Thomas M. Sterner, Part 1: An interview by Bob Morris

Sterner, TomThomas 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, also the title of his most recent book, and continues to teach his techniques to businesspeople and at sports clinics. He lives in Wilmington, Delaware.

To read Part 2, please click here.

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Morris: Before discussing The Practicing Mind in Part 2, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Sterner: Probably two people, Richard Bach (author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull) and early Deepak Chopra. I read Richard’s Bach’s book in my late teens mostly because he was a pilot and I had always been interested in flight. I was both stunned and inspired at how much he said in such a little book through the eyes of a seagull. I connected strongly with both the story and his ability as a writer. I actually received a post card from him years later. Through a series of circumstances I was able to get a letter which he really enjoyed hand delivered to him by a friend and he sent me a post card stating I must tell my story as a writer. I’m very grateful to him for that postcard which still sits on my desk

I discovered Deepak in the late 1990s. His enlightened state was obvious to me but his ability to communicate and articulate it in such a simple manner was what impressed me. I think he has done much for elevating the awareness of so many people.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Sterner: This may sound odd but probably me. By my late thirties early forties I had peaked in my service business. I had all the certifications and credentials available, over two years of work booked and list of famous people several pages long I had met and done work for. I always believed I could do anything and I realized at that point that I wanted to go in a completely different direction, one that involved writing, composing, speaking and teaching. I sold everything I had worked for and started Mountain Sage Publishing, wrote The Practicing Mind and off I went. Many thought it was a very unwise move and only a small core group of close people supported me. But I never doubted myself or my ability. I just felt like “This is what I want to do and I will figure it out on the way.” I learned that attitude from my parents but there was no one in particular that I can point to in the business world that I can say inspired me to succeed.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Sterner: I think I was always destined to be on the path that I am. There wasn’t a specific point. I was not an introverted child by any means but I was very contemplative and enjoyed being alone and thinking. From my early grade school days I was encouraged to be a writer because of both my imagination and my ability to communicate what I felt through words.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Sterner: I would say my formal education was of little or no value to what I have accomplished. I have always been more of right-brained person and though I went to college, the time I spent there had little impact on where I have landed. My own self-directed efforts in educating myself in the areas I found interesting yielded much more measureable results.

I could pontificate on this for some time but instead I will just say that our education systems besides being very overpriced are manufacturing flat line thinkers. Though my father ended up in senior management he started out with a ninth grade education. Because his family was poor he was required to quit school and work at a young age. Yet his mind was brilliant and he was able (by their own admission) to out think many of his highly educated peers. We’re losing that. Most corporations today wouldn’t consider someone like him to have any real value which is so misguided in my opinion.

Creativity and imagination struggle to find a place in schools and are vastly undervalued in general. We want repeatable numbers on test scores or funding is pulled. Art and Music programs which stimulate multi dimension thinking and which research has proven over and over again affect higher skills development such as math comprehension are the first to go because they are not so easily measured. Plus we put too much emphasis on sports because they are avenues into college. In one prestigious public high school near me they spent tens of thousands of dollars improving the football field while at the same time telling parents the school library may have to be closed for lack of funding. I think people are beginning to see we need a real paradigm shift to move us forward.

Morris: When and why did you begin to explore seriously your interest in music? Please explain the circumstances.

Sterner: I started to get serious about music around the age of eighteen. I could already “play by ear” meaning I could hear most popular music and sit at the piano and figure out what they were playing but I realized I had peaked at that point and if I were going to evolve any further and be able to compose, arrange and orchestrate more sophisticated music I needed to study more formally and not just fool around on my instrument. At that point I was working and could afford to pick my own teacher and pay for my own lessons. So in other words I was doing it because I wanted to not because someone was making me.

Morris: I am also an avid golfer and have been since I began to caddy when I was ten years old at a local country club in Chicago. I still play 3-5 times a month. Here’s my question: For those who are about to take up the game or have only recently done so, what do you think are the most important points to keep in mind?

Sterner: The problem with golf is the score because it’s in your face all the time and when misused can serve as a barometer as to how you are doing. The constant judgment that ensues creates a distracted and agitated mind that performs poorly. People get so attached to the score that they forget to enjoy the process of playing the game, the walk, the scenery, the company or the solitude. The constant judgment also affects their decision making. I have worked with very good (physical) golfers and watched their thought process implode as they attempt higher risk shots trying to come back from a poor swing that got them into trouble. A possible par or a for-sure bogey turns into an eight on the score card as they follow one bad shot with another because of poor decision making. I have also worked with poor golfers and improved their scores considerably by helping them to focus more on one shot at a time and to make decisions that play to their strengths. You see this in Pro-Ams all the time.

Golfers particularly men come into the game thinking they are going to master it quickly. YOU NEVER MASTER GOLF. No one does, not even the best in the world who have the finest equipment, the best instructors and nothing else to do all day but work at their game. Because of that I would say:

Golf is an art and as breath is to life, practice is to all arts. Learn to enjoy the process of expanding your golf skill through practice. It’s part of the experience not a nuisance you must endure. Let go of the idea that you will get to a point where the game is always easy. When I work with junior golfers I ask them two questions. One is what do they do with a video game they have mastered? They always reply “I get rid of it” to which I say that’s right. That’s because whether you are aware of it or not it’s the fact that it is difficult that attracts you to it. Second I ask them what makes a good shot feel so good? It’s the fact that you have hit bad shots.  That’s what gives you that satisfying experience of hitting it pure. “Bad” shots are a natural part of the golf experience so don’t fight with them. Watch them and let them go.

Spend forty to fifty percent of your practice away from the range or course working on your swing mechanics WITH NO BALL. The ball flight can easily distract you and suck you into judging your progress.

Spend at least ten minutes a day working on quieting your mind. Once you start to acquire good swing fundamentals your mind becomes a major factor in your game. If you don’t know what your mind is doing during the round you can’t control it or change it. Sitting quietly for short periods and working at quieting your mind will greatly increase your awareness of the thoughts that run through your mind in a round. Then you empower yourself with “choice”

Morris: To what extent are these points also relevant to other activities such as playing a musical instrument or chess? Please explain.

Sterner: It’s all the same stuff. Life is practice whether we recognize it as such or not. We learn through repetition whether that is walking, writing the letter “B”, doing a good interview, learning an instrument, dealing with a difficult person and on and on. The joy in all of it is in the “process of achieving the skill” not so much “having” the skill. If we examine ourselves we will notice that we are always looking for the next challenge. The human spirit thrives on that. Where we fall down and begin to experience struggle and suffering is when we become attached to the idea of a place we’re going to “get to”, somewhere “out there” that will finally satisfy us. We have all wanted things in life and then gotten many of them but the feeling doesn’t go away. It just moves on to another thing and the feeling continues.

For me it’s a perspective shift that can change our experience in so many ways. Is that feeling of incompleteness I am experiencing telling me if I just get to this particular point in something I will finally be happy and that feeling will subside or is it telling me to look for the challenge because the joy hides in the “process of becoming, evolving, expanding and increasing who we are”.

Morris: To what extent can the human brain be expanded and strengthened? How?

Sterner: I’m not an expert on this but I love to read about it and have done quite a bit of my own research. At this point it is pretty clear that the brain only atrophies when we stop pushing it to learn. That is why it is so important to take on new activities that cause us to operate at our threshold of ability. Taking up any art form such as learning a musical instrument is one example but there are many. Learning a new language could be another example. My father who is 80 years old is a great example of this. Not too long ago he built a classic style wooden power boat from scratch with nothing but a set of plans. These kinds of activities force our brains to stay “elastic” and to constantly grow. Sadly I see many people who fall into lazy routines and never challenge themselves.

Morris: I was a secondary school teacher and served on the CEEB’s Board of Examiners for Advanced Placement English for 13 years, then headed the pre-collegiate division of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Mark Twain once cautioned against letting education get in the way of learning.

That said, here’s my question: In your opinion, in what area of public school education in the U.S. today is there the greatest need for immediate improvement. Why?

Sterner: That’s a great question. As I indicated above I’m not real big on the paradigm we seem to operate under in schools today. It has been a broken system for many years. First I think we need to place much more effort and attention on figuring out what people are good at and then developing that. I have a colleague who was a very highly paid brilliant corporate executive problem solver. She told me once that she had to take geometry three times in high school and still couldn’t pass it. She was privately tutored and stayed after school for extra help. She would have been willing to sign a waiver releasing the school from responsibility As she said it was not her skill set and she wasted an enormous amount time trying to pass this “required” course which in the end probably only undermined her self-confidence. Despite that she later figured out what she was good and by anyone’s definition was very successful.

Instead of turning out students who have identified their skill set and passion by the time they graduate we end up with kids going into an overpriced college environment many times still trying to figure out what to do with the rest of their life. There they spend enormous amounts of money, perhaps even buy a house with the debt they have accrued and many times after working out in their educated field decide to go in a completely different direction because they don’t like the work. We’re missing out on so much talent and contribution that could be happening much earlier in their life. We are a diverse culture and need to be for survival. We are not all good at all things.  That would seem obvious and a plus and yet we ignore that basic truth in our education system punishing those who cannot perform equally well in all subjects and in a sense we label them with the almighty grade.

Another thing we seem compelled to do is to continue trying to squeeze more academic performance out of our kid’s brains in many different areas. There was certainly a point in history when large segments of the population couldn’t read or do basic math and we needed this broad based system. But now as our culture has evolved and the average student is much farther along we need to look at other aspects of developing each person not just manufacturing students that score well on tests.

Both my daughters were taking math and English classes in the ninth grade that I didn’t take until my senior year. Kids are basically “in school” when they are three years old. I understand the value of this but to what end? I have seen three year olds that are in a daycare/classroom from 7:30am until 6:30pm. We may be raising kids that can do math problems at an earlier age but how is that impacting our world. Are they growing up to be happier, and more well balanced adults. Psychologists are finding that this constant and enormous pressure on our children to achieve more and more is fueling much of the adolescent depression and substance abuse that is on the rise.

A teacher friend of mine recently related a story about a training session she was in where they were being shown how some young children progress differently in certain skill sets like identifying colors. One older teacher made a comment “so that would be where the stupid kids are” meaning at a certain age they couldn’t yet identify their colors. My friend was stunned not only at the inappropriateness of the comment but also the perspective. Maybe a child in that position is a brilliant mathematician or writer but has a color deficiency and so won’t be a graphic artist, who knows. Are we even paying attention to such things or is that particular child going to think they are a not very “smart” because they struggle to recognize colors?  Our system pushes the teachers to produce numbers and markers or their ability to “Teach” is in question. As I said as our awareness is evolving I think those in the trenches are saying something needs to change. As a matter of fact I feel so strongly about this that I have recently co-developed a pilot program with an optimization coach for both young adults moving from high school into college (or taking a gap year) and a second similar program for students preparing to leave college for a career. The program uses The Practicing Mind as a textbook.

Morris: In general, what can classroom teachers learn from athletic coaches and vice versa? Please explain.

Sterner: I think a better angle on that is what can athletic coaches learn from exceptional coaches and the teachers learn from exceptional teachers. What I mean is watching my daughters go through high school sports, I saw so many coaches obsessed with winning. Stomping their feet, bad language, throwing things and general inappropriate behavior was common place. We have all seen this behavior in college and in pro sports also where there is so much money at stake. For me this behavior stems from and encourages a feeling of attachment to the goal which sports psychology has proven is not how we get athletes into the “zone”. Ironically the higher functioning coaches in my opinion, the ones that truly inspire their athletes are not as “noticeable” on the field because they coach from a different perspective.

A high school hockey coach once related a story to me about how he used to be one of those out of control coaches until he saw a video of himself screaming at a the referee in front of his team and a whole rink full of people. How sobering…he was so embarrassed. He said he couldn’t believe how absurd he looked when viewed from a calm perspective and what a poor example he was setting. That was a turning point for him in his behavior with his coaching efforts. None of us really know how we appear to others unless we see ourselves caught on film when we were unaware we were being taped. Perhaps just as the athletes review films of their performances on a weekly basis, coaches should do the same.

When I was in grade school there was a teacher who very quietly motivated all his students I being one of them. We couldn’t wait to do extra credit. My older sister had him and he had the same effect on her class as well. He was superb. My father once commented to me that “he (the teacher) was what most of the other teachers imagined themselves to be). I never forgot that or that teacher. We need to figure out what makes these individuals able to do what they do and THAT is who other teachers could learn from. It doesn’t matter whether it is a coach or a teacher it’s the person who has that ability to inspire and I think they would have that ability across platforms meaning a good coach is a good teacher and a good teacher is an effective coach.

Morris: In your opinion, how important is asking the right questions? How can that skill be strengthened?

Sterner: I’m not sure I understand the question and I may be off target here. I don’t know how to define or judge a question as right or wrong if it is coming from a perspective of lack of comprehension. Usually if someone asks a “good” question they already have the underpinning of comprehending what is being discussed. I think that comes from being predisposed to the particular subject being discussed and it would be difficult to think of a way to strengthen that skill across the board.

For example I once did a working lunch with a group of bankers. After I finished talking one person spoke up with a question because she didn’t understand one of the concepts I had put out there. I tried to explain it to her, her boss tried to explain it to her and several of her co-workers tried to explain it to her. None of us could. I’m not sure how you would strengthen her ability to ask the “right” question if it’s even possible. A question that may seem silly to one person may be the one that clarifies the subject to someone else. If it does that then it is the “right” question.

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To read Part 2, please click here.

Tom cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

The Practicing Mind page

The Amazon page for Practicing Mind

Link to the interview of Tom by Tesa Michaels:

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