“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives” – Annie Dillard
Quotes like Annie’s used to make me feel very uncomfortable. While I agreed in principal, I couldn’t deny that there were several things I really wanted to be doing- BUT WASN’T. It certainly wasn’t for lack of trying, and somehow that made things worse: I knew I wasn’t living the life I wanted, and at the same time thought I wasn’t good enough to do anything to change it. I suffered lots of guilt, depression, insecurity and shame on top of the basic sense of unfulfillment I experienced from not pursuing my dreams.
I’m grateful to share that I’m learning how to spend my days in a way that makes me love my life. Here’s a little story I like to call “Badass Habits to Badass Happiness, or How Johnny Got His Groove Back”:
Badass Habits to Badass Happiness, or How Johnny Got His Groove Back
The guitar has always been mysteriously compelling to me. As a child, I remember making the connection that the strange, wonderful rock music I heard was being made on these stranger, wooden boxes. The romance began. I briefly dated a girl in high school who I thought very highly of, and she could play, which I thought was so cool. The guitar’s spot grew larger in my heart. I sang in a couple of bands during and after university, and when I would say something crazy to the guitarist like “what about sinister and chugging… but circus-y”, he’d think for a moment and play this:
(Aside: That’s Peeder’s “Ten-Sixteen”. Only a couple hundred copies of the EP are still available, so act fast.)
The guitar always seemed like this cool, amazing tool to convey emotion, but totally perplexing and out of reach as an instrument. The cool girl showed me a few riffs, but then we broke up. My friend tried to explain some basic guitar theoy, but this only confused me. Whenever I would pick one up I felt completely insecure and lost, which was a far cry from the effortless finger gymnastics I was used to from my favourite musicians.
So, I did the next best thing: if I couldn’t play, at least I could pretend. I fantasized about being a great guitar player. I talked to people about “wanting” to learn to play, “someday”. I got pretty good at Guitar Hero. I played air guitar frequently while sober and constantly while drunk. (Air bolt cutters is a different story entirely.)
A few years back, hell froze over and I actually bought an acoustic and a ‘learn to play’ book. I dutifully practiced and learned fundamentals over a period of a few weeks… and then stopped. The guitar sat in the case for a few years, and every once in a while I would think of it and feel a mixture of sadness and guilt.
How many orphaned instruments, exercises devices, books and memberships have met their fates for similar reasons? By this point in the story, I’m already up to a solid 25 years of dreaming, a few non-starts and now a painful, physical reminder sitting in the corner that I LITERALLY SUCK TOO MUCH TO FIGURE OUT THIS THING I REALLY WANT TO DO! FUCK!!!
‘Fuck’ is right! Thankfully, I didn’t get rid of that guitar. Something made me keep it, and about 14 months ago I screwed up the courage to take lessons. I say “screwed up” both because it was very intimidating to ask for help, and also because there were countless times I felt like I was paying someone to watch me make mistakes. Asking for help forced me to acknowledge and confront all of my fears and insecurities around perfectionism, criticism and failure. I often found the lessons exhausting, but I had a kind and supportive teacher (thanks, Jackie!) and I was actually learning, and so I kept at them.
I took weekly guitar lessons and practiced daily for about a year. During this entire time, I think it’s important to stress that I rarely enjoyed playing. Aforementioned fears made the process feel very stressful, and I almost never met my own (unreasonable?) expectations. Nonetheless, I persevered. I learned Bob Dylan’s “Knockin on Heaven’s Door” (so symbolic!) at my first lesson and was working on Cream’s “White Room” (also symbolic, also much harder) at my last. I will definitely take more lessons in the future.
I stopped taking lessons because I felt like it was time for a break. Not from playing. From lessons. After all of that struggling to gain some foundational skills with the instrument, I’ve been challenging myself to play my favourite bands’ music from tab (step-by-step instructions; harder than it sounds), share things I’m playing on Facebook and YouTube, and even write a few riffs myself. Truthfully, I still experience stress when I make mistakes, but I’m building up both a resiliency and a genuine love for playing. A year ago, ten minutes of practice felt like running a marathon. Yesterday, I pulled my electric guitar (yes, I own an electric guitar now as well) out of my storage locker to play for a moment because I feel incomplete if a day goes by without picking one up.
Maybe that’s the most meaningful thing I can say: playing guitar went from being something I couldn’t imagine doing to being something I couldn’t imagine not doing. How’s that for badass habits leading to badass happiness?
My experience taught me four things about habits I’d like to share here briefly:
1) Support is Essential:
My favourite musicians might have been a source of inspiration, but their playing was too far outside my realm of understanding to really motivate me to persevere through all of those months of sucking. It was too easy to say “He must be a natural”, or “I’ll never be able to play like them”. Having good friends who could also play well (and had been doing it for years) proved that “real” people could learn this skill.
A talented (but patient and encouraging) teacher was also key for me with this particular skill. I had to acknowledge that there are some things in life I feel confident enough to pursue on my own (fitness and writing come to mind), whereas others (like this) would require a lot of support if I was ever going to make meaningful gains. Having a supportive teacher was at least as important for me as having one who knew what they were doing; I was so critical and sensitive of myself that the slightest bit of external judgement would have had me running for the door on any number of occasions.
2) Process over Product:
I used to experience depression fairly regularly. I can appreciate now that a majority of this was caused by a lack of creative outlets coupled with the unbearable (yet undeniable) truth that I wasn’t even trying to fix that.
It’s incredible how much of this started to shift when I made a meaningful, consistent investment in learning the guitar. I didn’t think I sounded very good, I found it incredibly stressful for a “hobby”, but I could finally look myself in the mirror and say: “You’re trying your best and you’re learning”. The psychological value of this truth for my confidence and self-esteem has only grown with time.
3) Small Goals, Big Growth:
I’m growing to understand that the playing my friends and heros have achieved is the result of years of practice. I unintentionally took their abilities for granted, having no personal perspective as to just how challenging it can be to play and sing a multilayered song that is both melodic and pleasing to the ear.
It might be years before I can play to the calibre I really want, but that’s ok. It gives me appreciation and perspective on the smaller, regular goals I set for myself.
Take, for example, a song like Stone Temple Pilot’s “Interstate Love Song”. I loved it as a teenager and sang along to it many times after a particularly rough breakup in university. I never dreamed I would be able to play it, but a few weeks ago a friend requested I try it as part of a daily challenge I’d issued myself to cover one song per day for a week over Facebook Live:
This video is the result of practicing a tab a couple of times and just going for it. It got 2 likes, 3 comments and about 50 views. I didn’t think much of it, but was proud I tried and put it out for .000000007% of the world to see. Goal achieved!
I like the song, however, so I kept practicing. Literally one week later, I uploaded this:
… No one is going to wonder if Scott Weiland faked his death and relocated to Toronto, but it is a huge improvement over my first effort. It also wouldn’t have been possible without setting and honouring that first, small goal. Thanks for the request, Caroline 🙂
Finally (and most importantly)
4) Never Give Up:
So cliche, I know, but so true. I can’t stress this enough:
I wanted to learn to play guitar for at least 25 years, started and stopped many times, felt disappointed, frustrated and unfulfilled countless times…but never forgot my dream.
Don’t forget your dreams. They are more important than you’ll ever know- until you truly pursue them and they change your life <3
If you’re in the middle of making a change, I admire and applaud your efforts. If you’re contemplating one (or giving yourself a hard time for hesitating), I can certainly empathize. Wherever you find yourself in the process, know that you aren’t alone and there is support available if and when you feel you need it.
…And now, any requests??