I turn thirty tomorrow! Here are the things I spent the last decade clumsily learning. I might well continue learning some or all of these til I die, but here’s hoping I’m done.
1) Don’t spend time with people who bum you out.
This goes for lovers, friends, colleagues, and even family members. Life is short, and you don’t have time to feel insecure, bored, angry, depressed or anxious. If you habitually feel that way in someone’s presence, locate the nearest exit and run.
Loving someone is not an excuse to allow them to bum you out.
This goes double for romantic partners. Either they need to stop bumming you out, or you need to stop being around them. You do not owe anyone your presence (with the possible exception of your children), and nobody has the right to make you feel bad.
Finally, it’s not important to have a rationalization, for yourself or for the bummer in question, about why you will no longer be spending time with them. Everyone has a right to seek happiness; yours tends to be in rooms where they are not. It’s nobody’s fault and nobody can fix it.
2) The fear of failure can only be cured by work.
There is only one thing I’ve found that quiets the clamoring of the demons in my head (the ones who tell me that I am an awful talentless boring lazy failure): sit down, pick up the guitar, and work.
Drugs and drinking used to quiet them down, but then I’d wake up and the clamoring was louder. Success, also, seemed like it might work, when I saw it in the distance from the valley below. Now, I’m no rockstar, and I don’t own a yacht; but I do the thing I love and I get paid for it, and I’ve played some really cool gigs and hung out with a bunch of my musical idols. So I tell you this with relish: none of those things worked on the demons either.
The demons don’t care who I’ve opened for or how much I got paid. They also don’t care about any of the work I’ve made in the past.
The only bludgeon I can beat them with is the work I’m making right now, this very minute.
So when I hear them running down the corridors of my mind, scratching the floorboards and chewing the furniture, yipping about every humiliating thing that’s ever happened to me, I go find a quiet room, and I sing.
3) You can’t make people like you.
Some people are assholes, some are aliens, and some just aren’t that into you. One of the biggest time-suck mind-fucks I’ve ever stumbled into (repeatedly) is the one where I say, “Wait, you don’t LIKE me?? Well you must not KNOW me very well. What if I do this little DANCE for you? Wearing this gorgeous MONKEY SUIT? I can SING too….”
But alas, there is absolutely nothing you can do to make somebody like you.
How many things was that, again?
Zero. Not even one thing.
You might as well get a slice of pizza and watch a movie until the sting subsides, then go out and meet somebody who’s not an alien.
4) Scenes are for suckers.
When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time imagining what it was like to live in a creative hotbed, like Paris in the ‘20s or Greenwich Village in the ‘60s. At sixteen, I moved into an intentional community in Eugene with a bunch of other musicians and artists. Then I hung out with musicians and dancers in San Francisco, and later Philadelphia, looking for “my people”. Finally, I moved to New Orleans, where (I imagined) the streets were paved with songwriters.
Turns out, all the scenes I’ve ever become involved in have suffered from the same problem: they are petty, and gossipy, and rife with the sort of militant mediocrity that comes from too many people trying too hard to be liked by too many other people.
All of my favorite artists are inspired by a lot of weird quirky things, like some record they found in a junk shop; or a play by a Venezuelan farmer; or a thousand year old poem. They are not overly impressed by fame or hipness, and they are not easily convinced of the quality of whoever happens to be the king or queen of their local scene. They are good at spotting the kind of scenesterism that my friend Milton (quoting Randy Newman) calls “Big hat, no cattle”.
Being fully accepted by a scene requires you to suspend your critical thinking skills in favor of the ‘groupthink’ of your scene. This is the reason so many teenagers get involved in so many nasty, stupid shenanigans. If we are lucky, we grow out of our need to be accepted and liked by our local cool kids, and focus on our need to accept and like ourselves.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t look for people who motivate and inspire you, and offer you a sense of camaraderie and support. Problem is, it’s unlikely that those people will be geographically or psychologically localized. Have the gumption and persistence to seek them out, and be honest with yourself about who they are and are not.
5) If you’re worrying about doing it right, you aren’t.
This goes for pretty much anything worth doing: music, sex, writing, dancing, conversation, cuddling, and any kind of creative act. Self-consciousness turns off your heart and ignites the dumbest and most awkward parts of your personality.
So, when you find yourself having performance anxiety, don’t try to do a better job. Try to stop worrying. Call a time out, have some tea, go for a walk and start over.
Trying to connect or create using your worrying brain is like trying to teach a dog to play piano: no amount of focus or persistence will make it happen. You’ve got the wrong guy for the job.
6) Your insecurities are boring.
All of us are plagued by insecurities, and haunted by their origin stories. Our moms were critical, our dads were absent, we got blindsided by loss and meanness and dumb bad luck. Nobody loved us the way we needed.
Now, we move through the world handicapped by all sorts of fear. We aren’t pretty enough, or smart enough, or good enough at love or music or hockey. We are bothers and hacks and washed up has-beens. We are lazy and perverted and everyone talks about us behind our backs.
But that’s everybody’s story, and it’s a boring one. Put it to bed and start a new one.