Performance can be flow, not fakeness

I’ve got a bug I’ve run into in a lot of social contexts I end up feeling like I’m being “fake” or putting on a performance for other people, rather than getting to be myself. And I find this quite aversive. Maybe more than that: abhorrent? Violating, somehow?

It’s in the moments that go wrong, especially. As long as things are going well, I can act energetic and engaged and confident and that’s socially appropriate in most situations. But then something goes wrong, I feel bored or judgmental or unhappy about making a mistake, and it seems like there’ll be unfortunate social consequences if I show it. So now all of a sudden the engagement feels like a trap or a mask that I’m not allowed to peel off. I hate it. “Performing” my role as a teacher or an interested conversational partner or a caring friend.

But “performing” doesn’t always include this idea of fakeness – for example, when you’re talking about deliberate practice vs deliberate performance. Performance there means a piano concerto onstage, letting the music billow forth. It means staring across the battlefield as the trumpets are about to sound. There was a time for preparation, for strategy, for practice; for making the same motions over and over again, cursing your mistakes and throwing down your sword in frustration. This is not that moment. Now is the time to follow through on the choices you made, to see what they can create in the world and how far they can take you. For letting the music flow through your body. There’s still a metacognitive process running – if a tactical error is made in battle, there will be an attempt to recover, perhaps pivoting away from the original battle plan. But it’s quite different than the kind of thinking about errors you’d do in a practice session – it probably doesn’t make sense, in the middle of a concert or test, to try and “update the 0th time” or to back-chain any bad outcome all the way back to the original mistake that produced it.

This is a different lens on performance that feels less at odds with my aesthetics around genuineness. It’s just not the time to linger over my mistakes and try to learn from them; that’s like trying to change the path of a river as it flash floods. It doesn’t mean that the performance can’t be expressive of the emotional currents running through me, or ones that arise during its course. I can be like the chess master whose quest to not be distracted by opponents tapping their fingers caused him to practice playing in the presence of loud music and all manner of horrible noises, and who found that eventually the noises found their way into his style of play and in fact allowed him to play better (Josh Waitzkin). I need not let go of my awareness of problems or discord. But shame and frustration are tools that do not serve me in the midst of a performance, so let me set them aside and return my concentration to the task at hand. The time for updating and grieving and repairing my armor is later, when I’m at home with friends in front of a warm fire. Now is the time to perform.

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