Showing up is the most critical part of any creative endeavor. If you don’t know what I mean by showing up then I’ll tell you, it’s not very complicated.
Showing up means that when you do something, you’re there to do just that thing. You can call it deep focus or presence of mind but it means when you practice, you practice, and when you perform, you perform. That actually is relatively simple, but it’s not always easy.
How often do we sit down to practice only to be distracted by something on our phone or computer screen? Or even more often, the wandering thoughts of our own mind? You can show up to practice one moment and the next be consumed by seemingly random thoughts, pulling you farther and farther from what you originally set out to do.
It’s no easier in a performance. If you’re like most people your mind is wrapped up in thoughts of self-doubt, nervousness, stage-fright, any number of defense mechanisms trying to prevent you from embarrassing yourself, even though you’ve prepared for weeks, months, or even years. Maybe the first song went really well and you’re thinking you might get out of this gig alive, but all it takes is one mistake to set ourselves down that path of self-doubt again. I know from experience that one single moment can ruin an entire concert, if you let it.
It’s okay that it’s hard. It actually makes sense that it’s hard. Each moment is completely new and requires brand new enrollment from you. Showing up to one moment doesn’t give you the tools to deal with the next one. You’re going to have to show up over and over again. It’s going to feel really tedious and really frustrating because your brain probably isn’t used to really focusing on the task at hand. But it’s your life! What else are you going to show up to? Are the feelings of self-doubt or fantasy really a better show?
So start showing up more, that’s what I’m trying to do. I do it as often as I can and right now that’s not much. But it’s a lot more than I used to, and it makes me want to do it even more than that.
Yesterday I wrote about receiving compliments and the dangers of false-humility. In a form of karmic retribution I then received several very nice compliments about an area of my work in which I easily find reasons to doubt myself. In that moment I didn’t respond with any of the false-modesty or apologies, but internally and throughout the day that’s exactly what I was doing. I was overwhelmed by a mix guilt and shame but also gratitude.
That overwhelming feeling is not a bad thing. It’s a sensation proportional to the importance of our work. If someone really feels the need to tell us how our work affected them, then it probably affected them a lot. And when they tell us about it it’s going to affect us a lot. That’s what it’s supposed to do.
We want to get better, and we should. We need to. But it’s also true that we can do our work right now and fully serve our audience with all the tools we currently have. Don’t wait until you’re good enough to really connect with your audience because then it’ll never happen.
The guilt and the shame is not going to help you. But the gratitude will. So if you can feel a little more gratitude than you did yesterday then you’ll be moved to do more work today and tomorrow you’ll be doing even more for the people who appreciate you.
I think you should stop saying you’re bad at things that you want to be really good at. There are many reasons why this is a good idea. Here are a few.
False modesty and humility run rampant among creative people. We’ve heard it a million times from a million people, and we probably do it ourselves. When someone compliments your playing do you say “Oh no way, I suck”, or “I’m just trying to hang on”? This is not the behavior of a humble or modest person. Truly humble and modest people say “Thank you”, or “I’m glad you enjoyed the show, thank you for listening.” You don’t have to be humble or modest, but if you want to fake it you should fake it better.
Don’t insult the intelligence or taste of someone who wants to say something nice to you. If they’re being sincere then your music did what it’s supposed to do. You moved someone to the point of reaching out across the void to actually interact with you, to say “keep doing what you’re doing.” And you say “no I shouldn’t”, in so many words? Isn’t this want you want to be doing?
And if you start saying these things about yourself, you’ll probably start to believe it. It really doesn’t take long. You probably already have a long list of complaints about your playing, things you “just aren’t good at”. I have a list like that, but it doesn’t need to get any longer.
In “The War of Art”, Steven Pressfield talks about the behavior of a Professional. A Professional shows up on time, does the work every day, and doesn’t apologize for the things they do professionally. Plumbers, Electricians, and Accountants don’t apologize after completing their work to the customer’s satisfaction. If your customer (bandmate, friend, musical hero, rival, anyone who hears you play) compliments you, then consider them satisfied with your work. Don’t think it was good enough? Work hard today and do better tomorrow. That’s all you can do.
It may seem obvious to some, but practicing is the best (and perhaps only) time to address the problems you have.
“Duh, that’s the whole point of practicing: to get better at something”
Then why do we spend so much time practicing things we can already do? And if we are practicing the things we are already comfortable with then what are we practicing? Is it familiarity? Do we want to be really good at the things we practice? Perhaps, but that’s only part of the story.
Practicing is not a good way to reinforce the story we tell ourselves about how good we are. Practicing is a good way to get better. One of the best ways, actually.
If you make a mistake while practicing, congratulations. You have found today’s work. Today you are going to take steps to address whatever caused that mistake and tomorrow you probably won’t make the same one, at least not as frequently. And if you make the same mistake tomorrow, congratulations. You have found tomorrow’s work too.
That’s your only job. Find things you can’t do, and practice them.