The Thursday Thesis 5/4/2018
My friend Simon mentioned them in passing, and his words caught my ear.
“...and that’s The Spirit Bead” he said
“Oooh!” I responded – “I love that...The Spirit Bead...yes, very good. Beautiful.”
Leaping from the Middle East to the Prairies of North America with a single bound, Simon linked the parallel practices of Moslem rugmakers in Persia to the Nations of the Dakota Sioux, Blackfoot, and many more tribes of North America.
We had been talking about perfectionism’s long shadow, during an interview for my upcoming podcast, and Simon explained to me how traditional Persian rug-makers always include a tiny flaw in every rug: these deliberate errors are called “Persian Flaws”.
Their belief is that only Allah can create perfection, and that to create a flawless rug or carpet is an offence against Him.
Native American jewellery makers also included deliberate errors in their works, in honour of the Spirit World, and as an acceptance that man is imperfect.
You can still see the practice today, in the Heishii beadwork made by the Navajo and Kewa Pueblo people.
In both Moslem and Native American traditions, everything is made with an error included in it.
Since only Allah and the Great Spirit can create perfection, the deliberate inclusion of an error reminds us that everyone is imperfect and flawed in some way.
Call it a Spirit Bead or a Persian Flaw, the eye is drawn to the flaw.
Whilst the great majority of the rug, or necklace is perfect - but there’s just that one little thing that bugs us and fascinates us...
What’s your Persian Flaw, your Spirit Bead?
Who cares what we call it – it’s our Spirit Bead that we are best known for, isn’t it?
We most often remember the flawed and imperfect people because they are unusual, unexpected and strange enough to capture attention.
As a guitarist, I am drawn to the imperfections present in older recordings – before digital editing made it possible to edit such things out. That’s where the “soul” is in music. In the tiny hesitations and rushes that move the player outside of perfect timing there is the musical magic of what we call “swing”.
I truly believe that the dullness of playing dead on the beat is the origin of the modern slang “deadbeat”.
Spare me the pristine perfection of some modern music, please.
I remember when the Pure Trance music producer, Rich Mowatt - aka Solarstone - asked me to include additional pick and string noise in a guitar overdub/solo.
There’s a man who “gets it”!
My ears listen for the sonic Spirit Beads...
And, as I said, we seek out the Spirit Bead in the people we meet.
I’m not perfect, not by a long road, and I count my blessings that I am not. Perfect would be so dull!
Perfect means that there’ no room to improve, no cracks to fix and no leaks to plug.
Perfect means that we are irredeemably “done”.
Nothing left to learn or do: I’m done.
Can you imagine how depressing that would be?
How dull it would be to know everything, to be perfect at everything?
Where’s the growth?
Where’s the failure to rise up again from?
Where’s the falling-down and the bloody knee?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years it’s this: enjoy being yourself and enjoy your imperfections, because if you were to subtract your imperfections there’d be sod-all left except for the amorphous grey eternity of perfection.
I’m thoroughly imperfect, and – damn it all – I’m proud of it.
So, to give The Finger to a world which worships perfection, I’d like to propose a toast to imperfection. Here’s to being gloriously glitch, fabulously flawed and delightfully defective; here’s to our Spirit Beads, our Persian Flaws, because they are all that stand between us and the eternal sterility of perfection.
Now go and be Gloriously Imperfect: go and show off your Spirit Bead.
© Neil Cowmeadow 2018
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The Thursday Thesis - 14/12/2017
I can almost hear you yawn when I say the word “system”, which is odd because systems are your mind’s natural way to streamline everyday life, taking repetitive events and movements from being reactions to random events through to effortless unconscious processing of known sequences.
The most common example of this process for most people is learning to drive.
First time behind the wheel and there’s a terrifying amount to take in: your instructor, the pedals, seat adjustment, mirrors, lights, gearshift, handbrake, ignition... and that’s before you even begin to move and encounter the world outside of the car!
So, at first you are incredibly lumpy – you grind the gears, stall, lurch and bumble around at low speed; all of the time on the edge of your seat and desperate not to hit anything.
In the early sessions your brain is dealing with every operation on a conscious level because everything is new and there’s no system to handle that amount of data.
But, over time, your performance of the same actions in precisely the same way causes something wonderful to happen: your brain changes to improve your performance.
Yes, your big ol’ brain is always changing – it actually re-shapes itself to optimise the way it processes data – we call it neuroplasticity.
Ian Robertson, a neuroscientist, describes the brain as a “trembling web” in his book Mind Sculpture (link below), and it’s this mutability that is the reason people can often recover from injury or damage to the brain.
So, the more you do something, the more your brain assigns and connects nerve cells to perform the activity better: what you do, regularly, sculpts your brain into an elegant and efficient system which is custom-made just for you, by you.
Here’s how it works:
When something is new to us, we process the data in our working memory – the short term electrical part of our three-stage memory system. Storage here lasts only a few seconds, unless there is an unusually strong associated emotional component, as in cases of trauma.
With ongoing repetition of the action, our brain passes the increasingly-familiar action across to the chemical part of our memory system, conserving the scarce and precious working memory for more immediate and potentially life-threatening occurrences.
Keep on doing that same thing in the same way, and something truly magical happens: your brain “grooves-in” neural pathways to enable a physical memory track to be formed, allowing rapid recall and performance of the task that was once so clumsy.
If you’ve been driving for a years, you probably don’t even think about it anymore. That’s because the act of driving has been encoded into the physical structure of your brain: in a very real sense, driving has become a part of who you are.
What a system!
As a guitar teacher, this is exactly the approach I take with my students. I know that when a player performs the same technique with precisely the same finger and hand movements, every single time, they will encode the technique more deeply and more quickly than if they use a variety of finger movements.
Without that clarity and focus of consistent repetition, there is no system for the player, so every piece of music is processed de novo, and the player struggles with a shifting and random action.
Consistency forms habits, and habits are your brain’s default operating system.
Change your habits, and you will change your brain: change your brain, and you will change your life.
© Neil Cowmeadow 2017
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Episode 066 - The 10,000 Hour Fallacy: why Malcolm Gladwell is Wrong, and We'd be Foolish to Believe Him
The Thursday Thesis - 21/09/2017
Malcolm Gladwell devoted a chapter of his book “Outliers” to the idea that it takes around 10,000 hours of practice to achieve Mastery in a field.
The book sold well and made Gladwell a ton of money, simultaneously propelling him to the status of credible pundit and positioning the journalist as an expert on learning.
But here’s the thing: the 10,000 hour rule was Gladwell’s invention, and it didn’t reflect the essence of the research that he referred to – a 1993 study at the University of Colorado.
So when Gladwell declared 'Researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: 10,000 hours', the chief of the research team, Anders Ericsson, was royally pissed-off.
“Gladwell cited our research on expert musicians as a stimulus for his provocative generalisation to a magical number", Ericsson said, then wrote a rebuttal paper entitled “The Danger of Delegating Education to Journalists”.
Nice one, Anders.
Gladwell’s snappy 10,000 hour “Rule” didn’t take much notice of the real conclusions of the researchers: significant variation of time taken to acquire skills, a variety of practice methodologies, and the apparent non-existence of anything that could be identified as “natural talent”.
I get it. I’ve been teaching guitar for 18 years, and I don’t believe in talent, either. There are a pile of books out there discussing Talent with a capital T, but I believe in acquiring the necessary skill – and that means learning from someone else, testing the skill by doing it badly at first, then refining it and making it automatic by consistent repetition. This is exactly like tying your shoelaces or learning to drive a car or ride a bicycle.
When was the last time you had to think about tying your laces?
So the 10,000 hour fallacy entered the canon of conventional wisdom, along with a load of other unhelpful “wisdom”. If you want to know more about how nonsense like this infects people you’ll find plenty in the blog archive and in my book 9 Weird Things Guitarists Do.
You see, I have a problem or six with conventional wisdom, and I have a problem with Gladwell’s assertion of certainty in areas where he is not a practitioner.
The 10,000 Hour Rule is a journalist’s opinion, rather than the conclusions of the guys who did the work.
And, tragically, the 10,000 hour fallacy deters people from pursuing their dreams because it sets up a high barrier to entry to a new activity – such as learning to play the guitar or any other musical instrument.
As my friend and former student, Tom Boddison observed in a recent email questioning Gladwell’s opinion, “10,000 hours is a bloody long time!”
And what about Mastery – did you notice that the idea of an observable standard snook in on the coat-tails of the 10,000 Hour Rule?
There’s a presupposition that one must achieve Mastery, isn’t there?
Mastery is neither or relevant when one is pursuing one’s own pleasure and following one’s own path – as one must when engaged in any of the so-called Arts.
I say we murder the myth of 10,000 hours!
I say we murder the illusion of Talent!
I say we murder the mischief of Mastery!
I say, let’s get these monkeys off our backs and do our own research!
Are we foolish enough to just accept the opinion of a journalist when deciding whether to pursue our heart’s desires?
Get yourself a guitar, flute, sax, or whatever – a football or golf club and start hacking. Play some bum notes, miss the net and hack up a few divots - who cares if you suck?
This is supposed to be fun, isn’t it?
Am I making sense, here – am I convincing you?
Get out there and have some fun, make lots of mistakes and enjoy every single minute of it.
Fail gloriously - because only by learning to miss the net can you ever hope to score a winning goal.
© Neil Cowmeadow 2017
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