On Experience, Part 2

Nicole Dieker is already looking forward to the forthcoming “On Experience, Part 3.”

On Tuesday, I asked the question “how do you create an artistic experience in which the work takes precedence, and audience and creators build a memorable, temporal relationship around a shared idea?”

Then I told you that I’d give you an example.

Here’s a clip from the 2012 Shakespeare’s Globe production of Twelfth Night, directed by Tim Carroll:

I love everything about this performance, but what I love most of all is that the production itself is based on a single unifying goal — to produce Shakespeare as closely as possible to the way it was done in Shakespeare’s day, from the staging to the instruments to the buttons on the actors’ clothing — and yet it is in no way exclusive. It doesn’t ask the audience to know these details, and it doesn’t even necessarily ask the audience to appreciate them as details.

This Twelfth Night simply asks the audience to pay attention and enjoy the story.

And they do.

There are other performances of Twelfth Night that ask the audience to pay attention and enjoy the concept. L and I watched pretty much all the available film and television and bootleg stage recordings of Twelfth Night we could get our hands on, and we were astonished at how many of them minimized the text in favor of an additional artifice — most often, a “unique” setting or time period. One production in particular seemed to assume that the audience wouldn’t be able to follow the text, and so the performance didn’t have to either. The actors could say words words words while their actions and faces demonstrated entirely different things, because it was too much work to get it right and a lot easier to put a gimmick on top of it.

This isn’t to say that every modern Shakespeare, or every “Shakespeare but in the nineteenth century,” is gimmicky. After we watched this particular Twelfth Night, for example, we immediately went back and watched clips of Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo+Juliet (because we couldn’t watch the entire thing for free on any of our streaming channels) and the entirety of Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (because we could) just to remind ourselves that you can do the extra thing and still make a story-based connection.

That is, you can still do the modern time period thing or the Shakespeare In Space thing or the gender-bent production and put the work at the center.

The real question is what makes Branagh’s Hamlet, which does this so very well, different from Branagh’s Twelfth Night, which falls just a bit short. (At a certain point we had to stop Branagh’s Twelfth Night to say “Okay, they either didn’t understand what they were saying or didn’t think we’d understand it, so they decided to make the actors do rude gestures with their hands instead. It got a laugh, good on them, but it wasn’t an integrated laugh.“)

I mean, the answer is probably that Branagh had eight years of additional experience between his 1988 Twelfth Night and his 1996 Hamlet. He probably had a few more problem-solving tools at his disposal. He might also have had more directorial freedom with Hamlet than he did with Twelfth Night; certainly he had a stronger cast and a larger budget.

At this point I’m remembering that Kenneth Branagh is a real person with access to the internet who could be reading this right now, and I feel kind of bad for assuming things about him.

So enough about that.

More on how to create a work-centered experience — including my own story of staging a non-integrated laugh in a production of Tartuffe — next week. ❤️

On Experience

Nicole Dieker knows that this post ends abruptly. She would have written more, but she has two dates with L to get to (one to practice La Valse, and one that is more like what you might think of when you think of the word “date”).

I don’t know if this is an odd question or not, but I’m going to ask it anyway.

Now that it’s obvious that the only thing keeping me from being the kind of pianist I want to become is, like, focus+time, then… um… what kind of pianist do I want to become?

I don’t mean “do I want to become a professional pianist vs. an amateur, a concert pianist vs. an accompanist, a person who specializes in the classical style vs. a person who champions contemporary composers.”

I think what I’m really asking is what kind of experience do I want to create?

This question is very quickly going to expand beyond piano.

It’ll include writing, because it’s also a question about the kinds of stories I want to tell.

And friendship, because it’s a question about the kinds of gatherings I want to host.

And my relationship with L, because that is the most important experience I’m creating with another person right now.

And, ultimately, my relationship with myself.

I suppose, with the piano, there are three ways of looking at it.

There’s the exclusive way. “This performance is for the one person who is going to appreciate the amount of research I’ve put into this fugue and my attempt to recreate the way it might have sounded when Frederick the Great first heard it performed, and if the rest of you can’t keep up, that’s your problem.” If you’ve studied music at the academic level, you’ve no doubt attended recitals that were structured as if they were academic papers.

There’s a place for that type of performance, of course.

There’s also a place for the performance that indulges its audience; less so for the performance where the artist only indulges themselves, and I still owe you a piece titled “On Indulgence” because I think I’ve got a good definition to share. That said, we’ve all been to the performance that panders, and we’ve often enjoyed it. We received exactly what we were hoping to get — no more, and no less.

But the type of connection I’d like to make is more than that, and now I’m wondering if every creative person wants to make that kind of connection, and they end up erring on one side or the other. If they want their artistry to take precedence (by making it all about their background research, their virtuosic technique, their super-duper-unique interpretation), their performance could become either exclusive or indulgent.

If they want the audience to take precedence (by making it all about the number of laughs received, the number of drinks sold, the number of social media posts generated), their performance could become pandering.

The work has to take precedence. The experience that you have created to share with someone else, and the experience that you create together as part of the sharing.

At this point I feel like I ought to quote Steven Universe.

Or, perhaps, one of the more foolish — and yet prescient — quips I made in grad school, after a directing class in which we were discussing putting our own themes on top of Shakespeare’s: “Theme is just the me.”

(This is a reference to Uta Hagen’s famous quote “Mood spelled backwards is doom.”)

(Uta Hagen was a famous actress and teacher.)

(Also, I’m assuming that you all know the Steven Universe quote I’m referencing but don’t know who Uta Hagen is. This is probably an oversight on my part.)

(I should also mention that I did not do very well in grad school, in part because I didn’t have a clear sense of the experience I wanted to have. I thought it would be the kind of deal where they open a door and show you where they keep all the stuff that they don’t teach undergrads, and then they hand you a career at the end of it. I also wanted to prove that I could beat the Final Boss of education. Neither of these are good reasons to go to grad school, and the first one isn’t even true.)

What I really want to do is show you a performance that actually felt like it centered the work and the experience — after everyone involved did their own work to research, problem-solve, specify, and produce the experience they wanted to create.

Which is probably what I’ll do on Thursday. ❤️



P.P.S. and then I should do an entire post on why centering the work is the most important thing you can do as a self

Defining Excellence

Nicole Dieker is well aware that she does not actually define the word “excellence” anywhere in this blog post.

I’ve been asking people, as we get back into socializing again, what excellence means to them.

I’d be curious what it means to you, if you want to leave your answer in the comments.

(For the record, none of the people I’ve asked yet have given anything close to a similar response. This surprised me. Should it have?)

For me, right now, excellence means three things:

Working towards what you know (or believe) is right. The obvious example would be something like the repeated thirds in the left hand of the fifth movement of Stravinsky’s Les Cinq Doigts; when I first learned the piece in high school, I took the movement too quickly because it was “easier” to play the thirds when you played them just a bit too fast. When you actually play at Stravinsky’s indicated tempo, you have to work at matching the articulation from third to third to third. You can cheat when you play faster; just bounce your hand like you’re dribbling a basketball or something and the thirds will fly by so fast that no one will notice if the articulations weren’t even.

But that’s not what ol’ Strav wanted (or at least not what he wrote on the page).

And leaving the work of “getting it right” undone is like telling yourself “I’m giving up the possibility of excellence.”

Which brings me to:

Not leaving possibility on the table. This must be why everybody I’ve talked to so far has a different definition of excellence — because the phrase “not leaving possibility on the table” not only includes a cliché, but also has very little to do with the accepted concept of “being excellent at something.”

Except for me, right now, that’s like the whole deal.

I’m not excellent yet. I’m not a magician yet. But the idea that I could be — that I might solve the problem of those thirds, that I might spend an entire day acting instead of reacting, that I might actually become my best self — and that’s where it gets tricky, because “best self,” like “excellence,” is a moving target, but what I mean to say is this:

Why couldn’t I be an excellent pianist?

Why couldn’t I be an excellent partner?

Why couldn’t I be an excellent writer?

Why couldn’t I be an excellent teacher?

Why couldn’t I be an excellent friend, daughter, aunt, community member, and all the rest of it?

Why would I say, just shy of turning 40, that I’m giving up on any of those possibilities?

Which brings me to:

Extending the practice of excellence towards as many areas of your life as possible. There’s the question — and L and I are currently discussing this question — of whether pursuing excellence in one area of your life naturally limits the possibility of pursuing excellence somewhere else.

I’ve written before about the idea that your choices limit your choices, and I’m pretty sure that trying to be an excellent pianist and an excellent painter and an excellent cook at the same time — and yet I’m not sure about that, when I really think about it.

Not just because polymathery is a thing, but also because excellence is a practice, and learning how to practice excellence in one aspect of your life makes it easier to practice excellence in other areas of your life.

Right? I mean, I know that you only have so many hours to put towards the piano or the canvas or the novel or the marathon training or the partnership or the family or the job.

But it seems like excellence includes balance. Like it would be impossible to be truly excellent without also being able to balance that excellence among all of your priorities.

And yes, I know you’re going to shout “NABOKOV MADE HIS WIFE LICK HIS STAMPS” or whatever it is that proves that supposedly excellent people can be less-than-excellent at many aspects of their lives, or that excellence requires you to prioritize and sometimes that means de-prioritizing the people closest to you.

I reject that idea, on the concept that you’re automatically eliminating the possibility of a better option.

The kind of life, for example, where you choose your people, choose the maths at which you want to poly, be specific about who and what and why — and then put your growing (and compounding) practice of excellence towards everything you choose, while reserving a more general kindness, conscientiousness, thoughtfulness, active-not-reactiveness to put towards everything you might not have chosen.

I mean, that’s what I’d like to do with my life.

What about you? ❤️


Nicole Dieker would like to note that this post still counts for Tuesday.

The thing about what-it-is-ism is that it effectively eliminates “should.”

“I should do this.” Maybe, but it only becomes real if you actually do it.

“I should have done this.” Maybe, but the only thing that really happened is what you actually did.

“I should have known.” Maybe, but for whatever reason, you didn’t.

“We should be…” Maybe, but you already know from my previous blog posts that the only thing that is real between two people is what they create together. Relationships are as subject to what-it-is-ism as literally everything else that is.

Which is to say, literally everything.

“Wait, Nicole,” I can hear you thinking, “what if two people disagree on what something is?”

If two people cannot agree on what something is, then their disagreement is what is. The reality of the disagreement takes precedence, at least in terms of the reality of the relationship between the people who disagree, and I can hear you start to think “but what if I believe that the earth is round and somebody else believes the earth is flat, you cannot tell me that the disagreement is more real than the actual shape of the earth,” to which I will say “the disagreement is as real as the earth itself, in whatever shape it may be taking at the moment, and may be temporarily more important simply because it’s the thought that is occupying both of your thoughts.”

But back to the piano, because this is technically about the piano.

Which is to say that — as I said (or wrote) yesterday — there are times when you think “I should be better at this section than I am,” or “I should be further along with my memorization than I am,” and what-it-is-ism eliminates those shoulds, leaving you with the work you’ve actually done and the music you’ve actually memorized.

And yes, it is hard to look at the work you’ve put into something and the results you are currently getting and ask yourself why it seems like you aren’t getting the results you’d hoped to get. It’s easier to get frustrated, to say “I should be better at this,” because guessing takes more effort than knowing and it’s going to take some guessing before you can figure out where the input/output discrepancy is.

All you know right now is that you want an output that you don’t yet have — and that it isn’t a matter of not doing the work, because you’re showing up at the piano every day.

It might be a matter of not doing the right work, or not doing the kind of work that leads to the results you want, or not doing the kind of work that fully solves a problem.

It might also be that the work you’re doing is right, but you simply haven’t done enough of it yet.

L argues that what-it-is-ism eliminates not only “should” but also “ego.”

I’m not sure that he and I agree on what ego is yet (which is fair, since there are, like, ten different definitions) but I understand what he means.

If you accept what-it-is-ism, then you also accept who you are. Not who you wish you could be, or who you should be, or whomever it is you feel like you are owed to be.

You can change what is, within what is possible to be changed, and you can change who you are, within what is possible to be changed.

But taking a moment to sit with who you are, exactly as you are, and accept that, well — it’s worth taking, because I just did it.

And tomorrow you can go back to all of that problem-solving and whatnot, if you want to.

I want to write more about what-it-is-ism, but I also want to write more about memorization and learning and playing the piano as if I were pulling the music out of my dreams (thanks, Maggie Stiefvater) and writing a piece of music that I did in fact carry with me out of a dream and everything else that I’m thinking about at various points during the day.

These include the points at which I think “I should be writing more, these blog posts should be longer/better/less reliant on section breaks as a substitute for well-crafted transitions/etc.”

But what-it-is-ism says “this is what you have written today.”

And that’s what’s real. ❤️

On Piano Competitions, Part Two

Nicole Dieker is still going to learn the Ricercar a 6, even though she is no longer required to produce a Bach fugue by next year.

So… we’re probably not going to Paris in 2022.

L and I mistook each other; I said “let’s do this” and he said “let’s do this” and I said “let’s learn French” and he said “it should be our lingua franca,” and I said “let’s take a week extra and tour Europe” and he said “let’s take a month extra and find somewhere to live while we work remotely. Greece? Romania? The south of France?”

And then I said “let’s send in our applications” and he said “wait — neither of us are actually ready to play this piano competition.”

“We have ten months,” I said. “And we don’t have to win. We just have to do well enough to not disgrace ourselves.”

“I’m not sure I want to do that,” L said.

So we talked, as we often do, about what we really wanted.

I wanted to go somewhere. (Preferably somewhere romantic, or at least romance-language-based.) I wanted to meet other people who were doing what we were doing. Serious amateurs. Magicians-in-training. People who wanted to pursue excellence and live an extraordinary life.

I also wanted a very good excuse to pursue excellence at a slightly higher level than I had previously been pursuing it. I wanted to ask myself, every day, if whatever action I was about to take was something that a person training for the International Competition for Outstanding Piano Amateurs would do.

I had spent enough days, by that point, asking myself that question to understand that it could be life-changing.

And I didn’t want to have to change my life back.

L, though I don’t want to speak for him (and will run all of this by him before I publish it), wants actual excellence. We can pursue excellence at home, for as long as it takes; we should have it, in our hands, before we have the audacity to enter any competitions with the words “outstanding piano amateurs” in the title.

Because neither of us are quite yet outstanding. We’re just standing.

“But I don’t want to have to change my life back,” I kept saying.

“Well,” L said back, “why do you have to?”

“Because if you’re not working towards something,” I said, “then what are you working towards?”

“Excellence,” L said. “The ability to play something not just as well as you can play it, but as well as you know it can be played. Real magic.”

“I guess I could ask myself is this something that a person who is training to be a magician would do,” I said.

“It’s probably a better question,” L said.

“But you still need a reason to do it,” I argued. “Otherwise, why bother training?”

“Isn’t making magic it’s own reason?”

“Not if you’re just doing it by yourself,” I said. “You need other people. You need to meet other magicians, and you need to find your audience. You need a way to share what you’re doing, and to learn how to do it better.”

The solution worked itself out, as these things often do, in practice.

When my parents visited this past weekend (YES, WE’RE ALL VACCINATED, JUST ASSUME ANYONE WHO APPEARS IN ANY OF MY BLOG POSTS HAS BEEN VACCINATED), I shared what I had been working on — and I immediately understood that I was in no way ready to take any of what I had been working on to Paris.

I told L afterwards that if he hadn’t said we weren’t ready, I would have said it after that performance. He said “I know.”

But I also said — and I said it in front of my parents, which made it extra-important — that I wanted to do more performances. I wanted to play for them every time they visited. I wanted to set up that recital that L and I had talked about doing together, once we were ready to do it. I wanted to play for Mom’s piano students, and I wanted Mom and Dad to help us set up a gig in Mount Vernon, and maybe we could play in Iowa City after that, and we all agreed that it could all happen.

“You need a hundred performances,” L said, “before you’ll be ready to even think about something like Paris.”

“I’m just thinking about making magic,” I said. “And what kind of choices I can make, every day, to support the work I need to do to get there.”

There’s one more bit. We’ll call it a coda, because you kind of have to.

L and I finally made it out on our first date — and then, the next night, on our second one. (We went back to the same restaurant because we liked it so much the first time. We’re going again this evening.)

It was on that second night that I told him that I had thought, for a minute, that I wasn’t used to making my dreams smaller. I was used to publishing my own novels, recording my own albums, not letting anything get in the way of what I had set my mind to do.

But, once I thought about it for more than a minute, I realized that I hadn’t made anything smaller at all. This idea of playing for my parents and playing for our friends and setting up a recital in town and then another one in the next town over — it wasn’t a smaller way of going after what I wanted.

In many ways, it was a bigger one. A hundred performances, each of them teaching me something new about music and magic and mastery, is both more challenging and more interesting than dashing off to Paris for a weekend with the goal of playing just well enough to not look like you don’t belong.

So we’re not going to Paris in 2022.

I mean, not to play any amateur piano competitions.

We could, as L reminded me, still go just for fun. ❤️

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. ❤️