“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” ― Plato
I have always been driven by music, my favourite being the acoustic guitar. Through the pain of split fingertips and growing tough calluses, I have learned more than music from my guitar. I have learned life. The current guitar I own is my 3rd one, I called her Olivia from Shakespeares Twelfth Night.
Olivia and I spend intimate time together, at least an hour a day. And during these Covid 19 lockdowns, our intimacy has been interesting. I tend to find meaning in the most simple of things, day to day behaviours like playing the guitar. This allows me to play around with the philosophy of life and why we do certain things.
What we choose to do with our time determines the lessons that inform our lives and values. For instance, if you had been a star basketball player in High School, I’m sure you would have learned all sorts of interesting lessons about teamwork, enduring physical pain, trust in teammates, and the clout.
But for me, in college I spent most of my time alone in my room, reading, playing chess and practising harmonic minor scales. That taught me a different subset of life lessons, and those lessons help define who I am today. I was good at sport too, in High School I could sprint, I could play soccer and basketball but my most valuable lessons came from those ‘me time’ moments. Below I share some of these lessons and why they are pivotal today.
1. THERE’S A FINE LINE BETWEEN PASSION AND ESCAPISM.
What we are passionate about is often directly correlated to what our biggest emotional struggles in life have been. Are bodybuilders passionate about bodybuilding? Or do they have deep-seated self-image issues? Are sports fanatics really that crazy about their team, or do they latch onto it because it fills a need for loyalty and camaraderie in their lives? At times it can be difficult to know if our love for an activity is healthy or a form of neuroticism or escapism. Often, it’s both.
Music was my passion and guitar was my escape. It took me many years to realise that. While I enjoy guitar, I’m not in love with it. Music, on the other hand, you’d have to stab me in the ears to ever get me to give it up.
I was new at my college. I had no friends and felt out of place my first year there. It also happened to be the first time in my life that I was forced to confront my social anxiety (or perhaps where my social anxiety began, it’s hard to say). Guitar helped me settle in, it gave me a way out. It was one of those things I found that I was good at and that was also cool. Therefore, I adopted it as my identity.
2. QUANTIFIABLE IMPROVEMENT IS USEFUL AS A TOOL BUT NOT AS A VALUE.
I approached the guitar the way a nerdy kid approaches the Rubik’s Cube: it was something to be solved logically, then perfected. My perception of what made a guitarist “good” was entirely measurable — how fast could one play, was his technique clean, had he mastered various scales and chords — and I soon placed my self-worth on my ability to do this.
Approaching music in this way is a great way to build technical skill and impress people here or there, but it makes for a really terrible musical experience. You spend more time perfecting the way you play than enjoying what you play. I was treating music as a physical and mental exercise rather than an emotional one.
Quantified improvement is a great tool for us to utilise in various areas of life. Even in music, quantifying your improvement in areas such as speed or rhythm is great. But it must be used in support of a greater goal; it cannot be the goal itself.
This is true in life as well — being bigger, faster, stronger, richer, more attractive — these are all nice things and great tools for enhancing our lives. But if they are, themselves, your life goals, then you will eventually become miserable. A friend of mine posted this quote on their social media: “Do not be too busy making a life you forget to live one”
3. YOU ONLY STICK TO A HABIT YOU ENJOY.
The biggest epiphany of my guitar lessons was that willpower is no match for emotional investment.
Many people try to adopt a new diet or start going to the gym or learn a new skill or study a language, only to quickly fail. Unless you are being emotionally rewarded for something, you are eventually not going to continue to do it, no matter how much willpower you have. You have to find a way to make exercise fun. You have to find a way to reward yourself for successful dieting. And you have to feel the benefits of the meditation practice. This is why doing these things in groups is so useful, the rewarding social aspect creates a strong incentive to continue.
For me, the emotional rewards of playing the guitar were far more social than I realised at the time. It allowed me to meet and interact with people I wouldn’t normally interact with. And through these interactions, I learned more about the guitar, myself and life.
4. NO MATTER HOW GREAT YOU ARE, YOU STILL HAVE TO DEPEND ON OTHER PEOPLE.
An unfortunate truth for many of us with delusions of grandeur. In my years playing, I never did find a band that either a) all of the musicians were good or b) all of the musicians wanted to play the same kind of music. It was frustrating. Playing with yourself all day, every day eventually gets, err… boring. Yes.
The irony of my guitar experience came to a head when I discovered that I was terrified of playing with a lot of the other people there (i.e., people as good or better than me). Playing the guitar had been a strategy that allowed me to get my validation needs to be met while circumventing my social anxiety in the process. So believe it or not, other people became key to my development as a guitar player. Getting comfortable playing with others and in front of people gave me the confidence to put myself out there. In life whatever to set out to do. You are going to need key people to work with you and help you deliver the best version of you. Going solo will eventually get boring, and growth is very slow.
5. ULTIMATELY, YOUR EMOTIONAL CONNECTIONS DETERMINE YOUR SUCCESS.
Just as any quantifiable advantage in life is useless unless applied to qualitative well-being. So in music, any quantitative ability on an instrument is useless unless applied to develop an emotional connection with the music and with your audience.
In a band, the drums and bass complement the guitar and vice-versa and none of them play over the top of one another. Ultimately, the song makes some sort of emotional statement that many people are able to relate to. I’m a sucker for Ed Sheeran’s I See Fire. After watching him play it, I realised how he sells out arenas around the world, and nerds like me don’t and never will.
Most people watch guys like him and imitate his surface movements — the scales, the speed, the string-skipping, the chord progression — spending hours developing the necessary skills to play like him and totally missing what actually makes him good: his heart. Yeah, totally cliché but true. How emotionally connected are you to your gift and your purpose? Are you just in it to look good or is it the money?
Everyone has their own gift, but most never succeed at it because their ‘why’ is off. The moment you share your gift with the world without heart is the day you give the world nothing. It needs to mean more than a couple of dollars in the bank. More than a few likes and comments on the gram. So whatever your gift is, give it your you all. Pour yourself out totally and whatever your stage is, leave everything on the floor.
Share with us in the comments section what lessons you have learned from your day to day hobbies and gifts. As always, hope you and yours are safe.