In the fourth grade, your entire class put on a winter musical spectacular. It was everything your little nine-year-old heart could hope for: Singing! Dancing! Glittery snow and beaming parents! This being an inclusive school event, everyone was to participate in belting out politically-correct Christmas classics like Jingle Bell Rock and I’m Getting Nuttin’ for Christmas. But the biggest, awesomest, wickedest act was the solo. The grand finale. The coup de grace. And yes, Ladies and Gentlemen, it included a CONFETTI SNOWSTORM.
Hellz yeah, you were trying out for that solo.
Now, recall that you are nine. This was the period of your life in which you fancied yourself an Ariel, whose dazzling voice could produce miracles like transforming fins into legs. Every night in the shower, you belted out Part of Your World like you could never get enough gadgets and gizmos and thingamabobs. (Twenty years later: not true.) There was something magical about the way your notes reverberated all bright and frosty off the glass. You liked to sing—nay, you loved it. And you thought you were pretty damn good at it, too.
Even after all these years, you can still remember the audition for the solo. The song in question was some sad, soulful Eponine-esque lament about how a certain snowman’s cold, cold heart proved to be an insurmountable obstacle to a budding relationship. You practiced it a dozen times each day, in front of your parents, your grandparents, your next-door neighbor, your imaginary dog. When the moment of the audition arrived, you stuck a big grin on your face, walked out in front of all those teachers and students, and belted out your love for that frozen ball of snow. Afterwards, there was scattered applause. You bowed and went back to your seat.
Alas, you didn’t get the part. The honor went to a girl named Lisa, and when she delivered the final Mariah-inspired ooooOOOO-EEEE, the crowd leapt to their feet, cheering wildly. Of course you were disappointed that it was her and not you standing out there in the spotlight, in the downpour of all those fluttering, glittering pieces of confetti snow. But you shrugged it off. There would be other performances. Life goes on. Meanwhile, you happily continued singing your Little Mermaid songs in the shower.
It wasn’t until a few years later that the truth finally hit you, over a Christmas morning spent playing with a new family camcorder. You thought it would be fun to record yourself singing. (You thought like an idiot.) You hit replay. And then, this simple fact split the ceiling and slapped you hard across the face:
You were god-awful at singing.
There is no polite way to say it. You sucked big-time. You’re practically tone deaf. Those notes that always sounded so bright and clear in the shower were actually muddled and warbly. You sounded like some sort of tipsy animal, and the louder and more passionately you sang, the more it it called into question whether you weren’t trying to sing some entirely different song altogether.
To say that you were devastated would be putting it lightly. Here was a thing that you did and loved, only to discover that you did it poorly. Broadway was not in the stars. Even singing Happy Birthday was suspect. More than that, the realization shook your faith in yourself. Since as long as you could remember, you fancied yourself competent at this one thing. Turns out you were terribly, horribly wrong. So what else are you wrong about?
What else are you miserable at, and maybe everybody else knows it, but you’re too blind or proud or delusional to see?
Ira Glass of This American Life, in one of his most quotable quotes, says this of beginners:
All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.
Ira’s words were meant to be inspirational. He goes on to encourage beginners to never give up, because only with persistence will the work get better—slowly but surely, inch by painstaking inch—until it finally lives up to that ideal of taste.
That quote is etched across your heart. You couldn’t agree with Ira more. You turn to those words time and time again when your work feels like crap, when you wish you could bury it in a ten-feet hole and pretend like you never came up with such shit in the first place.
But his advice doesn’t address your greatest fear, born through the shame and folly of thinking that you were ever good at singing:
What if your taste is the thing that sucks?
Read Part 2 · Read Part 3
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