Posts in You're Doing It Wrong
Success is Bullshit

That’s right, I said it. Success, as most of us define it, is total BS. Think about it: it’s a completely relative, absolutely arbitrary measure we create in our own minds to judge ourselves against. And when you set that bar high, you end up spending a good part of your life, or even your entire life, knocking your self-worth down a peg when you’re not reaching your own subjective and lofty standards. It actually doesn’t make any sense and is directly related to the innate problems of perfectionism that seem productive but are actually self-destructive. And that’s why it’s bullshit.

Look, it’s great to be ambitious. I am. But it’s so easy in our culture of things and money and “being cool” to have your ambitions misplaced. You set a goal to be the best at something, when realistically you’ll never be the best. You want to revolutionize without realizing that many of the greatest innovations weren’t made by people who specifically sat down intending to innovate. You want to record a classic album only to realize that doesn’t actually solve any of the problems of the world. You want to make a lot of money, then find that financial success doesn’t fill the voids in your life.

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On Perfection

Perfection is what you get when you stop expecting it of yourself. I didn’t always think this, though. Until recently, I spent most of my life fancying myself a perfectionist. I took pride in my opinion that over the course of one short life, the only way to truly reach your full potential was to strive for nothing less than perfection in everything you can possibly control. There was just no point in living any other way.

(Quick side story: my high school physics teacher once asked me if there was anything I didn’t have an opinion on. I told him that there was no point in going through life without having an opinion on every single thing. I’ve since softened my stance on that quite a bit, but you can see what many of my teachers had to deal with.)

As usual, I was wrong, and things are much simpler than I even imagined. Being a perfectionist is actually not a desirable quality for two primary reasons:

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The Self-Help Delusion

I think it’s time to get over this whole “self help” thing. There is an entire industry based around telling us that they have the elusive secret to happiness, that if you just read this book, watch that video or do these exercises you can become a better, fuller person. I’ve read a lot of stuff like this, and even though I appreciate good advice, I’ve come to almost resent the whole idea of “self improvement.” I resent it because it tricked me into putting my energy towards trying to find something that I had all along.

You know those cheesy maxims that say you’re already perfect the way you are? It turns out they’re right. And if they’re right, that pretty much negates the whole business of helping you improve yourself. How can you improve on perfection? Thing is, you’ll never be satisfied if you’re bent on self-improvement. If you’re anything of a perfectionist, you’ll never be good enough. How can that be healthy? You’re not a work in progress. You’re a human being living a life in progress. You don’t have to work toward being a complete person, hoping you can achieve that fullness someday. You have it now. You just have to make the decision to recognize that.

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I Don't Need to Be Brilliant

I put a lot of pressure on myself. I am my own worst critic. I cut myself less slack than anyone else possibly could. If I don’t, I might create something that sucks. I might make myself vulnerable to legitimate criticism. I could cut off the bad stuff at the source and let only the most brilliant, genius, groundbreaking material get out into the public. That would be such a relief. Then I’d know everything I create will be wonderful, because I’ve already given myself so much shit and demanded I be great from the start.

If only it worked that way.

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Don't Stick to What You're Good At

I was listening to an album of solo acoustic guitar music played by a virtuoso of the instrument, when suddenly it came to a track where he started singing. My first gut reaction to his less-than-stellar vocal ability was to say, “Whoa dude, stop. Stick to what you’re good at.”

But then I realized that’s complete bullshit.

I think it’s really important for us to be able to accept our limitations. It keeps us humble, realistic people in touch with our imperfections and humanity. But accepting your limitations is not the same as limiting yourself. Accepting limitations has nothing to do with saying, “I’ll never be able to do that, so I just won’t try.” In some ways, it’s actually the opposite; it’s saying “I may not be the greatest at this particular thing, but I’m gonna give it my all anyway.”

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Your Idea Is Not An Accomplishment

I have a habit of writing things down. Lots of things. everything, actually.

Part of the reason is that I’m scatterbrained. I’m bombarded by a constant internal cacophony of ideas and thoughts that have nothing to do with one another—songs, jokes, movies I want to see, blog post topics, etc. They tend to happen at inopportune times, like when I’m having a conversation with a friend or while I’m driving on the freeway. At home I write thoughts in a notebook or on my computer, away from home I write them in my phone. (I hate typing on phones, by the way, and this is only exacerbated by the fact that I am the last person on Earth who hasn’t upgraded to a smart phone.)

Another reason I write so much down is that I’m incredibly forgetful. This is probably directly related to being scatterbrained. I was the kind of teenager that would have to be told five times in a single night to take the trash out, not because I didn’t want to do it but because I would forget immediately after being asked. This characteristic also rears its ugly head when I meet new people, as it’s next to impossible for me to remember names without hearing them several times.

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Artistic Naiveté

For anyone who’s living a life of creative pursuits, being realistic about our chances of making it to the next level isn’t something that we generally take into account. Like I said in my post about the romance of the ideal a few months ago, most of us tend to live life with our heads in the clouds, and maybe one or two toes scraping the ground for good measure.  After talking with a friend about the inevitable umbrella of naiveté that we musicians have to live under, I realized a few things.

There are two kinds of artistic naiveté. One is good, and one is bad.

To be fair, it could be argued that both are bad, but nobody who has devoted their life to pursuing near-impossible goals like musicians and artists is going to lock horns with me on this one. We’ll leave that to the folks who are always wondering when we’ll grow up and get real jobs. Anyway, the good naiveté is that which we use to ignore the odds of turning art into real income. I’ve been playing in bands since I was a teenager, and I’ve been spending the better part of my last five years working on developing my current band. As much as I believe in the music we’re making, as good a band as I think we are, the simple fact is that the law of averages is against us. For every band that makes a living from their music, there are hundreds that never even came close. Maybe even thousands. And being good is no more a guarantee to your success than being lucky. Being smart about your music career is a must, but that’s a topic for another day.

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Sacrificing Entitlement

To follow your dreams and pursue your goals, you’ll probably have to make sacrifices. It’s generally inevitable. Ideally, you’ll recognize when you’re making sacrifices, and you’ll choose to make smart ones. I’d imagine, for example, that sacrificing some free time to work overtime hours to pay off a student loan is probably a reasonable decision one might make, whereas sacrificing spending time with your family so that you can become a Wall Street millionaire may prove unfulfilling in the long run.  (Although maybe not.  I’m not a millionaire, so I can only speculate.)

I’ve certainly made some sacrifices in my life. I chose to forego the typical college experience, for example (you’ll have to trust me when I say that attending a small school consisting mostly of male students and entirely of musicians wasn’t the normal college situation). I’ve also been forfeiting financial stability, large chunks of time and freedom that are devoted to being in a band, and potentially the ability to maintain certain relationships due to touring, music commitments, etc.

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Don't Sweat the Huge Stuff

Life is pretty imperfect, and we should probably carefully adjust our expectations. That might come off as a bit cynical, but it’s not meant to be. Let me explain.

I heard Shaun White being interviewed on the radio one morning. He was talking about how he won an Olympic gold medal after an incredible performance on the snowboard half-pipe, got interviewed by Oprah, learned that he would be on the cover of Rolling Stone for the second time, found himself flying to Italy and sitting front row in a major fashion show, and heard President Obama mention him in a speech to the nation.

And this was all within one week of his life.

Pretty amazing. Stories about people living life beyond our wildest dreams no doubt makes many of us picture what our “perfect life” would entail. Of course, Shaun White’s life isn’t really perfect, and he deals with his share of bullshit just like rest of us. But that’s not my point.

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The Death of Deadlines

Birthdays are a lot like New Year’s Eve in that they're often a time when people reflect on the year that’s past, how they’ve grown, what they’ve accomplished, mistakes that they’ve made.  Some people fret about another year that’s gone by and how much shorter life seems after every 365 days.  Other people don’t think about it too much at all and just use it as an excuse to party.  I think I’ve done all three at one point or another.

But usually I spend at least a little time reflecting on all the things that have happened and how much I’ve changed over the course of a year.  I assume the average person goes through about as much or as little as I do in any given year, so I rarely find the need to openly share things I’ve learned or accomplished.  But as you reach your mid and late 20s, I think it’s only natural for a lot of people to start feeling like their youth is slipping away more and more quickly as their age rises.  I’ve certainly felt that before, but I’m finished with it.

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