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Quit Doing What Works

Posted by on November 10, 2011

Backstory: I’ve lived in Chicago for six years. In that time, I’ve run dance practice sessions, DJed local swing events, DJed the swing exchange, been hired to teach at a dance studio, run my own classes, brought in outside instructors to teach my students, run a successful monthly Blues event, created an inexpensive annual Blues event, found a terrific practice partner, won competitions and taken on a number of private students.

What I want
All of these things have been terrific parts of the learning process for me, and I don’t doubt that I’ve had a strong hand in helping create a thriving blues scene here, but there’s one thing I want here in my home town, and that’s purely amazing dancing. I want to go out on a Friday night and not be able to get through the list of people I actively want to dance with. I want dancers from other cities to react to Chicago dancers the way they used to react to San Francisco swing dancers. All you had to say is, “I’m from San Francisco” and people lined up take you for a “test drive.” (And yes, someone actually said to me once, “Oooh! You’re from San Francisco? Let me take you for a test drive!”)

So I’m leaving for a while.

Because whatever I’m doing isn’t working. It’s not not working… it’s just not there yet. It might be me. Perhaps the people who are here will find something that works and when I return, I can join in on that.

What I’m Changing
In the meantime, I’m going to other cities to study how they work. Perhaps there’s a way of building up the local dancers that I haven’t tried yet. Whatever it is that people are doing in other cities, I’m open to what they’re doing.

Inspiration from Paul Erdos
Writing that just now reminds me of the mathematician Paul Erdos, who when greeting someone new (perhaps a new mathematical collaborator) he would proclaim, “My brain is open!”

Erdos is the most prolific mathematician in history… he published more papers than anyone else and he collaborated with more people than any other mathematician. He was eccentric to be sure, cared little about worldly possessions, and in his later years took amphetamines so he could continue to produce as much works as possible. His unapologetic approach to learning from others was his true mark of brilliance and elevated him to excellence.

My New Approach
I want to be excellent… I don’t want to just survive; I want to thrive. It’s easy enough for me to do what I’m doing now, and essentially it works, and I think that’s what’s holding me back. Just getting by isn’t cutting it for me. I’m developing a little process to help me stay out of the rut and to keep on the cutting edge.

  1. Take inventory of where you are.
  2. Compare that with where you want to be.
  3. Analyze what you are doing to improve. Create two lists: things which are easy, things which are heard.
  4. Add to these lists things you are not doing but feel you should be doing to improve. Decide if they’re easy or hard.
  5. Developing a skill means keeping good habits, so make a final list and only allow two easy things from that list. Add three hard things to your list. These are the top five things you should be doing to improve.

When I look at what’s easy and what’s hard, I find that making time with a practice partner, teaching with new partners and collaborating with other dancers is what challenges me the most. But in the process of doing so, I often solidify my own understanding of the dance or discover new things. This is why traveling is important for me right now… collaborating with others seems like the best way to grow.

I’ll close with thoughts from another great thinker in the field of science, James Watson:

“Never be the brightest person on the room; then you can’t learn anything.”

2 Responses to Quit Doing What Works

  1. A.B. Dada

    This is a good idea, but so many people have anchors that prevent them from being able to do this.

    Anchors like home “ownership” or a regular 9-5 W-2 job, or whatever keeps them stuck, even sunk, in one city, one address.

    Feel blessed that you’re self-employed and didn’t make the decision to buy your flat. Anchors or opportunities — that’s the choice we have to make.

  2. Ruby

    It’s true… we all have anchors of all sorts. But one can “stop doing what works” in smaller ways without totally up-ending your life. Maybe kissing ass on the job is leaving you promotion-less and in the back corner of the cube farm. Maybe kicking a little more ass, or taking some risks would get you noticed… shaking it up a bit is what I’m all about.

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