For most of my life, I had very little patience. At least in the short term. I guess I’ve always had long-term patience. The patience that makes you keep dancing even though you still suck, hoping that one day in the distant future you will be good.
But that short-term patience was always in very low supply. The kind of patience that makes you take on a small project and see it through, from start to finish, without rushing. Taking the time to polish something. Doing it over and over. Focusing on process and progress rather than end results.
As is probably not very surprising, I write this because my tune has begun to change. First, I discovered that underneath that impatience was fear. Being such a student of the “ship fast, ship early” mantra, I felt like taking the time to polish something was thinly disguised procrastination. I heard Seth Godin in my right ear calling me a bureaucrat. I feared that “taking the time” fell squarely into the bullshitter quadrant.
My One Great Performance
This all came to a head when I took on this task of street performing around the world. It’s what I’ve wanted to do for as long as I can remember and it’s every bit as good as I hoped it would be thus far. At the same time, I’ve always been a reluctant performer at best, a sneaky little weasel-out-of-it at worst.
The one time I remember doing what I consider a great performance was at a mime workshop in the summer of 2004. The other students in the class were all theater professionals. There were members of Cirque de Soleil, well-known jugglers and magicians, and of course, some highly skilled mimes who had performed at Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center. I was intimidated. I was definitely both the youngest and least experienced member of the class.
I had this idea for a dance show that I had been working on for our end-of-the-workshop public performance. I was even more intimidated because these other performers had POLISHED routines. Many were performing stuff that they had done on stages hundreds of times, for paying audiences no less. I was just a kid. I knew it and they knew it. So I began practicing and rehearsing like the dickens! I did NOT want to stand out for sucking. I must have gone through my routine 50 times, which for me felt like 5000.
So time came to do my thing and I went for it whole hog. Lo and behold, I got a roaring standing ovation and stole the show. All of the other performers, who had been very skeptical of me–in terms of both my experience and my skill–were shocked and extremely congratulatory. I got hugs, high fives, holy cows. It was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.
That was 8 years ago and I’ve never had the feeling since…
8 Years Spent Thinking I Was Smarter Than I Am
The first lesson that went unlearned after that experience was the fact that my intense rehearsing was not simply correlated with doing a great performance, it was the mafuggin’ CAUSE of the great performance.
Part of the reason that lesson went unlearned for oh-so-long is that rehearsing is some hard ass, grueling ass, painful ass, boring ass shit. It has none of the thrills of performing and none of the excitement of improvisation. It felt very sloggy to me. I figured if I worked instead on “getting better” at what I do rather than perfecting a specific act or small set of skills, I would outsmart everyone else and have an act for the ages. Totally improvised, new every time, and amazing. Well, 2 out of 3 usually ain’t bad, but in this case, it was pretty bad.
My performances for the next 8 years were definitely new and definitely off the dome but were not very good. I never got another standing ovation. I never even got screaming applause. Just kind of like–that’s nice, what’s next?
I kept thinking, any day now, if I just work harder, I’ll be “good enough.” Well, any day never came, or at least didn’t come soon enough.
Facing the Ugly Truth: Hard Work is Real Work
I first started wising up as the disappointments continued to mount. I was frustrated evermore with my lack of acclaim and my own feelings of mediocrity. I can be a pretty interesting person to talk to and I have a lot of energy, so when I would tell people I’m a performer they would always get their hopes up. They’d gather their friends and get that excited, expectant look in their eyes. And then I would do what I do and I could just feel, even if they weren’t consciously aware of it, that they thought I was going to be better. They were surprised that such a dynamic person was such an OK performer. That’s a bad feeling man. A bad, bad feeling.
In Which I Face The Music and Begin the Grind
So I start this street performing trip around the world and it’s time to make it happen. I have failed quite a few times at street performing, never quite able to crack the code. So I start by doing what I have always done: I just go out and perform. Make it up as I go.
And the same thing happened. People walked by. Some stopped. Most didn’t. I didn’t hold them. I didn’t have the confidence. I didn’t have the confidence in myself. That’s it.
I did not possess the self-confidence or the skill to be the person who can attract an audience and put on a show so impressive that people want to pay me for my work.
And finally I was fed up enough. The gnawing feeling in my stomach led me to face the music, bite the bullet, and go through the pain of actually creating a routine; a single act that I repeat over and over. Something I can hone and improve. Something I know is good. Something that gives me confidence.
Creating a Show is a Skill Unto Itself
OK. Easy enough, right? Just go make the show. I sure have avoided it for a long time but how hard can it really be? Take what you know, add it up a little, put it to music, and there you go. Show.
It turns out that making a show is hard. Even a bad show. But especially a good show. Because when you are not just improvising, you have all this time to judge what it is that you are making. And it’s not like you can just NOT judge it. You can’t help it. I mean, you know what’s good. And you know the parts of your show that don’t make the cut.
And so you have to spend all this time just creating the material that will eventually become your show. I thought I would just spit out the first draft. Nope. That part took way longer than expected.
Then there’s a whole part that I didn’t even see coming where you have to actually memorize what you’ve created. It’s not like just because you made it once that it immediately sticks. I wish. That’s a whole process in and of itself.
At this point, I’m losing patience man. These are days turning into weeks that I’m spending making something and not performing it. And I’m not even like that close to being ready. This is a new feeling and a suck feeling and I’m confused. I’m not sure I haven’t just marched into a trap, where I spend years avoiding doing what I want to do “in preparation.” But the alternative, just continuing to suck, has become so amazingly unappealing that the uneasiness of what could become endless rehearsing spiraling into total failure became the lesser of two evils. And so, with a slight knot in my stomach, I persevered.
So I eventually memorize the whole routine. I can walk through it without referencing my paper. Cool. But not that cool. Because I still can’t do the thing. I’m not even close to doing the thing. I mess it up every time. There are some tricky parts. I mess them up. Over and over. I practice every day. I don’t get much better. I continue practicing. I continue not getting much better. Weeks have now crossed over into a month. I am getting antsy, as though the bullshitter is now me. Talking about some vaporware show I’m developing that will be finished “real soon.”
It gets so bad I break the show into 4 pieces and decide I better try to perfect each of them individually because the task feels so large.
The Tides Begin to Turn. Thank you Ego Negotiation
The time keeps ticking. In a desperate attempt and because, you know, whatevs, I decide to just take off the self-imposed time limit. Through the process of ego negotiation, I come to the conclusion that I will start performing the routine when I have been able to run through the routine flawlessly in rehearsal 3 times in a row. I feel good about it and I decide, come hell or high water, this is what I will do. However long it takes.
I begin by attempting to get each part 5 times in a row. It takes about a week but I do eventually get the first part 5 times in a row. It is a good feeling. My first sense of accomplishment in this whole process, which has now gone on for six weeks aka an eternity. And then within a few days, I get each of the other parts 5 times in a row.
The moment of truth nears.
Time after time, as I attempt to get the whole routine flawlessly, I fail. Again and again. 10 attempts turns into 20 turns into 100 turns into 200. I lose hope. I just keep going. I don’t care anymore. I don’t need hope. I’m not going to budge. I’m going to get this thing 3 times in a row if it takes me the rest of my life.
So I go out one day. Or truthfully, one night since I am an incorrigible night owl. A night like any other. And I practice. I go through the routine. I drop it many times. I start over. I go through the whole routine flawlessly. OK. Cool. 1 time. I go through again. Flawless. 2 times. I get nervous. A voice says “you’re going to mess up this time.” I say. We’ll see. I surrender. In the words of Tyler Durden, “I hit rock bottom.” This will take as long as it takes. And I get it. Flawlessly.
It’s kinda surreal. The process is over. Just like that. No fanfare. I did what I set out to do. And there I am.
The Moral of Our Story
If it’s not clear, this process took a lot of courage for me. I wasn’t sure it was ever going to happen. Each step took significantly longer than I expected. The whole time, the clock is ticking. I’m not performing. I’m not doing what I set out to do. I’m “preparing” to do it. Like I said, it felt like maybe I’m just kidding myself. Wussin’ out.
It took a lot of patience. Many many times I wanted to kick and scream, to act out, to get someone to care. But there wasn’t anyone to care. It was between me and God. And each time, I just gave up, settled into the process, into the realization that I might die before I succeed, and oh well. And each time, eventually I succeeded and the excitement was dampened because I had been humbled.
And then I finally got it and I’m hardly excited at all. It’s just like. Yep. Now on to the next step. And yet, I can feel, inwardly, that something has happened. There’s a confidence in myself. I feel like I made the right choice. I have a piece that I am actually proud of. Something I think people will like. Most importantly, I have something that I would personally like to see.
I have begun performing it for friends and family and the response has been very positive. I can feel as I perform that there’s a confidence in myself, an ability to really PERFORM. This is a quality I have often lacked, being so caught up in thinking of WHAT I was doing that I didn’t have room to focus on the HOW.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from this, it’s that the first time you do something new, like make a show, you don’t really have any idea how long it’s going to take and you are likely to have a feeling that you are walking into a deathtrap. A quagmire that you will never be able to end. The feeling passes. And the faster you can sink into it and not resist it, the more you can focus on what you came to do, with the knowledge that it’s going to take however long it takes.
A corollary of this is that you should choose wisely what you actually do, since things can take a very very long time to do well. You may think you are signing up for days when you are in fact signing up for months or years.
Steve Jobs once said that building something is 50 times harder than you thought it was going to be. The only thing that keeps you going is that it’s 500 times more rewarding than you expected.
Ashé. Aho. Amen. Aswag.