Thomas M. Sterner, Part 2: An interview by Bob Morris

Posted on: October 16th, 2012 by bobmorris

Thomas M. Sterner has studied Eastern and Western philosophy and modern sports psychology and trained as a jazz pianist. For more than twenty-five years, he served as the chief concert piano technician for a major performing arts center. He prepared and maintained the concert grand piano for hundreds of world-renowned (and demanding) musicians and symphony conductors, and his typical workday required constant interaction with highly disciplined and focused artists. At the same time, he operated a piano re-manufacturing facility, rebuilding vintage grand pianos to factory-new condition.

Tom has parlayed what he learned from his profession into a love of practice. He is an accomplished musician playing several instruments, private pilot, student of archery, and avid golfer. Practicing these activities fills his spare time. He has also worked in the sound and video arts fields as a recording engineer, audio and video editor and processor, and composer. He has produced a radio show about The Practicing Mind and continues to teach his techniques to businesspeople and at sports clinics. He lives in Wilmington, Delaware.

Here is part 2 of my interview of him.

To read Part 1, please click here.

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Morris: When and why did you decide to write The Practicing Mind?

Sterner:I always wanted to be a writer and as I mentioned above I was encouraged to do so from grade school on. I went in a different direction in high school when I became interested in composing (which is just musical writing).  I started out in song writing but then as my musical skills advanced I became more interested in jazz improvisation and orchestral composing. Growing up I was very undisciplined in all my efforts. I repeatedly got very excited about trying something new but then usually lost momentum pretty quickly and quit on my efforts. I fell short of accomplishing many of my own goals. Because I was very aware of my internal dialog I would pay attention to my-self talk and notice how this pattern of behavior made me feel which was pretty poor. I lacked self-confidence and I felt I had no real power if I couldn’t chose a goal and see it through.Around my senior year in high school I decided I really needed to change that aspect of my personality but I didn’t know how. When I started studying Eastern Thought in college I began to feel that perhaps I had a way out of my lack of discipline. Part of this came from the realization that I was almost never in the present moment and that was affecting my experience of every endeavor I undertook.

By the time I hit my late twenties I was constantly being referred to as extremely disciplined which at first seemed very odd to me but after looking at what I had accomplished I realized it was true.

Moving into my thirties I started playing golf seriously and I became fascinated with peak performance studies partly because their findings mirrored what Eastern Thought had been saying for thousands of years. It was just being rephrased in modern western terms. I began reading everything I could get my hands on and applying all that information to learning golf. This created an environment where I moved quite quickly. I was told by more than one PGA professional that they had never met a student like me which was quite a compliment.

I really wanted to better understand what I had learned, how I had learned it and how I had implemented it into the way I processed my day. I also wanted to express that understanding to others and hence The Practicing Mind began to take shape.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Sterner: Not really. most of my revelations happened pretty quietly and without fanfare before  actually writing the book because they were learned by… I hate to say this, practicing ideas over and over again to see how they worked. The one notable epiphany I can state that occurred before I wrote the book is the one I wrote about regarding trying to become a “good” musician. Without repeating that whole section I will just say that coming to the understanding that there was no place I needed to “get to” in music or even could get to as in being a perfect musician was a revelation and so freeing for me. I stopped feeling a sense of incompleteness as a musician and the self-imposed pressure to see constant measurable improvement ceased to torment me. I realized that the real joy I was seeking was in the infinite expansion of my skill level and that expansion was happening in every moment of every repetition. There was no wasted effort, only growth and that understanding gave me the perspective that the same “process” that I had interpreted for so long as a never ending struggle and at times boring was now something I treasured. That perspective immediately began to pervade every endeavor I undertook and in that sense was life changing.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Sterner: The only real difference was that originally I saw the book as being only for musicians or people who wanted to become a musician. In my business I saw so many people both young and old begin and quit the journey of learning a musical instrument. I felt I could have a positive impact on that with what I had learned. As I began writing the book I realized that I used the same information all day long in everything I did. It was just who I was at that point so the book had to be about life in general.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of a Practicing Mind?

Sterner: The Practicing Mind is quiet, It is not silent though because any activity contains thoughts. It is absorbed in the present moment. This comes from an awareness of the goal but at the same time a detachment from the moment it will be reached. Attachment to the goal which always pulls us out of the present moment comes from a false sense that we are incomplete in this moment, a sense of there is a perfect place and I am not there. That place is outside myself, in the future, not here and not now and once I reach that place this feeling will go away and I will be happy. It’s odd that no matter how many times we are shown that this mindset is a very unproductive paradigm we continue to cling to it.

Morris: For decades, K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues at Florida State University have conducted research on peak performance. The results thus far suggest that, with rare exception, peak performance requires at least 10,000 hours of “deliberate” (i.e. disciplined, focused, intense, and iterative) practice under strict, expert supervision. Such an investment of time and effort does not [begin italics] guarantee [end italics] peak performance, Ericsson acknowledges, but is almost impossible to achieve without it.

Your own thoughts about all this?

Sterner: What I notice immediately is the focus on numbers which can create a paradox. Speaking from my perspective that kind of information though it may be interesting and true, knowing it does not serve to create or inspire peak performance. What I mean is that if you say to someone in order to do this “well” one thing you should understand is that you will have to do it at least 10,000 times under strict supervision, that immediately sets up an attachment to the “goal” of 10,000 repetitions which pulls you out of the process of just being in this moment and repeating whatever you are working on. Thoughts like “I have only done this oh gee I don’t know, maybe 350 times and I have so far to go before I develop and proficiency” Or “I have done this over 4000 thousand times. I should be better at this by now” are almost inevitable.

I recently finished a lecture at a music university and that was one of the comments a faculty member shared with me. She had a student who was repeatedly in her office in tears because she (the student) felt like she was working daily at their art and not improving. The faculty said I couldn’t get her to let go of the whole concept of so many repetitions will equal this or that. Just immerse yourself in the process of repeating.

I’m also not sure how to define an “expert”. I studied golf under three different “experts”. All had the same credentials but only one was able to really communicate to me in a manner that worked and so I progressed. The many repetitions I made with the other two coaches did not produce the same progress as fewer repetitions with the one coach did. The same was true in my music training as I studied under several people.

Certainly one of the most important parts of that information is the word “deliberate”. To be deliberate to me means that you are working in the present moment with a specific intention and that will definitely speed the brain’s learning curve.

Morris: Why did you select the journey metaphor when explaining the process by which to develop a practicing mind?

Sterner: That’s because the “journey” IS goal. I am a sailor and a fellow sailor once said to me “when you get out of the marina you have reached your destination”. That’s because the process of sailing is WHY you are there. The arbitrary “destination” for that day’s sail is just to give you some place to go so you can experience the “process of sailing”…reading the wind, watching the sunlight on the sea, challenging and increasing your skills. I have said this before. You can curse the speed of the boat as not moving fast enough or relax and enjoy the experience that is all around you. The 50 miles distance you will travel to the port stays the same. It’s your choice.

Morris: What have been the most valuable lessons that you’ve learned from playing golf that you could apply when engaged in other activities and facing other challenges?

Sterner: The absolute beauty of golf is that it is a perfect metaphor for life. In a single round of golf you can experience so many things. Disappointment, fear, anger, embarrassment, elation, self-doubt and on and on are waiting for you. They are all part of a round of golf and anyone who has played the game knows this. Because of this Golf offers you the opportunity to both learn to be aware of how you are processing your experiences  moment to moment and how to increase your skill level at handling difficult situations all within the safety of a “game” that only asks you for 4 to 5 hours of time before it lets you off the hook.

Morris: In turn, what have been the most valuable lessons that you’ve learned away from the golf course, driving range, and putting green that have helped you to become a better golfer?

Sterner:  Well for me golf and life are pretty interchangeable in terms of what they demand from you to succeed and what they offer you in return. So I routinely take situations in my life such as not paying attention to what I am doing and work on that during my round of golf. In a case such as that I will say my goal in this round is to be fully present during the process of each shot from tee to green.

It sounds like “well obviously you want to do that” but I could say the same thing about paying full attention to someone who is speaking to you and how many times do we really do that. Golfers don’t realize how much their mind wanders until they try to stay aware of it and to stay present.

I also try to take the “4 S words” to my golf game at times. In other words I will often tell myself that I am going to work on only one aspect of my game in a round instead of trying to play a great round with a low score. This can be very difficult to do because the temptation is to become attached to the score and want to do everything well in the round. It requires discipline and detachment from the score to let go and focus on one weaker aspect of the game for the entire round in order to evolve my game on the whole.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read The Practicing Mind, you include an especially interesting story about a young, immature, and undisciplined chariot driver. What’s the point of this story? To what extent (if any) is this story autobiographical?

Sterner: The point is to understand that we are not our thoughts. We experience all of our thoughts but for most of us we only direct a few. I ask people to sit with their eyes closed for just two minutes and STOP thinking. They find that they can’t do it, even for such a short time. So the mind will go into search mode and look for something to think about even when YOU are willing it not to. So who is really in control?  Most of us are not the chariot driver with the reins in hand directing the power and energy of the horses (our mind) to process what we want but instead get carried through the day with our mind firing off thoughts that are responses to the circumstances around us. Learning to be aware of our thoughts through practices such as meditation gives us at least the opportunity to have the privilege of choice.

Morris: Your approach to “moving through life” changed significantly in your early-20s. Please explain.

Sterner: I think what happened in my early 20s was that I began to gain both momentum and clarity in my effort to transform myself from being a creative but somewhat scatterbrained individual into someone who was in control of my creative energy. Someone who was focused and able to “aim” his consciousness in a direction and know it was going to stay there

Morris: You cite a paradox at the beginning of Chapter 2: “The problem with patience and discipline is that developing each of them requires both of them.” Why did you cite this paradox?

Sterner: That came from one of my contemplative walks I try to take daily. I felt it might inspire readers in that it’s a two for one meaning whichever one you chose to work on you can know you are developing the other simultaneously.

Morris: Please explain the meaning and significance of the title of Chapter 2, “Process, Not Product.”

Sterner: That was meant to be a sort of mental trigger for one to ask oneself when one is feeling impatient with anything. Am I in the process of “achieving” this task or am I “attached” to the future point in time when the product the task is meant to achieve will be realized. It is fundamental to a mindful mindset in anything. I have actually been asked to sign books with just that phrase as if to punctuate it.

Morris: What are the “few simple rules” to creating a Practicing Mind? Which of them do most people find most difficult to follow? Why?

Sterner: The “flow” of a Practicing mind is made up of several components that are not only intertwined but interdependent.  To begin with you must learn to be in the present moment. You can’t do that without an awareness of when you are NOT in the present moment. So we always must begin with “awareness of our thoughts” which is cultivated through a meditative practice whereby you quiet your mind and learn to notice your thoughts.

Because developing any skill (including learning to be in the present moment) takes time you must let go of the goal and release your attachment to it. Otherwise you misuse the goal and it creates a sense of struggle and impatience.

The Practicing Mind does not judge but it does analyze. Judging occurs in the mind after the subject has been analyzed. In the context of skill development judging leads to unproductive self- talk. “This is good, this is bad, this is taking too long, I should be better at this by now” etc. all create distracting mental chatter which steals our energy and certainly does not increase the speed of our skill development or shorten the distance to the goal.

The Practicing Mind “knows” that perfection is here “now” in this moment, in the process of becoming, of learning, of evolving. Again it is not some place we “get to”. This I feel can be the hardest to hold on to because virtually all of marketing works on the principle that we are incomplete and need this thing or this circumstance to feel relief from the sense of incompleteness. The paradigm is fed to us all day long in so many ways and if you are not “aware” of it you are easily manipulated and will succumb to its influence.

Morris: When is “present-minded awareness” most helpful? Please explain?

Sterner: If I had to pick a specific circumstance it would probably be in in highly stressful situations. That’s why professionals such as pilots and emergency response people are taught procedures they can fall back on when they find themselves in fearful or upsetting situations. I once came upon a terrible car accident where the car had flipped upside down, the mother was thrown from the car and her child had been thrown up on the dashboard and was pinned against the windshield. In a situation like that a mind that wants to run everywhere is very unhelpful. Having a mind that is totally present and focused (meaning able to analyze the situation without a lot of side chatter from emotions) will be operating with maximum clarity and efficiency which is exactly what the situation demands.

Morris: How to resist the temptation for instant gratification?

Sterner: I can only speak to this from my own experience. Growing up there were many things I wanted, even felt I needed. Most of them I ended up with. But the feeling never went away. It just moved on to the next thing which made me feel like “if I just had this or that now I would be so happy”. My awareness of the endless repetitive cycle of feelings I associated with instant gratification eventually drove me to just let go of it. When you get to the point where you see the futility of that thought process, you see that the thirst for instant gratification is unquenchable, it loses its power and influence on you. Then you begin to experience the joy of just being immersed in the process of working toward your goals, immersed in the moment to moment act of achieving them. Crossing the finish line becomes almost anti climatic.

Morris: In Chapter 6, you discuss the “Four ‘S’ Words.” What are they and what is the specific significance of each?

Sterner: The four “S” words are Simplify, Small, Short and Slow. The power they offer is that the act of engaging each one not only pulls us back into the present moment and into being process oriented but they offer us a way to build stamina in sustaining that mindset. For example try to do something really slow. It is very difficult to do without focusing on the process. Walking very slowly takes intention and willpower because the mind is saying “oh I’ve known how to do this for years, so let’s pick up the pace.”

If I can use the golf swing as another example…learning a fluent repeatable good golf swing is done by simplifying a rather complex set of movements into small parts each of which are practiced individually and then strung together like a train.  There are also studies that show that the brain’s quality of focus in learning a skill such as this only last so long. I don’t recall the exact time limit but I once had a conversation with a guy who had worked at Pinehurst regarding long and short intervals of practicing a new skill. He told me they had conducted brainwave studies which showed that after so many swings during the learning process the brain sort of timed out and subsequent swings were not nearly as productive in training the mind. The point is that when we simplify learning or accomplishing any task by breaking it into small segments, intentionally slowing down and working for shorter intervals we learn more efficiently.

Morris: Please explain the “Do, Observe, Correct” technique for meditation.

Sterner: DOC is simply an acronym I came up with to illustrate learning non-judgment. If you watch a basketball player shooting foul shots, he/she looks at the hoop which feeds back information to him. He takes the shot and observes the result of his actions and then he corrects based on the feedback. It’s all so simple. He does, he observes, he corrects. Internal dialog such as “I can’t believe I missed that left, my percentages tonight are terrible, we needed that point” and on and on have nothing to do with increasing the chances of making the next shot. Instead, they begin the flow of confidence robbing emotions which as they say “anchor and install” these emotions into a memory which then need to be overcome in the future.

Morris: How specifically can this technique help to clarify issues as well as alleviate tensions and pressures?

Sterner: Clarity and reduced tension are a natural result of stopping the thought process after analysis and before judgment occurs.

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To read Part 1, please click here.

Tom cordially invites you to check out the resources at this website:



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  1. […] read Part 2, please click here. *     *     * Morris: Before discussing The Practicing Mind in Part 2, a few general […]

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