Don’t Beat Down The Unicorn

Don’t Beat Down The Unicorn

We all have voices in our heads. We all have mental banter that ranges from kind thoughts about puppies to ‘this is hell and you should stay here.’

And these thoughts mean something. They have an effect.

tldr – When developing a skill, try to attempt what you are working on without judging yourself. Then, after you’ve made your attempt, review what you’ve done and attempt to do it differently, and better, the next time. Don’t put the two actions together and constantly discipline yourself while you’re busy trying to have fun.


Skill building is interesting. It’s something also referred to as mastery.

And how you think has an effect on how you master a subject.

Life is often thought of as an experience of the push and pull between opposite forces.

Good, Evil.
Yin, Yang.
Black, White.

How we experience thought is often linked with that worldview. Whether it’s cause or effect, we don’t know. And whether it’s an adequate or insufficient perspective is often debated. But we’re going to use it today, because it’s how most of us think.

When you’re working on developing an ability, you have this one part of your brain that functions like a giant, graceful, muscular, happy unicorn with wings, that farts glitter and just wants to do amazing things.

This is the part of your brain that is highly active when you’re doing things you barely notice until after they’ve happened:

Singing in the shower.
Killing it at evening conversation around the dinner table.
Running farther than you thought you could because you were watching the pretty butt running in front of you.
Nailing something difficult on the first try because you didn’t care.
Nailing something difficult you’ve done many times before because you were having a great time showing off.

Unicorn brain.

There is another part of your brain that’s also functioning when you’re developing an ability. It functions sort of like a calculator that eats red meat. A monster of a creature with knives for claws that wants to survive, and to organize. It seeks safety and precision with the intensity of a cracking whip.

This part of your brain is also active when you’re doing things you barely notice until after they’ve happened:

Swerving away from a semi truck that’s about to kill you.
Finding the problem in the everything.
Making that piece of furniture you’re building have perfect corners.
Reading ten articles about the subject you only needed a paragraph from just because it seemed like the extra information might be useful someday.

The analytical mind.

You might call them the Creator and the Fixer. The freedom fighter and the dictator. But I’m going to go with the unicorn and the analytical mind. Because I want to.

It’s very important that you be aware of the two voices. Because they’re both necessary. And, at their best, they work in synergy.

When you develop a skill, it happens through a process. The process is generally this:

1. See the thing you want to do.
2. Attempt the thing you want to do.
3. Analyse how well you did the thing you want to do.
4. Decide how you want to do it better next time.
5. Start over at step two.

This is a pretty good process. It usually works well. If you do this long enough, you will get good at most things on planet earth.

There’s a lot that can go wrong in this process though. The problem I’d like to talk about happens on step two, arguably the most important step. The problem, thing that goes wrong so often, is we try to do step two and step three at the same time. We often attempt something while analyzing it. And this can have terrible effects.

When you do this, you’re unleashing your analytical mind and letting it attack your unicorn brain and you’re wasting your mental resources at the same time.

When you are attempting something, every ounce of your being that you can spare should be on whatever you’re attempting. If you’re trying to play the violin, and you’re learning how to play a passage with your thumb in a particular location, every resource you can muster needs to be on keeping your thumb in that location. Because that’s the skill you’re building in that moment. It takes more energy to analyze than it does to observe. So if you’re analyzing your performance as you’re attempting it, then you’re not devoting enough energy to your performance. You should be passively observing your attempt, not analyzing. That’s why it’s a waste of mental resources.

But worse than that. Your unicorn brain is an amazing creature that just wants to do cool things. If you tell your unicorn brain what it’s doing wrong, as it’s doing it, your unicorn brain will shrink into a sad and frightened puppy brain. Don’t do that.

Don’t analyze while you perform. Let your heart sing, don’t hold back. And while you practice, only hold back enough to observe yourself. Don’t pass judgement while you’re in action. After you’ve completed an attempt at the ability you’re working on, stop. Take a breath, and consider what you did. And see if there’s a way to make it better. Then try again.

This is a more productive approach because it’s more fun. There’s less shame involved. And when you don’t let yourself pass judgement on yourself the moment you try new things, you will feel more mentally free to improvise, create, and explore (three basically redundant words, it’s that important).

There are two ways we can steer ourselves towards a goal. We can restrict ourselves until we achieve our goal, or enable ourselves until we achieve it. Imagine yourself born as a wild ball of energy flashing across the globe at the speed of light, randomly, and with a slowly developing ability to control your direction. Your goal is to pass through Chiang Mai, Thailand. You can build fences of mirrors all over the globe. And eventually, through an exhaustive restriction of your actions, you will eventually end up in Chiang Mai. Or you can shoot towards Chian Mai. Miss it by a thousand miles. Have a great time in Chittagong, Bangladesh. And tell yourself to aim a little closer next time. You’re moving at the speed of light, you’ll get there soon enough.

Spend less time stopping yourself from doing the wrong thing and more time getting yourself to do the right thing. After you’ve attempted the right thing, then you can stop and analyze what when wrong and try again.

Vocal lessons are an excellent example when exploring this train of thought. Many vocal students will try to hit a high note, and the moment they’ve sung the note, they analyze it to decide whether it was right or wrong. The ability to self correct is an important skill, and worth writing an entirely different article about. But the problem in this situation is, the moment the student begins to analyze their high note (which they should be belting out with passion) they begin to back off, behave cautiously, and lose their natural tone.

It’s the same with shifting in violin lessons. Many violin students will slide from a low note to a high note, shifting from one to the other. And they will immediately try to worry as much as they can as to whether they’ve done it right. This makes them lighten bow pressure when they should increase it, and tighten their left hand when they should loosen it. Better to commit to the mistake than stress about it. Try it again later with a different goal in mind.

It’s the same with back flips. Rarely is a coach going to give you advice while you’re halfway through a back flip. Just think about how stupid that sounds and you’ll understand what I mean. There just isn’t much time for discussion while in the middle of a back flip. Yes, over time, you will be able to make slight changes in mid air. But, most of the time, you will do a back flip, think about how it went, and then try again. This is because it takes all of your effort and concentration to attempt the back flip and not die. This requires you to be far less judgmental of yourself while you’re in action. If you are someone who is developing a skill that requires slow work, I recommend developing a skill that requires instantaneous action, like a back flip, at the same time. Or, if you are developing a skill that requires immediate action, try working on a slow moving skill as well. This can be extremely helpful in deepening your learning process.

In short, do this:

1. See the thing you want to do.
2. Attempt the thing you want to do.
3. Analyse how well you did the thing you want to do.
4. Decide how you want to do it better next time.
5. Start over at step two.

Don’t do this:

1. See the thing you want to do.
2. Attempt the thing you want to do and analyze how well you’re doing the thing you want to do while you’re doing it.
3. Be sad about all the things that went wrong.
4. Start over at step two.

Let your unicorn brain try cool things. Observe it as it does its magic. Wonder at its amazing abilities to do things with such passion. And kindly suggest a new aim for yourself that becomes ever more precise with time and repetition.

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