you move forward, you redefine “good enough” to be another few steps ahead of where you are.
A faster way – rebalance your belief
What’s probably actually holding you back the most is that your sense of confidence and self-belief is out of balance with the reality of your abilities.
If, like most people, you have a tendency to downplay your abilities relative to others’, then your subconscious is placing an artificial limit on what you can achieve.
Rebalancing your self-belief to a healthier and more realistic level will give you more appreciation and enjoyment for where you are now. It will also increase your ability to reach greater heights in the future.
Why is belief so important?
Belief is the foundation from which you apply all the other mental skills.
When you come from a place of belief, you can just let the performance happen rather than feeling that you need to try to actively control things.
You can have the confidence to put your focus in the single most important area, rather than constantly being distracted by all the different things you think you might need to keep an eye out for.
All of this is necessary to perform at the peak of your ability. But it goes even deeper than that. Your self-belief and your conception of what you’re capable of determines what you’re able to do.
As Maxwell Maltz wrote:
To onlookers, the hypnotist’s “word” has a magical power. Such, however, is not the case. The power, the basic ability, to do these things was inherent in the subjects all the time – even before they met the hypnotist. The subjects, however, were unable to use this power because they themselves did not know it was there. They had bottled it up, and choked it off, because of their own negative beliefs. Without realizing it, they had hypnotized themselves into believing they could not do these things. And it would be truer to say that the hypnotist had “dehypnotized” them than to say he had hypnotized them.
Or, as Henry Ford put it, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.”
What causes this belief imbalance?
Humans have an inbuilt tendency to focus on the negative rather than the positive. This has served us well over millions of years of evolution, but isn’t always ideal for everything we face today.
In a music context, this means that when things go wrong, or you’re unhappy with something, this tends to stick in your mind easily.
When things go right or you’re happy with them you tend to take this for granted and don’t remember it so easily.
This means that when you look back you tend to remember a disproportionally high amount of negative things about your playing.
The problem is that this feels accurate…
Unfortunately, because this assessment seems reasonable, you don’t tend to catch this discrepancy in the first place. You also resist encouragement to change the assessment for the same reason.
Two things in particular contribute to this.
Firstly, you forget how difficult things you can already do are.
Once you’re able to do them easily, you associate them with “easy” in your mind and don’t give yourself full credit for their difficulty when you get them right. And you don’t realise that others will be giving you large amounts of credit for them.
Secondly, you overestimate how difficult things you can’t do are.
Because you can’t do them [yet!], you label them “hard” and give people who can do them lots of credit. You forget that they will now have classed that as “easy” and won’t give themselves as much credit.
Accentuate the positive
The solution is disturbingly simple. Just make sure you recognise the good things you do more frequently. And recognise the things you’re unhappy about less frequently.
Ok – you’re probably going to need more than just good intentions to make this work.
Use structure to make it happen
Set up a regular time when you’re going to do this. For example, you could resolve to do this after every practice session, or after every performance.
Or you might set up a regular review session where you look back on everything you’ve done in the past week.
Have a specific set of questions to ask yourself that has an overwhelming focus on positive things. E.g. you might ask yourself to notice at least three things that went well and one thing that improved.
And then only look for one thing that you want to improve.
Yes, it is important for your continued growth to keep identifying things which need improvement.
The reason I’m asking you to stack the deck deliberately in the other direction is because of our natural tendency to focus on the negative. I think you’ll find that if you set yourself a target of noticing much more positive aspects than negative you’ll probably end up somewhere around half and half in reality.
This is not about deluding yourself
The aim is to be realistic. You’re not looking to create a fantasy picture of yourself where you think you’re capable of all sorts of amazing things which are actually well beyond your grasp.
Your subconscious needs to be able to accept the picture you create of yourself as true. You should aim to stretch yourself, though.
Be aware that your initial instinct for how to view your abilities is probably going to be unnecessarily pessimistic. See how things would look if you pushed your abilities a fair bit past where you think they are.
Then see if you could recognise that new picture as accurate.
There are, of course, lots of detailed and involved ways to work on strengthening your self-belief. And these are really worth looking into.
But the best place to start is with the simple approach outlined in this article. Set some time aside to look back on your practice and performance and specifically note good things about it.
The more you use a set structure to notice the good things in your playing, the more you’ll get used to doing this. Over time, you’ll find yourself doing this naturally, becoming less unhelpfully self-critical, and finding more enjoyment in your playing and progress.
Do you tend to notice your mistakes more than the things you play well? Do you tend to take the fundamentals you’ve developed over the years for granted? Let me know in the comments section below.