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Victories and Defeats: A Reflection on Self-Criticism

“Hard to believe it’s already December,” said a student, as we wrapped up his guitar lesson. “I know. Guess it’s time to actually try to get something done this year,” I joked.

I always look forward to this time of year, and certainly not for the weather: Turning over the year affords us an opportunity to reflect, take stock, and correct course.

I’m a list-maker and goal-setter (some would call it obsessive, me included). It's not always a positive thing. Towards the end of each year, I tend to ruminate on all I didn’t accomplish. 7-year-old me would be horrified I’m not a firefighter; 17-year-old me would be disappointed that I haven't made my first million yet. 27-year-old me just worries that I'm not composing, practicing, and performing enough!

A Necessary Evil In many ways, I'm attached to my self-critical nature—it pushes me to grow, learn, and achieve as a musician and in life. Without that dissatisfied voice whispering in my ear, I'm afraid I might become a lazy blob. In music school (and I suspect any artistic arena), you’re encouraged to develop an attitude of constant critique. A friend recently sent me this quote from an old Berklee commencement speech by Pat Metheny, a world-famous jazz guitarist:

“As much as I can stand here and claim to be a successful player, with Grammy awards and winning polls and now honorary degrees and all that stuff; one very fundamental thing has not changed, and I realized that it will never change, and that is this—that the main thing in my life, even as I stand here right now, right this second, is that I really need to go home and practice.”

Apparently this feeling pervades even the successful.

A level of critical self-awareness is necessary for artistic growth, true. But if, like me, you tend towards an unhealthy level of that anyway, it becomes more and more difficult to feel even a nominal degree of pride and satisfaction with your work. Eventually this dissatisfaction can spread to other areas of life too. Not good. With varying degrees of success, I try to counteract this by accepting where I'm at, even if it's not exactly where I want to be.

Positive Self-Criticism

There’s no doubt that part of setting goals should be holding yourself accountable. But it has to be balanced: If I admonish myself for failure, it’s only fair that I celebrate success. In fact, this too is self-criticism. It's the flip side of coin.

Now, if you’re like me, your brain immediately thinks: What success? It’s easy to quickly forget our accomplishments and victori