Keep Trying

“Bernice, play this,” my violin teacher said (in case there are any other violinists reading this, it was Kreutzer etude #33). I started playing it, regularly starting and stopping to grimace at how bad I sounded, not to mention out of tune. I had been playing for about thirty seconds when my violin teacher stopped me – but not for the reason I was expecting.

“You need to stop that.” He said. “Stop grimacing, and stop stopping. You’re reading this for the first time. Of course you’re going to sound bad! You can’t expect to get it perfect on the first try, can you? Don’t be afraid to sound ugly. Don’t be afraid to be a beginner. Just keep playing and playing and playing and in one week of going through this everyday, you’ll sound so much better than you do right now. But you have to keep playing.”

Once again, during a violin lesson, I was struck by how applicable the lesson was to life in general and not just to my instrument. Uncertainty in life is scary. Often we (or okay, I) want to wait until I’m absolutely ready for something before jumping. But how many opportunities have I lost because of this? While it is good to spend time preparing and polishing things, there is also something in learning to just do things and “polishing” as you go along.

It so happens also that I listened to a particular lecture of Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein this past week where he was discussing Pharaoh’s daughter who stretched out her hand in order to get Moshe from the Nile River (from the parsha [Torah portion] a few weeks ago). There was no way she could have physically reached his basket and it was with only G-d’s help that her hand extended so that she could reach it – but still, she made the first step and stretched out her hand. She needed to do that before G-d could extend it and she could reach Moshe. She tried.

And these two ideas together, I think, are a good combination for a little guideline to life, though they are slightly different. The first says to keep trying and not be hesitant to be bad at what we do at first. We can’t wait for things and circumstances to be perfect before doing things because if we do, we’ll hardly get anywhere or get anything done that way. We can’t let fear of failure or even fear of anything-less-than-perfection hold us back. We don’t need to be perfect on the first try – we just need to try and keep trying, and the perfection will catch up to us eventually. There is a beautiful quote I read before from Stephen McCranie that goes, “The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.” We need to keep trying, keep playing, keep writing, and keep living. The second idea, which in Rabbi Wallerstein’s words, to “keep stretching out your hand” speaks more about the times you have failed but need to get up again.

Trying is extremely important because it is only when we try that we are opening ourselves up to the other side of the coin, which is G-d’s side. G-d cannot help you if you do not take that first step first. He “needs” a physical effort from each of us that He will build up on to perform His miracles. When things do not work out, it certainly does not make one a failure. It just means that it was not the right time for it, and there was a lesson you had to learn first. So it is important to keep trying because each “failure” is a building block. Everything happens according to G-d’s perfect timing, and we need to trust that He knows when the right time is for things to fall into place.

It seems a little far, but all of this reminds me of two other people in my life: The conductor of my school orchestra, and my boss in a research project I am involved with. Both of them say the same thing: “When I choose people to work with, I am more concerned with their heart than with their skill.” I always struggled to understand it but the past week, it suddenly made perfect sense. Skills can be learned, but heart is something else. Someone’s motivation, someone’s determination, that’s something that will push them and keep them going while their skill catches up with them. They are more likely to last and eventually excel as opposed to people who are good at what they do from the beginning but couldn’t care less about it – they are more likely to burn out and quit. And my personal guess is that G-d works with more or less the same philosophy. If He sees someone who wants to do His will and who is genuinely passionate about bringing more good into the world, He will work with that person, regardless of whether the person feels that they can do it or not, and even if they doubt that they deserve it. G-d cares about your heart, and less about your skill.

To summarize everything in three points:

  1. Whatever you want to do, do it now. Any day is the perfect day to become a beginner at something. No previous experience required.
  2. If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again! Keep stretching out your hand because
  3. When G-d says the time is right and that what you are trying to achieve is good for you (and for the world), you will succeed.
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