Getting Better (all the time)

August 31, 2011

I tend to have multi-dimensional ideas about my posts, and like everyone probably experiences, sometimes things that happen in my everyday, non-work life, remind me of issues in my work life.

One of my hobbies I enjoy the most is cooking.  I’ve been taking risks in the kitchen since I got my first saute pan ten years ago, and rarely use recipes.  The first meal I ever cooked was for my family during winter break my freshman year of college, and it got mixed reviews. I think it was chicken stir-fried with red potatoes, oil, garlic and peanut butter with yellow mustard and a squirt of chocolate syrup.  Hmm.  I remember enjoying it, but certainly not everybody did, (though they were nice about it) and that was fine with me.  The next time I tried cooking that dish, I eliminated the PB and added crushed red pepper.  I made that dish over and over again, changing things and finagling seasoning combinations until it didn’t get any real criticism anymore (except one time when the top of the red pepper container came off in the pan along with about two tablespoons of flakes – eek). I actually don’t make this dish anymore, because I make more advanced meals nowadays, but it was close to the best it was going to be at it’s “last supper,” without me completely changing the ingredients.

Colorful Dinner ingredients in bostonmusiclady's kitchen

When I make dinner now, which is almost every night, I ask my boyfriend how everything is, and I expect an honest response.  Lucky for me, he usually loves what I make, but sometimes the chicken is dry, sometimes the sauce has seized and becomes like hard candy (I often use honey in sauces), and sometimes the salad dressing doesn’t “go” with the veggies and fruit in the salad.  Oh well.  I use this information and use different techniques for the next time I make something, in order to improve at something I love to do, and do almost every day.

I also watch quite a lot of the Food Network.  I watch Giada at Home, The Barefoot Contessa, Iron Chef America, Paula Dean, and my favorite, Chopped, on a regular basis, and I’m always learning new things.  I also see a lot of different personalities, especially on Chopped (if you’ve never seen it, it’s of course dramatic, and contestants get judged on three meals they make out of bizarre ingredients – right up my alley).  Today, while watching an episode of Chopped I had DVRed, I was reminded of an issue in my professional life that I’d like to talk about: Constructive Criticism.

A man on the show was overly confident, and had no shame when it came to his opinion of himself (a little Narcissistic Personality Disorder?) When the judges gave him constructive criticism, he was super defensive, and basically told them they were wrong. It was embarrassing to watch, and the other contestants stood uncomfortably as the man was “Chopped” before explaining to the judges (a panel of experienced chefs and restaurant owners) that they can think whatever they want, because he’s a good chef.  When they explained to him (very sensitively) that having humility is important in getting better at something and overall success, he told them (and the cameraman) that he knows he’s good and that he sorry, he doesn’t have any modesty.  He wasn’t able to hear them in the way they were approaching the subject.  He seemed like he thought he was being attacked, even though they were very professional and diplomatic about everything.

Okay, okay…I’ll start talking about my experience now.

I love constructive criticism now, and it occurs in many areas of my life, but I didn’t always.  I wasn’t ever very defensive, but I used to make excuses when I made a mistake or didn’t do the best I could, and only in the past several years have I been able to become more aware of that “flaw,” and catch it before it comes out of my mouth.  When I was in high school, my band director would correct people every now and then, and we’d all hear the “but, I…” and the director (who is still loved and respected by students at the same high school) would say to the person, “Just say okay.”  The student would say, “but, I…” and he would say, “No. Just say okay.”  We weren’t allowed to make excuses.  If the 30-year band director told us we were playing something incorrectly, we were playing something incorrectly.  This may seem harsh to you, not knowing this person, but it wasn’t.  It was true, he knew it, and he wasn’t interested in our games, or his and our time being wasted by our 16 year-old nonsense.

When a man imagines...that he has attained perfection, his decline begins. - Theodore Martin

This issue is particularly familiar to me now, as I supervise students in their clinical training for the Music Therapy degree (Bachelor’s).  As I said in this post, I love this part of my job.  After each session a student has led part of, we talk for 30-45 minutes about the session.  First and foremost, I ask them (regarding their facilitation) what they felt comfortable with in the session (not what they did well), and then what they would like to improve for next time.  When they are finished talking, I validate what I thought they did well or seemed comfortable with, and then we discuss what improvements can be made.  I encourage students to take risks, and I assure each one that we only really learn when we make mistakes.  I expect students to lead an entire session with functional guitar playing by the end of the semester, but I try to leave out pressure by not ever talking about incorrect chords during feedback time (this was something I was scared to death of in my clinical training, which hindered progress and increased anxiety for me).

I love having students, and some are very attuned to their own strengths and shortcomings, which makes for a rewarding and wonderful learning experience.  Some are not so attuned, and while personality differences are unavoidable, the supervisory relationship is sometimes strained when students feel they don’t need feedback, or that they know better.  They may not choose to do things exactly like I do in their professional lives, but I do expect students to respond to my feedback while they are with me at my sites.  Questions are welcomed, and if a student wonders about my reasoning behind something, I’m more than happy to answer the question.

I am not always right.  I wish I was, but I’m not perfect.  Damn.  What I do know, however, is that I know how to do my job.  I know that the choices I make in sessions are based on trial and error of sessions past, I know the clients and I know what works and what doesn’t with those clients.  I also know that since I went to college for this career and did my required 1040-hour internship six years ago, followed by board certification, five years of professional conferences and doing presentations, experience as a music therapist with seven different companies in over a dozen different facilities, and four years of clinical supervision with students – I have come to the conclusion that I probably know more about my job than someone who has never done it before.  I am constantly improving and developing in new ways, and it’s that change that makes me better than before, all the time.

Once upon a time, in a final evaluation at the school (my grade for students is 40% of their overall grade for the class), a colleague (a professor at the college) and I were told by an 19 year-old, second year student, that we were both wrong in our semester-long feedback.  A long conversation ensued, needless to say, and by the end, this student seemed to understand my perspective, and was able to identify the fact that I was trying to help him to get better at something I’m an expert in, and that he couldn’t let himself hear me say what I was actually saying.  It was pretty intense, so I hope something shifted for him after that.

Constructive criticism is necessary.  Not only does it help us get better at something we love and/or do every day – whether it’s cooking, gardening, skateboarding, dragonboat racing, working, going to school, performing or cleaning toilets – but it helps us become more well-rounded people as well.

When we have nothing left to improve, are we perfect, lazy, or just unaware of ourselves?



This is the very perfection of a man, to find out his own imperfections.” – Saint Augustine

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

The search for perfection begins with detecting imperfection” – Anonymous


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