Any time I’m stuck at an impasse, I turn to models and frameworks.
I use ones that aren’t necessarily designed for the challenge I’m facing. This helps open my mind to new thinking styles and ideas.
In a recent guitar lesson with my instructor, he asked a series of guiding questions to help get at which section of the piece I’m learning I wanted to improve. I identified an earlier section that had previously been my strongest and most natural, which now sounded disjointed and unintentionally asynchronous.
I was frustrated because I couldn’t get at the root of why I could no longer play it as well. That’s when aloud, I applied the ARIA model, which focuses on generating insights. It’s a model that’s used primarily in business, but I thought it might help here.
First, I focused my awareness on the problem by labeling it with one sentence. Then I reflected on the process I was currently using to play and what I had tried to fix the problem.
This generated an incredible insight: I play worse when I can’t feel the strings. I was “playing through” the section in anticipation of the next one, which left me physically disconnected. From there, we redesigned my daily practice regimen to focus on a strong connection between my mind and my hands.
This experience surfaced two ideas I immediately wanted to share. First, so much of achieving the outer goal comes down to your inner state — whether it’s focused, aware, relaxed, or present. Second, just like business-focused models work with music-related challenges, music-focused models might apply outside of music.
And that’s what led me to start using the P.E.L. triangle to enhance my performance everywhere.
In The Inner Game of Music, Barry Green takes W. Timothy Gallwey’s “Inner Game” model, which rose to popularity with The Inner Game of Tennis, and applies it to music.
He argues that to achieve our goals, we have to develop competency across three areas.
The genius of the P.E.L. Triangle is that it doesn’t just focus on these three pillars, but also emphasizes the necessary balance between them.
Focusing too much on one side creates performance gaps.
For example, in mastering a musical instrument, focusing too much on achievement dampens both experience and learning.
You may play the piece perfectly, but without enjoyment. Tension might have taken you out of the experience, making you less likely to keep up with practice and hindering your attention while playing, limiting how much you learn from that session.
Similarly, if you focus too much on the experience, both achievement and learning suffer because you get lost in the fun of it, compromising the accuracy necessary for achievement and the attentive awareness essential for learning.
Finally, when you focus too much on learning, you may over-practice. Over-practicing can suck the joy out of playing. Plus, when you over-practice, you often become wooden or mechanical in your delivery, without the natural flow that leads to exceptional performance.
This model doesn’t just apply to music. It benefits virtually every skill you’re focused on honing, whether its delivering presentations, writing, or even solving problems. The idea is the same — you need to master each side of the triangle without giving any side too little or too much attention.
So, what does that look like?
We often don’t focus on experience enough.
Think about work. We often throw around expressions like, “if it was fun, they wouldn’t call it work.” Instead, our experience at work is often defined by how much we achieve.
The quality of our experience determines how much we enjoy what we do, which motivates us to continue.
However, what sets masters apart is not just their intrinsic drive towards achievement or their natural talent. Masters want to perfect weaknesses, solicit critical feedback, and push to the outer edges of their abilities because it enhances the quality of their experience.
It’s hard to get to ten thousand hours of quality practice without enjoying what you’re practicing.
To enhance the experience of whatever it is you’re trying to master, I recommend a process of self-inquiry and correction.
First, identify why you do what you do. Why do you practice? Why do you love engineering, music, people, or something else? Once you arrive at an answer, ask if your practice is tied to that deeper love.
Second, ask what in the process is going wrong. I find that it’s usually too easy or too hard, which either causes tremendous boredom or overpowering anxiety.
If what you’re doing is too easy and therefore boring look for the small changes you can make to increase the difficulty. For example, there was a period when I was bored with writing. Simply by limiting myself to 1500 words or less, the experience improved because I introduced a challenge that’s hard for me to meet, but not impossible.
If what you’re doing is too hard, start by asking why. For example, if you find it’s too hard because you lack technical skills, work on breaking the experience up into smaller steps where you can move more slowly or focus on one piece at a time.
If it’s difficult because of anxiety or fear of the consequences, make a list of all the things that worry you when you’re in the experience. Then, make a list of the effects that doubt and anxiety have on you mentally and physically. Ask who you would be without these feelings. Just by heightening your awareness, the effects of anxiety will start to soften.
When we don’t focus enough on learning, we often get stuck in how much we can progress towards mastery.
Learning is what helps us break patterns, try different modes of thinking, and solve problems. It’s not just about reading and research — learning can be truly experiential. Simply by observing what is working and what is not in whatever you are doing, you can learn.
However, if you’re too focused on having fun and hitting goals, you may lose sight of what you’re doing to achieve both, which might lead to an impasse in your practice.
You want to avoid this kind of impasse because over time it drains the enjoyment away and chips away at your ability to achieve. You hit a plateau.
What can you do if you’ve lost your connection with learning?
How close are you to achieving your goals?
This is the central question behind achievement.
Usually when we think of performance goals, we think only of the achievement dimension. Yet, we don’t have a strong picture of the steps that lead us there. We know our desired outcomes, but not the path to them.
If you’re struggling to focus on achievement for reasons unrelated to boredom (which is an experience problem), it may be because you’re struggling to focus, period.
There are two ways to solve this problem.
First, spend time mapping out what achievement looks like. I like to keep a goals journal. It breaks my goals down into time dimensions:
Simply by getting these on paper and closely updating your weekly and daily goals in service of the others, you’ll find achievement easier overall.
The other way to break the cycle is to ask if something is getting in the way of achievement, like fear of consequences, failure, or even actually reaching the goals. Go back to a central question: What does this mean to you?
Perhaps you’ve set the wrong achievement goals. Reassess them, and come up with ones that resonate more deeply with you.
“In order for us to be fully present, to experience life fully, we need to acknowledge and accept all our emotions and all parts of ourselves.” — Pema Chodron, How to Meditate.
Recently, my guitar instructor shared a transformative observation.
For years, I have been the person who practices guitar twice a day, but doesn’t enjoy playing.
What I see now is that I’ve dramatically privileged achievement and learning over experience.
During a session, my instructor shared his perspective on my musical learning style. “You have an analytical style. The theory informs your practice.”
This is absolutely the way that I learn everything. But more importantly, it’s the way I enjoy learning.
It’s easier for me to read a textbook in a day, and then go out into the world and apply what I learned practically than to start by doing. That’s because what interests me most is the ideas. Once I know them, I want to see them in action.
This observation has changed the way I practice and interact with my guitar. I read texts like The Inner Game of Music, spend longer stretches on technical exercises, and focus on music theory. Not only do I now look forward to sitting down with my guitar — a complete and total rarity over the last two years — but my playing is significantly better.
In other words, to achieve mastery requires self-knowledge. What does a good experience look like for you? What learning mode is must compelling and useful? What does achievement mean to you?
I guarantee your answers to these questions won’t look the same as someone else’s. And once you have them, you’ll accelerate like crazy, with the help of the P.E.L. triangle, of course.