You know that feeling: the slow dread creeping up your body, the fear that all of your effort could be for nothing. What if you spend tons of time learning to play a new instrument or writing your new novel or painting your supposed masterpiece? Are you going to succeed? Or, are you going to look like a fool?
These are the doubts that plague us when we try something new. You might be learning or creating, but those same doubts can come rushing in. What if, what if, what if.
Creation, art, learning: all of these involve an investment. They involve a risk of our time and our self-esteem. You can try and play it off and say that you don’t care, but you wouldn’t be taking the time to learn or create if you really didn’t care. You’re giving a part of yourself to be able to grow in some way. It’d be nice if that investment was rewarding in some fashion.
Facing the Challenges of Learning
Last week, I posed the question, “Why do adults quit learning to play a musical instrument?”
I heard a lot of interesting answers, but fear stuck out to me as one that is quite wide-reaching — even though we don’t like to admit it. Seriously, who says, “I’m scared of learning”? But it’s not really the learning we fear, is it? It’s the feeling of being exposed. It’s the feeling of trying something and realizing that we might really and truly fail at this new hobby or project.
Even if we succeed in learning a musical instrument, then there is the fear of performance to get over. And we go through this same cycle all over. Now, we know that people are going to be watching and judging. Why would we ever willingly submit ourselves to such a thing? And yet, people do it all the time.
Fear Is Okay
Fear is normal. It really is okay. It’s not fun, but it is okay.
Seth Godin really breaks down the process of fear in Linchpin, and Robert Pressfield writes about the battle we face as creators in his books, as well. Suffice it say, both authors agree that fear is a positive indicator of growth.
That’s not to say that the fear of touching a hot stove or playing in the street is something to ignore, but the fear that rises when we want to protect our self-esteem from what terrible things could happen is a sign that we are truly challenging ourselves.
As I’m writing this series of blog posts, I’m also work on an ebook that includes some of these same ideas in a much more in-depth way, but I came across an idea that I had to share.
Struggle ≠ Incompetence
Struggling with a new concept doesn’t mean that you’ll never understand that concept. Challenging ideas aren’t easily grasped. Lessons that really force us to push beyond our current abilities are always going to be difficult. The better you get at your instrument, the more it will take to truly teach you something new.
Instead of hiding in the safety of playing the same music we always have, we can take the chance to get better at our craft.
The Fear Doesn’t Always Go Away
Just because you’re determined doesn’t mean that you won’t feel fear about the process. In his book Do the Work (affiliate link), Pressfield brought up the example of Henry Fonda.
“Henry Fonda was still throwing up before each stage performance, even when he was seventy-five.
“In other words, fear doesn’t go away. The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day.”
(If you haven’t read any of Pressfield’s non-fiction work, go find it as soon as possible.)
The good news about the fear associated with learning is that it isn’t as concentrated as the fear of performing. With performance, we get this crazy notion that we have only one attempt at being absolutely perfect (even though perfect is boring). With learning, the process of fear is more spread out. We worry that we’re not learning fast enough or that we’re not going to get everything down just right.
How do you get past that slower fear?
With one of my favorite answers right now, community. Find someone else who’s learning. Better yet, find someone who is better at your instrument than you are.
Play your instrument for that person.
I know, now we’re back to the whole issue of performance, but this is different. This isn’t a matter of trying to win over the entire world. This is about playing your instrument for one person, and that individual is there to help you get better. Big difference.
You’ll find reassurance, and you’ll find helpful tips that can help you get better.
I spent as much time as I could with other guitar players when I first started out to try to understand their approach to the instrument, and they were always excited to talk more about their playing.
Just for Musicians?
These ideas easily apply to painters or writers or anyone else who learns an artistic craft. All of us face fear in the creative journey. Some of us handle it better than others, but it’s an emotion we all feel.
The trick is, we can face that fear. We can conquer that fear by creating in spite of it.
Taking the Idea Deeper
I talk more about the idea of facing fear in learning music in the book Musician Unstuck: Creating the Perfect Practice. We explore the barriers that hold us back from learning, overcoming those barriers, and ways to set up your own practice schedules that work to your strengths. The book is available on Amazon.
Photography from ClasixArt