Challenge, Rewards and Competency

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The importance of challenge has been a recurrent theme in my reflections over the years both on what makes us happy, and what makes us better at what we do. A recent conversation with a friend brought into focus for me an interesting dimension to this: that it is not so much the objective level of achievement that determines our sense of an activity being rewarding, but the extent to which we feel we are growing through it.

Maybe this is obvious, but I found it worth stopping to think about for a moment.

The conversation was about that decision that we all periodically have to make to discontinue a commitment. My friend had found herself taking on more and more activities - as interesting people are prone to do - to a level that had been sustainable when she was in a job she was familiar with, but was just too much when she took on a new role. What was interesting was that the ensemble she chose to resign from was the one that (a) she had been performing with for the longest time and (b) operates at the highest level of all her current activities.

It had not been an easy decision of course - when you've invested a lot of time and commitment into something, the instinct is to validate that investment by continuing it. And for a long time, performing in a group with advanced skills had been giving her great personal satisfaction.

But it turns out that these rewards pale in comparison to those of personal growth. The ensemble she left is well-established, and she was a well-established member of it, but her experience within it had shifted over to a sense of maintenance rather than development. The level is high, but the rate of change is no longer as fast as it once was; moreover, she has already developed the skills she needed to contribute. Whilst pleasure and meaning were still available, the key element of challenge had faded for her.

The groups she chose to continue with, in contrast, would to an outsider look somewhat less accomplished. But both are developing quite rapidly at the moment, and both are requiring my friend to adapt and acquire new skills in process. And this process of aspiring to excellence is proving far more exciting than simply maintaining a high level already achieved.

There are several elements I find interesting here. First, there is the double layer of the individual's growth, and that of the ensemble. The two are related of course - the ensemble as a whole is never going to develop unless its members extend themselves. But it is possible for individuals to have an exciting journey of skill-acquisition when they first join an ensemble without the group as a whole necessarily having the same sense of movement.

I think I have just described what happens when an ensemble has an established core of members that remain year after year, while succeeding influxes of new members join and drift away a couple of years later. The new members have an exciting time catching up to the group as a whole, but once they're up to speed, the absence - or at least diminished level - of challenge dilutes their engagement until they no longer feel particularly lit up. Therefore, if your choir is good at recruiting, but never seems to grow in overall membership, it may be time to up the ante for your long-standing members.

But I think the link between individual and group development is stronger than the point simply that if the group as a whole stays still, the individuals won't be challenged. There is also a sense of what kind of contribution the individual can make. Working on your own skills isn't just about personal reward that increasing competency offers, it's also about feeling that you are thereby facilitating others. It is a wonderful thing to have that feeling of ruling the universe you get by mastering a skill; it is even better to help other people have that feeling too. Making a contribution adds meaning to challenge.

It is also probably fairly obvious that, whilst I had explored these ideas through the life of my friend, the patterns of experience I am describing are also those of my own life. I could use anecdotes from my own experience - not least my decision to leave what was in many ways a real plum of a job in higher education - to illustrate these ideas. But somehow it takes somebody's else's dilemmas and decisions to put your own into perspective. Self-awareness dawns best through thinking about people other than ourselves.

Nice post Liz. I particularly responded to your point about new members joining established groups.

Yes, you're right that once new members are "up to speed the absence ... of challenge dilutes their engagement". So yes, it's important to keep upping the ante for long-standing members.

However, new(er) members can also leave because - despite the friendly, welcoming nature of the longer standing members - they never get to the point where they feel really part of the group. This is partly to do with the fact that they weren't present when the group was establishing its identity.

It is also easy to mistake 'development' with WHAT you do and not with HOW you do something. For example, your ensemble may have reached a very high standard of performance and tackles complex repertoire. One form of development would be to try to improve the level of performance and/ or increase the difficultly of the repertoire.

But it's possible for individuals (as a group) to 'develop' by choosing to focus on particular areas (such as relaxation, contact with audience, articulation, posture, accuracy of pitching, etc. - and this can be different for each individual). It may be that the outside perception of the performance level is exactly the same, i.e. the ensemble haven't 'developed' at all, but for each individual, they have made progress in some way. Hope that makes sense!

From the Front of the Choir

It does make sense, Chris, yes. I sometimes think of that process of individual skill levels improving within a stable overall group level as a kind of 'latent heat of vaporisation' thing. When you boil water, there is that stage where you keep adding heat, but it doesn't boil because you need an extra amount of energy for it to change state. Likewise, for the group as a whole to move up a level takes a lot of skill development to get everyone up to a state of readiness.

I'm not sure I've explained that metaphor at all well. It makes sense in my head...

I think your point about sense of belonging/ownership of the group is also an important one, and it's interesting how some groups have no trouble with this, and others it's an ongoing issue. One to ponder.

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