Happy New Year! I just finished my dance performance program in Bali. Here are some really good photos if you want to check out 💃.
(beautiful wooden dojo in candle light <3)
This week, I wanted to share some reflection from this recent 3-week dive into performing arts.
For me, the most important distinction between a performance and practice is the presence of audience. There are people giving you attention.
The question is not only how to make people feel like they have a good time (whatever "good" means), but more importantly what is your intention and how you would want to involve the audience with that.
In that sense, almost every time we are with each other, we have a show. Not in the sense that we have to put on a mask and fake it, but more in the sense that we need to know our intention and what role we choose to play in the moment.
I hope it relates to you in a way that will make you reflect on your ongoing intention for the year and how other people fit in that.
Passing Through the Self
Sometimes in Grade Eight, I first learned the word “performance” in English and remembered being confused by its meanings.
What’s the difference between “performance” in performance review (how well you accomplish certain tasks) vs a theater performance? Does the same word simply mean different things? (in my native tongue Vietnamese these are two words)
The confusion continues into a long time inquiry till even today as I began my work as a guide. A common conversation in the personal development circle is the distinction between “wearing masks” and “being true to who you are”. This topic has troubled me for a long time for its murkiness.
The common lament is that people put on masks and then forgot who they really are. You know the difference when you have to dress up and talk in certain way with your boss and when you go home you can be free to be whoever you are. Every time we choose to show up in certain ways, we are reinforcing that mask or identity.
When that split among the two or more identities become too vast, there will be a great discomfort and maybe even an identity crisis. The cheesy version of this crisis will include you quit your high paying job, go to Bali to Eat Pray Love and Find Your True Authentic Self. (I’m in Bali right now, and trust me, there are plenty of those here)
In this insightful post, Venkatesh Rao calls this stage premature “Search for Authenticity” and describes as such
“Real life knocks you out of your chosen impersonation and you find yourself forced to conform to multiple archetypes, not all of which you care for. You tire of all the masks you find you have to inexpertly wear in various situations, and askwho is the real me?”
My main qualm about this Search for True Self is that using the “Fake/True” dichotomy is misleading. Consider a friend of mine who has both the serious high achieving version and the lazy Netflix n chill version. They are similar in one sense: these are both role he plays. It’s just that for him the high achieving role seems to require more effort to put on whereby the Netflix n chill is, as the name suggest, more chill.
The mistake is to think that the role that takes more effort “fake it till you make it” is more fake, and the more comfortable “just be who you are” is more real.
For example, I can’t just netflix n chill. It takes a lot of effort for me to fake chilling, because that’s not a role I’ve played a lot and enjoyed doing it. Is that not my true self then? That’s quite a strange logic.
As such, it’s more about being clear with what role you are choosing to play, what it takes to play it well and whether it’s fitting now.
The deeper question behind of who is the “I” that play those roles is an inquiry that many great spiritual traditions have been exploring with since thousands of years and more recently modern science, starting from psychology to now the cutting edge of neuroscience.
For the context of this exploration, let’s take it as we are all performing different roles. Then we inquire into what a performance can mean and how using this lens of performance can change how we see our lives.
Performance: passing through the current form
Recently I joined a 3-week dance & performing arts program which interests me partly because of this long term inquiry about the word “performance”.
My teacher Vangelis who used to be a professional dancer has a wonderful twist on the term.
The root word “per” means “through” or “entirely”. A performance is thus the state of passing through the form into something beyond. It requires going all in with the form and then transcends it. A transformation.
At the end of the program, I did a improvised duet performance. Usually I can go onto the floor and just dance, but for a dance to be a performance, it has to go beyond that. It’s an expression of something else like an intention or an intangible essence. That makes it a worthwhile experience to reflect on.
The performer has to align himself first to that which is beyond himself. Then he invites and guides audience towards that direction.
This alignment has to be more and more all-encompassing. The performer needs to know not only his art form like dance, sing, words, ballet, contemporary etc… but also his incarnated form like mind, heart, body. The more he can align all of those forms, the more effective and powerful the delivery of that essence beyond would be.
A performance is then both about the form and the essence beyond it.
The performer needs to master the form to get in touch and fully express whatever formless essence that he can tune in. This is a chance for it to come through and out into the world.
The delivery of essence is only as good as the integrity and quality of the form. To translate that into the personal development context, just like a flimsy pipe cannot hold a big current, you can tune in to the Essence of Your True Self as much as you can but there is no well-developed form or identity, it is not complete.
Replace the word “form” by “role” in the context of our daily life, we can ask ourselves these questions: Am I expressing that essence in this role? Do I feel attuned to it? Can people also feel it?
For example, if the essence you are aligning towards is Loving Kindness, and you are acting horribly in your role as an entrepreneur or CEO even if the “company performance” is good, chances are it may not be the suitable way to understand “performance”.
It’s crucial to be clear of what “doing better in this role” means. For the entrepreneur, does that mean create more revenue? Make customers and employees more satisfied? These are important, but I’d dare to say that they are only secondary. The primary indicator is how well we tune in and express the essence through the form.
It’s the difference between going to a show with highly skillful dancers whose cool moves dazzle you but you don’t feel moved. It’s nice, but nothing shifts. Comparing that to going to a local show that may have less fanfare and fancy moves but the performer is so tuned in and the essence comes out so genuinely that it moves you to tear.
The ideal case is both, but for practical reason we’ve got to know what’s more important. For me, nine out of ten I will choose for the latter because a performance, whether it is on the stage or in our daily life, is about the passing through and beyond our current form.
Now that we have this lens to look at performance, we can begin to examine what happens at a more detailed level. For example in the dance context, why does the performer does this hand gesture and not a 360 turn? Why walking this way and not that way?
All these are choices that the performer will need to make throughout his experience. Of course, he cannot be aware of all, but at least he practices becoming aware of more. This is the effortful part of his work.
It’s not done out of the desire to control everything as in a highly choreographed piece, which is often an illusion most newbies have. The professional improvisational performer knows that the work it is about bringing into alignment of the chosen intention and the commitment to realize it.
This heightened awareness and concentration that comes with the practice is the performance state, or the “flow” state many of us would love to stay in.
Does this effortful work of setting an intention, aligning and executing it not leave room for improvisation? Far from it. The effortful concentration work, or the “come back to your breath” as the meditation teacher says, is what enables the tuning into the moment that is at the heart of any good improvisation.
“Just because it feels good” is not a good enough explanation. It works on an open dance floor, but nothing can pass through and transcend the form if we only “do what feels good”. More importantly, our sense of what feels good will be refined with effortful pruning of what works and what doesn’t in terms of conveying the essence.
Rethinking Performance Evaluation
This brings us to the dreaded “performance review” and its friend “performance anxiety” in both the dancing on stage and company quarterly review context. Anyone who cares enough about the performance will get anxious about what it looks like. Some cope by affirming “it’s going to be alright”. Others thrive in the pressure.
Our lens of performance as passing through current form allows us to view the question differently.
Whether the movement looks good or bad is important but only secondary. By this perspective, the most important criterion to judge a performance is the extent in which something has passed through and transcended the form, in the performer and the audience.
If the audience didn’t feel that moved but the performer got a huge surge of confidence as if he has transcended his previous limit (imagine eager parents coming to see their child doing spelling bee for the first time in public), it’s not too bad but most people won’t get a lot out of it.
The best ones are those when the performer can 1) tune into that essence while 2) having such a mastery of the form for it to pass through while 3) bringing the audience along to a surprising place. That’s a high bar!
Performance anxiety is simply concerning too much about the latter two, and the solution is to focus on the first. For example, many public speakers sit in silence alone before going on stage to tune in for this reason. It helps.
The performer may never know for sure the essence of his work, but he strives to be in touch and articulate it through the form. Like our teacher Tina says, it’s the sincere trying that matters.
Bringing the audience along
If the value of the performance doesn’t depend so much on taste or audience approval but on whether they meet these three criteria, then it can be quite liberating for the performer to choose to be however deemed fitting.
You can be shocking, pleasant, bold, gentle, kind, aggressive etc… These are all great qualities depending on the occasion and intention, which can range anything from “make audience feel inspired” to “explore fear and anger of modern life”.
Being clear of this, a performer will know that it’s not so much about how much people will like the performance, but rather what they get from being involved in it. Audience can totally be made uncomfortable, even repelled and still experience something profound like a piece I did and wrote about before. That’s transmission of essence is what gives performance its magic.
Having said that, it’s worth remembering that likeability to a performance is like food to the human. You need it to sustain, but that’s not the point.
In another word, we meet people where they are so they know you care enough so that they trust you in bringing them into wherever magical place you’d love to show them.
It’s better as a performer to assume that audience didn’t come for a “wow that’s so cool”. They come to to be moved. They want to leave not only saying “Oh I like it” but “Gosh, something moved in me”.
To translate that into business lingo, the performance has to “add value”.
It happens when the performer, be it the dancer on the stage, a lover in the bedroom or your portfolio company, delivers more than expected. We experience value in the positive gap between expectation and reality. That’s a tall order for the performer, but hey, isn’t the whole point of performance to aim high to that which is beyond form, align ourselves towards that and then realize that somehow?
It maybe true that for most regular shows, audience comes primarily looking to enjoy themselves, and the performer needs to deliver that first. This brings us to an important note: a performance can only happen within the shared realities between the audience and performer. Without establishing that shared realities, there is no context to judge, no ground to “add value”. Audience will be confused “what’s going on?” while performer complains “they didn’t get my edgy expression”.
Because these realities are shaped by intentions, a performer often has to begin by checking in with his own intention. Without that, he is not tuning into the moment and nothing will pass through his form.
Then he has to learn about the audience’s intention. Assuming that the audience indeed comes looking to have a good time, he has to make sure they enjoy it while remembering that it’s not just about entertainment. He has to remember to frame and express his own intention. Only then his and the audience’s realities can begin to align and magic can happen.
For example, the intention behind my duet piece was to tap into the essence of Sacrifice & Commitment. I wanted myself to experience and understand this process and then somehow express it to the audience.
Throughout the preparation, the questions I did ask myself is “Have I experienced Sacrifice & Commitment? If not, how can I tune in? If so, how to share that with the audience?” That entire aligning process from the spark of inspiration to the creating and pruning of movements is a huge part of the performance, unseen to the audience but essential to the piece.
I did know that some core movements of the piece means something for me, from the thought “Crossing hands in front of the body means to hold on and commit to a milestone” to the embodied expression of what it physically look like when someone holds on steadily towards something.
I could also have framed my intention by mentioning that in the title of the piece, the announcement at the beginning and all the nuanced stage arrangements etc… After all, I don’t know how well the performance has performed (pun intended). I can only check with some audience what they experience from my piece. Hopefully some of that essence got through.
What makes a performance in this sense challenging and meaningful is that it brings us close to a few paradoxes of being human: to focus on other without losing oneself, and to tune into oneself without losing the awareness of other. To go all in with the current forms while not losing the essence. To work fully with what we have while still striving to what we want.
To live our life in this spirit of performance is to embrace such paradoxes.
It is to practice that level of intentionality, attunement and expression, constantly going deeper and passing through the current identities of who we think we are.
I don’t know if I will ever find My True Self or if it’s even necessary. I do know though that something can keep passing through and transcending this current incarnated form, that’s a life well-lived.
Read the full post here on Medium.
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What is true is already so.
Owning up to it doesn't make it worse.
Not being open to it doesn't make it go away.
And because it is true, it is there to be interacted with.
What is untrue isn't there to be lived.
People can stand what is true,
For they are already enduring it.
by my friend J Li who I admire so much for her insights on the tech startup worlds.
Here are some of my favorite highlights.
SOCIAL SAFETY NET
But in the meantime the years go by and I watch the numbers of startup fail to add up. I watch hundreds of founders throw themselves at the fundamental paradox that in most situations you cannot sell products or services to someone who does not have the money to make basic ends meet in order to give them a better life. The only thing that will help them is literally more money, somehow. If the product or service does not get them more top line income, it's fighting the current.
So you could sell education, or career support, or any number of things. Sure. But none of those things will do a fraction as much good as... legislation.
The truth is that in the past years, I have genuinely been tempted perhaps a dozen times to switch what I'm doing from the business sector to the lobbying sector. What impact could I have if I deployed our efforts and impact on problems like voter participation instead of customer retention? It's a field I know nothing about, but I could still try and learn and maybe make a dent. The truth is that if I hadn't had a baby, I very likely might have made that change.
That word strikes... helplessness... in the souls of millions of techie startup types, because we've all come to associate it with a hopeless uphill battle. The work of legislation is a labor of great effort and minuscule control, so everyone (including me) would rather take our chances with a business where our chances of mattering are far less, but we have individual agency and direct results. So instead we build companies. After all, the verbs we have around us are the verbs of business, because those are the verbs in our society that move. [highlight mine'
But you can't dismantle the master's house with the master's tools
Adam Grant: the Man who Does Everything
A great interview on the Tim Ferriss show by Adam Grant, the highly sensible young professor that many people including myself admired. It's worth listening to rethink and learn a bit about making sure stuff get done with joy.
If you have been touched by Thich Nhat Hanh's teaching, this is a great song, Present Moment.
Write back to me the answer to this one question as we enter the end of the year and I'll tell you why.
What do you wish people know more (or ask you more) about you?