Neither “Winning” Nor “Losing” Feels Good

I’m consumed by the concept of self-worth. Its attachment to environmental factors, neurological factors, social factors… I’m trying so hard to get a grasp on the patterns in my own life that have affected my self-worth, admittedly to help myself, but also because others might relate, and understand themselves better. My head has been working its way into “wrapping” this concept, or perhaps into sorting it in geometrically pleasing boxes. So I figured I’d try translating it into words.

Competitions: the clearest example of winning and losing that I can think of in my own life. Here’s my competition experience:

  • International Percussion Competition at Northwestern (2016)
  • Musical Merit Foundation Scholarship Awards (2016)
  • Indiana PAS Chapter Marimba Competition (2017)
  • PAS/Armand Zildjian Scholarship (2014, 2016, 2017)
  • Italy PAS Vibraphone Competition (2017)
  • Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Percussion Prize (2018, 2019)
  • International Youth Percussion Competition St. Petersburg (application only, 2018)
  • Italy PAS Web Competition, Duo Category (2018)
  • Leamington Prize, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire (2018 & 2019)
  • Town Hall Symphony Hall Prize, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire (2018 & 2019)
  • ARD International Music Competition (application only, 2019)

Notice that I did not include which ones I won/lost, although you might already know this. I also excluded university/conservatory auditions, ensembles like the World Percussion Group, Santa Clara Vanguard, or any job requiring an audition, for the sake of brevity. These types of events have very similar winning/losing outcomes to competitions.

I’m trying to analyze whether my self-worth was affected by these competitions, and whether winning or losing impacted that. Of course, winning felt good when I had that fortune, as did placing and receiving positive feedback. But I am also remembering the amount of pressure and judgement that would run through my head in preparation for the competition. The singular focus of that event, consuming my sense of “meaning” and having the utmost importance in my life. I would place my entire self-worth, for weeks, even months, on a competition, regardless of whether life continued around that.

I submitted a tape to ARD but was not selected for the live competition. Of course this was upsetting, and made me feel bad about myself. But, more notably, in the time after I recorded and clicked “submit,” until I got the results, nothing I was doing impacted the selection. It was all I could think about. Thinking about that result consumed my life, despite the fact that nothing I was doing had anything to do with it*

It was the same on a smaller scale when it came to the Indiana PAS competition, in which I placed second. All I could think about for a few weeks leading up to it was perfecting the piece I was going to play. Even more tangibly, the day leading up to, and throughout my actual performance:

I spent that day meeting the other competitors, but really I was spending that time trying to assess them and judge how I would fare against them, based on the fragments of information I got from sitting in the hallway, talking to them, finding out what school they go to and who their teacher was. I am not ashamed to admit this, because they were doing the same to me. In the next minutes/hours, I obsessed about my warm up and performance times… waiting for the second I could get on a marimba, so I could show off my preparation skills,

(I once heard a rumor that Temple students used to play the Porgy & Bess excerpt insanely fast in the warm-up room, just to psych everyone else out, then go into the actual audition and play it normally. I would do the opposite, always practicing very slowly, hoping someone might hear how “mature” my practice habits are/were)

anxious for the actual performance… with an increasing level of anxiety proportionate to how close the performance time was… entering the room where the performance/competition took place, trying to appear confident and cordial in front of the judges, but subconsciously freaking out, all the way through the last note. It didn’t end there… after the last note began the waiting… spending the majority of my thoughts assessing myself, trying to decide for myself whether my performance was “good” or “the best.” I couldn’t stop those thoughts, despite them having absolutely no impact on my result, which was entirely in the hands of the judges.

All that’s left from that day is this picture:

Indiana Day of Percussion Marimba Competition, second prize, left to right: She-E Wu, Gloria Yehilevsky, Kevin Bobo, Brian Mason

The point in all this is: regardless of the result, whether pleasant or unwanted, the entire experience does not feel good. It is laced with judgement, over-analysis, and most of all, anxiety. It skews with one’s sense of self-worth, creating microcosms of diluted importance.

I want to be clear: at no point am I arguing that working hard is not valuable, or that having a goal and focusing on it causes unhappiness. I’m talking about the conversations that happen in one’s head, or at least in my head, surrounding a competition: negative self-talk, anxiety, blowing things out of proportion…

However, despite repeated experiences in this realm, having seen this trend in myself and others over and over again, having many conversations about how “competition is not about competing with others, it’s about competing with yourself,” and “competitions don’t matter, they’re for horses, not musicians,” and “I really don’t care about competitions, I only do it for the learning & experience,” despite the validity of those statements, we keep coming back to competitions… I’m done with school and pursuing a professional career as a musician, yet even a week ago I was thinking about entering an online competition.

Why do we keep repeating this cycle, when it doesn’t feel good?

Thanks to recent conversations, particularly with my friend and mentor Jason Huxtable, I’ve become aware of the difference between what we think others value in us, and what we individually value within ourselves. And perhaps, some neurons are not connecting. Perhaps my brain plays a trick on me: that,

despite intellectually knowing and understanding that I don’t need competitions to improve my sense of self-worth,


because my perceived sense of how others value me still depends on external accolades (competitions),

I’m unable to draw the connection of how these ultimately won’t help me. I keep coming back to them because I continue to believe that others will like me more, and view me as more valuable if I get into a better school, or win a competition, or a spot in an orchestra, but none of those things have anything to do with how I ultimately feel. Frankly, I know for myself that winning an orchestral job will not make me happy. (For you, perhaps having a freelance career like mine will not make you happy, and an orchestral job will, I’m not saying it’s the same for everybody.) However, I keep trying to check these boxes in search of increased happiness and self-worth, when checking those boxes has nothing to do with that.

According to political and cultural commentator David Brooks (New York Times), there are two types of virtues: resume virtues and eulogy virtues. Thankfully, our culture is slowly moving in a direction favoring eulogy virtues, but we’ve been focused on resume virtues for a long time, and perhaps this is why my thinking, and self-worth, have been so skewed.

This all goes back to the fundamental ideas: “music is about the process, not the product,” or any other of the thousands of similar quotes…

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. Never give it.”

– Eleanor Roosevelt

Yet, despite these messages being sent our way, reappearing in our lives over and over again, there is a difference between intellectually understanding something and actively subscribing to it. When you subscribe to the idea, you begin acting and thinking in a way that reflects it. So perhaps…

Growing up is enrolling in these ideas.

Maturing is actually living these truths.

Wisdom is not just believing these things but adopting them into one’s daily life.

*not getting into ARD had little impact on my life and career as a professional musician, despite it consuming my concept of “meaning” and “purpose” for several months.

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