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One flutist's take on uncertainty: a mind reset and a simple tool

May 12, 2020, 17:08 PM by National Flute Association

By Tess Miller, DMA, CMP, CPC


Need Tips? Don’t Read This
(Need a Mind Re-Set? Consider Reading This)

Almost as soon as my life came to a halt in March 2020, I started seeing ‘tips’ on how to handle this “new normal” we all seem to be facing. Of course, a lot has changed in a short amount of time. For now. And we really do not have any answers about what will change for good and what will remain. Uncertainty is the only thing that is certain. So, the last thing I want to do is bombard you with a bunch of ‘tips’ on how to navigate this “Grand Pause.” Instead, my offering is a mind re-set and a simple tool. But first a story.

Not too long ago, I went through some career burnout. As a flutist teaching and performing all over Michigan, I was probably saying yes to too many gigs, projects, and teaching opportunities. In fact, I had mastered the art of tuning out that small, still voice warning that my energy was being drained faster than it could be refilled. Once I hit burnout, nothing in my life felt right anymore. The passion I once had for being a prolific musician was gone, and I could not remember why I had signed up for this career. Did I really once enjoy this?  

I had to let go of some of my college teaching work and start saying no to the performance opportunities that were draining more energy than the financial gain was worth. This went against the grain of my entire post-doctoral years of career-building. But let go I did, and I soon found myself staring uncertainty in the face. All the questions flooded in: Do I change my career? Do I just take a break for now and see how I feel in a few months? What if I do not want to do this anymore? What would I do instead? My whole life has been about music! Do I need to consider MORE school? So many questions, and answers seemed impossible.

In a lot of ways, the uncertainty I am experiencing right now due to COVID-19 is very similar to my time recovering from career burnout. There are two differences: 1) The uncertainty this time is coming from outside rather than from inside me, and 2) because I have been through the process of uncertainty recently, I have a tool that I know will help me in this time. And if you are open to it, I will share this tool with you.

As I mentioned, this brand of uncertainty is external. Whether uncertainty comes from without or within, we tend, as human beings, to look outside of ourselves for answers. At the beginning of my career burnout, for example, I looked to the internet to guide me through my next steps. In my most desperate moment, I believe I typed the words “what should I do with my life” into Google, expecting the great and powerful search engine to come up with the perfect answer. It did not. And the longer I went without an answer from without, the more I realized that I needed to go within myself for some guidance.

In this time of sheltering in place, a lot of us are feeling cut off from the usual sources of external comfort, especially if we are used to going to see friends or family for moral support, or even going out in public to be around people in a café or restaurant. Retail therapy is definitely out for a while. And the gatherings for gigs, festivals, or even summer holidays are likely gone for now as well. Currently, we are being guided by a virus to stay home and be within ourselves. Investigating the inner landscape takes a little time and practice, as I discovered in my career burnout days. Once I could settle within, the most powerful tool was in the questions that kept popping up. I realized that the questions I was asking myself were the ticket to moving forward. But my questions needed some discipline.

When we are uncertain about anything, we ask questions. But sometimes the questions we ask are not very helpful. In fact, they can sometimes be anxiety-provoking and land us in a negative mindset. For instance, “when is this pandemic going to end?” is a question no one can answer. Your mind is simply going to spin with all of the potential outcomes and consequences, and nothing you come up with will be rooted in reality. However, what if you ask yourself, “Who do I want to be during this time of transition?” Sitting with this question allows helpful and often inspiring answers. I want to be a positive light for others! I want to be the kind of person that helps others! I want to dream of all the positive changes that will benefit everyone once we are on the other side of this! I want to wear pants today! Hopefully, you too are coming up with some fantastic answers for yourself right now.

Another question I really love is “who am I being for myself right now?” We often expect comfort to come from some source outside ourselves. As human beings living in a three-dimensional reality, why would we not? But in a time when we cannot take part in our usual external-comfort-providing activities, it becomes really important to be able to show up for ourselves. So, I ask, who are you being for yourself right now? Are you being the supportive caregiver who encourages you to do the things that are healthy for you? Or are you allowing yourself to wallow in fear-thinking about the future until you cannot sleep at night? Are you becoming overwhelmed by seeing your friends and colleagues seemingly being okay with everything on social media while you yourself do not feel okay? It is okay to not be okay right now. It is okay to not be practicing or producing right now if you are not feeling it. And you need to be present with yourself, attending to your emotions and your needs.

So, what did I ultimately do about my career burnout? I questioned my way out. When I was ready to feel into the question about what I loved about being a teacher, the answer was that I love guiding students to the core of who they are and what they want for their lives. “How can I do more of that?” I wondered. The answer came in the form of life coach training. So, yes, I did ultimately go back to school. But when you are learning about yourself, the word “school” does not really apply, does it? And what about performing? It did not take long for me to realize that performing is not an option for me; it is a requirement. And I am much more mindful about the performing to which I commit. If the desire to perform comes internally, then I know my intentions and musical inventions will be authentic and empowered. And when I am teaching and performing from that space of authenticity, there is no limit to my energy.

After emotionally healing from the experience of career burnout, I am not a completely new person. After all, my portfolio career looks pretty much the same with the exception of adding ‘coach’ to my toolbelt. But I am a much stronger version of myself. In this time, I still wonder where I am going. But with some mindful questions, and a bit of courage, I know I will choose my directions wisely because that compass comes from within. I also have control over my mindset, and that is a superpower that can withstand anything. I send you all the very best during this time as we navigate this transition into what I hope will be all of our greatest lives and careers yet. Take care!