ABOUT EIGHT MONTHS AGO, I was in a session with my school therapist: Tuesday afternoon business as usual. 1
I remember being somewhat down–I likely was in a daze and a stupor. I spoke for a lengthy period of time about what was going on in my life; something about the stresses of school and how I didn’t know what I would do after my time at Juilliard. I’m sure I talked about being lonely, too. You know, typical not-having-my-life-together-problems. After a lengthy monologue, there was a brief silence, soon filled by the woman sitting opposite me:
“I find something interesting about the chat we just had.”
I had a great therapist–Liz had a fantastic track record with me of imparting new reflections about the way I lived my life and processed my emotions. I perked up, quite interested in what she had to say. The wisdom I was about to receive was surely going to be extraordinary, and help me in some way. I looked at her, curious about the always slightly unnatural pause she took before certain statements.
“I haven’t been listening to you for the past ten minutes.”
Let’s hold this thought.
THE RIGHT AND WRONG WAY TO “SHOW UP”
All my life, I’ve believed that as long as I worked just enough to put myself in the right places, the rest would take care of itself. Hell, I did okay–it’s why I’m here at Juilliard.
But throughout college and even at times since I’ve moved to NYC, I still found myself lacking a sense of direction. Sure, there were great moments here and there where I really locked into a chamber performance, or a great date, or a profound conversation with a friend. But largely, I just didn’t feel good on a day to day basis. Music wasn’t gratifying. Most of my conversations weren’t gratifying. I even felt a vague sense of disinterest from my private teacher, and I had lost my drive for excellence in my classes.
I was such a high achieving kid growing up. How did I let this happen?
Let’s go back to my therapy session.
Look, I’m a pretty mild-mannered guy. People that know me can attest to the fact that most stuff in life doesn’t bother me. Missing airplanes, strange people on the train, etc. So you may be surprised when I tell you my immediate reaction to her admission:
“What the fuck? You’re paid a not-insignificant amount of money to be here in this time with me, and you have the nerve to check out during a session? This is a total waste of time.” 2
No, I didn’t say any of that out loud. It’s a good thing, because I took that time after my initial knee-jerk rage to actually reflect on myself and how I delivered that dialogue. And you know what? ‘
I was boring as hell.
I hardly engaged her. My face lie stoic, as if I was attempting ventriloquism. My lips barely moved when I talked. My voice? Flat, monotone, dull. I wasn’t delivering myself like I was convinced that what I was saying was important, so why would she think so?
And it was only after considerable reflection on this session and countless others that I found the truism that would change my life:
If I don’t show up, I can’t expect anyone else to.
But how do you show up?
AT LEAST PRETEND LIKE YOU GIVE A DAMN
Another relevant story, this time with an embarrassing meeting with the Director at Juilliard’s Career/Entrepreneurship Center with the biggest and most revolutionary idea I’ve ever had:
“Yeah, I guess I don’t understand why as a freelance musician I’m still having to deal with channels like email and telephone. Why can’t I just be hired through an online medium? So I might as well create something, right? A network where contractors can find musicians, contact them, and set up is easy. You have references, resume, etc all on the profile. Maybe 20 second snapshots of how you play. Super simple.”
I sat back, almost smug with what I felt like was a revolutionary new concept.
“Do you know anything about coding?”
“Do you have friends that know anything about coding…?”
“Have you taken a look at InstantEncore? Do you know what it is?”
“Um, okay. How about you take a look at that and come back with ways that that service, LinkedIn, and [he listed three to four other websites] is lacking and what you want to do to improve it.”
While he was cordial, I could tell that he was totally dismissive of my concept and how I prepared for the meeting. 3
I was too humiliated afterwards to even follow up with the concepts. Sure, I had a great idea. But I had done no legwork to make it possible, or even figure out how I could theoretically make it possible. And he essentially waved me off, deservedly, 12 minutes into our half-hour session. 4 I thought that being there with a good idea was enough, and this other person of great wisdom and mentorship would wave their magic wand, show me the way, and I would be rich. Or that my teacher will make me amazing at the clarinet simply by me existing in the same room as him for one hour three times a month.
But those things didn’t happen. I’m still eating dollar pizza slices over here.
I eventually realized that in my lessons, therapy sessions, and even asking for advice, I had a subconscious expectation that my superior was supposed to carry me. That it was my obligation to be the one to ask them to make me successful, and for them to… well, make me successful. After all, I had taken the leap to sign up for counseling/take lessons with a great teacher/take a meeting. Right?
Turns out, not so much.
But I eventually figured out the magic formula that pivoted my interactions with teachers, mentors, my therapist, and even friends and family.
After a large amount of thought, I’ve noticed that two things matter most in getting the most out of life:
- BEING PRESENT
- BEING PREPARED
When you check both of those boxes, you’re truly showing up, and really, really good things happen. Being Present is always relevant. And you cannot be truly Present without being Prepared.
Confused? Skeptical? Let me convince you.
Being Present Matters
I worry that with more and more of our interactions online via email, Facebook messaging, and texting, 5 we have lost the urgency in our need to be present. Honestly, actively participating in interactions doesn’t feel like an essential skill anymore.
- I have been CC’d on office emails that sound incredibly warm, and yet the co-worker writing them next to me bickers about how terrible it is to deal with the person.
- I’ve had entire online conversations that have reflected a polar-opposite mood than I (and probably the other person in the conversation) was actually feeling.
- I’ve had coffee dates and hangouts where the person, with their phone in their palm, only bothered speaking and listening to me in between texts, messages, or scrolling through Instagram.
Because writing eloquent emails is the skill that is at a premium in today’s cyber-communicative world, we’ve lost the ability to have meaningful in-person conversations. Nobody’s saying that writing is overrated, or that cultivating our professionalism and cyberspace-savvy are not valuable skills. I would even argue they are essential.
But I think it is easy for the acquisition of online skills to come at the expense of offline skills–the ability to make eye contact, smile, and speak clearly. We are present, but only in our technology, not in the world around us. Technology has even stripped us of our ability to empathize, as those who peruse Facebook/YouTube comments can attest to.
This study even shows that the mere act of having our phone out, on the table, face down in a conversation with someone still divides our attention from who we’re with:
The key results: “If either participant placed a mobile communication device on the table, or held it in their hand, during the course of the 10-minute conversation, the quality of the conversation was rated to be less fulfilling, compared with conversations that took place in the absence of mobile devices,” the researchers report.
…It appears the empathy that naturally arises when talking with a friend can get short-circuited by the distracting presence of a phone.”
I think I realized society’s lack of presence several years ago, especially as smartphones became more popular, but I didn’t quite know how to fix it within myself… until one critical juncture in my life.
The Most Effective Way To Have Presence, According To A World-Famous Dating Coach
As an Asian-American growing up in a very white community, I experienced a lot of confusion and alienation growing up. I couldn’t relate to anyone; my parents at home didn’t quite understand my experiences at school, and my friends at school didn’t understand my experiences at home. 6 I remember a constant cloud of vague isolation. Naturally, this translated to my dating experiences. I had had mild success, but I lived totally dissatisfied with the quality of my relationships. I didn’t feel attractive. I couldn’t be vulnerable with my partners.
Eventually, I had had enough. In 2013 around my 21st birthday, I invested a lot of money to fly to New York 7 and work with one of the best dating coaches in the world. We spent four days together where I was critiqued on conversations with a female coach by day, and critiqued on actions with “real” women in various NYC bars by night. Each client, according to Nick, tends to have one overarching issue. Some people stand 11 feet away from anyone they talk to. Some are too worried about impressing women.
My biggest problem, turns out, was my ability to stay in the moment. What Nick taught me revolutionized the way I interacted with every person thereafter:
“Hold space with your eye contact.”
Eye contact can make the more neurotic of us uncomfortable, especially when you think about and try to apply the “right amount” of eye contact in the moment. And what does it mean to “hold space,” anyway?
Here’s how Nick explains it in his book:
“It’s the same feeling you get when you’re going about your day, but you take a minute to focus on the server, barista, cashier, etc. and ask them honestly how they are doing–not with the robotic pleasantries we all spit out on autopilot or with some agenda to get something from them, but pausing to look them in the eye and showing that you genuinely feel interested in what is going on in their life. The words don’t matter. What matters is the truth of your feelings. When you feel that genuine emotion behind your communication, I’m sure you’ve noticed that they almost always respond positively and with a bit of surprise, since they’re not used to meeting people who care.”
Although my session with Nick was over two years ago, I’m willing to go a step further. It’s not just servers, baristas, and cashiers grappling with this–I think at this point most people are surprised when someone else cares about them without an agenda. How many conversations have you been a part of where someone’s genuinely interested in you, without wanting a favor from you, or to sleep with you, or just going through the lifeless motions of social convention because nobody really knows how else to interact anymore?
I hate the word life-hack, because it’s click-bait-marketing-y. 8 But if you feel differently, apply it here to holding space, because it has changed the foundation of every interaction I have had. By focusing my energies on the person or people I’m with–and not myself and my own insecurities of what I’m lacking–I’m able to take back power in an interaction. People respond with shocking warmth and are much more likely to engage back with me.
PREPARATION BEFORE PRESENTATION
But we need a foundation for being present and engaged with the people we are with–it’s difficult, if not impossible to just will ourselves into presence, especially the more high stakes the meetings are.
For lessons, meetings, and even chamber music rehearsals, I try to remind myself that time is a commodity–it is a currency that is constantly being deducted out of our bank account. Additionally, that commodity is not something that I alone value; others value it as well. Thus, when I make a commitment to share my use of time with another human or multiple humans, I have a responsibility to be fully present during that time. And we cannot be present without feeling prepared.
Being prepared can mean multiple things. Ensemble rehearsal preparation involves listening to recordings and having a part prepared. My entrepreneurship-idea meeting would have been better served had I already done my own homework and brought some sort of plan. Any time I have purpose in a private lesson–hey, today I want to work on THIS issue that I’m having trouble with, because I’m working on THAT recording for THIS competition–not only do we get more done, but there is a dramatic change in engagement from my teacher. People, however accomplished, are still human–they’re just as prone to boredom and disinterest as we are. The mistake is assuming that the boredom lies on them and their personality. More often than not, their investment in the lesson is in your control.
Of course, preparation for rehearsals is a given as a conservatory student. 9 But preparation is not enough. Every rehearsal that I show up, there is a direct positive correlation between not only how prepared I am, but how present I am in the rehearsal.
EMOTIONS ARE CONTAGIOUS
When you actively engage as if you’re creating something truly special with the people you are with, not only is the resulting process a more effective use of their time, giving them value, but you also jolt other people into being present themselves. Does it always work? Not necessarily. (Sometimes people have their own things going on that you won’t be able to break through.)
But studies show that our own emotions have a profound impact on others, since people are “innately vulnerable to ‘catching’ other people’s emotions.” With limbic resonance, also known as “emotional contagion,” we make people more excited when we’re excited. And we also make people bored when we’re bored, hence my poor session with my therapist.
But when I truly show up, real magic happens. I get ridiculously satisfying amounts of work done in lessons and chamber rehearsals. I can feel palpable excitement within my mentors because I bring a powerful vision and plan each time I come to them that they can feel a part of.
Essentially, getting the most out of life comes down to how you use your time with others. First, be prepared. Then, use your preparation as a foundation for being present.
I think in the end, it just comes down to this: to get the most out of life, people, and love, we need to take responsibility in bringing the most out of ourselves.
Because, more often than not, if you don’t, no one else will either.
Thanks for reading. Come back for new content next Monday, every Monday. No clickbait, no fluff, just value. Thoughts? Leave a comment below, or send me an email. I respond to everyone. If you like what you read, I’d love for you to share it on Facebook or Twitter–I like the idea of a world where people share great content over “14 Reasons Why You’re Basically Hermione Granger” articles, don’t you?
- Therapy is for everyone. It’s not like you have your shit together anyway. ↩
- Yes, Juilliard, like many higher learning institutes, provides this service for free to students and faculty. But she still got paid, which is what I’m referring to. ↩
- I have colleagues that are actually implementing this exact concept–with no involvement from me–over at www.ourpallet.com. ↩
- See you this Tuesday, Barrett! ↩
- I guess I should include swiping, too. ↩
- Aziz Anzari’s Master of None series on Netflix shows some really great examples of this phenomenon. ↩
- I was living in Florida at the time. ↩
- Official terminology. ↩
- For those of you that are wondering, even Juilliard is not immune to people not preparing their parts. ↩