Alternative title: the rules of the Thing
“What do lawyers dream of,” asked a navy blue financial advisor’s leaflet that landed on my desk in late 2012.
In the middle of a hot, un-air-conditioned night in Spain earlier that year, I had woken up from a dream and written three things on the piece of paper beside my bed:
MAKE MUSIC / TRAVEL / WRITE ABOUT IT
I tried to ignore this idea. It was scary and inconvenient. I was about to qualify as a corporate lawyer. I had always written lyrics but didn’t know how to get my melodies out of my head so other humans could hear them. Not only this but my attempts to sing in public had caused me to be so nervous that I’d cried actual tears.
Nevertheless, this pesky idea kept bothering me. It provided a constant tension until, one day, I decided to get:
- educated (to learn how to finish a song);
- financially ready; and
- (most importantly) over myself.
This all took a cool six years.
Exactly one year ago, I was on a plane flying to Auckland, New Zealand to start the TRAVEL portion of the idea. I wanted to explore the peace and nature of New Zealand, be inspired by the creativity and sounds of the musical cities of the US and travel the width of Canada on a train.
Along the way I managed to MAKE MUSIC (which you can hear at embriar.com).
Now is the time to WRITE ABOUT IT.
I was unsure whether I should share this article as I don’t want it to sound preachy or like I’ve done anything that anyone else might find spectacular. Nor is this my attempt at Eat, Pray, Love. It’s simply a tale of the things I noticed and the ways that I changed as a result of pursuing this idea that wouldn’t go away.
For the rest of this article, the idea shall be known as “the Thing” (as opposed to “that Thing” which has already been comprehensively covered by Lauryn Hill).
This will not be about the places I explored on my travels and all the fun I had. It’s an account of the journey that began long before the trip commenced.
So, at a time of New Year’s resolutions and good intentions, I give you the rules of the Thing…
Rule 1: Fear will always fight the Thing
The flight from London to Auckland is a long one.
From the moment that my bottom landed in my seat on that plane, the familiar chattering voice of fear was amplified as it echoed through my mind in a Brian Blessed-esq boom.
It asked: What had I done? Left my responsible job, my home and everyone I knew to travel around the world for an undetermined amount of time? To write songs? Seriously? Would I ever make money again? What if I spent all that I had saved? Then what? What 33 year old goes travelling? Do I really think my music is good enough to justify this kind of indulgence? And it went on…
I am familiar with fear. It is versatile. It will disguise itself as petulance or laziness. It’s a trickster who has convinced me many times that:
- the Thing is no good for me; and
- I am not good enough for the Thing.
On that plane it forced me to question my actions in spite of all the saving, planning and rationalising I had done in previous years. Being on that plane (past the point of “too late”), the voice of fear panicked. Its tone was more mean, blatant and unimaginative than I had heard in some time. Planes have a habit of isolating feelings.
I tried to see the up-sides of this fear. The only positive I could see was that its existence probably meant that, on balance, I wasn’t a psychopath.
So I made a deal with fear: I promised that I would only have to stay in New Zealand for two weeks, following which, if I was having an awful time, I would allow myself to fly home and neglect the rest of my plans.
This offer was empty. The moment I landed, I was fine (despite fear’s few toxic murmurings mentioned below).
Talk of fear brings me to Rule 2….
Rule 2: There will come a point when not doing the Thing is more scary, frustrating and difficult to imagine than doing the Thing
It was part-way through 2016 when I realised that it was now or never. The idea of never doing the Thing became far more distressing than doing the Thing. Still, I wasn’t sure how much longer it might take and I wasn’t definitely sure that I would ever actually do it.
I needed to increase the span of the small steps that I was taking towards the Thing. So, working part-time, I began recording my music and actually finishing songs. I attended singing lessons where I had to sing on my own in front of other humans.
The steps gathered momentum until I was brave enough to take my songs to Tigersonic Studios in London where Felix’s honest and kind guidance together with her mixing powers helped me get my first songs audible to other humans.
I was doing little scary things a few times each week because those things were less scary than the big fear of never doing the Thing.
It still took over two more years for me to get my bottom on the seat of that plane…
Rule 3: #justdoit rarely applies to the Thing.
I used to spend a lot of time contemplating how some people just do stuff.
In most contexts, just getting up and doing something is not an option. Life gets in the way. We are humans. There are bits missing from our skillsets. Sometimes we need the input of others.
Side note: People aren’t as impulsive as they appear on Instagram.
It is so tempting and sometimes necessary to retreat to comfort zones again and again. To recover. Re-strategise. I’ve learned to be ok with this.
Every time I missed a music production class because I had to work or didn’t practice because of the compulsion to watch all existing episodes of Stranger Things in a weekend, I tried to embrace the fact that Things take time.
I tried not to be too hard on myself about it and not to make excuses.
I’m not into excuses. I’ve heard other people’s excuses. They are boring. They quickly become heavy and, at when repeated enough, they can turn into a disruptive mantra.
Things take time. If they didn’t, everyone would be doing Things. There’s a power in beginning again and again.
Rule 4: “Don’t quit the day job” for the Thing (immediately…)
As a London dweller I often found it difficult not to read people’s newspapers over their shoulders on the Tube. One over-read sentence spoke directly to me:
“Love the crap out of your day job”
In that moment I definitely didn’t agree, but this continued to resonate in my head and I began to get it.
I’m not sure if I would have ever done the Thing without my day jobs. The day job has a power that:
- lowered the stakes so the Thing never had to work or provide an income stream (see Rule 5)
- provided money to spend on the Thing
- provided structure in days to make sure I made time to do the Thing
- provided helpful chips for my shoulders… something to rebel against
The particular chip on my shoulder was provided by an unhelpful boss. When I was still a trainee I’d booked a day off work and, when he asked how I’d be spending my day, I naively told the truth.
“I write songs sometimes. I’m attending a songwriting workshop.”
I should have made something up.
In my appraisal three months later I was given the friendly advice that my “commitment would be questioned” if I talked about my creative hobbies in the office again.
While extreme sporting activities (no matter the time they consume or the injuries they can cause) are celebrated in law firms, lawyers should, apparently, not have creative hobbies.
My songwriting became my dirty little secret and the “friendly advice” became the chip on my shoulder to push me to acquire the skillset that I needed.
Note: humans can be terrible at dispensing advice, especially if they haven’t got a Thing themselves or they are stuck in a rut with their Thing. Sometimes the advice will come unexpectedly but I’ve found ways to only invite feedback that I am prepared to hear.
There is plenty of advice available from people who have done Things and know what they’re talking about.
Talking of which…
Rule 5: Find people who have done Things and listen to them (…in moderation)
The Thing has led me to discover some incredible wisdom that, without it, I would never have tapped into.
Some of my go-to gurus include Julia Cameron (author of the Artists’ Way), Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Big Magic), Brene Brown (author of Rising Strong), Susan Cain (author of Quiet), Amy Cuddy (author of Presence), Chris Gullibeau (author of a range of awesome books) and Emma Gannon (blogger, podcaster and author), each of whom has kept me moving towards the Thing at different times.
I’ve found it hugely important to hear these people’s words, read their books, watch their Ted talks and quote them on Instagram.
I even managed to get in the presence of a personal hero, Linda Perry, who was a keynote speaker at SXSW in Austin (a festival that I’d wanted to attend from the moment I discovered it existed). As if the inspiration of her lyrics was not enough, she delivered some fierce nuggets of knowledge:
“We forget who we are because we are concerned with who we are not”
“People are always going to push you around. They’ll push you out of your comfort zone and into their’s”
- Stories are often only shared once they’re over and you know the ending was happy enough. This kind of comfort is not available when we are in the middle of our own stories.
- Inspirational quotes taken out of context can turn into bullies (see Rule 3 as an example). They have made me feel like I wasn’t working hard enough and that I should be better at life.
- It’s easy to become an “inspiration addict” always seeking your next inspiration hit and before you realise it you a crawling out of a YouTube black hole having spent many hours there whilst avoiding working on the Thing itself.
It has to be about nurture.
This brings me to Rules 6 to 8 which are all about treating the Thing as if it were a child.
Rule 6: Never, EVER compare your Thing to another person’s Thing
This is always true, particularly whilst your Thing is a work in progress and the other person’s Thing is done and has been through an editing process.
No good can come from comparison. That is all.
Rule 7: Don’t stand in the Thing’s way
I have always made assumptions about what I should do according to some unknown yet strict code. I am not clear on where this code has come from but I know that it led me down the path of becoming a lawyer and made the idea of resigning from my job more difficult to fathom than the English nation supporting its football team during a World Cup campaign. Unlikely things happen.
I had my “it’s my life” speech all worked out for all the “haters” who might question my decision. Who might tell me that I was making a mistake not to have a secure job lined up for when I returned to the UK, or even a set plan of when that would be.
Nobody gave me the chance to deliver this speech. Every person that I told was delighted for me. It was fine. The world did not stop. This made me realise how long I had been standing in my own way and wonder how I would get out of it.
Cue: Escape the City.
It was the summer of 2017 and I knew that if I was to take the final jump and get on that plane on 30 December, something needed to stretch out its proverbial hand to pull me in its direction.
This manifested as Escape the City’s Idea Accelerator. Here I was, meeting with 30 people every week who also wanted to leave their responsible “do-the-right-thing” jobs to pursue their Things. Their Things mainly consisted of start-up ideas. Not only did this new community normalise my Thing, but it provided a structure to get the Thing out into the world in a constructive way.
This was exactly what I needed to let myself leave London behind along with those rules I’d created for myself.
Rule 8: Don’t ask the Thing for anything
About two weeks into my journey through New Zealand I began to panic. I hadn’t written a single lyric or recorded a melody line. This trip was all about providing the space to write prolifically. The expectant bully in my mind wanted results.
The moment I let myself off the hook, I began to write freely (if not quite prolifically).
Over the years I have been to many workshops about becoming a DIY musician and turning creative work into a business through its various income streams. Although I have always hugely respected people who manage this, I have always felt inhibited by the idea.
I’m of the same school as Elizabeth Gilbert who says in Big Magic:
“I promised that I would never ask writing to take care of me financially.”
That’s it for me.
I think expecting any such thing would destroy my love for making music itself. That would be too much for me to lose.
Rule 9: Get surrounded by people who have their own Thing
I cried a bit when I arrived in Nashville. It’s all music. In this city, people’s first question before “how are you” or “what do you do” is:
“Are you a songwriter?”
There is always something magic about being surrounded by others who are working towards something too.
When I was in London I sought these people out through singing workshops, songwriting meet-ups and through the London Artist’s Way group. These all helped me to move closer towards making my music.
As well as the Escape community mentioned at Rule 7, an experience I had in May 2016 led me to an incredible group of people and support network: Girls Rock London.
On that bank holiday weekend, I met 19 other women who had also signed up to spend their bank holiday weekend starting a band. Before we arrived we had chosen our instruments (mine, the guitar, which I hardly played) but had never met before. On Friday night we formed our bands. On Saturday and Sunday we did workshops and worked on writing our songs. On Monday night we performed those original songs to a room full of people.
The GRL founders and workshop leaders provided a space for us all to be vulnerable and kind, both to each other and ourselves. In doing so I found a new empathy for myself. I realised that some of the expectations of myself were shared by other women who participated on the course. I felt it audacious to call myself a “musician” or to press the buttons on a mixing desk because of some hidden perception that I had that I had never had the chance to verbalise.
The experience smashed so many of the limitations I’d put in front of myself. I realised I didn’t need a guitarist/producer(/man) to help me put melodies and beats around my lyrics. It gave me permission to press all the buttons on all the production equipment. It gave me a huge boost to finish my first EP and continues to provide an amazing supportive community.
Just a note: this amazing charity also runs workshops for girls each year which 100% change their lives. You can read more and donate to the charity via this link: http://www.girlsrocklondon.com
Rule 10: Doing the Thing is success enough
About 5 weeks into my New Zealand adventure, the brain bully struck again in a very real way. I began to wonder why I was making music at all and, although I enjoyed the process, what was the point of doing it if nobody was going to hear it. It’s that old if-a-tree-falls-in-the-forest-will-it-make-a-sound question.
And then came Tom Robinson like an angel. He played my song, Parity, on his 6 Music show and mixtape. I wrote a blog post about how important his show was and how it probably meant too much that my song was played. That someone who wasn’t related to me was listening to my track.
To my astonishment he responded to my blog post:
“It’s worth examining what we mean by “succeed” or “putting ourselves out there” in any case? All that actually matters is doing the best work we’re capable of and being true to our artistic inner voice — not what other people say about our work. Doing our very best work, and having a happy life.”
After that moment in New Zealand, and ever since, the brain bully has pretty much shut up. You can read all the awesome things that Tom said here.
Rule 11: Do YOUR Thing
When I was in New Orleans I received the most empowering put-down of my life: “You do you”. I know too many people say it, but I didn’t really hear it until someone said it to me.
Taking my instructions I began to seek out the kind of jazz-filled New Orleans that Ryan Gosling described in La La Land. I found my way to Preservation Hall, the city’s jazz sanctuary. There, an eight-piece band played traditional jazz standards as I propped myself up against the wall in the crowded room, smiling widely.
My stomach dropped for a second as the trombonist stood up and began to play the solo in Basin Street Blues. I realised that we were less than a mile from Basin Street itself, but a memory from much further away hit me.
I had played the same trombone solo aged 15 at senior school. I was in the school jazz band and hadn’t been playing for very long so was not completely happy about the prospect of a solo. Duty told me I needed to perform.
That trombonist in that dimly-lit room in New Orleans helped me realise that performing music wasn’t the thing that I loved about music. My passion was for the making of it and listening to it. Nothing about my Thing involved performing and yet, because most singer-songwriters are also performers, I had made the assumption of myself that I should also perform.
So in that moment, I let myself off the hook. If a performance opportunity arose, that would be amazing but I would stop my half-arsed attempts at finding places to play my music while I was traveling. I didn’t want to. Performance had nothing to do with my Thing. And that was cool.
Rule 12: the Thing will surprise you
There’s a book called the Happiness of Pursuit by Chris Guillebeau. It tells stories of individuals’ quests and explores the way that:
“your own quest can give you the self knowledge to find and live a more fulfilling life”
The Thing has led me to some amazing people and places. It has also encouraged me to live as out loud as my introverted ways will allow.
The Thing has led me to do the following that I never (ever) thought possible or probable:
- finish my songs
- sing my songs
- sing my songs on a stage in front of people
- learn more about the science around creativity
- learn about mindfulness
- travel solo
- organise events for other musicians
- (most recently) learn to DJ
The biggest surprise for me, as I was pushed onto the awkward terrain outside my comfort zone, was that I wrote a children’s novel. Its working title is “Lemon Stanford: unexpected adventurer”.
It’s about a little girl who gets thrown into a dystopian world where everyone is afraid to do the thing they most want to do in the world. She must face her own fears and learn many lessons in order to get back to her world. It’s my alt-autobiography in many ways.
I’m currently re-writing the novel and am always looking for volunteer beta/first readers so please get in touch if you’re interested in reading it (email@example.com).
Rule 13: the Thing doesn’t have to be everything
I’m back in the real world, working as I did before. I did the Thing and am enjoying life without its constant nagging.
I have finished my EP which you can listen to via my website embriar.com
I continue to make music and DJing is giving me a new take on my songwriting.
In 2019 the hope is to work with other voices, collaborate and get people dancing.
I’d love to hear from anyone who would like to collaborate, share their Thing or share a stage.
Thanks so much for taking the time to read this article and I wish you and your Thing great things for 2019.