On Piano Competitions

Nicole Dieker just finished her freelance work and is about to start her second piano practice session of the day.

The thing is that I don’t plan to win the International Competition for Outstanding Piano Amateurs (or, in French, the Concours International des Grands Amateurs de Piano).

I’m planning something a little more important.

First, a note on why I probably won’t win: From what I understand, this competition tends to favor people who can pull off the biggest and showiest pieces in the repertoire — your Hungarian Rhapsodies, your Gaspards, your Chopin sonatas, your Liszt sonatas (yes, I know Liszt only wrote the one), and so on.

L has some of that repertoire already in his fingers. He could win.

I have Mozart K332, which is one of the more technically difficult Mozart sonatas, and this week I just started learning one of the most difficult Bach fugues (you have to play Bach as part of the competition). I’m not going to disgrace myself or anything, but my Chopin Nocturne Op. 72 No. 1 is a “lesser Chopin” (to the point where Chopin didn’t even want it published, and they snuck it in after his death) and the Stravinsky Les Cinq Doigts is flashy but not extraordinarily challenging.

I mean, I could learn a more challenging contemporary piece, if I have time after polishing the Bach. I could put my dear little Chopin Nocturne aside, even though I’ve finally started to turn it into something that resembles art, and see if I can gronk through the Fantasie-Impromptu.

But I’m not playing to win. I’m not even playing to place. (I’d love to be a semifinalist, and based on the level of playing I’ve seen on YouTube that’s not an outside possibility.)

I’m playing for two reasons.

Maybe three.

The first reason is that everybody who enters goes to Paris. You don’t have to send a tape or anything in advance; all you have to do is put your name on the list before all of the spaces fill up, and commit to spending a long weekend in Paris with a hundred other amateur pianists.

So yes, L and I are probably going to Paris together in 2022. We’re also going to note, on both of our entry sheets, that we can play the four-hand version of Ravel’s La Valse together — should the judges want to hear it, of course. (You might remember that this particular move worked for Meredith and Jackie in The Biographies of Ordinary People. It could also work here, especially since it appears that the person who runs the competition likes competitors to make bold choices. [This is also why I’m currently studying the Bach I’m currently studying, because it is so complicated that it rarely ever gets played. If I can pull off the first of the six pages within two weeks, I’ll keep going and tell you what it is — and if you kept track of what L and I were reading earlier this year, you might be able to guess.])

The second reason is because of what competition founder (and bold-choice-approver) Gérard Bekerman said in a recent interview:

I think that it’s quite legitimate for a candidate to want to win, but I can assure you that, at the Concours – and it’s the same in my professional and personal life – you can win without it meaning that you have beaten someone else. In a certain sense, the only person a candidate really has to beat at the Concours is themselves. Competitors have to learn to have complete self-control, totally master their situation and overcome the logistics of the keyboard, so that the door to expression, the “soul”, will spontaneously open. The piano, as you know, is a lot of soul and even more sweat.

(That quote is how I sold L on the competition, btw. That and the whole “we’re going to Paris” thing.)

The third reason is because I want to be the kind of person who is prepared to play the Concours in Paris.

It took me about two hours to realize that wanting to play this competition meant living every moment of every day like a person who was training to play the Concours. Making positive choices that would help me maintain a physical and mental equilibrium that would support my practicing, for example. Prioritizing discipline, balance, and the development of what L and I have described as “magic” (that is, the ability to manipulate the elements around me instead of letting myself be manipulated by them).

It took me about two hours and twenty seconds to realize that this kind of life would also make me a better person.

And it took me two hours and twenty-two seconds to realize that this kind of life could make me an incredible partner to L.

Not because I’m hoping to spend as much as three hours every day at the piano, even though L is exactly the kind of person who would want a partner who does that (as long as he gets his three hours every day as well).

But because — well, think about my spending the next ten months building the kind of awareness it will take to prioritize discovery over assumptions, possibility over conflict, generativity over stagnation (as Erik Erikson put it, and it’s worth noting that I am right on schedule to enter that stage of psychosocial development).

Developing the kind of self-control (as Gérard Bekerman put it) that allows the soul to spontaneously shine through.

The Concours barely matters, except as a way to become that person.

And that partner.

And go to Paris.

And make a bit of art along the way. ❤️

On Overcorrection, Part Three

The good news, since you always want to start with good news, is that I’ve been able to complete a lot of the stuff on my to-do list this week.

I memorized the bit of Ravel I wanted to memorize, I polished the 16 measures of Mozart I aimed to polish, I’m currently in the process of learning and memorizing the recapitulation section of the third movement of the Mozart (which means that I’ll have the entire K332 sonata memorized fairly soon, and two of the three movements close to performance-ready), I finished reading Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, I am currently using the techniques in Make it Stick in both my piano practice and my chess study, and…


I mean, the bad news is…


Perhaps one cannot stop overcorrecting in a single week (when I read this to L, he said “that in it itself would be an overcorrection”). Not even if one puts one’s mind to it.

And the thing is, even when one does put one’s mind to it, overcorrection happens without thinking.

That is, overcorrection happens even when you’re trying to think about avoiding overcorrecting, because you’re not actually thinking critically about the thing you’re about to overcorrect.

You’re thinking in a more general “thou shalt not” sense, and not in a specific “what, in this moment, constitutes an awareness-based adjustment vs. an overcorrection” sense.

This week, my tendency to overcorrect manifested in the form of people-pleasing — or, since overcorrection doesn’t actually work, an attempt to people-please that didn’t end up pleasing anybody.

Especially because I can’t keep a secret to save my life, and my own displeasure at having done something that turned out to be somewhat futile quickly became apparent.

Since I can’t keep a secret to save my life, I’ll have to tell you what it was.

Basically, I spent yesterday afternoon making a cake instead of practicing the piano. I was trying to practice in the moments while the cake was baking, except I had never made this cake before and had adjusted the recipe based on a gift-of-the-Magi-esque misunderstanding (I thought L didn’t like his cakes too sweet and L thought I didn’t like my cakes too sweet, and so I spent way too much time chopping up dates to use in lieu of sugar when both of us would have been happier with the cake in the recipe), so I would practice for five minutes and then go check on the cake (still mushy in the center) and then I would go practice again and then go check on the cake (still mushy, and now the center’s collapsed a bit) and so on.

So I was annoyed because this cake that I didn’t actually want was getting in the way of what I actually wanted, which was to have spent a good hour learning Mozart.

I was annoyed that I felt like I had to performatively eat a slice of this cake, even though I didn’t really want any cake (and even though it did in fact give me indigestion), because if you say “I don’t want cake” — well, it certainly puts into question why you spent the afternoon making one.

And then I was annoyed because I wasn’t the kind of generous person who could make and present a cake, freely, to the person she loved — except it turned out that L didn’t really want the cake either.

He had only mentioned it in a general sense (“I liked that carrot cake your mom made, maybe we should make one the next time we have a bunch of shredded carrots”) and didn’t want to eat an obligation-cake any more than I wanted to make him one.

We talked about that for a long time last night.

What was the overcorrection here?

First, assuming that having extra shredded carrots meant that I had to make a carrot cake right that minute, even though I had already had plenty of other plans for those minutes. (We could have put those extra shredded carrots into salads or something.)

Second, assuming that I had to come up with a dates-instead-of-sugar recipe, although L and I both admitted that we had played ourselves on that one (that is, we’d both said “it’s good that these desserts aren’t too sweet” when it would have been very, very good if they had been sweeter).

Third — and most importantly — giving up something I wanted in order to give someone else what I thought they wanted.

How is that last one an overcorrection?

Because the correct path is the one that gives you what you want and need, which frees you to give the best parts of yourself to someone else.

L didn’t get the best parts of me last night, because I swerved away from them.

Today, I’m going to keep my little metaphorical car pointed towards the person — and the life — I know we both love. ❤️

After I read this to L, he added both the following insights and permission to share them:

When we put ourselves at a deficit for any reason, we make ourselves less of the person we want to be, and less of the person who is in fact a loved one.

What is the best gift we can give for people? The example of our happiness — not just our happiness, but our excitement for things. Our enthusiasm. Everybody’s supposed to be what they are, because we draw strength from one another and we draw the most strength when we know what people are.

Your number one thing is not to do a bunch of stuff for others, especially if it puts you a deficit. Your number one thing is to be what you want to be. We want to be part of a group of good, happy people, because that’s when we’re at our best.

Gosh I love that man. ❤️❤️❤️

On Overcorrection

I promised you that I would spend some time today discussing the concept of overcorrection, which is still one of my go-to mental errors when attempting to solve a problem or reconfigure a system.

Overcorrection, as I wrote yesterday, is a type of shortcut.

Essentially, you’re tricking yourself into thinking that you can get the results you want FASTER if you simply do something BIGGER and HARDER and MORE DETERMINEDER.

Overcorrection is the crash diet — or, if you want to think about it in personal finance terms, the crash budget. It’s the decision to jump from two hours of piano practice per day to four hours (or why not five?) without really thinking about how that might affect your schedule and your energy levels (or, for that matter, what you’re going to do during those additional practice sessions).

Overcorrection isn’t necessarily throwing more resources at the problem, though that’s part of it. It’s throwing resources that pull you out of balance in another area of your life.

That’s why overcorrections never, ever work. They might give you a temporary positive result, if you’re lucky, but they’ll never provide a long-term solution.

This is where I should cite that classic example about cars and skids and the direction in which one should steer, because that’s what you’re doing when you’re attempt an overcorrection — you’re attempting to solve the problem while also trying to avoid the problem.

If the problem is “I’m not achieving my financial goals,” for example, the answer isn’t “NO MORE NONESSENTIAL SPENDING EVER.” That’s gritting your teeth and steering away from the skid as fast as you can, while avoiding the kind of specific, disciplined work that might give you a better solution to the problem.

Why aren’t you achieving your financial goals?

Are your goals unrealistic, based on your current income and expenses?

Is there a way to increase your income or reduce your expenses? What would that take, and is it something you would realistically be able to do based on your current needs, desires, obligations, and responsibilities?

If there is a way to increase your income or reduce your expenses, would it be a short-term fix or something you could sustain over the long-term? If it were a short-term fix, would you need to do anything after the short term to prevent this problem (or a similar problem) from occurring again? Is it possible to put a short-term tactic into place while looking for a more sustainable, long-term strategy?

You get the idea.

This also applies to more serious personal finance situations like “I can’t pay my bills.” In fact, this type of systems-based analysis may be the only application that works.

And yet we all steer our little mental cars away from that slippery, complex line of thought and make an overcorrection that has been, repeatedly, proved not to work. “NO MORE SPENDING, GO GO GO.”

Even me.

So why do I still overcorrect, even when I know that it’s one of the least effective things I can do?

Because I want results more than I want solutions.

Because it worked that one time, even though that was only a short-term fix that didn’t address the underlying problem.

Because something in my life is out of balance, and it’s harder to think carefully about what’s going on when you’re out of balance.

Because there are external pressures to DO THE THING THAT DOESN’T WORK, and it’s a lot harder to say “no, I really want to think about this first.”

Because I don’t trust that time will solve some kinds of problems; because I feel like I have to force a solution on my own.

It’s that last one, I think, that gets me more than any of the others. I know, for example, that the solution to “tired” is “rest+time” (and the long-term solution to “long-term tired” is “lifestyle change”), but if I tell myself that I can skip over “rest+time” by applying “nuts+candy,” well… I mean, it did work, that one time.

And then I had to deal with “tired+indigestion.” Less balance than I had before, and very little to show for it.

I’m going to continue writing about the hazards of overcorrection on Thursday, since tomorrow is a guest post on how to combine freelance writing with piano teaching (very relevant to our interests).

Until then, here’s my question for you (the same question I asked L this morning):

Do you think most systems drift towards balance, or imbalance?

That is, does every balanced life require constant awareness and minute correction (and/or minute-to-minute correction) as needed, or is a balanced life something you can set-and-forget?

I’m tending towards the former; it seems obvious.

And yet, at the same time, we are given these systems (or methods by which to create systems) that theoretically sustain themselves. Take 10 percent out of every paycheck and put it directly into a savings account. Do 25 pushups after you brush your teeth. Every time you repeat something that isn’t currently working, decide what you want to change on your next repetition — and then evaluate whether or not you actually changed it.

The first two are straight-up habit formation (personal finance being “habit formation with numbers in”). The third one can also be framed as a habit (especially when applied to piano practice) but it reads a lot more like awareness+correction to me.

Or, to use the words I was experimenting with earlier this year, discipline+specificity. ❤️

You Have to Create Your Own Personal Finance System

All right.

Let’s see if I can sum all of this up as efficiently as possible:

There are two kinds of systems in the world: the kind that are difficult to leave and the kind that are difficult to stick to.

(There are probably more than two kinds of systems in the world, but for the purposes of this very efficient blog post I am only focusing on these two.)

Personal finance, when approached systematically, is difficult to stick to. Not only does personal finance require you to develop habits like “regularly checking your expenses against your budget,” but it also requires you to evaluate multiple other systems, often at a level that takes some background knowledge or expertise, on the basis of “will this get me closer to my financial goals or take me further away from them?”

It’s a lot easier to just, like, spend money and hope it all works out.

And, in a lot of cases, it does work out! Having credit card debt, for example, does not necessarily get in the way of living a good life. Certain levels of debt, combined with credit-damaging factors like missed payments, could make your life a lot harder — but if you’re carrying around $5K in credit card debt like the average American, it’s not going to preclude you from buying a house or starting a family or taking a vacation or nearly anything else you want to do.

It certainly won’t keep you from, like, being a good person.

Of course, you’re going to need to keep making those monthly credit card payments. A little extra money, every month, going towards interest on the debt you can’t yet pay off in full — and, again, that’s fine, a lot of people are happy to pay a little extra money to maintain both their debt and their credit score, and if you’re carrying $5K in debt on a credit card with a 20% APR, that’s only $80 a month (or so) in interest charges.

I mean, you could probably think of a lot of other things you’d rather do with an extra $80 every month (or $960 per year), but the purchases you made on those credit cards also got you stuff you wanted and/or needed, so… like I said, it generally works out, and people are either willing to make those tradeoffs or they don’t really think about what they’re trading.

If you’re in the former situation, you’re probably well aware of it. You might not want to be in credit card debt, but you weighed the pros and cons and decided the debt was worth it (or, in some cases, “your only option”). Maybe you needed to cover a medical expense. Maybe you wanted to start a business. Maybe your family hadn’t been on vacation in two years.

It’s where people stop thinking about what they’re trading that they get stuck.

Because debt is a system that is designed to be very, very difficult to leave.

I’m not trying to argue that debt is bad.

I’m in debt right now, for example, because L and I bought a house together last August. (We have this little running gag going where L says “we can do anything we want, we own this house,” and I reply “we don’t own this house yet.”)

I also got myself into $14K worth of credit card debt ten years ago, when I was trying to make it as a singer-songwriter in Los Angeles.

In both cases, I knew exactly what I was trading my money for — and why I thought the trade was worth it.

And, in both cases, I was also playing a longer game.

I allowed myself to go into credit card debt — my first debt ever, since I went to college on a full scholarship — to give me the time to figure out if I could earn money “from my art.” It turned out that I could; I just had to chop the “singer-song” part off of “writer” before I was successful. Once I knew that the freelance writer thing was going to work, I began pouring everything I could into “earning as much freelance income as possible,” and my current projections suggest that this will be my third year as a six-figure freelancer.

The mortgage is now my second debt ever — but L and I agree that it’s the stronger financial move to pay for this house in installments instead of paying it off all at once (which we could, if we really wanted to). Interest rates, when we purchased, were at historic lows; combine that with our credit scores, and we’re paying just over a hundred bucks each, per month, for the privilege of keeping the rest of our money in our various savings and investment accounts.

Both of those debts feel “worth it” to me.

Your debt may also feel “worth it” to you.

But the point is — what I am trying to emphasize here — is that you have to know, not guess. Your personal finance system, which is going to be very hard to stick to (especially at the beginning, when your income/expense ratio might be very small), has to be robust enough to counterbalance all of the professionally-designed, difficult-to-leave systems that are built to take your money before you get the chance to consider whether that’s really how you want to spend it.

I’ve told this story a hundred times, but the best thing that ever happened to me financially took place roughly one month after I graduated from college, when I discovered an old copy of Your Money or Your Life at the public library.

Of course, I write “discovered” like I wasn’t specifically looking in the finance section; like I hadn’t already set out to solve the problem of earning and spending money, since I knew I would be responsible for doing both, on my own, from that point forward.

That book gave me the courage to create a financial system that was strong enough to stand up against all of the other systems that might have tried to undermine it.

In many ways, it launched my current career — not just the part where I make the majority of my income writing about personal finance, but the part where I get to choose how I spend both my money and my time.

Because I started making those choices, strategically and specifically, as soon as I finished the book.

And yes, I had some advantages (the college scholarship, for example, which prevented me from signing up for hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt before I had the chance to consider what I was doing), but plenty of people start out with advantages and still get caught up in systems that are difficult to leave.

I promised you an efficient blog post and I’m not sure I achieved it.

The most efficient conclusion would be to say “do exactly what I wrote about yesterday, avoid systems that benefit major corporations and invest in systems that benefit you and the people you care about,” but it’s not that simple.

If I were avoiding systems that benefit banks, for example, I would never have been able to buy a house. I probably wouldn’t even have taken out a credit card, which would have been a terrible decision because it is very difficult to navigate the world without a credit history (preferably a positive one).

The real conclusion is something along the lines of “you have to create your own personal finance system that supports your values and helps you evaluate financial decisions along a specific set of metrics or goals,” and part of me thinks that the real, real conclusion is “and I can help you create that kind of system.”

Because I think I can.

Especially if you let me write a few more blog posts on the subject (interspersed with book reviews, piano updates, and so on, I contain multitudes and so will this blog).

Let me know what you would like my personal finance posts to address, and I’ll get started. ❤️

Avoid Systems That Make It Difficult to Leave

There has to be a word for what I’m thinking of.

Probably two words. Probably — if I guessed right, if the other people thinking about this think in the same way that I do — one of those words is “systems.”

I want to call them sticky systems, but that seems to mean something else; a sticky system, in the business-world sense, is a system that is easy to adhere to.

I want the words that describe a system that is difficult to leave.

More than that — a system that is specifically designed to be difficult to leave.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, anything with both intermittent reinforcement and an infinite scroll.

Credit card debt.

Foods that have been engineered to hit ever-escalating “bliss points”.

Escalation is practically built into these systems. Two years ago, for example, you might have been able to get by with Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. Now — well, you already know where I’m going with this, because you’ve probably already asked yourself just how many subscription series you can afford, and whether it was worth it to pay for one month of Disney+ last summer to watch Hamilton.

But it isn’t just that there are more things to subscribe to. It’s also that the things to which you are already subscribed have started to add, like, sub-subscriptions. It used to be that all you needed to access the exclusive parts of Amazon Prime Video was — wait for it — an Amazon Prime membership. Now, every time L and I find something on Prime that we want to watch, Amazon tells us that we actually need to subscribe to Starz or Acorn or Paramount+.

And yes, you can get around some of the escalating costs by subscribing to Netflix in August and Hulu in September, if you don’t mind watching The Queen’s Gambit (or whatever it is) a few months after everyone else. Picking up a new streaming media service and canceling it as soon as the initial payment clears is relatively easy (although some services kick you off the system as soon as you cancel instead of giving you the full month to enjoy your stuff, always read the fine print).

Canceling a Patreon subscription is a lot harder especially if you know the artist whom you no longer want to support. You can imagine, probably all too well, how ending your monthly contribution might make their life more difficult. The whole I can’t stop making monthly payments to a person with a face guilt factor is one of the biggest reasons why I am not signing up for any Substacks.

This is where I could say something like “stop reading internet, only read books,” except that books can be sticky systems too. L and I recently checked out The Testaments from the library, for example, and we both had the exact same reaction: this book was specifically designed to manipulate us and we hate it.

First, Atwood did the thing where you hang your characters off a cliff at the end of each chapter and then immediately switch storylines which is one of the best ways to create a so-called “page turner,” because it’s also an intermittent reinforcement deal (will the next chapter be the one that has your favorite characters in it, or will you have to read a few more before you find out what happens to them?).

Then, she soaped up her story with chase scenes and Chosen Ones and plot twists that were so obvious that well, that’s also a manipulation tactic, isn’t it, you keep reading because part of you is screaming get to the part where she learns the BIG SECRET, why aren’t we at that part yet, I know it’s coming and I want to be proven right!!!

By the last third of the story, L and I both admitted that we were only reading to find out whether there was a payoff to all of this, something so substantive and satisfying that it would make the experience of having read the book worth it.

But spoiler alert there wasn’t.

In fact, the entire book seemed like it only existed to get us to watch the next season of The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu.

Whereas the original Handmaid’s Tale, the novel Atwood published in 1985, existed to make us think. To see the world in a new way; to ask ourselves uncomfortable questions; to contribute to the story by considering, even for the briefest moment, what might have happened to Offred after she got in that van.

If a system’s primary reason for existing is to get you to spend money on something, it is to that system’s advantage to be as difficult to leave as possible.

Other types of systems the ones that are easy to leave and difficult to stick to exist for different reasons. Personal growth, perhaps. Love. The pursuit of a specific skill or discipline. Partnership. Family. Community.

So it is to our advantage to choose our systems wisely. To spend our time and our money within systems that encourage our own growth and development, rather than the growth and development of (to borrow the cliché) “some corporation.”

That’s where I want to start this conversation.

On Thursday, I’d like to write about how to specifically apply this idea to personal finance.

But before I do, please let me know if there is a commonly-accepted term for the kinds of systems I’m writing about. ❤️