Why You Need to Stop Being Good at Everything

2019-02-05 Essay


by Wendy Hamilton

Recently, I had the pleasure of experiencing American acoustic guitarist, singer and songwriter, Tom Faulkner, perform in a small intimate venue in Texas. When Tom played and sang, angels and muses stopped to take notes. I closed my eyes and watched as his words and intricate strumming created memories not my own and awakened moments I never lived in vibrant color. Tom was good, very good. He was good at Folk. He was good at Blues. He was good at Cajun. He was good at Rock. Even folks without rhythm found rhythm and those without a song easily merged into his and claimed his tune as their own.

How did Tom do that?

Tom stopped being good at everything and grasp the heart of a true creative decades ago. Let me explain.

Learn to Play While You Play

When we work for perfection then our focus is simply on doing repetitive skills over and over until we get it just right. However, once we nail it and we hit the high of the mountain top experience then we experience the struggle to keep the mountain top experience time after time. What used to light us up as we played becomes a chore. What used to feel like play and we enjoyed feels like a performance. What used to be “Wow, I get to do this” turns to “I have to.” There is a law of diminishing return on our perfection. The first time we achieve it (or close enough to fool an audience) our bodies send signals to our brain to release feel-good hormones and we feel good. However, we never really pass the same way twice and so the next pass at wanting to achieve those feel-good hormones pushes us into a left-brain logic twisting instead of a right-brain creative twirling. We’ve delved into work instead of play attempting to achieve the do-over win.

Play happens when we choose the joyful, curious pursuit of learning something new, to be teachable and expand what we know through improvisation. Grasping the heart of the creative requires play – enjoy what you do as you do.

As we play while we play, we etch enjoyment into our craft. We are changed from a perfecting performer to a special breed of creative who can take the enjoyment we brought into our preparation and convert that into an experience we can give our audience. We can sway the listener to believe our stories, hear our heart and journey with us in a way that is unforgettable.

When we learn how to play while we play, we teach our listener how to play (a skill most adults forget a long the way). For the brief time we have their attention we can give away what we have and lose absolutely nothing of our soul in the process.

As Tom Faulkner shared Bea Jaqneaux, the “sweet little lady twice his age”, in his song Do Bea’s Dance, she becomes real. Right or wrong to who the “real Bea” was, as Tom plays, we see Bea through our own filter of the feistiest, hippest, most energetic grandmother type we know. And as Tom issues the challenge “You ain’t never moved until you’ve learned to do Bea’s dance” we know his words are truth. We want to know that dance. There is a part of us, no matter how uncoordinated or “two-left footed” we are, that wants to learn. We want to do Bea’s dance. Because there is something about the Bea that Tom sings about that we ache to know and experience. There is something about her confidence and energy and freedom that we envy in the best of ways and as we journey with Tom through the character after character swirling in and out of Bea’s dance there is something within us that hopes for the impossible - that we get that chance to do Bea’s dance. There is no part of us that doubts that we will enjoy it for a deep part of us knows that the play she brings into this everyday moment is exactly what we need.

Playing turns good into greatness.

Become Teachable

There is a shift that comes when we stop being good and hunger for creative greatness, we become teachable. The best way to explain “teachable” is having the ability to know the limits of yourself and embrace the lessons and experience of others. Seems simple. But the heart of being teachable challenges everything in us that tells us that we must be the greatest. Teachable tells us that the posture of our hearts should be that there is more to learn and share.

Like the mountain top experience of the perfect performance; greatest is achieved and then challenged thereafter. Every generation has renowned artists that the next generation doesn’t appreciate or, quite possibly, know. Like beauty, greatness is in the eye (and ears) of the beholder.

But teachable is a trait that helps artist survive and grow and succeed, change, develop, invite new fans across generations and become, often, legendary.

Legends are not made through arrogance but teachability and the pursuit of more than what they currently possess. Good is not good enough. Teachable produces a thirst for knowledge and understanding that says, “This is where I am” and “This is where I want to be” and then creates a plan and path to get there (that, of course, never forgets to play while we play). Sometimes the lesson to learn is related to the technique or style of music and sometimes the lesson is to teach an artist to understand and reach the heart of their desired audience. The creative heart never stops learning, pursuing, and connecting to the world and the people in the world.

Leaving Comfort

One of the most painful experiences to watch is an artist who refuses to leave the comfort of the known to explore and pursue the more that is continually available to every artist. Often artists in these tight spots feel the pressure to perform-to give their audiences the tried-true favorites or what they are familiar with. The artist may have some contractual obligations to draw certain crowds and bring in a certain amount of revenue per venue and artists need to earn a living doing what they love. All of that is understandable. Those details of the business side of the artistry is not the comfort we have to push against. An artist who has forgotten how to leave the comfort of the known inevitably fades from popularity once the next new sound hits. Songs are a connective thread in the human experience. Listener relates to story woven with music and with lyrics. Through great music is a bit of emotional push against the listener; songs challenge our senses and push us out of the everyday and ordinary and give us a new vantage point.

Through music we learn to expand our world and let others vicariously live through our experiences. Audiences can’t do that if the experience is locked into our comfort zones. As we delve into the heart of the creative and push against our performance, perfection, and our comfort zone then good turns to very good and, for many, legendary.

Tom Faulkner
“Do Bea’s Dance”, written and performed by Tom Faulkner, https://youtu.be/FUzeTkQoxiA

(The benefit of getting out of your comfort zone and never stop learning). Why Money Matters (No More Starving Artists / Value Your Craft)