On “It is what it is”

I had a moment to catch up on some things this weekend, and returned a call from a friend of mine at CalArts.  We had a very nice conversation catching up and discussing Higher Education funding, trends, pedagogy and the like and she was kind enough to tell me this:

“You know, in a conversation we had once – you gave me some advice and told me that, ‘it is what it is’.  I thought about that a lot – and about how you’ve brought it up a number of times in our conversations – and it’s something I find myself coming back to as a mantra when I’m facing something difficult.”

She had asked me about where that mindset came from, and I’m sure it’s rooted in growing up in a working class small town in upstate New York.  Compared to many people around me I had it relatively easy.  My parents both worked hard – my dad taught middle school and my mom worked in a factory – and they owned the house we lived in. (A note: Despite a lot of nonsense talk generated in the media earlier in the year, as people living on an educator’s salary, we did not live high on the hog.  We burned wood for fuel (that we cut stacked and dried on our own), did all our own repairs and (for a while) raised animals for food. The two-story house I grew up in with a garage and a 2 story workshop on a 1/2 acre of land sold for well under 40k if that tells you anything about the economics of the region.)

Other people I knew had it really hard.  Farmers (and often their children) who worked from dawn to dusk with spouses working additional odd jobs just to make ends meet.   We had “valley runners” – a term of no endearment reserved for families who would relocate multiple times a year to stay one step ahead of the law.  I’d always see the kids in my classes; they’d show up for a couple of months and then be gone to the next county.  When I’d see them months, or years later, they had always changed for the worse.  They picked up a number of skills they needed to survive when you’re always on the run  (typically manipulation, but sometimes cons or petty theft), that were depressing enough for an adult to have to rely on to get by – much less a child.

Mainly though, I knew a lot of good people who worked hard and were often presented with really difficult situations.  And the response to those situations was to work through it.  I can’t count the number of times that I heard variations of, “No use crying about it – let’s get to work.”

For those of you who resonate with this sentiment, and have never read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, it might be worth a moment of your time.  One point Aurelius’ (and other Stoics like Epictetus) bring up repeatedly is the value of seeing things for what they are.  That often means removing the emotional issues associated with the matters at hand and trying to deal with them objectively. (Albert Ellis made an entire career out of this method of inquiry with his REBT (Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy) approach).

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Getting emotional about certain things (particularly difficult things) only adds to their difficultly.

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In my world view, some things are simply facts andviewing those things as such makes it easier to see them for what they are.

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For example:

2+2=4.

How do you feel about that? (or do you feel anything?)

It’s difficult to get emotionally invested in it because it’s merely a fact.

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Now here’s the idea applied: where a student might hear, “You’re going to have to put a lot of time in to getting those sweep arpeggios down the way you want.” I hear “2+2=4”.  There’s no emotional involvement  and so there’s less to get tripped up on.

There are a million reasons to procrastinate, and generally only one or two to get something done.  If you’re facing something really daunting there’s a several part process I can share to help make it manageable.

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Getting it done

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  1. Know why you need to do what you’re doing. As Viktor Frankl once said, “He who has a why can bear almost any how”.
  2. Deal with problems individually.  Many problems are multi-tiered so break them down into individual components to make them easier to manage.
  3. See the problem for what it is.  Gain a scope of what it is you are trying to do and prioritize what has to happen to complete it.  (For example: If you’re trying to get better at sight-reading – you’re going to have to work on it a lot over a longer period of time.  If you’re trying to get two bars of a solo down – it will probably be a much shorter over-all time investment).
  4. Have milestones and a deadline.  Know what you’re going to complete by when.
  5. Prioritize and address what you can.  Don’t get hung up on big steps here, this stage is all about the specifics of each step (i.e. the grunt work).
  6. Reassess and return.  As milestones are reached verify your progress and start again.

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I remember reading a David Lee Roth interview where he was talking about how having a drive was the only thing that was going to get you through endless vocal practicing in your bedroom.

There’s nothing glamorous in the work that goes into doing anything well, but it’s necessary to acquire the skills needed to do those things.

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In other words, it is what it is.

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Thanks for reading.

-SC

2 thoughts on “On “It is what it is”

  1. Nice. Repetition without an understanding of what it means to deconstruct the learning process is almost worthless. That was my problem 20 years ago. I hadn’t learned how to learn – or how I as an individual metabolised information. It took me another 10 years before I began to understand what that meant.

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