How can we live our lives so that we make plans and set our goals— but then let go and “perform” so that we are free, spontaneous, and transformative in each moment?
That’s what I do as an orchestra conductor on the stage. And that’s what guitarists in a rock band or classical musicians of an orchestra do every time they perform. They follow their passions, they prepare and work at their skills obsessively, and then they unleash who they are in a performance that literally transforms them.
Going for peak performance is about going for it — showing everything you have to thousands of people, and having the courage to get out there and the trust to know that you can do it.
This is symbolic of how any of us can live our lives — every day.
Performance is about getting out on the stage of life and transcending our expectations — going beyond where we imagined and taking people with us while we do it.
Great athletes understand this. They work, they grind, every day they train without giving up and they think far out into the distance of their goals. But on the day of the game, there’s only one way to make it big. And that’s to live inside the experience of everything that you are at that moment — not thinking, not wondering, not hoping — just “being”.
Peak performance teaches us about going for our goals and then living them in the moment. We all can learn how to let go and be our best selves, no matter what we’re doing, no matter what endeavours in our lives.
That’s what this article is about — performing life.
I constantly ask myself why I am so addicted to being a conductor. Part of it is the overwhelming experience I get in performance — the adrenaline and the feeling of going out on the edge of a precipice. Every performance is about finding something that I don’t expect — a direction that goes farther, faster, wilder, more sweet — whatever — more than I planned it or have experienced it before.
I’m addicted to conducting, too, because I am genuinely passionate about the music. I love that wherever I am with music there’s always somewhere further to go or some new world to explore.
You all have your own addictions to what you love. Whether you’re a realtor, an athlete, an entrepreneur, a cook, or a broker, you all “perform” — you have moments where you take your knowledge, your skills, your particular brand of magic and make it happen in a transformative way in the moment.
But there is always a flip side to anything great. Performances don’t just come out of the air. They require tons of hard work, and there are days when we wish life could just be easier. Every concert I have to battle the nerves that join me before I walk out onto the stage. The audience is out there, the expectation weighs in.
I have learned, though, that every time I step out onto the podium, the music will take over. I’ve learned to trust that. When the passion of whatever you are doing overtakes you, everything else goes away and you will disappear into what you are doing.
Whether we’re hanging out with friends, spending quality time with our kids, skiing a black diamond or leading an amazing meeting, we can learn from what performance can teach us— the fulfilling and powerful experience of being hyper-aware and focussed while also being spontaneous and completely “inside” whatever we are doing.
Here are four key ways that my work as a conductor has taught me about peak performance in my everyday work and personal life:
1. Prepare…..then let go.
Musicians practise every day. Athletes train every day. To get good at whatever we do, we have to practise over and over. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Every day that you hone your craft, fill your brain with knowledge, work your circle of colleagues, dedicate your life to enriching whatever it is that you do, you are creating yourself.
This hard work makes you into someone who is unique and particularly suited to performing in ways that no one else can. You are truly a unique mix of your own experiences, background and knowledge.
Most importantly, the connections you make using your knowledge and experiences, and the relationships and ideas you create from them is what gives you your own particular brand of wisdom. No one else has this.
Every day you work hard and prepare for what you are doing. But then, at some point you need to trust that it’s there, get out there and let go to the moment.
This is the most important message about performance. You walk out on stage, the crowd is cheering, there’s no going back. You know that you “could” make a mistake, or screw it all up, but you tell yourself (and you believe) that there is no possibility of this happening. You are prepared and you trust.
When you put in hours of preparation and training and then trust that it is there for you when you need it, you will be able to let go and truly perform. You abandon self-questioning, inner talk and distractions of any kind. You become the owner of your mind and fill it completely with your focus.
Preparation + trust = focus.
The pay off for this total attention is that you transcend your normal awareness and abilities. You notice details, nuances and directions that you hadn’t noticed before. You get new ideas and inspirations in the moment. And you learn to trust your own focus and that it won’t let you down when you need it.
In everything we do, whether it’s a dinner party or making a deal, we need to think strategically, plan our actions, and build our skills for life. But then, as we gain these skills, to learn to trust, let go and perform.
Every day there are moments to perform. Our quest is to notice these moments, and not only to commit but to enjoy performing with abandon.
2. Push the envelope of your mind
Once we build up our repertoire of skills and knowledge and know that we can trust it(whether it’s public speaking, doing mathematical calculations on the fly, or putting on the uber charm in a business social gathering), we can next push our capabilities beyond where we’re comfortable and go out on the edge.
The beauty of preparation is that we build up our skills, develop and enrich our ideas, and become authentic in who we are and what we do.
But the famous conductor Leonard Bernstein once said:
“To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.”
This is the next step to performing your life.
In the first step, you practise, you get good at your skills, and you get used to letting go and performing those skills by trusting in them.
But we can get reliant on over-preparation too if we aren’t careful. We might start to believe that we “need” a certain amount of preparation in order to succeed.
The truth is — over time, we internalize a lot of these skills and talents, and they become automatic in us. Inside our brains, we are creating extraordinary and unique relationships and connections to what we know, and formulating new understandings based on how we contemplate. Our unique way of putting this together is our own personal brand of magic.
Now our job is to push ourselves into expecting more “in the moment” and to test what we can do spontaneously.
We are capable of a great range of ability. I notice this all of the time when I’m conducting an orchestra. Depending on our mood, confidence and even just the atmosphere in a concert hall on a given night, we can sometimes play “just okay” or elevate way beyond where we thought we could go.
Our moments are when we are on the edge and we know it — when we rise up and take a chance and then marvel at ourselves.
I remember once being asked to fill in as conductor at the last minute for a production of Offenbach’s opera “The Tales of Hoffman” — an incredible four-hour opera in French (not my first language). I had five days to learn this work and would normally have thought I needed five months. Although I recognize that what I did at the time was without the depth that I believe is necessary with my work, I was still amazed at how quickly my brain could consume music when it was under extreme stress and time constraint to learn it. There simply was no more time, and I was standing on that podium — prepared or not.
That was my first understanding of the power of riding the edge between over-preparation (which is what we need to create depth, understanding and automaticity) and daring (which creates deeper trust and understanding in us to what we believe we are capable of).
We are capable of much more than we think we can. When we are put under the spotlight and thrust out onto the stage of life, we learn that lesson.
Every once in a while, throw yourself into a situation that uses your skills and knowledge, but that you haven’t quite had enough time to prepare for, and see what you learn about yourself.
You might be surprised.
3. Don’t look back
The best way to perform in life is to be fully present in the moment.
Music teaches me this lesson every time I’m on stage. I can only interact with music in real time. It doesn’t allow me to look back at what I have just conducted or I will get distracted and crash in the future. I can’t get too far ahead, or I will miss something in the moment.
Athletes understand that performance is about being inside the moment too. You can’t redo anything, and there is no point in projecting ahead about what might happen. We have to remain focussed on what we are doing. The moment we make a mistake and reflect back upon it, we have taken ourselves out of the present time.
Music is a time experience — whether we are listening or performing, we can’t look back, can’t imagine forward. When I’m performing I might know or feel what’s ahead, but I am completely immersed in the right now.
In life, there are moments when it’s right to reflect, to think about what mistakes we’ve made or what we want to change for the future. But these aren’t performance moments. If we want to have that transformative experience that we get when we perform, we have to interact with the moment.
When we are present, we are aware. And with our awareness and simplicity we interact with life — directly and powerfully.
That’s what the power of performing is. To be….there.
4. Performance is Flow
One of the amazing things about performance is that once it starts, it goes. There’s no stopping — it’s all a flow.
You get on the river of whatever you are doing in your life, and even if you go through white water or a craggy tree is strewn across your path, you have to manage in the moment with what you have — you have to react, you have to transcend, you have to go wherever the water takes you. If you make a mistake, you have to find a way out and keep moving.
As a conductor, I’m intrigued by this flow. Sometimes I feel that I am controlling the flow of the energy with my hands — where we are going, how fast, what changes in mood or interpretation we make. But very often, the flow happens from within the orchestra, and the best thing I can do as a conductor is to just back up and let it flow of its own accord.
This is a critical lesson for leadership. Leadership is knowing when to guide something, but as much as possible, to empower it and let it flow from its own source.
In performance, no matter what happens, we have to keep going. Most of the time when we make a mistake on stage as musicians, and it can be a BIG mistake, the audience doesn’t know. I’ve had moments where I’ve been shocked to find out that something that I thought was blatantly obvious was missed by the crowd. It’s a lesson on composure and what to reveal.
Performance is about giving life everything that you have in any given moment, trusting in your knowledge, skills and preparation, and ultimately in trusting who you are. It’s about not trying to be perfect, but rather just “being”.
Once you get out on the stage of your life, you need to let go to whatever you are doing, and let your world take you to places that you didn’t anticipate or believe possible.
And each time you do this, the music will transcend your expectations, and show you that there is more to life, more depth, more interest, more thrill…if you just get out there and perform it.