When I was a sophomore in college, I was captivated by Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 30 in E Major, op. 109. I had taken piano lessons for years, but this piece was far beyond my skill level. Despite that inaccessibility, I slowly, painstakingly worked on it, spending at least six months learning just the first movement.
Incredibly, I became proficient at it, and the satisfaction I felt at having achieved something so improbable was powerful. It gave me confidence to learn other, equally complex pieces. It expanded my musical world. It filled me with simcha.
It seems to be that youthful chutzpah and ignorance were what allowed me to tackle a piece that was far beyond my capabilities. Working on that piece came with zero expectations, zero consequences if I did not get anywhere with it. I was doing it for pleasure, because I loved it and working on a piece of music for hours at a time is a meditative and cathartic process for me.
I am past the age of youthful chutzpah, though, and now with more life experience, the embarrassments and disappointments and rejections which have fed my self-doubt, undermining my successes and achievements, I have a much different relationship with the hard work that leads to simcha.
I’ve always enjoyed both of my creative outlets, music and writing. Because of this enjoyment and that I’ve been able to accomplish enough without having to really apply myself, I developed a bad habit of not wanting to work very hard. Of hitting the wall of frustration and saying “uncle.”
In college it was very pronounced. I would relish the thrill of being able to develop new skills, to bounce around from classical to jazz to composition to accompanying to piano to clarinet, but not settle down for long enough to focus on one discipline to develop it to the level I could have.
Why should I when it was so fun to try and have a certain amount of instant success at something new? But that only fed my tendency to not buckle down and do the hard work that leads to mastery.
It’s a focus I still struggle with. I still give up earlier than I should, and it is an avodah to keep working on the parts of playing that I find frustrating because they are not easy for me. Progress can be so minute and imperceptible that I quickly lose motivation and the inner critic comes out with all the classic words of discouragement.
Lately in my clarinet work, I have been focusing on making sure that my tongue stays high while articulating, and making sure that I’m only using the tip of my tongue to touch the tip of the reed. Does that sound like enjoyable to anyone? No, no it does not. But it’s necessary to work on so that I can bring music to life.
Still, while I understand the benefit to this decidedly unglamourous work, I find myself glancing at my phone, remembering that email I need to send, checking Facebook, doing anything other than focusing on the task at hand.
I have a similar reaction with writing. Writing when the inspiration strikes is one thing. Back when I was only writing on my little personal blog, I had so much fun. I spent so much time crafting cute captions for my pictures, writing about wacky things, whatever I felt like. Because who cared? I was doing it because it was fun.
But now that I’m a Serious Writer and am writing regularly on a deadline, writing is an entirely different experience. It is an avodah. The deadline does not care if I feel inspired or if I have anything particularly meaningful to say.
Writing this article was work. It did not smoothly flow out of me, but took many false starts and deleted pages. The beginning was entirely different, but I changed it. Until I uncovered the form and heart of the piece, I second-guessed myself. I thought about how various articles that have been submitted for guest posts are so much better than the thing I was trying to write. Then I thought about how I’m tired of hearing myself talk, tired of mining the anecdotes of my life for the wisdom that nestles within them.
If it’s so hard, why do I still keep at it? The reality is that developing a skill, any skill is rarely fun or easy. Even if it’s something that can be enjoyable, there will come a point where natural talent or ability will just not be enough. Where it may seem easier to give up.
Even though giving up and moving on to something fresh and seemingly uncomplicated may appear the easier choice, ultimately, it’s harder. We lose out when we don’t push past the difficulties and the frustrations and the negative self-talk. We fail to reach the depths of our abilities, we remain at a superficial level. It’s not just in the creative areas of life, it’s in every area. It’s in every relationship we have, with ourselves, with others, with G-d.
Sometimes we have to take a break, to give ourselves the room to breathe, but when we keep ultimately keep pushing past the things we tell ourselves we can’t do, the things that are not particularly enjoyable but that we know, deep down, will be good for us (exercise, I’m thinking of you), we can find ourselves filled with the unique simcha that comes from doing something that is hard.
Knowing where this piece started and seeing the transformation as it became something coherent (enough) that I felt comfortable releasing into the world is tremendously satisfying. That brings me simcha.
Knowing that after I finish this piece, I will go on to practice some detail of my clarinet playing that will enable me to bring the music of Mozart alive in less than two weeks is also a simcha.
And yet, those feelings of simcha pale in comparison to the simcha of working on a difficult character trait, on marriage, on complicated interpersonal relationships. That work is also often hard and requires a level of introspection which can be, to put it mildly, unpleasant. But the feeling of simcha it can bring when a success is achieved is fabulous.
May we all enjoy that simcha that comes from something difficult.