Process vs Product

Process vs Product

Photo by  Cars10s PhoToes

In my very first post, How I Got Hooked on Mindfulness, I talked a little bit about a weird paradox that I encountered when I started practicing yoga and meditation. In both of these practices we are taught to focus on the quality of attention and presence we bring to each moment and not so much on the results of our efforts. This is called non-attachment and at first I thought it was for suckers. Focusing on process rather than product seemed to me to be, at best, inefficient and, at worst, a surefire way to encourage mediocrity. 

But even though this way of working was completely foreign and counterintuitive to me, I tried it. And, lo and behold, it worked. Not only that, but it shook up a lot of the ideas I had had about learning. By shifting my gaze from my goals to the quality of my experience in the present moment, I began to notice more about that experience. And noticing more about my experience gave me a lot of useful information as well as a much broader range of choices regarding what to do with that information. 

Practicing non-attachment has also made me more appreciative of the inherent circuitousness of the learning process. After 15 years of teaching and many more of learning, I have come to believe that, a lot of the time, we simply don't know what is taking us closer to our goals and what is moving us away from them. Often, something that initially appears to be a detour or an obstacle provides us with essential learning and ultimately takes us closer to where we want to be. On the other hand when we pursue our goals with unrelenting focus, we sometimes develop tunnel vision and miss out on important opportunities for growth. [In fact, there is some really interesting research that suggests that humans in general are not great at assessing their own learning. But more on that in another post...] 

Anyway, as I mentioned in that first post, I have experienced a renewal in my music practice by making it more like my yoga and meditation practice -- more about process and presence, and less about product. 

But, having said that, one of the big differences  between music and yoga and/or meditation practice is that in yoga and meditation, there is no performance. And I have found that it is much easier to play the long game when you know that at no point will you be asked to get up in front of an audience and demonstrate your skill. (I don't count posting yoga selfies on Instagram as a performance...) It is all well and good to focus on process in music practice, but the reality is that if you are a professional musician or a student engaged in the study of music, regular public moments of truth -- aka performances -- will likely be part of your experience. And, you will probably want those performances to be good. Maybe even excellent. 

So, this has been a bit of a conundrum for me: How to maintain the receptivity and expansiveness of non-attachment while still preparing to give excellent performances. I don't claim to have cracked the code, but I wanted to share some ideas that have helped me get a bit of clarity around this issue. 

Process as Goal (and Goal as Rudder)

In his book The Practicing Mind, Thomas Sterner provides what I think is some very clear and practical advice for negotiating the process-product dilemma. I'm going to go ahead and quote a bunch of what he says because it's just so great. Here's Sterner:

When you focus on the process, the desired product takes care of itself with fluid ease. When you focus on the product, you immediately begin to fight yourself and experience boredom, restlessness, frustration, and impatience with the process. 

Have you experienced this in your practicing -- that underlying and often disheartening "Nope, not there yet..." feeling that comes with fixating on a goal? I sure have. Sterner's solution is a fairly simple (but not necessarily easy) shift in perspective. 

In order to focus on the present, we must give up, at least temporarily, our attachment to our desired goal. If we don't give up our attachment to the goal, we cannot be in the present because we are thinking about something that hasn't occurred yet: the goal...

For me, the keyword in the above quote is temporarily. Sterner is not suggesting that it is necessary or even advisable to lose sight of what you are ultimately aiming for. Rather, his suggestion is that we learn to discipline ourselves to shift our attention between our goals and the process of achieving them. In his view, our goals would ideally act as "rudders," steering the process but not serving as yardsticks by which to measure progress -- a subtle but important distinction. The result of using goals to steer rather than measure progress is freedom from pressure and frustration:

When you shift your goal from the product you are trying to achieve to the process of achieving it, a wonderful phenomenon occurs: all pressure drops away. This happens because, when your goal is to pay attention to only what you are doing right now, as long as you are doing just that, you are reaching your goal in each and every moment. ... This awareness of being where you are and in the present gives you the constant positive reinforcement of reaching your goal over and over again. However, when your mind is only on the finished product, not only do you feel frustrated in every second that you have not met that goal, but you experience anxiety in every "mistake" you make while practicing. You view each mistake as a barrier, something delaying you from realizing your goal and experiencing the joy that reaching the goal is going to give you. (Sterner, p. 23-24)

Good stuff, right? Well, I thought it was good... Sterner's framework helped me get my head around how to relate to both process and product more skillfully. 

Curious and Non-judgmental

Sterner goes on to describe a non-judgmental, process-oriented approach to practice that he calls DOC or "Do, Observe, Correct." This approach bears many similarities to the one that William Westney outlines in The Perfect Wrong Note. Both Sterner and Westney encourage musicians to play a defined passage with energy and commitment, to closely and non-judgmentally explore what did and didn't work, and to re-attempt the passage without too much conscious course correction. I'll write more about that last step -- getting out of the way and letting your mind-body do what needs to be done -- next week. For the time being, though, the important thing to note is that both authors suggest that musicians check in with medium- and long-term goals only occasionally. 

No Neutral Ground

What I want to make very clear, though, is that shifting attention away from results is only effective when the attention we bring to the process is of the highest quality. 

Have you ever caught yourself doing the thing where you make a mistake, explore it, and then repeat the passage but not really paying attention to the material leading up to the spot where you made the mistake????

Yeah, me neither...

But, let's say you have a "friend" who is guilty of this. It's a big no-no, according to Westney:

In the world of practicing, every choice we make has some effect. If we play through a piece rather idly, with nothing particular in mind, the effect is not neutral. In fact, practicing in this way can be detrimental: we lose a bit of technical security when we play through things too frequently, although this may not be obvious at the time. In other words, if we're not obviously making things better, chances are we're making them worse. ... There is no neutral ground. (Westney, p. 79-80)

In every moment that you practice, you are either training attention and engagement or inattention and disengagement. You are either training curiosity and acceptance or ignorance and judgment. This might seem obvious, but I suggest you check it out for yourself. If a lot of your attention during practice is focused on a goal or future event -- if you are using your goal as a yardstick to measure your progress, in other words -- you are probably not paying close attention to what you are doing right now. It's as though your gaze is just a couple of inches away from the attentional bullseye. And this seemingly small mis-direction of attention has a huge cost, both in practice and in performance. Not only do you miss out on the richness of information that you could be exploring in the moment, but you are training yourself in habits of mind -- inattention, disinterest, judgment -- that you can't just switch off when it comes to performance. 

So, in a way, you could think of investing in process as being the ultimate goal-oriented behaviour. Or you could just lighten up on the goals already... To close, here's Westney one more time:

Learning to swim, read, ski, whatever -- the real grasp of it, the breakthrough, comes from a shift within the learner. It is a shift to mindfulness and acceptance. Something lets go (the illusion of control), the person becomes more relaxed and at the same time more observant, the process begins to be trusted, some kind of connection is made. This connection can't be pinned down precisely in words, and really can't be taught. This is the genuine "Aha!" To sense such authentic learning taking place within us is one of life's great fulfillments. (Westney, p. 64)

Thanks, as always, for reading. Happy practicing!


Sterner, Thomas M. The Practicing Mind. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2012.

Westney, William. The Perfect Wrong Note. Newark, NJ: Amadeus Press, 2006. iBook. 

Trust Fall

Trust Fall

Some musings on science, subjectivity, and inner authority

Some musings on science, subjectivity, and inner authority