OUTSTANDING! 3 Steps That Break Through Barriers to Greatness

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Sign seen on window of Lucky Brand Jeans store, The Domain, Austin, Texas

From the book that never gets written to the musical instrument that remains unplayed or played poorly, we’ve all experienced situations in which our aspirations exceed our abilities. And thank goodness for that. It is, after all, how the human race has progressed over millennia—this ability to see beyond our limitations and challenges, on the road to outstanding achievements. Still, the question remains: What marks the difference between those who give up when they reach the boundary of their current abilities, and those who refuse to let limitations define them?

This was a question I debated recently with my friend, David Motto, creator of the highly successful and unique Ten Minute Virtuoso method. This method gives musicians a set of strategies that build both their skills and confidence in a way that respects the emotional challenges and mental discipline needed to create success.

As a performance coach, David frequently comes up against the issue of breaking through barriers with the musicians he works with. So he went ahead and created ways to eliminate the barriers that plague musicians while they’re practicing, rehearsing, and performing.

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David Motto, author of the Ten Minute Virtuoso method

The same occurs in my line of work—writing—another creative process in which, unless barriers are overcome, there will be no finished book.

In the course of our discussion it seemed that
one answer is paramount in understanding how some people break through barriers while many don’t: Click To Tweet You’ve got to reframe the experience and take the steps that most people never think of taking.

There are three such steps we believe separate the “greats” from the “good enoughs.” For each one of these steps, David offers his perspective concerning music. Then I pitch in with ideas that have worked for me in the realm of writing and publishing.

Which of these approaches do you habitually use or begin to adopt?

  1. Break It Down

DAVID: One of the most important pieces of advice I give musicians is “break it down”: from breaking a song down into parts and working on only one section at a time, to working on one small motion of a single finger in order to move smoothly from one note to the next.

Acquiring the skill of playing a musical instrument is not at all how it looks Click To Tweet

from watching a musical performance.

There is no beginning, middle, and end that goes perfectly in order until the performance is over. Musicians struggle with this concept. They always want to start playing at the beginning and build up their skills as they move forward through a song.

When I’m confronted with learning 20 songs for a two-hour performance, my first inclination is to play through all the songs from beginning to end. This is, after all, what will be required of me when I’m actually onstage. But this immediate reaction to the task is not at all helpful for actually mastering the songs themselves. I’ve learned—and I make sure all my coaching clients learn—to work on the small, difficult portions of songs that truly need my focus. The rest of the material won’t pose a challenge and doesn’t need to take up hours in my already-busy day.

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Liz’s 15th internationally published book

LIZ: There’s a psychological benefit to this kind of “chunking up.” Because the idea of writing a 75,000 word nonfiction book or 100,000 word novel—as I’m doing concurrently right now—can seem overwhelming. Even to someone like me who’s been writing professionally since 1988. The only way I can maintain focus and prevent the sense of overwhelm that would cause me to procrastinate or throw up my hands in despair, is to recognize that the book I intend to write is made up of individual parts.

That’s why I never focus on “the book” but only on “the first page,” or “the section,” or “the chapter” that I intend to complete right now. I do the same thing with my clients, encouraging them to see the project as a journey consisting of individual way stations.

Or, as historical novelist E.L. Doctorow once pointed out: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

To sum up: Whether you’re learning to play a song, write a book or achieve some business goal, chunk it up into its constituent parts. Then, rather than attacking the process from beginning to end in consecutive fashion, look at how you can slot those activities into your day, according to the time you have available and your motivation. We each have our own way of working. For David, it’s redefining the process by honing in on the hardest parts of a new song and giving his focus to that. For me, it’s identifying what chunk of work I feel like doing on a day to day basis—of which more shortly.

As the ancient Greeks said: Know Yourself! The important thing is to be sure you get something done, consistently.

  1. Change It Up

DAVID: Redefine what “work” is. I constantly tell musicians to “Practice every day – even if it’s only for 10 minutes.” To which they usually respond, “What counts as practicing?”

This is where it’s useful to approach the task from a completely different angle, essentially redefining what it means to engage in the task itself.

For example, with musicians I have specific strategies that I tell them “count” as practicing. They can:

  1. Play without their instruments: Practicing without actually touching the instrument itself by going through the movements they would do if they were really playing.
  2. Engage in visualization exercises in which they see, hear, and feel themselves performing flawlessly.
  3. Conduct research on the music they’re learning, including listening to different recordings.

All of this counts as real work as long as it’s done intentionality, focusing on successfully overcoming a barrier. When I say “listen to recordings,” I’m not suggesting they do this as they would a music fan. As a musician they’re not listening for fun, but to figure out how to execute something they’ve got to play.

Let me repeat: This all counts as work. And, you can give yourself a reward and feel proud for engaging in these activities—because you’re actually doing something.

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LIZ: Now, let’s reframe the way to look at those times when you just don’t feel up to “working.” For example, there are days when I’m not in the mood to write, but I know I have to do some work on my project, otherwise it’s simply going to lie there, gathering dust. I’m a creature of variety who doesn’t like doing the same thing day in, day out. The way I think about “changing it up” is to decide what I’m most motivated to achieve that day. Maybe I don’t feel like writing, but I’m super-excited at carving out time to do some necessary research for my book? Perhaps my low-energy is perfect for re-reading what I’ve already written and doing some further editing? Or maybe I could start thinking about marketing this content and beef up my connections on LinkedIn or another social media platform?

When all else fails, accept that on some days you need to walk away and doing something completely different—or nothing at all.

The “incubation” stage of the creative process is as important as any other part. Click To Tweet

And you know what? Whenever I leave well alone and walk my dog, or go for a long drive in beautiful countryside, it’s remarkable how I come back to a big writing project with new ideas that came “out of the blue,” and a sense of excitement to be moving forward.

To sum up: Cut yourself some slack. Your “work” is to put in time each and every day toward your end result. But, what you do with that time will necessarily change from day to day depending on your mood, the amount of time you have available, and where you are in the creative process. Never worry about the inevitable ups and downs of creativity. Just keep on the path!

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  1. Focus on NOW

DAVID: As I mentioned above, it’s overwhelming for a musician to think about performing an entire two-hour show without making any mistakes.

Here’s the good news:

The end product doesn’t matter. In a way, the end product has nothing to do with the creative process itself. While you’re creating, you need to focus on the task at hand today.

Today, you’re not on stage performing in front of an audience. What you’re doing is solving a few small-level problems, before they become barriers that stop your creative process. Each problem has a solution and is manageable.

There are many strategies for Focusing on Now. Click To Tweet

Here are a few of my favorites for staying in the present moment, so you can break down the barriers that are stopping you from moving forward on your creative journey:

  • Use a Timer: Yes, I know. This sounds boring and mechanical. But, you know what? It really works! When my clients take the one, small item they most want to avoid today and resolve to spend just a few minutes on it, miracles occur. By putting on a timer for 2, 5, or 10 minutes and promising yourself that until that timer goes off you will work on absolutely nothing else but that one item you’re most afraid of, you will make progress like you never imagined possible. The human brain can’t focus intensely for more than 15 or 20 minutes at a time anyway, so use a timer to take advantage of this fact.

(Here’s an inspirational story about the prolific copywriter, Eugene Schwartz, that supports this.)

  • Write Down ONE Goal: At the beginning of a day, think of the ONE thing you want to look back on when you go to bed that night, knowing that you did your best to accomplish it. Whatever that thing is, write it down. Make sure you see what you’ve written often throughout the day. For some people this means putting the written goal on the refrigerator door, for others on the bathroom mirror, for others it’s taped to their laptop screen. Just make sure you can’t avoid seeing it.
  • Know Your End Time: I tell all my musician clients to have both a start time and an end time for their practice sessions and rehearsals. Sitting down to work at 10am is great. Sitting down to work at 10am knowing that you absolutely must be done by 11:30am is even better.

Each of these strategies lets you get today’s work done today. Most barriers that creative people encounter come from focusing on long-term expectations that can’t be controlled in the present moment. So, do what it takes to control what you can today only.

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Sometimes you’ve just got to get out into nature!

LIZ: For me, this step is connected to both of the previous two, in that it allows me itemize the constituent parts of my project and change out those items on my “to do” list on days when I’m just not feeling like doing what I’d originally planned to do.

The way I keep myself on track without losing present-moment awareness is, at the outset of any project, to create a Gantt chart. The kind of thing you might have seen pinned to the walls in project managers or schedulers’ offices.

I begin this process by determining how many days or weeks (or months) I’m going to be spending on this particular blog series, magazine article, or book, then go ahead and chart my start and end dates.

I follow this by listing all the activities I need to engage in to get that project “done” (things like online research, interviewing people, drafting an outline, writing the drafts, editing, reading the whole thing from start to finish, maybe even carving out time for others to read what I’ve written). After so many years as a professional writer, I have a pretty good sense of how long each of these activities will take, and I chart that accordingly.

The beauty of having a physical reminder like the Gantt chart, is that I can focus on what I need to do today to bring that project to a timely completion without worrying about the end result—because that’s already been scheduled. As part of my personal “now” approach, I always make sure that my mood and energy levels are in line with the amount of time I have to spend. For example, if I know that I have a three-hour window and I’m not feeling much like writing today (see step 2), I’ll look for other activities on the chart—maybe scheduled for another day or week—that I’m more excited to tackle, that would take roughly same amount of time.

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I think this is

An underestimated part of creative work many business people don’t understand. Click To Tweet

I never force myself to do something when I don’t feel up to it. Because I know that what I’ll produce will likely be crap. Similarly, I never advise clients to sit with a blank piece of paper and make themselves write a certain number of words.

Maybe employees aren’t engaged in the business world because of too much routine. Click To Tweet

They’re pressured to rigorously stick to plans devised when that person (or someone above them) was in a completely different mindset.

To sum up: People who succeed in overcoming obstacles, breaking down barriers and moving ahead with their goals don’t just think differently, they strategize differently. As you’ve undoubtedly gathered from what David and I have shared here, those strategies are very personal. But can you see how neither of us dives right into something without giving it some prior thought? David derives considerable motivation from identifying a single daily goal, then setting times (starting and ending) for what he wants to achieve. Whereas I like to be able to wake up in the morning and get a sense of what I feel like doing—which is where the flexibility of my Gantt chart is a huge benefit.

Oh, and just to reassure you. Neither of us is laggards when it comes to productivity. In the 30 years he’s been a professional musician David has performed in over 1,000 shows, played on two dozen commercially released recordings, taught hundreds of musicians (including a Grammy winner), and written 10 books for musicians. And since 1988, I’ve written (or co-authored) 15 mainstream published, award-winning, best selling books, hundreds of articles as a professional journalist and a 256 page Ph.D. dissertation!

Do you or your team have problems with procrastination or the motivation to move beyond limitations?

Both David and I are available—individually and jointly—to create workshops, seminars, to speak or otherwise work with you, your team, or your entire organization to help move you more effortlessly from where you are to where you want to be. Not least, to show you how the creative principles that we use daily—in our music and in our writing—can be adapted and applied to whatever business outcomes you want to achieve.

To contact me (Liz): liz@drlizalexander.com

To contact David: david@moltomusic.com 

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