With gratitude to Giacomo Mattei for sharing this college application essay from 2014, when he was 17 years old)
“How is this even happening to me?” I thought, bewildered. I was at my piano recital last summer, when I fell short of my own expectations and experienced the excruciating pain of failure. This was not my first time performing in public. Yet, that day I felt extremely nervous. I definitely wanted to be seen as a competent pianist by my peers and their families.
Forty-some people were sitting in the stuffy living room that served as the music hall. The old air conditioner was droning loudly, making me all the more edgy. Being one of the last students to perform, I recall how unnerving it was to sit still on that naked, straight-backed chair and wait for my turn to play. As I finally sat down behind the large Steinway, I noticed my breath coming unevenly into my lungs. I started playing. The blood was pounding in my ears, making it difficult to play musically and regulate the loudness of the notes. Halfway through my sonatina, my fingers fumbled on the keys. And I lost my place on the music sheet. Rationally, I knew that the adrenaline rush, caused by my stage fright, made my close-up vision fail: an evolutionary survival mechanism that enables the enhanced long-distance vision to take over in order to spot danger. Yet, what I needed most in that moment was to be able to read the notes that had turned from a beautiful sequence of music into a chaotic blur of meaningless little black dots. Unable to continue, I simply lifted my hands off the keyboard and stared at the page. My heart sank, since the possibility of such complete failure had never crossed my mind.
“Why is this happening to me?” I wondered to myself. “I always give 100% at everything I do. I always practice and apply myself to excel.” I realized I had expected to succeed, not only because I consistently do my best, but also because I usually even exceed my own expectations. A thousand thoughts were rushing through my mind. “How can I make myself such a public embarrassment?” All of a sudden, I had flashbacks of past successes: I first saw myself graciously playing the piano in church on Christmas Eve and then standing tall besides my Karate teacher while being inducted into the Black Belt Hall of Fame. “Have I deceived myself into unrealistic expectations of myself?” I was inundated by self-defeating thoughts.
Suddenly, I remembered to take three deep breaths as to return into my body and to present moment awareness. I had learned that skill at the insight meditation retreats I have been attending for years. Breathing mindfully cleared my vision just enough to start playing again. I halfheartedly finished the piece maintaining an awareness of my fingers touching the keys.
I was unusually cross the rest of that day. My parents jokingly said they were happy to finally have the opportunity to demonstrate that their love for me is unconditional.
That week, I mindfully attended to my thoughts. Initially, I noticed myself resisting the memory of the event and certain self-depreciating thoughts. Later, whenever I had negative thoughts about the occurrence or myself, I would observe them and let them go, knowing that they are not who I really am and that following them would only lead to more suffering. Fortunately, I have trained my mind to relate to events and my reactions to them with non-judgmental presence.
“My self-esteem has taken a blow,” I thought. “I have allowed it to completely depend on my ability to perform, to be externally evaluated as competent.” Then, shifting my focus internally on mindful self-awareness, I observed my mind’s workings. I accepted my “failure” as an opportunity for self-understanding and growth rather than as an attack on my ego. I now know that I sometimes pressure myself unduly. I also trust that I can mindfully bounce back.