Yesterday, I was a guest speaker in a college class called “The Psychology of Music.”
My great friend and fellow songwriter David LaMotte was also a part of the lecture to the twenty or so students at Warren Wilson College here in Asheville, NC. The two of us spoke about our lives as musicians, performers, songwriters, business owners, bloggers, and artists. We spoke about humor, insecurity, authenticity, mistakes, passion, risk, joy, and the unfolding of dreams. We tried our best to dismantle the myths of the media’s version of an artist’s career.I love sharing this stuff because I’ve lived it, and I feel like I know what Carl Jung was saying when he said, “I do not believe. I know.” I know what can happen when one person steps onto a new path with faith, even if it’s only a little faith. And it isn’t just about being an artist. This is about having a great life, no matter what you choose to do.
When I look into the faces of some college students, it’s like looking at me at that age. I was panicked. I was stressed. I had no self-confidence. I was bulimic. I wanted to be rescued. And I wanted more than anything for my parents to like me. Adults were constantly telling me that I had lots of potential. “You have so much potential!” they would say. But they never told me what the hell that meant.
I perform on college campuses fairly regularly, and I have conversations with lots of students. I listen to them talk about the stress, the fear, and the worst thing of all: the burden of all of that potential. Apparently, the adults are still using this word to keep the pressure on.
If you ask me, the adults might as well say, “You’re not okay now. You’ll be okay someday. We hope. We’ll keep our fingers crossed that you’ll come through for us.”
I say to follow this rule of thumb — if the adult who is proselytizing to you about your future is not living a life that makes you say, “WOW! I’d love to have that life! Look how happy she is! Look how alive she is!” then question any rule, any advice, any wisdom the adult offers you. Especially question the idea of potential.
Same holds true here. If what I write about seems like a whole bunch of froo-froo schlock, and you’re interested only in making money, fitting in, and living in a starter mansion in the suburbs on Privet Drive, then perhaps this website is more suitable for you.
(Besides, you can always return here when you’re 48 and you’ve got high blood pressure from all the stress and all the meals at Olive Garden, and your wife has left you to become a potter, and your children merely tolerate you because you’re always yammering on about potential.)
Potential is a Muggle Word
When people tell you that you have potential, they most likely see life and enthusiasm and passion in you. Muggles don’t remember when they had life, enthusiasm, and passion. They sold it and used the money to buy into the myths of conformity and limitation and security. So they see in you what they once had, and they recite the same lines the adult muggles told them. They can’t revel in who you are now. Because who you are now is not making money, which is what a muggle values. Muggles value security above all else. They think you should value it too. They want you to use your potential to find a secure path, and then that way they don’t have to spend any energy being worried about you.
Some muggles really do want you to shine, but since they never actually set about shining themselves, they don’t know what it takes to shine. They don’t know that your light may have to look like it has gone out for a long time in order for it to shine brightly with a bigger strength. That is unnerving to your average muggle. A muggle also believes deeply in mistakes, and he doesn’t want you to make him uncomfortable by making any.
The truth is that everyone has potential. Even the geek with all the acne who sits next to you in your Business Law class. And he probably has more potential than you do because he learned early on that it made no sense to worry about whether or not other people liked him.
I have potential right now. In fact, I have potential to write the next big hit song. I could make millions from that one song. But you know what? If I sit down and write, and anything like that is going on in my head, I won’t write. I’ll be too busy thinking about all of that potential. So, when I sit down to write I remember who I am and that I want to reach people and touch people and inspire people. Then I play. I become engaged in the amazing activity of playing the guitar and singing. And that, oddly enough, is enough.
An Abridged Story of my Own Wrecked Potential
I had potential. That’s what everyone said. And for me it meant I had the personality to go into a “good job” in PR. I had also thought I could be a broadcast journalist, which, of course, made everyone say, “Ahhh. Yes. You could do that.” Then there’d be more talk of all that potential. Those were what I now call “the Catholic cocktail conversations.” At any social event with anyone’s parents and their friends, I was like Pavlov, and I knew precisely what bells to ring in order to get the adults to salivate instantly.
Right out of school, I got a job in PR at Ogilvy & Mather in Washington DC. And not only did I completely suck at it (just ask my poor boss, who hired me only because he knew my mother), but I was unhappy too. I worked on a CDC program called “America Responds to AIDS” where the creative staff had to try to promote a health awareness campaign without using the word condom, and other insane limitations only a government agency could contrive. I adored the people with whom I worked, even my poor boss. But I had zero idea of why I was there. I felt no connection to the work itself, nor to PR, nor to any aspect of this lifestyle. How’s that for potential?
The plan had been that I’d work at Ogilvy for a year, and then I’d go off to Medill School of Journalism (at Northwestern University) where I would spend $24,000 a year becoming a broadcast journalist and continue fulfilling my potential, much to the delight of the adults in my life. (They, too, had become Pavlovian, and knew how to make each other salivate at the perceived successes of their children.)
At some point along the way, it dawned on me not only that I hated PR, but that I hated the news. (Uh-oh!) My favorite newspaper writers were humorists, like Dave Barry, who made me laugh and forget the news.
There was one person in my life with whom I could discuss this new and disturbing realization. He was an account exec at Ogilvy — an old soul named Charlie Jones. Charlie changed my life by letting me be exactly who I was. At one lunch, sitting in Dupont Circle I admitted to him that I hated PR and I hated the news. And his response was something like, “Carpe Diem, my friend.” He advised me to leave PR and not write news. I wrote every night in my journal about this. And one day in the summer, I got the courage to call the administrative offices of Medill School of Journalism and withdraw my enrollment. (Charlie was the only one who congratulated me.)
That’s when the proverbial fan revved up, and various and sundry chunks of organic matter began to hit it. According to the muggles, I was pissing all of my potential down the drain. (If you were to ask me now, I’d say that that’s when I actually started living it.) I left Ogilvy and became a waitress in Georgetown. I stepped into the unknown. At first, it was only based on what I knew I didn’t want to do. Eventually it would turn into learning about what I did want to do. All I knew was that I no longer wanted to be dying inside. The muggles were very upset with all of the decisions I made in the next year, which ultimately moved me to a whole other city where I continued waitressing and began writing songs and performing at open mic nights. On the outside, I looked like a complete loser to all of my old friends. On the inside, I was coming alive. I was meeting people who did not see my potential. They saw me as I was –without banking on the future me.
These days, I couldn’t possibly be more different from who I was I college. All I can say is that I’m glad I started listening to the voices in me that said, “I don’t even like the news. I don’t even like PR.” It was all just jobs. Your life is more than just a job. And now, even if there’s an occasional “bad” day, when I’m crazy with the fear that I’ll never write another song, or that I’m tired of the insecurity of living life as an artist — I am happier now than I ever dreamed I’d be. And I’m still growing and making mistakes and learning to love insecurity. As my mentor said to me once, “Be grateful that you’re not bored.” I’m definitely not bored.
(If you want to hear a semi-autobiographical song on this, here’s a link to iTunes and my song Right Outta Nowhere.)
Take Yourself Seriously Enough to Wreck Your Own Potential
I sometimes want to shake college students by the shoulders and shout at them, “Don’t sell your soul! You really can have a good life and do it on your own terms!” But then, I’d be just like a muggle (albeit the anti-muggle) telling someone how to do it on my terms. And every person has to do this work on her own.
The best way to wreck your potential is to just decide. Decide what kind of life you want. Decide to live it. Decide what you want to do and who you want to be. I did that without even knowing it. When I read through my old journals now, I marvel at how much has come out of simply writing down my dreams — doubts and all — and wondering if I had what it would take.
I recommend that you write about this. Get a journal. Use it often. The more pressure and stress you feel, the more to write about! Here are some really basic questions to answer so that you, too, can get about the business of wrecking your own potential —
What in your wildest dreams would your life look like in five years? Ten years?
What do you love to do? And if you can’t do it yet, are you willing to learn how to do it?
What do you love period? Do you spend any of your time doing this?
What are your strengths?
What are your weaknesses?
What does the world think you should be?
What are you telling yourself to settle for? Why are you telling yourself to settle for it?
What is your worst fear?
Who do you admire? And why?
On occasion, I am invited to college campuses to give a lecture I call, “Getting a Job is Boring. Get a Life Instead.” Typically, I do a performance on the evening of the lecture. One college administrator was talking to me after my show one night and he said to me, “Well, you can’t tell these kids that. They get outta here and have to start paying off college loans and they’ve got all these pressures.” He was a muggle disguised as a managing director of a theatre.
None of this is about not getting a job. This is all about living a full life. Most people decide not to do this. According to the theatre director’s philosophy, your life goes like this: You get out of high school, spend all your money on an education which will leave you stressed, clueless and broke, and then you get to head out into a world of pressure and misery in order to pay off that money. Then, add a little more pressure and have kids! No wonder half of the people in our country are taking anti-depressants when there are people like this running around at our institutions of higher learning and perpetuating a world view of what I call “lame-osity.”
If that’s what potential is, then I offer you the chance to join me, and countless others and decide to wreck yours now.