Mechanical or Intuitive: Which Approach Works Best for You? – A Real-World Lesson (Part II)

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The Conclusion of: “Style or Substance? A Real-World Lesson – A Real-World Lesson (Part I)

“Yes, you may hit the right notes more often than Chris,” she began, “but your intuitive desire to physically search for the perfect note interferes with the broader tempo of the entire piece. Chris is mechanical. To him, keeping that tempo is more important than finding the perfect pitch. The concertmaster’s job is to lead the entire orchestra in maintaining this tempo.”

The answer shocked me. I never thought of myself as a mere machine. But there it was. The teacher had just said so. I was mechanical, not intuitive.

This didn’t sound right. How could a machine find the joy in playing the way I did? Wasn’t a machine dispassionate? Doesn’t a machine work precisely because it has no feelings to get in the way? It just didn’t make sense.

Also, the remark struck me as damning with faint praise. Sure, the teacher didn’t mean it that way. She was simply telling the truth about the role of the concertmaster. And probably trying to help ease the pain of my classmate who felt she deserved to be concertmaster.

Let’s break this down because the difference between mechanization and intuition plays an important role in your life, too.

Mechanization represents a process you’re probably very familiar with. You’ve seen it at school, you’ve seen it at work, and, as you get older, you’ll see it in your everyday life.

If you’re of a certain generation, you remember taking speed tests in elementary school. These quick (usually 3 minute) tests quiz you on one-type of single digit math operations. Imagine 50 or 100 single digit addition questions. Or multiplication questions.

Bam! Bam! Bam! Do the math. Over and over again. It turns you into a human calculator. Soon, you no longer need to think. You merely see the numbers and the operand (the “plus” sign or the “multiplication” sign) and – BAM! – you automatically spit out the right answer.

At first, you wonder where that comes from. Eventually, though, you accept the mechanization, then you embrace it. And you move on to more challenging problems.

You find mechanization in leisure activities for all ages. Young baseball players learn the mechanics of swinging a bat or throwing a ball over and over again. Why? Because the live-action game moves quickly once the balls in play. You have little time to make a decision, so you want to put your body on “auto-pilot.” Mechanization does that for you.

Corporate training relies on this same process. It allows employees to produce products and deliver services more efficiently and more effectively.

That’s the value of mechanization. Rote learning makes the mundane become second-nature. It creates a foundation from which you can build greater knowledge, greater success. Mechanization is a good thing.

But it has its limits. And it’s dangers.

The dangers are notorious. Any spy movie or gangster film will tell you this. The hero needs to take his target by surprise. How is this done? The target has a daily routine – a mechanization of regular activities he does almost without thinking. And because he does so without thinking – because he’s on autopilot – he fails to maintain the alertness necessary to see the hero’s plot.

Yes, relying on a mechanical regime allows you to develop a second-hand familiarity that can propel you to the next level. But it also can deaden your senses to important changes within your environment.

If you continue to trust the usual way of doing things, you’ll find yourself falling behind. It’s one thing to memorize math tables by taking speed tests. But if you don’t move on to algebra, to trigonometry, to calculus, you’ll find your opportunities limited.

This is where the value of intuition kicks in. Great intuition depends on a solid base of good mechanization. You’ve got to be proficient in the basic skill set required of your task. But you can’t – you shouldn’t – stop there.

Let’s go back to the lesson of the concertmaster. I had a basic proficiency. Not in hitting the right note, but in keeping the tempo, a certain feel for advancing the score from measure to measure the way the conductor, if not the arranger, desired.

This was easier than it sounds. And far better then playing solo. As a soloist, one need to not only have a feel for the tempo, but a feel for the melody itself. As a concertmaster, the whole orchestra has your back – literally! The melody flows through them, not you.

Then, something dramatic happened in eleventh grade. My teacher retired and a new string teacher entered the scene. As incumbent concertmaster, he assumed more of me than perhaps he should have. He picked a selection for the orchestra to play. This piece required the concertmaster to play solo. Worse, the piece was written by John Cage.

John Cage was an American composer most known for his avant-garde approach.

I could not fall back on my mechanical approach when playing this solo. I can’t describe what the sheet music looked like. It didn’t contain notes the way you’re used to seeing them. Where the notes should be were only squiggly lines.

It gets worse.

During this solo, I no longer had the rest of the orchestra behind me. All the other instruments remained silent. A stark reel-to-reel tape stood as my lone accompaniment. A machine. I was to play alongside a machine, an unforgiving inhuman mechanization.

Oh, the irony.

People complained to the teacher. This was not “music.” They felt no teenager should be placed under so much stress. I made no secret that I couldn’t understand the point of Cage’s “melody.”

That’s where intuition saved me. Playing had become so automatic that I couldn’t help but develop a feel for a melody. Being placed in this situation forced me to play the violin with my heart, not my fingers.

And I did. With surprising perfection. It helped that no one knew what the melody should have been – they never heard this song before. What helped more was that, with the strong backbone of mechanics, I was confident enough to allow my intuition to take it from there.

If you’re making widgets and you want to do that as resourcefully as you can from now until eternity, then acting like a machine represents the best strategy. A mechanical approach perfects the skills necessary to excel. To a point. Beyond that, you need to take advantage of a more intuitive approach. Intuition releases you from the bonds of the mechanical. In doing so, it releases creative fruits that might otherwise go unharvested.

Think of a quarterback who decides against the play the team has practiced all week to call an audible because he suspects the defense is leaning to stop the original play. Or of a business leader who suddenly realizes people are beginning to buy a different way than they used to and therefore retrofits the factory to build products for the new way people are buying products.

Ultimately, every successful entrepreneur and every successful inventor uses intuition to make that leap from the world of today to the world of tomorrow.

You can’t do that with a mechanical mind.

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