Process vs. Outcomes in Music
by Dave Belcher
As we prepare for the end of one year and the start of another, it’s common to start thinking about what (musical and other) goals you’d like to achieve in the new year. In fact, there is a whole industry around “New Year’s Resolutions.” (You can buy New Year’s Resolution journals and calendars; books to help you find inspiration for what resolutions you should set this year; and blogs with numbered lists of the best resolutions to set this year—alarmingly similar to the lists from the previous year.)
But, what I find fascinating is that it’s almost expected that most people will fail to achieve their new year’s resolutions. Instead most give up within a few days, weeks, or months at most. When it comes to outcomes, we are really good at imagining them, but not so good at actually achieving them.
So I’d like to offer a different perspective on goals, new year’s resolutions, and achieving outcomes this year. What if the best way to achieve your goals is to forget about them? This is exactly what author James Clear recommends. “Forget about goals, focus on systems instead,” he says. Now that doesn’t mean Clear thinks you shouldn’t have goals. To the contrary, goals are necessary to give you direction. But he does think that fixating on them can obscure the work that is necessary to achieve them. He pleads us instead to “focus on systems.” As Clear says, “Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results” (James Clear, Atomic Habits, 23).
Focusing too much on the outcome can obscure the here-and-now process. As Philip Toshio Sudo puts it in his fantastic book Zen Guitar, “To be obsessed with the destination is to remove the focus from where you are” (18). We’ll look at process below, but let’s turn to outcomes first.
We live in a world fixated on outcomes. Think about the world of sports, where the only real objective is to win. As Dale Earnhardt used to say, “Second place is just the first loser.” Or how about our work? Work is considered successful when we receive a bonus or a pay raise. And all you have to do is visit YouTube to find 1,000 videos on how to “instantly” become better at ____. (Most of these videos avoid the thousands of hours and hard work and even failure it takes to get to that destination first.)
The world of music is really no different. Fairly early in the learning process students enter competitions to prove their mastery versus other students. If you can achieve the goal of winning a competition, it puts a feather in your cap so you can make a career for yourself. Likewise, university and graduate schools for music have grueling auditions that weed out those who won’t or perhaps can’t succeed.
So it’s only natural that our approach to music sometimes focuses more on outcomes in a similar way. We focus on performing a piece of music flawlessly. We play music that is at present too difficult for us because we’ve always wanted to play that piece.
Why outcomes are difficult
But there are two uncomfortable truths about outcomes: they are fleeting and they’re out of our control.
Outcomes are fleeting
First, we should take a moment to reflect on the other side of reaching your desired goal. What happens once you run a marathon? Well, if you were just checking “run a marathon” off your bucket list, then you may flounder in search of what’s next. In fact, you may give up on running after so much energy went into getting to that goal.
Likewise with music, if your only goal is to play Recuerdos de la Alhambra, you might feel a bit hollow and unsatisfied after you achieve that goal. If you’ve just put all of your energy into reaching that outcome, starting on a new goal may feel like too much work. And it’s easy to give up at that point, especially if you learned to play Recuerdos but weren’t happy with how it sounded. In other words, the grass always looks greener on the other side. But if you ignore the process that goes into reaching the outcome, you may find the grass is rather bland and brown.
Outcomes are out of our control
Secondly, outcomes are out of our control. Our society and culture have shaped us to believe that if we simply try hard enough, we can and will reach our desired outcomes. “Anyone can become president of the United States if they try hard enough” is something I and many other children heard growing up. The truth of course is you need more than just elbow grease and great intentions. It helps if you have loads of money and relevant political experience (sometimes just a lot of money). And it doesn’t really make sense to say that all it really takes to, say, become President of the United States is to set realistic (“S.M.A.R.T.”) goals.
Outcomes, even when they are less lofty (like wanting to play Recuerdos de la Alhambra when we are in Grade 2), are never completely in our control. How long they might take, what detours you’ll need to take along the way to get there, or how many times you might fail and have to start over before getting there — all of that is out of your control.
And so the end result is that, ironically, if you only focus on the outcomes, you can sometimes feel like you’re stuck spinning your wheels and making no progress. The more you fixate on the outcome, the more interminable the journey feels. But what if we forget about the outcomes and embrace the journey? What if we instead focus all of our efforts on the process?
Embracing the Process
First, what exactly is the process?
It’s pretty simple, actually. It’s the day-in, day-out grind of building habits, correcting problems, and creating solutions. It’s the manual labor of getting our hands in shape so they can perform at their best when we ask them to. The process is practice.
And let’s be honest, practice can be kind of boring. It can be a grind. Practice takes persistence, discipline, and other un-fun words just to make that “1% improvement” each day that Clear talks about in Atomic Habits. This is what Simon has sometimes referred to as the “eat your vegetables” approach to musical progress.
And hearing words like grind, boring, discipline, and vegetables may make us want to reach for the Little Debbie’s Snacks of classical guitar: flashy, fun pieces we have always wanted to play, even if they are too difficult for us. And why not? Making music should be a joyful and passionate pursuit.
Is the grass really greener?
However, as we have seen, just like a sugar high leaves you with a tummy ache and a bit of regret, sometimes achieving our desired outcomes—even if for the purpose of joy—can leave us feeling unfulfilled and, well, joyless. In fact, it can even leave us frustrated, feeling like we could have done better if we were just a bit more patient. We see this from time to time with members at the Academy who plunge from one Grade Exam to another. It sure seems like the grass is greener on the other side of that next grade. But once you arrive it can become clear it’s more difficult than you imagined.
And this is where learning to find joy in the process becomes so important. If your joy is in the daily work of infinitesimal progress, then you build up resilience over time. You learn not to fear the failure of reaching your outcomes.
Back to our marathon runner example from above. If all you’re doing is ticking off “run a marathon” from your bucket list, then achieving your outcome may see you giving up on running altogether. But if you are a marathon runner, you just start preparing for the next one, because that’s what you do. In other words, the process, no matter how grueling, doesn’t diminish once you reach the outcome. The process is just the process.
But this is also what makes the process so difficult! The real challenge with a focus on process is recognizing and accepting that your practice, your process, may not produce your desired outcome. But this is the whole point. A focus on process actually asks us to let go of the outcomes. In fact, it asks us to embrace the possibility (the inevitability) of failure.
And this is crucial. Failure is an essential component of art. Failure is not something we learn to overcome in art; it is an inherent part of creating anything. We experiment, we fail, we learn, and we experiment again. Art is not about efficiency. It’s messy and can lead us on any number of meandering paths that often go somewhere other than our desired outcomes. And this is okay! Learn to embrace failure, even the joy of failing, and you will also find yourself embracing your art.
Discovering Joy in the Process
So if practice is work, a grind, discipline — in short, eating your vegetables — how can it also be a joyful process? First of all, it’s important to shift your perspective from achieving certain musical outcomes, like learning Recuerdos, to being a musician. At CGC Academy we refer to all of our members as “musicians” — and we mean that. Anyone who has taken on the commitment to learn the craft of a musical instrument is a musician. You don’t need to make money off of concerts or teaching. To make a sound and desire to keep making that sound makes you a musician. (Those familiar with Sudo’s Zen Guitar referenced above will notice I’m riffing on him here.) So relish in that sound. Make it your meditation, a joyful reflection. Make your work one of discovery and, yes, joy.
Secondly, recognize that your path is your own. The process you develop will not be someone else’s — it is yours to shape and craft to fit your own passion. So make your practice something that you want to do, that you must do. Create space for improvisation. Construct exercises that help you develop but that also make you want to play them. This kind of mindset will transform your practice from what you do to avoid enjoyment to something that actually gives you joy.
Focusing our attention less on outcomes and more on process teaches us better to handle the obstacles life may throw our way. Music, art is a lifelong journey. And so it’s important to be in it for the long haul, and not give up when you hit one or even twelve thousand speed bumps. Embracing the process opens us up to growth and not just achievement.
And as you head into 2024, it’s okay to set goals. They can still be quite important for giving yourself some aim and direction with your day-to-day processes. However, it’s important not to fixate on them. Instead, fall in love with the process. Or, as Dori tells Marlin in Finding Nemo: “Just keep swimming.”
If you’re ready to get started digging into the process of classical guitar, and finding joy in that process, you should check out Classical Guitar Corner Academy, our online school for classical guitar. You can find out what our members have been saying about the Academy here. And if you’re ready to get started, Join CGC Academy today!