Why Failure is a Musician's Best Friend
“You can do anything!”
“If you build it, they will come.”
“Jump and the parachute will open.”
And so on…
Whether it be affirmations or intentions, self-esteem building, or magical thinking, many of us were raised with unrealistic expectations. “Affirmed” by well-meaning parents and teachers, the idea that we have limitless opportunity translated into limitless pressure to do and be it all. To read much of the popular self-help literature of the past thirty years, all of us are “above average”, everyone is “gifted”, everyone gets a “participation trophy,” and settling for being anything less than everything means failure.
Well folks, it just ain’t so. The only people who are cashing in on these philosophies are the self-help authors collecting royalties on their books. While it’s true that nothing is accomplished without vision and optimism, it’s also true that without a firm understanding of our strengths and weaknesses, we’re liable to either spend too much time on a fruitless quest or (worse) fail to uncover our true gifts.
Sadly, few musicians are taught to view themselves honestly. It starts early, with parents who tell children that everything they play sounds great (when it doesn’t), with teachers who don’t tell their students the truth (in love), and with university music programs that award degrees to people who have a “snowball’s chance in Hell” of ever becoming competent working musicians. Add to it the societal delusion that talent is more important than hard work, and musicians have no compass by which to self-govern their lives or careers.
Here’s the truth: we’ve got to know our limits. This is an easy phrase to write, but finding these limits is (for each of us) a series of trial and error. If my own life is any indication, it’s a messy process that has resulted in some delightful successes and more than a handful of messy failures. While I enjoy the successes, the failures have taught me much more about myself because in a world where I was told everything was available to me, failure gave me direction. The trick is to recognize when a failure is a helpful hint to change directions or when it’s part of a learning process. We do this through rigorous self-examination, always telling ourselves the truth (no matter how painful!), and recognizing the corrective gift of failure. It requires us to accept that few of us will be “the best” but that we all must strive to be our best. It requires us to let go of the lies that we’re all “extraordinary” and “gifted” and accept that we’re special—just like everybody else.
Contentment is the gift of accepting limits. We relax, listen to ourselves, and spend our precious lives bringing our truly unique visions and gifts to the world. In abandoning the lie that we can be it all and do it all, we embrace the only truly important task of our lives: being completely and utterly ourselves, warts and all. Then (and only then) will we have something utterly unique, special, and notable to share with a world saturated in fake.