snakes and ladders


It took me years to learn how to play the flute. The curve was sharp because I was hostile towards the process from the outset. I thought the flute was too delicate and airy.

And I wanted to play the drums instead.

But the drums weren’t available the day students were matched up with instruments in my sixth-grade music class. By the time my name was called my options were two reed instruments, a brass monstrosity, and the silver snake from the wind family. I revolted audibly, risking detention, but the teacher didn’t care for my rebellion. He placed a small, rectangular black box on my desk.

You’ll learn to like it,” he said.

My mother shared my teacher’s viewpoint—she thought the flute was a noble and beautiful instrument. She tried various approaches to get me to change my mindset. But, try as she might, none of them worked, at least for the first nine months. I loathed the flute with as much hate as my little heart could muster.

My frenemy.

I despised it with all my being.

It took years to come around. I had to overcome the challenge of getting the embouchure right, teaching my lips to conform to the cold, hard, and glimmering mouthpiece. Then I had to regulate enough air flow so the higher notes came out melodious instead of sounding like the piercing screams of an animal in the midst of being slaughtered. I also had to work on posture and holding the flute properly. That was the biggest challenge since I spent a lot of time hunching over, trying to make my towering frame as small as possible.

Yet, I kept at it despite my irritation, eventually developing an affinity for my frenemy. I learned how to shift tempo on a dime and jump from the lower register to the third octave with ease. By the time I received my high school diploma I had passed several national exams administered by the Canadian Royal Conservatory of Music.

The flute and I had finally become friends but I hadn’t embraced the relationship or recognized everything I’d accomplished. Instead, I skulked and lamented, wallowing in my insecurities. I was frustrated I hadn’t progressed as much as expected. I wanted more after all the effort I’d put into becoming a satisfactory flutist.

Ah yes, expectations. The wayward pressures we yield to and that involve start and end points with a singular track running between. If you mind all instructions you’ll move from strength to strength. Follow the rules, do things the way they’re supposed to be done, and you’ll succeed at almost anything.

What utter bullshit.

chutes and ladders

I call bullshit because trying on anything new is like playing a virtual game of snakes and ladders. We might move forward a dozen squares only to get knocked back ten or more. At times, we climb a ladder and receive a handful of rewards for only doing half the work. On occasion, we avoid the bigger pitfalls and make it to square 100 unscathed. Once there, we are crowned “the winner” and it’s time to start over again.

Expectations are bullshit because 94.2% of processes aren’t linear. Life isn’t a competition. It’s not a goddamned game. Injustice and misfortune take place, even to the best of people. You might put in five times the effort and get no compensation while someone else behaves in the most deplorable manner and still gets three ladders in a row. Another will bear down and do their best to get out of the mire to only hit snake after snake after snake…after snake.

let's make magicAlthough the flute is one thing I happened to “win” at, the path to 100 wasn’t painless or straightforward. My progress was unsteady. There were months where I stalled, unable to reach the next level. I didn’t understand that working hard doesn’t equate to an instant payoff. Breakthroughs never take place in a vacuum.

It took me a while to grasp I can progress in one area while grappling in the most glorious fashion in another. There will also be times when I throw in the towel—all of which is okay because we can’t be great at everything.

Some things must be let go of, released and discarded.

I’ve learned this through trial and error, and having a go at countless things. There was trumpet, track, basketball, and theatre. I tried modern dance, painting, and field hockey. There was running in my 20s and yoga in my 30s. Now there’s knitting and boxing, plus all manner of relationships. They count too, you know.

Managing our expectations of people is always the hardest.

The endeavor doesn’t matter, really. The bottom line is the effort: how much work we put into others and ourselves. You don’t get to leave the first square if you don’t roll the dice. Evolving and growing is linked to what happens in the interim. It’s about how we handle the stalling, setbacks, overtime, and roadblocks.

Advancing happens through practice, exercising whatever it is like a muscle. Only when we put ourselves out on the line to dry does it become clear that not everything is designed to be won. What’s important is what we learn about gratitude, resilience, heart, and discipline. Arriving at the finish is secondary.

The real lesson is amplifying this moment and getting as much out of it as possible.

Photos/images:  flute photo by Petar Milošević | Chutes and Ladders board game by Ben Husmanngraphic of making magic by Glen Andersenvideo by @jillemery.

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