A Song Taught Me All I Know About Determination, Analysis, And Problem-Solving
How Paradise City showed me challenges are just a matter of perspective
It took me over 20 years to realise my determination to sing along to Paradise City is what got me this far in life. Ironic when I have nothing to do with the music industry. How do dissecting behaviours, patterns and risks even relate to music?
The key was the determination and will to do whatever it took to get to an end. No matter how difficult it was and the effort it’d take me to get there.
June 2018, Madrid.
I took a three-day mini vacation to visit my home country and reunite with my friends for the first time after becoming an expat. My lifelong dream of going to a Guns n’ Roses concert became true at a big festival on my birthday. It was the best night of my life.
The energy was insane. The show was coming to an end and the crowd was delighted under a rain of smoke and confetti during one of Paradise City’s guitar solos. Something hit me. It had nothing to do with music, my friends, how damn good Duff McKagan looks, or my drink.
Singing along to that song was the first of many challenges I overcame to get where I am today.
Nowadays, science has released several studies detailing the effects of going to concerts. Besides feeling awesome, it benefits our health in many ways and stimulates our brains, directly affecting our mood and energy. It all comes down to the fact researchers found clear evidence that music makes our brains release dopamine. To put it simply: when you listen to music you enjoy, this chemical involved in pleasure, focus, memory, or motivation is released in your brains and kicks in.
11-year-old me obsessed over music. I sang, played the guitar, listened to music non-stop. The medium never mattered: a CD, cassette or a VHS tape, satellite tv channels… I breathed and lived rock, couldn’t get enough of that sweet dopamine.
But something bothered me: the song had lyrics. Why should I just hum when I could sing?
My English was too basic for me to understand a single word I heard, but I was still determined to sing along to Paradise City. I didn’t know it back then, but I was accepting a challenge and would discover in most cases, those are just a matter of perspective.
Challenge number one: I wanted to sing along and learn the lyrics.
Everything becomes a ‘but’ when you face a challenge.
When we choose to do something that excites or motivates us, it requires we stop, think, decide, plan, and do. We can say our brains will do a risk assessment and assign an effort score to the task.
Take a moment to think of the last time you did a risk assessment of something that sparked your enthusiasm. Can you detect any limiting thoughts in yourself and your reaction to them? Alternatively, perhaps you deemed the task as something easy and went ahead with it.
The effort score reflects how important the task is to you. If the answer is ‘a lot,’ your inner critic will definitely let you know. This process isn’t always a conscious one. You may not even notice the self-sabotage going on in the background most of the time.
I don’t speak or understand English.
I don’t have the lyrics in front of me. We’re talking late 90’s, so internet access in a tiny city in the south of Spain was nothing short of an odyssey.
I could use the time it will take me to find and learn the lyrics to listen to more music or do something easier.
Why should I sing if I can just hum? It’s a song; it’s not worth the effort and I’m overcomplicating my life.
Let’s analyse what the above self-limiting thoughts are actually saying:
- I don’t know how to do this. I’m facing a challenge out of my reach.
- I don’t have the tools to know how to do this. I’m going to fail because I don’t know how to approach this.
- I am wasting my time. I’m going to invest time and effort on something I know I’ll fail at.
- I could do easier things. I should stay in my comfort zone. I must convince myself this is not important for me, a small amount of frustration is better than going all-in and failing.
Let’s talk about brains
Some rewards won’t require any effort from us. If you crave ice cream and have some at home, all you need to do is open the freezer, grab a container, and have a spoonful. Easy, right?
Now that you got your immediate reward, your brain is happy. Even better, you had to worry about nothing other than deciding whether you wanted to eat your ice cream or not.
You didn’t need to eat that ice cream. What you wanted were the series of chemical reactions it triggers.
Imagine you’re craving some ice cream and know you don’t have any. Or worse, you pick a spoon ready to get your fix to find there is none when you open the freezer!
If you really wanted some ice cream, you’ll feel frustrated and will need to make a decision. How important is this craving for you? Do you want ice cream so much that you’d leave the house to buy some? Are any nearby shops open at the moment?
Let’s assume you want it so much you’d leave the house to get it. If there weren’t any open stores and you still crave it, are you willing to make your own? What if you don’t have all the ingredients you need but you still want something sweet. What about cooking something else and give your brain the dopamine it demands? You may discover it was never about ice cream.
Apply this to your own growth process or anything that matters to you.
Time to do!
Back to the Guns n’ Roses example. After my effort assessment, I knew I still wanted to sing along to the lyrics and decided it was time to plan. I scrapped my first idea: writing down what I heard. How could I sneak around the fact that I had no clue where each word started? What were my options?
Every week I was allowed an hour of internet use at home and knew I must use it wisely.
So when the next opportunity came and the clock began to tick, I sat on the computer with a notebook and a pen. All I did was writing down the lyrics, but I was so excited that it was ridiculous. With the words in front of me, nothing would stop me from singing Paradise City!
And then I realised something.
Challenge number two: I barely spoke any English and what I saw on the paper made no fucking sense.
Never be ashamed of taking longer and ridiculous roads if you don’t have the tools or knowledge to do something
Just do it. And keep doing it until you become good at it.
It wasn’t as easy as I thought. I couldn’t follow Axl because I was learning that pronunciation in English had nothing to do with Spanish. I wasted my time on carefully writing down something that could be a hex for all I knew. I hadn’t reached my goal of singing along to Paradise City yet.
So the analysis began. My brain was too hooked on the challenge to consider stopping.
What do you do when you don’t have the tools or knowledge to do something? You either let it go or you learn by committing to the process, no matter how long or intricate it is.
Asking for English lessons wasn’t a potential solution. It would take a lifetime to learn (if ever) at school and I knew afternoon lessons wouldn’t bring me any closer to my goal either.
I had to do it myself, my way.
So 11-year-old me sat in front of the tv with a notebook, a pen, and the remote to pause, rewind, and play the same parts over and over. I scribbled what I heard on the spaces between lines and tried to match their length to the actual lyrics. It looked something like this:
Teik mi daon tude peradais siti
Wer de grass is griin an de geerls aar priree
Teik! Mii! Joom! Yeeeeah
Dude, I wish I was joking! But in all honesty, it kind of worked. I could clumsily follow the lyrics, and they began to take shape in my brain. I kept rewriting new versions because every time I tried, I discovered a new twist or sound I didn’t write down in earlier runs.
I had no clue I was learning to pay attention to detail and looking for answers back then.
Over time, I got used to which sound matched each word and didn’t need my ‘translation’ anymore. But I still had no idea what the song was about nor could I apply what I learned to any other songs.
I could sing the words now, but you can guess I wasn’t satisfied yet.
Challenge number three: I’ve put all this effort to sing along to the song, but what the hell am I singing?
School English dictionary on hand, most of the words I looked up didn’t even appear there. How was I even supposed to know what slang was at that age? So again, I needed to plan and my weekly internet hour came back into the picture.
The easiest solution I could think of was looking for a Spanish translation. Back then, those rarely made any sense even in my native language. You could tell they were literal dictionary translations and whoever did them didn’t put much care on them; their meaning got lost. Why would I even trust them? I was old enough to know the same word had different meanings in Spanish; why would English be any different?
So far, trying to sing Paradise City had sparked my curiosity, determination, creativity, and analysis.
Another personal trait I wasn’t familiar with at the time showed up: perfectionism. If it can be done better, why should I be happy with a shitty translation?
Again I sat at the computer and looked up free dictionaries and software. That’s how I found Babylon Translator back when it didn’t infect computers, and a new world opened by clicking on a word and seeing all the possible meanings, synonyms… And the best of it was I could use it offline!
Another high: I could now translate the lyrics myself and had a tool that would help me make sense out of them. It wasn’t quick or easy, but I was fascinated by the world of new knowledge opening in front of my eyes and wanted more.
So I did the same with other songs and bands. Soon, besides copying lyrics into word documents, I began to dig for info about the bands, music news, chords… And didn’t stop there. If I can sing it and I already know I’m a good guitar player; why shouldn’t I follow the same process to sing and play along? I managed to learn Slash’s solos on my old flamenco guitar and do a decent job with them. This was actually easier: I already knew I was good at it because I’d done it before. And I did the same with whatever song caught my attention.
I would then spend the next week trying to make some sense out of them and planning the next investigation.
I became bolder but never delusional. If I could get a feel of what songs meant and learn more about the bands, what else was I missing that I could learn? Why would I limit myself? I already knew it wouldn’t be easy, it had taken a big effort to get there.
You never lose when you’re learning, and that was a win for me.
One day I found myself thinking I could and start writing articles, songs, and even short stories myself. I did it and the results were awful.
Until they weren’t.
The more difficult it got, the more I enjoyed the process and the better I got at whatever I wanted to do. Getting better at it had a side effect; I wanted to see how far I could go and it became fuel to keep going.
If lack of knowledge or resources is what stops you from doing something, the only thing holding you back from growth and learning is yourself.
While perfectionism can be a dangerous and double-edged trait, I’m glad it never stopped me from doing.
What I learned
I dropped from school as soon as I legally could to find a job and a way out of a life and country I hated. There was a huge world out there and I had proven myself I could do anything as long as I kept trying and learning from failure.
The lesson was tough.
Frustration, poverty, and challenges I failed to overcome were a constant in my life, but they never stopped me from trying. I didn’t achieve my goal to move out of Spain until I was 31 years old.
Becoming an expat didn’t translate as a success either. Far from it. Challenges only became harder and I’ve found myself struggling in ways I never experienced before.
How do you cope with those blows? In the same way you’d approach a challenge: assess, decide, plan, do. You can also give up or let it drag you down if you follow your inner critic. You might need to change your goals, you might need to lower your expectations, or maybe you need help if you really can’t endure what you’re going through.
I’m not telling you to blindly persist in something that hurts you, in that case, you should definitely not do it or hold onto anything that is toxic.
What I mean is sometimes you have to make conscious sacrifices to grow and put extra effort into staying aware and taking care of yourself. When you do this you fight, work on yourself, and feel better with every new step you take, even if it’s a step to the side.
The biggest lesson I learned through a life of failure is that my will turned me into the person and valuable professional I am today. I’m shining and making others shine regardless of the chaos I face when I take off my Sherlock shoes. And you know what? Those shoes feel lighter every day :)
If you can afford it, coaching or therapy will help you assess yourself and generate awareness to help you measure the situation and shift your perspective. There is no shame in reaching out for help, consider it extra fuel in your tank to get yourself in the right place to continue fighting.
Twenty years later, after never setting a foot on an English class outside of school, I’m finally looking into enrolling on a course. I need to improve my business English to stay on top of my game. A good way to do it is getting a C2 level certification to legitimate my unconventional road to success.
I can and I will do better, and won’t be the one limiting my own growth.
This is something within my reach and I don’t need to sneak around difficulties to achieve it this time. I’ve already built skills and resources over the years to make it possible. If I don’t have it, I know I’ll learn it.
Where would I be today if Paradise City hadn’t thrown me into this path of challenges, growth and perspective? I don’t want to know.
What I know is I’ll always be grateful to Slash, Duff, Axl, Izzy, and Steven. I did the work to get where I am today, but they were the trigger to find my true potential and make sure it never had a ceiling.
My goal in life is to never run out of goals.
A song taught me challenges are a matter of perspective. Willing to try as many different approaches as you need to take to solve a problem is what will define your chances to succeed.
And limitations… they mean nothing if you work toward a realistic goal and don’t give up. Just keep trying no matter how many times and how hard you fail. If you fail, try again and use what you learned.
Whatever you do, be kind to yourself. You may just need more time or a different perspective.