On Frustration

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Frustration is the enemy of progress.

If you enjoy irony, you will be pleased to know that immediately after I wrote that first sentence, my laptop froze and stopped responding for five minutes. I had the presence of mind to remain patient, though if I had been writing on pretty much any other subject, I may not have done.

That feeling of being thwarted by the universe is one that periodically visits anyone who tries to get stuff done. It is an unpleasant experience: you feel all snarled up, putting in the effort but failing to get the results you feel those efforts deserve. You feel disempowered and outraged. It’s not just that you feel stuck, you feel that is unreasonable to be stuck.

I started thinking about this in terms of individual work (yes, I had just had one of these moments), but as it grew into something to write about, I also started thinking about the conductor’s frustration with an ensemble that isn’t making the progress they desire. The feeling from the inside is the same, but you actually get a better vision of why it is an unproductive - indeed, counter-productive - state of mind.

If you observe a frustrated conductor, you will also see an unhappy choir. The director speaks in irritated tones and acts with impatience. Whatever it is that the ensemble is not achieving, neither irritation nor impatience is going to impart that skill. It will make them feel bad about themselves, however, which will reduce support and resonance, and encourage a timid approach to rhythm.

This is a useful object lesson for when we get frustrated with activities that don’t directly involve other people. You won’t see your arrangement looking anxious when you’re stuck with the tricky bits, but taking your frustrations out on your work is just as ineffective as it when you’re working with people. It may be easy to blame the materials you’re working with (the stupid singers who just don’t get it, the stupid song with the completely irrational harmonic shape), but that’s not going to solve the problem.

There are two ways out of frustration. The first is anger. Anger can be a very productive emotion - it takes all that pent-up energy, and releases it with a clear sense of direction. It burns through the tangled knot that is holding you back and blasts through to the other side of it.

It does, to be fair, destroy quite a lot of the stuff that was tangled in the process. Some of which might have come in useful. So if you use it all the time, you’ll find yourself in trouble - you won’t have the blockages any more, but you won’t have much of anything else either. If I had to choose, I’d take anger over frustration; but neither is very good as a way of life.

The other route out is humility. Sometimes you have to recognise that the way you are approaching your task just isn’t working, and is therefore probably wrong. It may have been good in the past; it may be good again in the future; but right now, in these circumstances, it’s not good.

The bit that is emotionally challenging in this process isn’t trying to think of a different method, it is first admitting our own inadequacies to ourselves. The more committed we were to our initial approach, the harder it is to acknowledge that we were mistaken. (You can usually diagnose the strength of this commitment from the level of frustration experienced just before stepping back and rethinking.)

Often we are committed to a particular approach because that’s what we know, that’s where we feel expert. The cri de coeur of the frustrated, ‘But I don’t know what else to try!’ is an implicit expression of the limits of our current knowledge and skills.

At this moment, we face the yawning chasm of our ineptitude. We teeter on the edge between unconscious and conscious incompetence, that terrifying place where we feel stripped of the confidence we have carefully built up over years of effort. We feel deskilled and psychologically naked.

But we also know that once we have embraced this fear of the unknown, once we have accepted the need to start over, things feel better. There is nothing like having a Plan to make you feel more in control of your destiny.

Frustration involves clinging on to ways of doing and/or ways of being that, right here, right now are no use to you, however fond you are of them for their past successes. It is futile as well as unpleasant. Letting go is scary, and takes you into places that look dark. But once you go through them, optimism is waiting for you on the other side.

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