Hi All,

Hello, I am the founder and Executive Director of, My Voice Music. My Voice Music is a nonprofit organization based in Portland Oregon that engages youth in music and performance in order to promote self-esteem, social skills and emotional expression.

I am also a musician and songwriter. I write and record primarily as a solo musician these days (formerly playing in the bands Another Cynthia and American Hit List). You can hear my solo music by clicking on some of the album links on this site.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Is Success Achieved In Triumph, Or Is It Found In The Accumulation of Failures?

Spoiler alert, "is success achieved through a multitude triumphs, or is it found in the accumulation of failures?", I think the answer is probably, both.

The word “triumph” implies overcoming something.  Literally, it means to conquer something.  (Wikipedia's definition references Napoleon in order to really drive the whole "conquer" theme home.) That “something”, I believe, is failure.  For example, one army triumphs over another army, one team over a rival team, a person seeking less clutter triumphs over a dirty house by cleaning it, etc.

That is to say, all these scenarios include the following steps; setting out to do "something"; by committing to something, we encounter the inevitable risk of not being able to achieve that something; and, after agreeing to take on this risk of failure, the triumphant individual is merely the individual who accomplishes their goal void of the failure.   (The quick version of this:  you set out to do something and accomplished it despite the odds.)

Quick disclaimer:  I am not speaking of the great movie making failures such as infidelity, murder, or turning your jet fighter up and to the right too quickly, getting it caught in the jet-wash, killing Goose. (That’s a Top Gun reference, millennials.)  It’s not that they don’t have a place in this conversation.  But I am speaking of the more mundane failures, who’s fear thereof can stop us in our tracks before we begin. 
“I want to record an album”, says, the aspiring artist, “but what if I fail?” -- artist stopped in tracks.  “I want to be a kinder partner to my lover, but I am afraid to be vulnerable” says, no-guy-ever out loud -- Emo Romance stopped in it’s tracks.  “I want to start a workout routine”, says everyone in January, “but what if I don’t follow through?” – says, a thousand people now at a higher risk for heart disease.

So if success is the accumulation of triumphs, the journey of success relies on an intimacy with failure.  To triumph (to be “successful”) is to willfully embark on a path where the only certainties are failure, or the triumph over failure.  The depth of our triumph (or success) therefore is measured by our willingness to co-exist with the reality of failure, or at least, tolerate it’s gravitational presence.   

Consider the moon landing.  One of man’s greatest triumphs to date.  It is so because the journey was enshrouded in constant, eminent danger.  It was ludicrous.  They all should have all died.  But they didn't and their reward is infamy; it is the inspiration of an entire nation, indeed the world.

Or more universally, consider a relationship.  A relationship cannot thrive without vulnerability.   To succeed in a relationship we must share the very things that could doom the relationship to failure.  When we choose to take a risk and share our vulnerabilities, and those vulnerable parts of us are understood and accepted by our partner, we know we have found a partner that loves us for who we are.  We can rest assured that the relationship might last for a while.  In order to reach this place of intimacy and security however, we must expose the relationship to the risk of failure.  We must expose ourselves to rejection and humiliation.  

Success is not the absence of failure then, it is the wiliness to continue to be vulnerable, to experience failure, and to be exposed to risk constantly without shutting down and becoming paralyzed by it.

How painful is it to experience failure though?  It’s really painful!  And how do we not let it cripple us?  How many people reel from it’s grasp only to respond by becoming immersed in an “Illusion of Control” (that is the tendency for people to overestimate their ability to control events).  If we could truly control something, would we not lose the consequence of failure?  The absence of risk then voiding any ability for triumph to occur, ie; there is nothing to conquer if it has first been handed to you as a gift.

So we must learn to live closely with failure (at least as an option) in order to experience any amount of success over our challenges.  And, unfortunately, if we live closely with failure as an option we will experience it.   And the issue is still, how to deal with failure and not become devastated, numb, and averse to it.  It is certainly counter-intuitive that in order to experience success we must become bedfellows with failure.  

Failure is gross.  It is devastating.  It is our worst parts void of anything good.  Failure turns my stomach and makes me physically curl over and wretch.  It makes my head pound with shame.  So what do we do when we become exposed, absent of our “potential” and our “good intentions”?  What happens when what we aspire to be, is far removed from the reality of our present actions?  

Should it be that instead of congratulating ourselves for aspiring to be the potential "us" we wish were; and instead of believing that we are the illusion we wish other’s saw us as; we should acknowledge steadfastly our weaknesses, our vulnerabilities, the places where we fail utterly.

If we did follow my above suggestion; embrace our weaknesses and be open about them, I see two things happening:  1:  We may have a more intimate relationship with both triumph and failure which will both decrease the devastation of failure (yeah!) and the elation of triumph (huh?!);  2:  we may also form relationships that give energy to one another and help each other grow rather than alienating one another and propagating a perception of “completeness”, "triumph" and "success".  

To be clear, however, I am not advocating a bunch of doom and gloom… “Woe is me" folks hanging out together talking about how terrible they are...I would rather swallow a bullet than hang around in that crowd.  Similarly though my reaction is the same when people put up false pretenses to make a good impression, eg; the kind of folks who would rather sip urine from a tea glass if the decor is right and the company proper, than stir the pot by stating something is foul.  (btw, these folks are not to be confused with the folks who willfully, if not with great pains, eat the most wretched of foods humbly offered by a kind host…different situation there altogether; think Ghandi.

The Pareto principle, or the “80-20 rule”, describes the phenomenon that 20% of effort yields 100% of gains.   We can say then that there is a lot we don't need to focus on; about 80% in fact.  Could it be that we do not need to focus on reinforcing things we feel good about, and rather exist on the razor’s edge, constantly refining and growing; sitting at the intersection of failure and triumph over it.

The bible says that god says, "I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou were cold or hot.  So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth." I am guessing god wouldn't spit “thee” out if “ye” were focused on the 20% described in the Pareto principle.  (I think that 20% area is the “hot and cold” section.  Just in case your worried about it.)

Should we not then be either hot or cold, refusing to settle for the ambient temperature?  Should we not take risks and make an effort to make change?   And if so, the question still remains, how do we live with the painful consequences of being wrong, of letting ourselves and others down?  And how do we experience “triumph” and maintain humility in success? 

So the answer to dealing with the pain that failure causes is...

Full Disclosure:  I am writing this because I can't sleep.  I am anxious right now over my own failure. I am constantly committing to things that I don't get done.  
Yes, it is true that I get some amount of credit for founding an organization that is thriving and supported by amazing staff, volunteers and community members.  I sit at the helm of an award winning ship - and that’s super dope! But how did I do it?  "What’s my secret?", you ask.  I'll tell you the secret:  I am incredible at sharing my passion, at having a vision... 
...then overcommitting, then failing, then finding people who surround me and help me not fail so much.  
Indeed, I am an expert at inspiring action.  I draw empathy out of people through the combination of revealing the great expanses of my inadequacies, and then peppering them with just a touch of hopeful banter.  My organization rests atop of a mountain of debris created out of my individual failure, upon failure, upon failure.  Indeed, it is that pile of debris (made from my failures…incase you didn’t get that), that allowed people to see how they could use their skills to help, to fill gaps, to do things better than I could ever achieve on my own.  Failure made it all happen.  
...We can reduce the pain of failure by embracing it.  Experience failure daily, moment by moment even.   We can take away it’s power by acknowledging it when it happens; laugh about it, cry about it, scream about it and cuss about it.  Don’t hide from it and don’t hide that part of yourself from others.  Share it.  It will draw people to you.  They may find value in being a help to you.  They may find respite from their own struggles in your vulnerability...

…or they will run from you.  That happens too.  Not everyone is on the same page regarding this “exposing our vulnerable sides”.  And timing is everything here.  Certainly don't go over board on a first date or a holiday party, no one likes a "Debby Downer".  Also, people might judge you.  That's always my fear, the judgment.  

I used to play "tricks" on my students a lot with the goal, not to help them overcome failure once or twice, but to help them become familiar with failure.  To become friends with failure (or at least enemies possessing mutual respect for one another) as a necessary part of the process of learning, of accomplishing great things, of doing something special.  

Before I would ask them to do something challenging or vulnerable, like a recital or performance, I would help them succeed and fail countless times in a matter of minutes.  "Play this scale...  Good, good, now do it with melody...yes, I can feel your focus, it is suffocating.  Now I want to feel your spirit!".  Yes they may have succeeded in playing notes, but what is a note if it is not inspired by the soul?  It is a soundwave (you can't take that away I suppose), but that's just it...it's just a soundwave, nothing more, a dry old soundwave.

I would ask them to write an entire song and perform it for me in 15 minutes.  Why?  Who cares? The song probably won't be amazing.  It doesn't have to be.  It might blow us both away though if we are lucky.  Or it might teach the student (and me) something in the process.  The student may hear a new chord relationship they hadn't experienced before and love it...or realize they never want to hit those two notes together at the same time again.  Either way, something has been gained through this process.  The song would certainly never have had a chance to teach us if it was never created.  

So go out and fail all over the place.  Get used to failure.  Sure, you should apologize when you miss the bar (and you’ll probably feel like a sap for a while).  But you will also learn from the moments when you miss your own expectations; when you have to make that difficult phone call (as I may have had to do this evening). 

Don’t rest in lukewarm waters”, says the frog in the pot.  (Watch the the video explanation of this reference here:  Frog boils in water)  Make sure you are putting yourself in the position of either “hot or cold”.  The more we are willing experience failure on our journey the less likely it is to crush our spirit, and the more likely it is that people can come alongside us, help us, inspire us and indeed, be inspired by us.  This will help all of us to walk forward, perhaps bruised but not totally broken.  (Now to take my own advice.)

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Andrew WK Responds to, "My Dad Is a Right-Wing Asshole"

I don't have a lot to say about this linked article (below), other than Andrew W.K., most known to me for being a gimmicky rock n roller with blood all over his face (constantly) in the 2000's hits the nail on the head in his response to someone wanting to know how to deal with their dad who is "right wing".

The juxtaposition between Andrew W.K.'s musical persona in the 2000's (shock rock during the regrettable rap rock era) and the wisdom that he speaks in this piece makes this an interesting article simply as a study of an individual.   Secondly, it is is wise.  It's a great reminder of how it is easier to rest in judgement than it is to wrestle with relationship and humanity.  It's a cool piece, read it.  You'll get something out of it.

Andrew WK Responds to, "My Dad Is a Right-Wing Asshole"

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

"Why do you believe music has the power to heal?".

I was recently asked this question during an interview with Oregon Music News. Below is my response to that question.  (You can read the whole article here:  Music On The Streets Celebrates 5 Years of My Voice Music...)
My Voice Music’s process works because we focus on writing great songs, learning music through hands-on experience, and recording and performing, rather than “healing” explicitly. The artistic process, in and of itself, is healing. It fosters, reflection, goal setting, hope, critical thinking, community and more. For youth who have been in therapy and treatment for a long time, simply having something “normal” to focus on rather than sitting in another therapy group session is therapeutic. An important byproduct of focusing on creating great music and establishing a strong community is that we get to assemble a diverse group of youth from all walks of life united by their passion for music, not their challenges.
Of course, there are many studies illustrating music’s particular therapeutic capacities. For instance, the act of singing releases endorphins into our bloodstream, which can relieve pain and reduce anxiety. Simply asking patients to share music that they like with caretakers bridges the gap between the provider and patient, creating a higher rate of success in treatment. Music as an intervention is even shown to increase particular antibodies. This is to speak nothing of the growing pile of evidence showing the impact of arts on social skills and academic performance. I will let those studies speak for themselves though as anyone can Google them. In short, music has an intrinsic therapeutic value and is culturally relevant to youth culture, so it doesn’t seem like therapy, even if that is its effect.

Photo By Robert Delahanty
What do you want the kids to take away from the program?

I want them to feel they are powerful and capable. They can write songs and grow as artists to the extent they are willing to invest in the artistic process. They have the power to manifest positive change in their lives to the extent they are willing to invest in themselves. They can bless their community to the extent that they are willing to be vulnerable.
I think this is a paradigm shift for many youth, particularly those with labels such as, “poor,” “mentally ill,” “abused” and “at-risk,” but really for all youth.  Adults spend a lot of time figuring out ways to control every aspect of youth life - this ultimately takes mutes young people's perceptions of their own power and impact (both positive and negative) on their wold. People, young and old alike, need to have the opportunity to make both good and bad choices and take risks and fail as they navigate the world. This is how people learn how they fit into their communities, what their strengths are, and where they may need help.  
My Voice Music's program model is designed to provide the opportunity for youth from various life circumstances to join our programs and begin to take positive risks and ownership over their personal growth and creative choices.  This happens with music and art and extends to our Leadership Program where older youth can attend training  and become Student Leaders at our various programs.  

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

"Nothing is so cheap as the evasion purchased by just enough good conduct to make one pass as a "serious person."

I lay in bed and have been unable to sleep for several hours.  Thoughts of work anxiously fill my head, and I shudder as I think of some of the challenges that lie ahead.  Finally I give up, get up out of bed, grab a book and cozy up on the couch to begin reading.  (according to my facebook feed, I know that I am not the only person who this happens to).  Actually, I am learning to appreciate this quiet time for reflection.

I am blessed to have this mission of My Voice Music to work on and develop.  It is a job that allows me to learn about myself and grow daily.  It is my mission to grow this organization and to surround myself with people who can help to realize the it's potential into that glowing ideal that exists in my head (for while we do great work, we are still a ways away from that place.)  It is a blessing that deepens me (just as the knife is a blessing to the wood in a carving...ha!)   I am constantly reminding myself that stress is not something people ever grow out of, or work our way out of.  Stress, struggle and strife are, and have been, our companions as long as life has existed.   These uncomfortable elements can teach us and propel us into places we would not go otherwise.  For evidence to this end,  watch the following video describing this concept, but in an in-depth way, and from a larger world view.  It is about how challenges allow us to feel empathy and how empathy is essentially what binds everything together from people to animals to trees and stuff.

Watch the video here:

So here I am reading my book at 2am in order to keep my mind occupied so that my heart rate will fall and I can finally sleep.  I crack open a book of assorted essays by Thomas Merton, one of my favorite intellectuals of the 20th century, called, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.  Typically each essay is not longer than a couple pages.  Often there is simply a paragraph describing some thought he was working through in a moment and no more.  Chapters are broken up by general theme with little delineation between specific essays.  So for instance, if you find an essay you really like you have to mark it, rip it out of the book, or something extreme, otherwise finding it again can be nearly impossible.  What I randomly flipped to was profoundly relevant in my moment of anxiety induced sleeplessness.  It begins:

"A great deal of virtue and piety is simply the easy price we pay in order to justify a life that is essentially trifling.   Nothing is so cheap as the evasion purchased by just enough good conduct to make one pass as a "serious person."

A great deal of libertinism, vice, and rebellion is in the end much the same thing.  It does not "justify" trifling, but nevertheless expresses impotence and refusal to do anything else.  The fact that the rebellion is an implicit criticism of the shallow and the respectable proves absolutely nothing.

And when you come to look more deeply into man's present condition you find that many forms of "seriousness" and "achievement" come to this in the end.  In our society, a society of business rooted in puritanism, based on a pseudo-ethic of industriousness and thrift, to be rewarded by comfort, pleasure, and a good bank account, the myth of work is thought to justify an existence that is essentially meaningless and futile.  There is, then,  a great deal of busy-ness as people invent things to do when in fact there is very little to be done.  Yet we are overwhelmed with jobs, duties, tasks, assignments, "missions" of every kind.  At every moment we are sent north, south, east, and west by the angels of business and art, poetry and politics, science and war, to the four corners of the universe to decide something, to sign something, to buy and sell.  We fly in all directions to sell ourselves, thus justifying the absolute nothingness of our lives.  The more we seem to accomplish, the harder it becomes to really dissimulate our trifling, and the only thing that saves us is the common conspiracy not to advert to what is really going on...No matter how empty our lives become, we are always at least convinced that something is happening because, indeed, as we so often complain, too much is happening.  There is so much to be done that we don not have time to live...such is the cliche.
But it is precisely this idea that a serious life demands "time to live" that is the root of our trifling.
In reality, what we want is time in which to trifle and vegetate without feeling guilty about it.  But because we do not try it, we precipitate ourselves into another kind of trifling:  that which is not idle, but dissimulated as action."

(btw - I couldn't find the entire excerpt online, but here is a link to a google preview of most of this piece...from there you can buy the book too:  Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander)

Other than the obvious coincidence of not being able to sleep due to the stress related to feeling overwhelmed by the endless duties of my work, and then reading this as the first essay I flipped to (out of hundreds of options), there is another thing I am left considering.  While he comes to the conclusion that what we really want is "time to trifle and vegetate without feeling guilty about it", I also take away another thought:  The constant attempt to fill idle time with work and "to do lists" undermines our most important work as people which is to love one another, to be present and open for relationship, to be empathetic, to invest in people, to seek out inspiration and to inspire.   This work is not one sided, as Proverbs 27:17 says, "as iron sharpens iron, so one man another".  Indeed our to-do list's can be directly counter to this aim of connecting... of love.

Ultimately, when I am sleepless and consumed with stress sometimes I need to buckle down and finish my to-do lists.  Life is "work" after all.  However, I am left with this question: how can I make sure my work is not taking away from the relationships I need in my life?  I don't think it is a 12 step process.  I don't think organizational plans will help (though I do subscribe to GTD, and have systems I follow).  The work will never cease.   Stress will only intensify with life (more work, kids, more death, more needs, etc.)

I will only be in relationship with people to the extent I am willing to choose to do so.  The depth of those relationships will be the result of my openness, my vulnerability, and my intent.  It begins with a choice, not another "to do" item.  A simple choice, made over and over again, that places an investment in relationship over concerns about stress.  It won't help me sleep better, but perhaps it will help me become a better husband, boss, and friend.