Ask the following question out loud: “How patient can I be with myself today?”
Now, ask it again.
Now ask it one more time.
Say it when you wake up every morning, and perhaps also before beginning the day’s work.
Of all the skills that go into learning a new skill, accomplishing a difficult task, or achieving a goal, few are more important than simple patience.
Are you enduring a difficult trial, and do not know when it will be over? “How patient can I be with myself today?”
Are you attempting to learn a complicated piece of music, and it is not working? “How patient can I be with myself today?”
Are you creating a new work, but it is taking longer than anticipated, or the ideas are simply not flowing? “How patient can I be with myself today?”
It is tempting to fall into the trap of, “I must solve this specific problem”, or, “I must force the ideas to come quickly”, only for them not to come or the problem not to be solved (or even for it to be compounded). If the solution to a problem is like a cat, then simply calling it to come to you, or attempting to force it to do so, is unlikely to be effective. The only reliable way to entice a cat to come to you is to bait it with its favorite food…and then wait for it to come to you. (Read more about this idea here.)
This does not mean that a writer should not keep writing in an attempt to break writer’s block. It simply means that constantly writing serves a different purpose than it, perhaps, is thought to. The purpose of freewriting to break a block is not to actually use the material that is freewritten (much of which is likely to be utter rubbish). The purpose of freewriting is to identify the “favorite food” of the cat. The phrase, the concept, the small group of words, the character, the anything, that will entice the creativity to flow again.
This, of course, requires patience. The same patience exercised by an archaeologist who digs in the dirt to find a valuable artifact. The same patience exercised by a poet shaping words to find the perfect verse. The same patience exercised by a violinist who practices a given bow technique over and over and over until the bow glides across the string.
And this is the patience that a composer, a writer, a painter, a choreographer, or any other creative professional, must master. We do not wait patiently. We must write patiently. A composer must sketch melodic fragments…patiently. An illustrator must scribble random lines, shapes, and objects…patiently. Freewriting seems most effective when done quickly…but with an underlying attitude of patience. To the creative person who is stuck, who is frustrated, who feels no inspiration, but who keeps writing anyway, know this: you will find a great idea. You will identify the favored treat. The cat will come to you.
How patient can I be with myself today?
With all of these things, patience is the real game that one must play. The only one against whom I am competing is myself (and no competitor is more fearsome for an artist than himself), and patience quiets this inner competitor. It gives assurance not that a project will be completed by tomorrow, or that a certain skill will be mastered by next week, or that a trial will be over by the end of the month, but it does provide hope through a reminder that these things will be completed…sometime. They will be completed eventually. They will, indeed, be completed.
And when we complete something, we often forget about the effort that it took to complete it. A former student of mine who was a United States Marine said, “After the training is over, it just seems like it was a bad dream.” It did not “scar” him, and he did not appear to agonize over it. It was simply over, and he now possessed the skills that it was intended to teach him. A mountain climber may not remember the pain or endurance required after he reaches the top and beholds the glorious, cloudless sunrise. A child does not remember tripping and falling on his face while learning to walk. He simply knows that he can walk now.
In many things, patience is a key ingredient, and mastery of it is often one of the greatest determinants in success. As students, may we always ask ourselves, “Will I remember this struggle five years from now?” As teachers, may we always strive to remind our students of this simple, critical skill. May we provide ample opportunities for our them to practice it, and may we especially model it for them through our own patience with them. May we remind them that, whatever their current struggles with learning may be, they will not remember most of them five years from now. Let us remind them that struggles are often brief, but that the skills gained from them last a lifetime.
How patient can I be with myself today?