A Sober Self-Assessment

Motivation, Musicianship, and Being Holistic About It.

This was taken from the 20th or so video I filmed for my recent cover and topical video on Radiohead’s “Videotape.”

Some days, I just get into a funk. I start to feel very un-motivated. When this happens for too many days in a row, I start to stress out, thinking about how little I’ve accomplished. Then, when I begin to look at my next task, I just shut down (even when the task is a small one). Simple challenges feel convoluted and impenetrable. And there I am. Stuck.

Call it anxiety, depression, frustration, writer’s block, procrastination, whatever you like. We all know the feeling. Anyone with a goal or hobby does.

Maybe you’ve experienced it while learning guitar, or writing a song, or recording an album. We know these pursuits are worthy of our efforts and time… but sometimes, we just get overwhelmed.

I’ve been in this place many times. Most recently, with numerous failed attempts at covers, challenges in the production of the WARRENMUSIC Series, and even the simple act of getting through the day in the wake of monumental changes in my personal life (I got married and moved across the country). Each of these things took an emotional toll, and together, molehills quickly became mountains.

I got the old band (Phonofield) back together. Ellen sang backing vocals!

I’ve seen it in my students, too. They get down on themselves after flubbing a few notes or chords, as if it were a mark on their character. They beat themselves up when they can’t finish writing a new song, and start to backpedal on their intention to write new material. They feel frustrated at themselves for “wasting” our time because they didn’t practice that week, and cancel their lessons. In the worst times, they even bail on their musical goals entirely. We usually recover and move forward, whatever it is, and quickly. But sometimes, when warranted, we go deeper; we really explore the problem, and work together to describe the real issue, the thing that’s keeping them from moving forward. And it almost always comes down to one thing: their view of themselves — the ways in which they (don’t) feel up to the task, or the ways they see the setbacks as evidence of the underlying negative view they have of themselves.

Lots of cancelations. Some of them from feeling burnt out.

I know both from personal experience and from working with students over the years that ignoring setbacks or dismissing negative attitudes does work… for smaller tasks. Writing a song with soul-baring lyrics or putting together an ambitious live set, though — or even pursuing any project that comes at significant personal cost, for that matter — is difficult work in part because it flows from the intangible depths of one’s emotional world. And so, casually brushing aside a more persistent feeling of incompetence or overlooking a pattern of getting stuck when it comes to more significant musical goals is a mistake that can even worsen the issue. Hoping to gloss over deeper issues is only natural, to be sure, but ignoring a lack of motivation only delays and deepens the problem.

What is needed is a sustainable solution. Something holistic. A sober self-assessment.

Forlorn Ambition

Last night, a student told me about a $1500 acoustic guitar he purchased on Craigslist. A vintage guitar of about twenty years, it was being sold for half its original price by a gentleman who was clearing out his garage. In his garage, there were other musical possessions he had accumulated. They seemed largely unused. When asked if there were any problems with it, the seller confessed to having picked up the guitar a total of three times for the three guitar lessons he took over the course of twenty years. He confessed that he couldn’t get over his fingers hurting and realized that it wouldn’t be as easy as he initially thought. And so the gentleman considered it a forlorn ambition, and my student became the beneficiary. When he told me this story, it struck me as one of the most sadly mundane stories I had heard about learning the guitar.

1264 guitars for sale… how many sales are the product of forlorn ambition?

Without knowing more about Craigslist Guy, I surmised that he simply didn’t have the motivation to get over the hump, and sniggered arrogantly. As a guitarist, I felt a strange mix of happiness that my student got a great deal and stab of pity for the guy who never got to experience the joy of playing guitar. But when I turned it back on myself, I had to wonder: Am I so different from this guy? When it comes to the tasks I find overwhelming, don’t I also put them aside, take a break, come back, go at it, get frustrated, stress out, and quit for a longer period?

In Search of a Solution

I’ve listened to podcasts from successful people, read fitness blogs, talked to entrepreneurs, and even consulted faith leaders in search of a more sustainable and holistic solution to the motivation problem.

I loved hearing that people who were aspiring marathon runners that struggled with motivation started their training by making their goals easy, like sleeping in their running clothes, or putting the alarm clock on the other side of the bedroom. “Yeah, that’s good stuff,” I thought.

I learned about S.M.A.R.T. goal-setting (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely); I debated punishment vs. reward as conditioning for behavior (there was no clear winner); I made “Just Do It” and “‘Done’ is better than ‘perfect’” my motivational mantras.

I laugh at these motivational posters, then ponder their messages deeply, then laugh at them again.

I remembered another story about a fitness blogger who instructed his friend to make a donation to a hate group on his behalf if he didn’t publish a new blog post every week. “Too extreme,” I thought.

I turned to friends and asked them to hold me accountable. I tried being more transparent with customers over email. I posted publicly about my goals.

But none of these things brought relief. I would eventually fall back into the awful cycle. Productivity would grind to a standstill again. And through all of it, I found my view of myself and what I was capable of sinking under the weight of it all.

A Sober Self-Assessment

It was at this point (well, multiple points, really) that I realized that I had a big problem with how I was viewing myself.

Whenever I had a rough day of writing, I found myself wondering whether I could really accomplish this video series I had in mind. Whenever I saw that sales had slowed down, I felt myself getting hesitant about my goals, and whether they were truly attainable. Or whenever I read a negative comment on a video of mine, I noticed a sliver of doubt over whether my community could really be relied upon for support. I became less and less certain of my abilities.

Warren Lain’s identity had gotten tangled up with WARRENMUSIC.

Any perceived flub of my brand became a stain on my person. Any setback in my project made me wonder if I had aimed too high.

You would think that someone who is constantly in the business of motivating others might recognize the same problem in themselves. And you’d be wrong.

So I began to ask myself questions that I was almost afraid to ask:

Did my work suddenly change and become more difficult? Are my goals really so unattainable? Did my community, my base of supporters really desert me? Did I somehow become less capable?

The answer to these questions was a resounding, “NO.”

It wasn’t the work that had changed in my periods of high and low productivity, it wasn’t the goals that were somehow too lofty, it wasn’t a fickle community of supporters around me that had come and gone, it wasn’t that I had somehow become less capable.

By any objective measure, none of these things changed. What had changed, and changed very subtly, was my perception of myself. I found that I was in need of some sober, self-assessment.

Keep It in Perspective

I’m just one guy. But I am a unique mix: I love explaining things, I love deep analysis, I nerd out over music theory, I am passionate about making music, and it energizes me when I see the light come on for others. All of these things are true. I also struggle with deadlines and organization, I obsess over tiny details in my creative work, I find it incredibly difficult to be brief, and I go numb when looking at raw numbers. All of these things are also true.

Being fair-minded about it, I am a normal person with strengths and weaknesses. Naturally, my brand will reflect those things as well. But what can I do about my weaknesses without punishing myself for them? How can I see my weaknesses more clearly, and not regard them with suspicion, as if they make me less of a person? And how can I celebrate my strengths without getting cocky? And what can I do to structure my working habits so that they highlight them?

I’m still looking for the answers to these questions. I’m trying new things. And while I still have a ways to go, I’m encouraged… because I don’t feel stuck anymore. And I think that’s what’s different. I can draw a harder line between my setbacks/failures and who I am as a person.

Though it took a much deeper level of self-reflection, I find I am more able to move forward, and try something different. I feel more free to try out new ways of structuring my work, new ways of approaching a project, new ways of strategizing for business. Setbacks and failures are starting to lose their sting. But I am still the same music theory nerd who obsesses over details.