Feel Lost? Start Where You Are.
At the college where I work, I have an office furnished with a couch. Next to the couch is an end table that houses my coffee maker and my most useful accessory: a tissue box. You see, the tissue box comes in handy because on a near-daily basis, I have a student that needs to go to my office and cry. Sometimes, they want to talk. Other times, they just need a safe space to cry while I catch up on emails. When they do want to talk, their stress usually lies in the fact that they just do not know what they want to do with their lives, or are unsure that the path they have chosen is the right one. While every person has unique challenges and circumstances to deal with, there is one universal phrase I hear time and time again, "I feel lost." Let's revisit that a bit later.
"I am only feeling lost because I have a destination"
I moved to Cincinnati in 2012 to pursue graduate studies at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. It was the first time I moved out of my parent's house, let alone the state. At the time, my mother was probably sadder than I was about it. It took me a few weeks to feel the sadness and anxiety that came with moving to the other end of the country all alone in a school filled with incredibly talented and intelligent people. On a long drive back from a Costco trip (the nearest Costco was nearly 40 minutes north of Cincinnati), I encountered horrible traffic. I decided to take some side streets. I had driven in the city for a few weeks, and I have always had a strong sense of direction. One turn led to another, and all of a sudden, I started to panic. I said to myself, "I feel lost." I was in a part of town that I definitely did not recognize, it was now dark, and I was genuinely unsure of where to go. My cell phone battery was dead, and I didn't have a car charger. I didn't have a map—who has those in their car nowadays? I was lost and did not have any resources available to help navigate. At the time, I figured the best solution was to keep driving until I saw a directional sign or some sort of indication of where "Downtown" was. There was no such signage. Eventually, I saw a well-lit park filled with people. I figured it would be safe to park my car, get out, and ask a stranger how to get to downtown. As I exited my vehicle to find the most approachable stranger in the crowd, I started to notice the beautiful fountain, the kids running in the grass, the older couple walking hand-in-hand, and the sound of the breeze dancing between the tree leaves. It was a beautiful evening—as beautiful as it can get in August in the Midwest. My worries about being lost came to a sudden pause. I was present and enjoying the surroundings. At that moment, I had my epiphany: I am only feeling lost because I have a destination. What I didn't realize is that being lost is just a lens through which we view our place in the world. The only element that differentiates exploration from being lost is a destination. Instead of being lost, what if I was instead just exploring a new part of Cincinnati? I got back in my car without asking anyone for direction, and I just kept driving. I was in no rush. I was looking around me rather than for signs. I eventually came across a hilltop looking down at the lights of downtown. It was beautiful. While I had been unsure about my move to Cincinnati, it was the first time I felt a deep appreciation for my new home of two years. Being lost is not a reality. Unless, of course, you want it to be.
I'll never forget taking a math class in college where I had a "lightbulb" moment. I learned that there is a near-infinite number of ways to get from point A to point B within a defined space. Remove the boundaries and there is truly an infinite number of ways to get from point A to point B. What a useful metaphor this serves for us in our lives. When students tell me that they feel lost, I almost always follow up by asking, "how so?" In my six years working with students, the conversation usually concludes with the student realizing that they are either 1) not lost because they actually never took the first step (fear of starting); or 2) they are holding themselves to a destination/outcome/goal that is neither specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, nor timely. In the first scenario, fear of beginning is different than feeling lost. Fear of taking the first step almost always traces back to fear of failure. This is especially prominent for those pursuing creative careers. Fear of failure or, as psychologists call it, "fear of negative evaluation," manifests itself at an alarming rate particularly for aspiring musicians (Osborne, 2002; Papagregori, 2013). There's even a term for it: Music Performance Anxiety (MPA). Here's the most profound finding by researchers: undergraduate music students who do not try and fail occasionally do not experience relief from Music Performance Anxiety. In fact, it gets worse. These students also tend to suffer from higher rates of depression, anxiety, social withdrawal, and substance abuse. The students who do take that first step, and fail, and take another step—over and over again—not only experience significant relief from Music Performance Anxiety symptoms, but they also experience improvement in overall quality of life, mental wellbeing, and social connection (Sarbescu & DOrgo, 2014; Thomas & Nettelbeck, 2014; Robson & Kenny, 2017; Steyn, Steyn, & Maree, 2016; Spahn & Nusseck, 2016; Wells & Heathers, 2012; Biasutti & Concina, 2014; Orejudo & Zarza-Alzugaray, 2017; Sadler & Miller, 2010). Afraid of taking that first step? Start where you are, and embrace the journey. You are not lost, and it will get better. Ample research and my personal experience in watching student after student succeed prove that to be true. In the second scenario, what I've found is that students set goals (destinations) that are nearly unattainable. Depending on how "zen" we want to get in this blog, I will say that it may be healthy to live a life free of the constraints of goals. However, in the world of academics and especially the music world, goal-setting can be essential. The problem is that students are not taught how to set goals. Also, it's been my observation that people conflate vision—a goal that is so far-reaching and long-term that it is nearly unattainable—with goals. For example, if an 18-year-old college student has the goal to be a famous opera singer at The Met, first, good luck with that (I'm only partially kidding) and second, that is not a goal, that is a vision (AKA dream). There are a series of scaffolded goals that are implied within that vision. I usually then help students understand what goals actually are and how to set them. This is not original knowledge I'm sharing here, and this is not a blog intended to cover every detail of "SMART" goals. However, SMART goals contain the following elements. S - specific, significant, stretching M - measurable, meaningful, motivational A - agreed upon, attainable, achievable, acceptable, action-oriented R - realistic, relevant, reasonable, rewarding, results-oriented T - time-based, time-bound, timely, tangible, trackable Very often, we see things more clearly when we take a step back and view from a distance. Take some time to reflect. Are you setting "SMART" goals, or are you holding yourself to a vision/dream that (while useful and certainly informs your goals) causes you to constantly evaluate yourself as "behind" or "lost"? Do not allow yourself to be tied to the outcome, vision, or destination. Instead, enjoy the journey--the successes, the failures, and everything in between. Hold yourself accountable to the smaller and more attainable goals that will help you lead to where you want to be. Setbacks are not an exception; they are a reality. Budget time for them. Scale back to scale up. You are not lost, and it will get better. Feeling lost? Start where you are, and embrace the journey. Onward.
What are your thoughts? What works for you when you feel "lost"? What helps you get back on track?