Embracing Uncomfortable Situations

One of the biggest lessons that I have learned from starting a not for profit organization is the importance of metrics.  How can we measure impact?  What is the metric for success? These questions are often asked of the arts in general, and I fear that the difficulty in answering them with concrete data is part of the reason that funding for the arts is at risk in America today.  The truth is (as most people who have had a profound artistic experience will tell you) that the true value of the arts is not something that can be measured in an intellectual, corporate or academic way.  It is only measured through the heart, because the arts speak to the heart and soul of humanity.

And yet, I am haunted by this desire to measure success, not just through the work that I strive to do with The Canales Project, but also in my personal life.  How do I know if I have had a good day?  What does a successful life look like?  How can I measure the impact that I have had in my life thus far?

One thing that I know is the importance of the personal journey.  As much as I would like to use metrics that relate to others, the most important measure of any progress comes from my own development.  I consider this to be the most important work that one can strive to do in life.  Perhaps it’s part of the reason that I am drawn to the philosophical and spiritual questions we face as humans.  I don’t know that I will ever find answers, but perhaps I will gain a greater sense of self-knowledge in facing these questions with courage and determination.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to best do so.  It’s hard to carve out the space to think in this way in my daily life, when my agenda requires me to be moving from one meeting to the next and focusing on the deliverables of the day.  In moving at such a pace, an emphasis is put on comfort in order to maximize productivity.  For instance, I can call an Uber instead of wait for a taxi, or even call for food to be delivered as opposed to eating in a restaurant (or going to the grociery store and cooking!). 

The technology that we have available to us today makes this easy.  With the touch of a button we can call anyone, anytime, and pretty much have any service delivered at our convenience. 

This has had an impact on the way we communicate as well.  We no longer call people to talk. After all, how productive would that be?! Most of us text at best, and sometimes we rely on one mere emoji to communicate volumes of emotional and substancial content.

Indeed, we have prioritized comfort as a metric for a better life, and also as a means to enable greater productivity. But I return to the question, what are we trying to produce?

I would like to make an argument for the importance of being uncomfortable.  Upon reflection I realized that I have gained the greatest insights on who I am as a person only by putting myself in deeply uncomfortable situations.  Travel is a perfect catalyst for this.  I am currently in Shenzhen, China a city that is completely new to me.  I do not speak Chinese, and have no friends here.  I have been engaged to come her as a soloist for a concert that is taking place this weekend, in which I will perform an excerpt from the opera Carmen and the mezzosoprano solo in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.  Some of my colleagues thought it was unadvisable for me to get on a place and travel nearly 20 hours to come here to deal with jet lag, a language barrier, and many unknowns regarding the rehearsal process.  This would certainly be out of most people’s comfort zone.  But for me, this is exactly the kind of situation that I am seeking. 

It is by placing myself in uncomfortable situations such as this one that I feel I have the opportunity to learn the most, and no matter what the outcome, the journey is sure to be an adventure!  Yesterday, for instance, I had lunch at a restaurant where there was no English menu and I simply had to point to Chinese characters and hope for the best.  The result-a real surprise-was absolutely delicious!  The same goes for wandering the streets, particularly those off the beat and path.  I saw things I have never seen, such as huge markets filled with electronic parts.  From this I started questioning my own electronics, how they work, and reflected on the work it must have taken to make the appliances that I use every day.  The truth is that someone make the very computer that I am typing this on right now.  I may never meet that person and have the chance to thank them, but the mere realization that my comfort is the result of someone’s hand-made labor was humbling.

And so, I invite you to think about what might be gained by leaving the notion of comfort behind-if only for a moment-and embracing uncomfortable situations.