Roadblocks, part 3 – Beating fear

This is the last in a three-part series calling attention to influences and patterns of thinking that stop us from pursuing our musical goals to the fullest. This time we’re getting a bit more personal than we did in the last two, examining how our own negative thinking can hold us back.


Franklin Roosevelt, President of the United States throughout most of the Great Depression, understood fear. Recognizing the role fear was playing in drawing out his country’s worst financial crisis, Roosevelt addressed the dangers of fear at the top of his very first speech as president on March 4th, 1933, when economic panic was at its height. His remarks set the tone of his entire four-term presidency and contains Roosevelt’s most quoted phrase: “So first of all let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Roosevelt knew that overcoming fear was the first important step toward prosperity, so he called on his countrymen to abandon their apprehensions, pessimism and low self-esteem, and to begin living again with a confident, entrepreneurial mindset.

Roosevelt’s famous phrase has become cliché, lifted so often out of its original context that few people remember who said it, or why. Its popularity is understandable, and justified – we all can personally relate to its profound and universal truth. Because what was true for a country trying to pry itself out of an economic slump is equally true for individuals – fear, often more than the thing we’re afraid of, keeps us down. Like the many-headed Hydra of Greek myth, fear is cunning, multifaceted, and resilient, influencing our choices and actions in deceptive and powerful ways. Complex as fear is, it is impossible to consider it fully here. But by taking a brief look at three common fears musicians face, my hope is that you can begin to see how fear, in itself, can be an impediment to your happiness and success.

Running From Bliss – The Fear Of Failing at the Thing You Love Doing Most

Though it may sound strange, it’s true – people often avoid pursuing the work they love most.  The “logic” of this illogical fear, often unconscious, is circular and goes something like this:

a) I’m going to school to become an accountant because math is easy for me, however, b) in my heart I know I’m really a drummer, however c) if I don’t really try to become a successful drummer then I’ll never have to face the horrifying possibility of failing at what I truly am, therefore, d) I’m going to school to become an accountant because math is easy for me.

…and so this thinking might go throughout a person’s life. The tragic result of avoiding the path of the person you know deep down you really are is a sort of identity purgatory – no, you haven’t had to confront the disappointments that inevitably accompany the pursuit of a dream, however you also haven’t allowed yourself the opportunity to experience the singular joy of having your work and your play be the same thing.

In the 1980s, the popular American folklorist, Joseph Campbell, called pursuing what you love, “following your bliss,” which, at least in the United States, has become almost as much a catchphrase as Roosevelt’s pronouncement about fear. Campbell, in his popular book The Power of Myth, describes the pursuit of bliss like this: “If you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you… I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.” Joseph Campbell argues that choosing the path of what makes you happiest is the easiest path to take in the end, however outlandish your bliss may seem. By choosing it, you are choosing to move with the natural current of your inner life.

The Imposter Complex – The Fear of Being Found Out

Another common fear that artists battle is the fear that, in spite of all your success, people will one day realize that your are actually an untalented fraud. This fear, so common it has its own nickname, has become known as the The Imposter Complex.

Here’s a quick test: If you’ve been asked to drum for the hottest band in town, do you tell yourself you only got the gig because you have great hair? If a drummer you’ve always looked up to compliments your playing, instead of feeling excited do you simply think less of his judgment? If you answered “yes” to either of these questions, chances are good that you have The Imposter Complex.

Like the fear of pursuing your dream job, The Imposter Complex is irrational and not rooted in hard facts. On the contrary, The Imposter Complex is remarkable because success – praise from mentors and fans, awards, riches – cannot, by itself, remove this fear. (You can bet that some of your favorite big time drummers are grappling with this one right now – trust me, I know some of them.) That’s because this fear originated not in real life events but rather in the mind, so getting rid of T.I.C. means changing how you think. Until you truly believe that you are good at what you do, and that you deserve the praise you are getting, The Imposter Complex will haunt you.

But isn’t The Imposter Complex just another way to describe where humbleness or modesty come from? No – modesty is the wisdom of knowing when to blow your horn publicly and when not to, so you can be modest and still quite confident inside. The Imposter Complex exists in place of your confidence and can cause real harm to you. Believing you are unworthy will lead you to ask for less money than you deserve for your work and, worse, discourage you from taking gigs and career paths that you’re perfectly qualified to take because you’re afraid that you’ll be discovered to be a fake.

The Geezer Complex – The Fear Of Being Too Old To Rock

A couple of weeks ago I got this email from a Drummer reader:

“What I wanted to ask was your thoughts on age. I’ve been playing drums from the age of 4 and I’m 28 now. I spent my early twenties studying music technology and working for record companies. There are kids of 17, 21, 23, whatever, who are already smokin! If I wanted to be a serious drummer shouldn’t I have decided that a long time ago!?”

For some reason, twenty-eight seems to be the age when most musicians start having sober thoughts about getting older. “Am I too old to rock?” “Can I still be taken seriously as a performing musician?” Of all the fears afflicting musicians, this one has got to be the most common.

It would be nice to report that age is irrelevant in the music business. Of course, ten minutes of watching music videos reveals that twenty-somethings continue to rule popular music, and probably always will. For those of you nearing thirty, that’s the bad news. Now the good news.

There are plenty of exceptions to the twenty-something rule. I am one of them – I was thirty before either N.E.R.D. or Spymob released their first major label albums. My friends in Semisonic were all in their thirties when they started selling millions of records around the world. Everclear’s Art Alexakis was too. And Dave Matthews’ amazing drummer, Carter Beauford, was near forty when his band exploded here in the States.

And while they may have first emerged when they were younger, the list of rockers aging with credibility– U2, the Stones, Springsteen, drummers Steve Ferrone, Kenny Aronoff, Mick Fleetwood, Steve Gadd, Jim Keltner – is much too long to include in this article.

The other good news is this: for those of you who love to make music but could take or leave the spotlight, there is truly no age limit. The cameras are off in the studio, and as long as you can lay it down, you can go to work every day for a hundred years. For any doubters out there, check out the 3000-album discography of Bernard Purdie.

Beating Fear – The Artist’s Way

I originally intended to write a single piece about roadblocks we face on the way to our musical goals, but one article quickly expanded to three, and now I realize that an entire book easily could be written on the subject.

In fact, one has. Julie Cameron’s The Artist’s Way is a book intended to help artists and non-artists alike recover their natural born creative tools and use those tools to realize their creative goals. The book thoroughly explores factors keeping a person’s creativity bottled up, and Cameron suggests activities and new ways of thinking to help readers remove their corks.

In it’s wide scope, The Artist’s Way reveals all kinds of blocks to creativity, but by the end of the book the reader realizes that the biggest impediment is not something acting on us from the outside, but rather our very own thinking. Fear, risk aversion, and negativity appear again and again throughout The Artist’s Way. Anyone wanting to explore these issues more deeply should read it.

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