on goals, competition, and comeuppance…

“Man was born for toil, since his perfection is always being actualized but is never actual…” –Marhal, 16th century

We each of us have certain strong suits- talents or skills that we lean on in our lives. My mother was a singer, my father a guitarist, my aunt was a singer-songwriter, and my older brother played guitar too, so you can guess why music has always come easy to me. But there’s an issue with things that come easy: there will always come a point where to get better, you have to work. And you’d think, having had all the encouragement of that natural talent, it would be easy to dig in and do the hard work to overcome whatever plateau you’ve reached, but it’s not. When you haven’t needed the work ethic to achieve your current state, figuring out how to transcend it is like anyone’s guess. That how is the question that everyone wants answered quickly. We scan YouTube for tutorials and use our Phone-A-Friend lifeline, whatever it takes to find out how much work it will be, and if it’s worth it. But if you have a why, the questions of how become less of an obstacle, and more of an opportunity.

When I was 14, just learning how to play guitar, I was obsessed with Jimi Hendrix. I had an Olympic white Stratocaster just like he did, (purely coincidence, but I liked to think it was providence,) and I was learning how to play “Hey Joe.” It’s not the most difficult of his songs, but it’s not simple either. My older brother had a friend, Delaney, who was also a student of Hendrix. He had been kicked out of his house for one of the reasons teenage boys get kicked out of houses, and was sleeping in Adam’s room for a while. I remember sitting on the floor in the bedroom asking Delaney to show me how to play that song. He was patient enough with me as I fumbled through, intent on getting it right, even now I can feel my wide eyes and worried lower lip as I watched him model the part.

“Show me again,” I said. “Again.” … “One more time, please.”

He looked at me with glazed eyes and said thickly, “You’ll never be as good at guitar as me.”

I looked blankly back at him, blinked, and said, “Ok. Show me again?”

At the time, I was utterly unconcerned with being better than Delaney; I was concerned with being able to play that song. I was very competitive with my older brother, and trying to best him and earn his respect was a large part of my desire for growth. But while Delaney’s comment registered, it didn’t phase me in the slightest, as long as he’d keep teaching me what I needed to know. Years later, at 22, in the year I came back to Napa after college, I ran into Delaney at a party. He had a guitar in hand and was futzing around when he saw me.

“Needleman!” He said, too loud. “You still playing guitar?” He stretched out his arm to offer me his.

“Yeah man.” I took the guitar, sat down, and played the intro to “Little Wing,” another Hendrix song that’s much more beautiful, and more difficult, than “Hey Joe.”

He looked at me, then down at the guitar, then back up at me. “Holy shit,” he said.

When I was learning, I wasn’t worried about being better than Delaney, but there was an undeniable satisfaction in finding out that the time I had put in on the instrument had yielded such a fantastic come-uppance. That moment wasn’t the reason I put the time in though, it was a symptom of it. And the same is true for applause, and accolades.

Sitting on a bus with Shauna Niequist, speaker and bestselling author, heading back to the hotel after the wrap party for the 2016 Belong Tour, she told me she’d rather wrap cables and tear down the stage after a show than stand in a signing line.

“It stresses me out,” she said. “Why would you want to talk to me? I’d rather make sandwiches, or even clean toilets for people.” She understands that this is where she’s needed, that it’s part of the job, but I thought her stress was actually a symptom of a culture of false humility. Not false because people are fake, but because we haven’t taught humility correctly. So, after four Moscow mules and a two-champagne toast, I was sure Shauna wanted to hear exactly all of my thoughts on this.

“I was in choir when I was in high school,” I told her, “and most of the older classmen thought I was arrogant. But I never saw myself as more important than anyone else, and I never willfully put people down, I was just obsessed with making the music great. I sort of stepped on people because I didn’t see anyone else’s ego, I only saw a shared goal, a common cause. But I definitely saw how that focus lost me the support of the upper class-men, so I spent forever trying ‘put my ego in check.’ I started speaking softer and self-deprecating, and warred inside between my desire to do great things and still treat people in such a way to make them feel good about me. It wasn’t until much later, through years of intentioned thought and reflection that I came to a deep understanding of humility… only to find out that my newfound wisdom wasn’t new at all. I was so sure I had cracked one of humanities unbreakable codes until Curt Thompson said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s the basic understanding of humility the ancient Hebrews had.’ I was totally vindicated and totally annoyed. Couldn’t someone have told me this years ago? So here it is: true humility is an honest understanding of who you are, and who you are not.” Sometimes, in order to make one point I have to tell three stories. So I went on, and Shauna was attentive and thoughtful and responsive because she’s patient, and kind, and lovely.

“We get compliments everyday; it’s part of our job right?” She nodded. “Our daily lives include people clapping for us, and that totally goes against our basic Christian idea of humility. But here’s the thing, performing isn’t about demanding attention, it’s not about ‘watch me do this thing and then applaud me because I’m awesome.’ It’s about facilitating a moment. All of us, those on stage and those in the crowd, we’re in this thing together, this moment isn’t mine, it’s ours. And the applause aren’t the end goal, they’re the recognition of the moment we all shared.”

She nodded. “I like that; that makes sense to me.” I was on a roll so I kept at it.

“Ok so long way around, to come back to your original point: taking pictures and signing autographs isn’t about us, it’s about how we made people feel known. The moments we facilitate make people feel known, and so in turn they feel they know us, or that they want to know us, or at least to let us know they felt known. And it’s actually generous of you to stand there and take it. Maybe especially because it makes you uncomfortable.”

She, generous as ever, nodded her head and said, “Yeah I just hate that part of the job. I’d rather be wrapping cables.” No wonder people love her so.

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