The 10 minute Rule

How do you begin to scale a gargantuan metaphorical pyramid whose apex is the fulfilment of your dreams? I have the answer. With the ten minute rule. My dear friend who started out as my learning specialist shared the ten minute rule with me once. She suggested if I have difficulty starting a task (studying many hours for my prelim at McGill) to start with just ten minutes. If after ten minutes I am in agonizing misery, I can stop and then try again later. Usually, however, some momentum accrues during those first ten minutes.

I have applied the ten minute rule to every colossal task. Writing a difficult research paper that carried much emotional baggage seemed impossible to me just a couple of years ago. I settled myself at my desk and broke the task into dozens of ten minute chunks. After each ten minute chunk, I checked off the task and rested before tackling the next one. In fact, with this approach you can accomplish pretty much anything. Ten minutes is also long enough that you can accomplish a fair amount in the time period, at least if you are intense in your attack and start with the next ten minute period soon after.

Today the hours stretch before me in a continuum of different variations of grey. I tried creating a schedule, so I could complete the Grade 8 piano practical requirements by August but have felt unmotivated to tackle the required hours each day of practice. I feel daunted by the over 100 technical requirements, six pieces (four memorized), and the ear training and sight reading components. Instead, I propose to abandon schedules and artificial deadlines. A piano practice that will heal me from my past will arise not from a factory-like schedule but from sitting down and dedicating myself entirely for ten minutes to my music at a time. Sitting down to commit to hours of practice is overwhelming, but ten minutes, to be followed by ten minutes at a later time, is accessible.

How do you scale that looming and daunting to-do list? With the ten minute rule.

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Incipit Vita Nova

Where and when did your life really begin? Or are you waiting for it to begin? Part of the Wellesley College seal is Incipit Vita Nova, “Here begins new life.” I feel like I have always been waiting for something to happen in life, for my life to start. Did it start at Wellesley? Did it start before or after? Or has it started even still?

I think my new life begins now. I think we all have many lives which begin in our new roles in the development of our different life stages. I started a new life at each new institution of which I became a member with new environments, communities, ideas, and activities. I start new life today too. We all wear many costumes and masks, and this is just a new one for me. A perpetual Mardi Gras. We are all actresses playing new roles and starting new lives for our characters every moment.

I remember during a summer cosmology internship funded by the National Science Foundation at the Harvard Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, my supervisor took me to a Harvard Junior Fellow luncheon. I think these lunches occurred weekly, and I was impressed by the quality of the gourmet food served, as I recall, on silver platters. The conversation that day was posed by another junior fellow, “What is life?” This is a question which has baffled scientists, from biologists to astrobiologists to computer scientists, for eons. Can a computer program which reproduces be considered life? Is life determined by its material composition or its behavior? At a recent talk about searching for life on Mars at the University of Winnipeg, I recall Ed Cloutis talking about how life alters its environment and builds a home for itself. There is life even in barren parts of Manitoba which he explores to see how life can thrive in hostile environments like Mars. Life can survive in hostile environments, I suppose, which we see not just in the remote North and potentially off the Earth but in our communities as well, at the office, at home, in war zones, and in our own minds.

I have often felt as though I am existing without really living. I bet I am not alone in this. And I have often felt I have been waiting for something to happen. Maybe it is up to me to make things happen. Carl Sagan wrote in Pale Blue Dot that it is up to us to save ourselves. His intended meaning was to save the Earth from the violence we inflict on it. No one will save us from ourselves. Maybe this applies also to individuals. We cannot wait for that knight in shining armor to whisk us to our new life. We must save and create new life for ourselves now.

There is an urgency to begin new life. We can begin new life every day that we awaken to cook a new recipe, create a new character, or learn a new scale on the piano. It is on a continuum. Our new life begins each moment as we evolve.

So how did you begin your new life today? Or are you waiting for something to happen?

Why will you get up tomorrow?

Why do you wake up each morning? What drives you to climb out of bed every day? The answer will vary depending on your socio-economic background, country of residence, physical and mental state, and everything else I have forgotten. I’ve been asking myself these questions for decades. Usually I feel driven to complete some project, dream chaser that I am. Sometimes I am driven by some motivation just to survive or other times in the past I just didn’t get out of bed. However, eventually some drive, not necessarily related to caffeine, will kick in. Caffeine, however, is a huge motivator to get out of bed!

At some point at an early age I felt motivated to make a contribution to science. I recorded that I aspired to be a “quantum mechanic” or an astrophysicist when I was about ten years old. This dream motivated me for decades, inspiring me to do the whole spiel of a BA in astrophysics from Wellesley College, MS in string theory at UCLA, and PhD in theoretical cosmology at McGill University. I wrote papers along the way and paved the way to consummate all my dreams when the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics nominated me as a National Fellow. The next logical step would be to gain teaching experience and land a tenure track faculty position.

But dreams have a funny way about them. Achieving them doesn’t necessarily lead to peace or happiness nor does the strife of the process of pursuing them. I tried postdocing for two and a half years and contract teaching last semester for two courses in preparation for fulfilling my lifelong dream of becoming a professor.

Honestly, I didn’t think I would survive.

Let’s talk about the teaching. Five hours of lecturing a week doesn’t sound overwhelming until you factor in the 80 pages of hand-written and typed presentation material that needed preparation each week. Performing administrative duties, meeting with students, writing and solving two weekly homework problem sets, writing and grading exams, compiling grades, making course web page updates and posting material, and answering emails all compounded to consume my waking hours.

Plus I forgot I suffer from performance anxiety and teaching new lectures in front of an audience of nearly 50 students three times a week for just one of my courses was a bit of a challenge. I wouldn’t say it was as bad as free falling into a Dante book, but it was a source of consternation. Before my first day of teaching I watched inspiring movies about teachers who made a difference in the lives of their students. The one time I tried to deliver an inspiring speech to my students to fight like warriors (a phrase a friend of mine coined ironically to describe his pursuit of a faculty position) to make their dreams come true and learn math, I sounded more like a certain cartoon mouse trying to inspire an army rather than Alexander the Great or a Tolkien hero.

So I went to my GP who prescribed some things including two hours of piano practice a day and Scriabin. Naturally, with nearly ten plus hours of course work to do a day, I neglected the piano.  On the other hand, the Scriabin did help a modicum.

I learned a lot in the process. There is probably some topological description of how lifelong dreams can turn inside out and upside down, even just temporarily, which for me happened in these last three odd post-student years. And now I am reevaluating my purpose and place, insignificant though it is, in the universe. I still feel the urge to contribute to science and to teach, but in a less frenetic way.

I believe at Harvard researchers are studying happiness, but it doesn’t take much scientific examination to see that passing my Grade 5 voice exam with honors despite some unique challenges and the process of singing and playing piano are an offering of mental peace to me. Whatever I do professionally, I need to follow my doctor’s orders and incorporate making music into my daily life.

I am a dream chaser. The next goal for me is to master my Grade 8 piano and Grade 7 voice practical and the theory exams while keeping my passion for theoretical physics and mathematics alive. My next dream also includes sculpting with words, documenting my experiences, and creating new journeys in my mind through language. Maybe someday I will be able to rally an army of students to fall in love with mathematics and physics as much as I have fallen in love with them, but for the time being I hope to make new memories of new dreams of the musical and literary variety. In the rambling scribbles of this blog, I hope to analyze dreams, the preparation needed to complete music exams, and make side-trips along the way through the corridors of thoughts and through cosmic and mathematical harmonies. So that answers the question of what will get me out of bed tomorrow (plus a giant latte in my UCLA mug).

Why will you get up tomorrow?

Blog Entry 0: This is a test

What tested you today? Testing. This is a test of my blog. We are bombarded with tests through life; there are six definitions in my dictionary for the noun test and several more for the verb. The outer layer of a clam is apparently also called a test. Every day we test ourselves, our students, they test us, the world tests our patience. We take blood tests and eye tests and other medical tests. Growing up, I took my fair share of standardized tests. There are tests during public television announcements; we test each other. Many of us have test anxiety which makes it all much more interesting. Every day is a test as we test our limits.

This blog entry is a test of my blog, which will eventually be an exploration of preparing for Grade 8 piano and Grade 7 practical voice exams and the theory exams in Canada. Along the way I will explore physics, mathematics, and literary excursions.

So what tests have you taken today? Are you sure you weren’t being tested?