Picture this: you're at a band practice, and you see a new face in the circle - a new piper who's just started that night. You politely introduce yourself to them, and then get your pipes warmed up to play. As chance would have it, the newbie is asked to stand next to you in the circle. You play a few sets, then during a break, they turn to you and say, "Just so you know, you're playing your taorluaths wrong – they're way too late, you should be playing the E gracenote on the beat."
What would be your first thought upon hearing this? Would you be impressed that they'd offered such constructive feedback for your musical improvement?
Of course, most of us wouldn't. You don't know this person, so their advice isn't just annoyingly unsolicited (especially because you don't have any established relationship or rapport with them) - you also have no idea whether their background or ability qualifies them to provide that kind of advice, or how much you can rely on it to be right.
What you've just encountered may seem like an irritating situation, but it's actually an opportunity to apply a psychological phenomenon called Wittgenstein's Ruler. Wittgenstein proposed a scenario where you measure a table with a ruler. However, if you aren't confident that the ruler is reliable, the table may offer you more information about the ruler than the ruler does about the table.
Sound a bit abstract? In a nutshell, the idea is that unless you trust the source of the information, what they tell you reveals more about their own beliefs, knowledge, approach and opinions than it does about what they're trying to tell you.
In the opening example, our first reaction may be to react badly to being told we're playing something 'wrong' by someone we don't know. But a more objective way to view that scenario may be to understand that this opinionated new piper is actually revealing more information about themselves.
They've explained their own musical understanding of how to express taorluaths, of course… but they've also revealed their lack of understanding in stating that there is only one way to play them 'right', and that other schools of thought for musical expression are 'wrong'. And perhaps most interestingly, they've also revealed that they consider confidently and 'helpfully' sharing their unsolicited opinion with a stranger (whose musical ability they're also unaware of, as far as you know) to be an appropriate first interaction in a band they hope to join – which may give you important information about whether they will be a good culture fit within your organisation.
Wittgenstein's ruler applies to any interaction you have. It can be a constructive way to avoid feeling defensive when you receive criticism – instead of bristling about someone having the 'nerve' to give you their opinion, think about what their feedback reveals about their knowledge or character. But it should also apply when you receive 'nice' feedback like compliments – although it's a mood-booster to hear that someone enjoyed your playing and thought you played well, unless you trust and value their musical opinion, it's best not to let it go to your head too much.
And while it can feel satisfying to shift your mindset and evaluate feedback from others like this, remember that Wittgenstein's Ruler also works the other way when people are evaluating you. How do your opinions – and the timing, delivery, and context of how you share them with others – reveal your own approach, beliefs, knowledge (or perhaps, your lack of it), and personality?
It can feel great to tell others what we believe to be true, but as you'll know if you've ever debated politics or religion at a family gathering, unless you're a specialist or expert, you're unlikely to meet a receptive audience if they don't trust your opinion as a specialist on the subject (especially if they don't share your beliefs).
As a general rule, it's best not to present your beliefs and opinions as objective truths unless you have done the research to back them up, and the context and timing are likely to make your audience receptive to what you have to say.
Otherwise, you might find yourself getting “ruled out” as a trusted source in their mind!
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