Pausing in Place

How many times have you been told to reach beyond your comfort zone? It’s popular advice that I hear often. It echos in my mind whenever I am challenged to try something new. I know opportunity awaits in the shadows of the unknown, and a journey there rarely turns out to be as scary or difficult as it seemed when I first started out.

But despite all this, I cannot forget the occasions when success requires a different approach. Sometimes it’s better to simply stay where I am — to remain in the zone — until I achieved that pleasurable comfort.

Years ago I posted a series called, “What I’ve Learned From Playing the Piano.” Like the posts then, an example of a life lesson revealed itself while I was practicing. I was learning (or rather relearning) a challenging, big-band inspired song from 1941 called the Chattanooga Choo Choo. I’d been able to play it before, but “play it” was more of a “get through it” experience than an enjoyable one.

The song steamrolls along, like a train. Even at a moderate pace, spitting out the lyrics (“is that the Chattanooga Choo Choo?”) can be as tough as hitting the right chords. Determined to play it properly, while no one else was in the house, I practiced the tricky passages over and over again. “I’m going to repeat this until accuracy is comfortable,” I said out loud in frustration after I kept hitting the same old wrong notes. I was training my brain through repetition, and I was doing it because the previous method of scrambling to find the next note wasn’t working any more.

I remained on some measures for twenty or more passes. Since I hate repetition, that was not a pleasant experience for me. But it was needed if I wanted to get it right. I had to think like the virtuoso who repeats and repeats and repeats until the entire piece can be played in his or her sleep. It doesn’t matter if the goal is to play a masterpiece or an old pop song like the Choo Choo. The process is the same: get so good at or so accustomed to doing something you don’t second-guess yourself. Thus, success requires comfort.

So yes, kudos to the quest for uncomfortable-yet-fulfilling experiences, but don’t believe that should be your only endeavor. Like many catch phrases, we tend to dwell on things, as if life were a one-sided coin. Like me, only you know when it’s necessary to pause and pay attention, when it’s time to stop pushing yourself to catch the next train. Give yourself permission to listen to YOU first, before you act on another’s advice. The result could be music to the ears.

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