For its Own Sake

I once thought I had diverse interests because I was keeping doors open, then one day I realized that that analogy was holding me back in a big way. You see, the principle behind keeping doors open is that as a multi-talented and multi-interested person you don’t want to realize down the line, that because of an earlier decision to let a door close, you now have less options. Well the thing is, there aren’t doors when it comes to interests. Maybe pertaining to career choices there are doors, but regarding yourself, about who you are, what you love to do and create, how you feel and what you think, there are simply no doors.

Why do I play piano alone and only for myself in my room at night? What careers doors am I keeping open by that? None, eh? So why do I still do it?

One could say it is for fun, but I’d argue there is something more interesting happening than just doing it for kicks. At very least I’d like to think about what is ‘fun’ as a much deeper experience than the word ‘fun’ normally affords.

A good metaphor is that of Languages. To pick up a language takes a lot of effort and it also takes work to retain, but it pays off in an enormous way: A whole world is opened up when one learns a new language, and it is something that entirely cannot be translated. It can be explained, discussed, but the Essence (which is closely related to culture in the case of languages) is only available to those who speak its native tongue. Everyone else is a tourist.

It becomes apparent how limited words are at communicating the essence of things.

The metaphor can also be applied to music. Just as characters have no meaning until they become words, and words are hardly communication until they become sentences, music too has building blocks. Music can be broken down and given logic, it can be translated it to notes, given key changes, harmonies, grouped in genres, but without instruments it is not music. That being said, we’ve refined the symbols and discussed the theories behind music that emerge so extensively, that much innovation has to be recognized as the direct result. This in turn can be translated back to music, resulting in a degree of beautiful complexity otherwise unattainable. Music can of course be beautiful to a non-musician, but like a tourist can love Peru and know nothing about it, without understanding, certain depths cannot be seen. Of course one can make the argument that this is similar to how the stars lost their beauty when we accepted that they are not in fact magic, however an astronomer would argue that the beauty is exactly in the details that we do know. I would argue the same.

The more one understands, the more there is to appreciate.

So maybe those winos aren’t full of it when they talk about the flavours they smell in wine. I wouldn’t know, I haven’t had my nose in a glass every day for the past 30 years. Or course this analogy applies across the board: To art critiquing, sports analysis, love advice, scientific debate, talking about to TV shows, or talking about religion.

So back to the question: Why play piano in my spare time?

Dan Pink gives a great lecture in which he offers the idea that Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose are the three factors that drive Motivation. I think that nails it. I play piano because no one is forcing me to, because I get to watch myself improve, and because it enables me to be a part of a conversation that, from many social encounters it seems I have strong opinions about. But like languages, it is easy to be mediocre but much harder to be fluent or even exceptional, and it is precisely the depth of one’s understanding that determines their ability to contribute to the conversation. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi offers the beautiful idea of Flow, which he explains is when someone is so fluent at a skill that it demands no amount of concentration to perform, instead the artist is entirely engaged in the artistic aspect of the creative process, and in doing so enters an almost automatic state, nearly a creative hypnosis, or ‘Flow‘ as he titles it. I dabble, I don’t flow, not at most things, but what the level of understanding I have at least enables me to recognize just how unbelievable those who flow are (and be able to separate them from those who clearly lack fluency).

I think there is something deep happening here, and it looks like a lot of individual projects but it is clearly not. To each and every contribution that people of genuine character invest themselves into making, there seems to be a feeling or idea, a philosophy or a belief, an essence that begs to be materialized whatever form it takes. We struggle to convey these things to share them with others, using colour, sound, words, by creating characters to empathize with, we access attack all senses, using touch or taste, we use math to appeal to logic, we pull on your heartstrings and we play on insecurities for the sake of the message.

But there is an elephant, for all the forms are limited by one crucial obstacle: Translation. By this I mean the subjectivity with which each person comes. I don’t think it adds value, this subjectivity, this post-modern cliche about it being up to the consumer to define what the meaning is. I maintain that the piece at its core has the essence that it was infused, and if you think it’s a hat it’s not, it’s a boa constrictor who swallowed an elephant (Little Prince reference). Where the subjectivity comes in, and what makes it beautiful, is only when that person then reflects that piece out on the world by sharing his/her ideas or by using it as inspiration for further creativity.

It is a severe limitation to think of interests as doors, or in other words to evaluate personal growth in line with the potential career value. It is inhibitive to build ourselves like we build our resumes. The fundamental difference is that ultimately our resumes are more about appearances than anything else, whereas what one creates is (when authentic) an essence reflected through your Self and not through the lens of how you wish to be seen. If only there were more time, you might say… There is only the rest of your life.