So, you may have noticed the name of this blog: We Learn in Public. While that phrase could mean many different things, I chose it based on some really specific thinking I’ve been doing over the last year.
I’d returned to school at SI somewhat later in life — ten years into my career. Although I’d completed a previous MA, I had been working full-time throughout that program, and so really had one foot in the student world, and one foot in the world of being a “professional.” The jump back into SI felt different. Partially, I think that was because SI is so much more high-tech than my previous program. Instead of textbooks, I was mostly reading PDFs. And turning in paper version of… papers seemed downright silly. The last time I had been in (grad) school, Facebook was only open to .edu email addresses. Yep. A lot had changed.
Whereas previously I would have printed off every PDF to read, in SI that seemed not only silly but impractical and wasteful. So how would I transition from highlighted and physically marked-up documents with plenty of margin notes to Kindle or Preview marked-up PDFs? I quickly realized that I had to be far more deliberate in thinking about how I read, marked up and absorbed various media. In some ways, I was starting over in figuring out how I learned in a more formal academic environment.
The borderline perfectionism that had served me well in undergrad and my previous grad program now seemed cumbersome, and outmoded attitude, and something that I really needed to shed. I needed to become more comfortable with satisficing, with the idea that I could continue to improve on my own imperfect processes and the imperfect work (and let’s face it, my previous work was never perfect anyway!) that those processes might produce.
I needed to think about ideas of multiple versions and iterations. Although this concept wasn’t totally foreign to me (being a Creative Writing major meant I was comfortable with lots of drafts), it was still a little scary. Drafts of my writing in undergrad had previously been shared with a small, close-knit group — a bounded group. An embarrassing error could be corrected before I went through any sort of formal publishing or submission process and my work was open to a wider audience.
Sometimes, now, I was going to have to share my work-in-progress, my incomplete thoughts and my stumbles in my own learning with an audience whose boundaries I wasn’t sure of (online) or with other teachers and students who weren’t already in some close-circle-of-trust I had already established. I was kind of freaked out about this.
And then, late in the first semseter, I picked up a bass — a new instrument for me — plugged into an amp, and things started clicking into place. I hadn’t made music with other people in a few years, let alone performed in public. I’d forgotten how to embrace being totally, messily imperfect.
I grew up making and loving music. Mostly, I played violin, wrote and sang. As I hit college and the years after, I was drafted into being a singer in a few bands. Although the first few shows of my first-ever band made me feel physically ill, at show number three, something suddenly switched. The second I stepped up to the mic, I had no nervousness at all. What was going through my head was something close to “Ok. This is me. Are you (audience) up here? No. Ok. So, let’s go…” and with that, I was in the moment. It didn’t really matter if someone out there a few feet away was judging me.
The most important thing that I learned in interacting with various bandmates was just not to stop. Did someone break a string? Did I flip a lyric? Did my voice crack for a second? Just. Keep. Going. Chances always were that people in the audience would barely notice any of those things, as long as the band as a unit kept momentum. Each time we played a song or encountered a new hiccup like that, we’d learn better how not to break a sweat.
It’s pretty common for any specific musician to be a lot harder on themselves for an error than anyone else. How many times did a crowd think a show was totally dynamic and fun and great — not even noticing an error that an individual might bet themselves up over? Most of the time. Your bandmates would carry you, the energy from the audience would carry you. Something would carry you past the minor hiccup.
As long as the band keeps going I would learn how to better manage my mistakes. I can claim that space to not be perfect and still be good enough. People aren’t paying to see/experience perfect. They’re interested in a lot of things from their rock and roll shows, and one of them is that ability to claim the space, despite any flaws.
As Kim Gordon famously said,
People pay to see others believing in themselves.
The band doesn’t have to be perfect, I don’t have to be perfect. Sometimes quirk or imperfection is charming. The performance, assignment, argument or discussion can have flaws — I can have flaws, but it all can still have a lot of value. It can have more value by the sheer fact that the performance or discussion or reflection is taking place in public and can help others think through things, learn learns, experience things and share in something larger.
Learning in public can make you feel vulnerable sometimes, but it also opens you up to so many more possibilities than if you just perfected something alone in your sequestered little room and never shared it. Garage bands are appealing to people precisely because what they’re doing seems relatable, seems human and not-too-polished.
So, this is what I quickly realized was important in both learning a new musical instrument, and learning in general — Just. Keep. Going. — through the mess and the noise and the moments where everything seems like it might fall apart, keep moving forward. Keep figuring things out, even when it feels like a minor failure. You can learn from that failure. You might wind up better than you could ever be alone.