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Tuning Up: Nip It in the Bud (No Excuses and No Regrets)

Our aspirations so often die a long, slow death by procrastination, perfectionism, and/or self-delusion. Here's what we can do about it.

In terms of personal achievement and fulfillment, one of the most perplexing tragedies of life is the ease with which we tend to give up on what means the most to us. I’m not talking about love, family, friends, or principles. That we prioritize those is a given. No, what I’m talking about is our propensity to abandon grand visions—plans for doing wonderful, exciting things.

But when I say “grand visions,” I don’t mean stuff that other people consider huge—stuff like going to med school, climbing Everest, playing Madison Square Garden, or whatever. It’s much more intimate than that: It’s the stuff that’s huge to us as individuals but that often gets clandestinely stabbed in the heart on the altar of mutated, 21st-century notions of success. The problem is insidious—on the surface, the dreams that are dying can seem trivial because of our tendency to think things worth doing are always related to money, image, or status.

Of course, we don’t plan it that way. We’re not that simplistic and powerless. And yet our abandoned aspirations still often die a long, slow death by procrastination, perfectionism, and/or self-delusion. We never say, “I’m going to spend XX years longing for this while passively waiting for a series of perfect scenarios to emerge, only to slowly forget the dream.” Instead, it’s a stealth mission carried out by subconscious insecurities, misplaced priorities, and overly patient optimism. We always think there’s time tomorrow, or this weekend, or when X, Y, and Z happen. Then, before we know it, we’ve lost days, weeks, months, or years to inaction. And the longer we fool ourselves, the harder it is to press the “Play” button on the old aspirations.

It can happen to any sort of mini personal dream, too—yearning to learn a particular foreign language that’s always captivated us, vowing to break a familial cycle of never traveling abroad, learning to skydive. But for musicians the problem can be much more subtle, though often even more tragic, given how deep our love for music goes.

Are you preventing your playing from reaching levels that would attract the sorts of bandmates you hope for because it’s too easy to watch tons of TV, game all night, or do way too much social-media B.S.? Is your lifelong passion for guitar withering before your eyes because you just can’t seem to get around to learning to play flamenco (or jazz or shred or whatever)? Are you shortchanging your dreams of playing in a band and settling for playing alone in your basement forever because you picked up guitar late in life? Do you shelve your own songs and play covers you hate because you’re convinced no one in your town can help you realize your artistic visions?

Why not nip this stuff in the bud now? If daily habits are taking a toll on your musical progress, take note, impose reasonable limits, and vigilantly watch your habits like a mofo hawk so you don’t backslide. If your self-esteem says you can’t conquer new musical skills, kick pessimism in the ass and get working—pronto. If repeated striking out on the local scene is killing your grand visions, get creative and stop living your musical existence by everyone else’s rules. How many examples of tradition flouting do you need to see before you realize the “ideal” situation isn’t necessary to bring your muse to life? The White Stripes, the Black Keys, Death from Above 1979, Steve Gunn, and a zillion others have gone solo, done the duo, or otherwise ignored norms of instrumentation, style, and subject matter.

It’s time to make a change. Make this the year of no regrets and no excuses.

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