I’ve been questioning my limitations lately. What is the real edge of my ability vs. the one I made up after failing at something once or twice? I was reading a bunch about the idea of “learned helplessness” today, and I ended up stumbling across this passage from The Gift of Fear, by Gavin De Becker on Google. It’s about training circus elephants. (It’s relevant, I promise.)
“When (circus elephants are) young, they are attached by heavy chains to large stakes driven deep into the ground. They pull and yank and strain and struggle, but the chain is too strong, the stake too rooted. One day they give up, having learned that they cannot pull free, and from that day forward they can be “chained” with a slender rope.”
So once they’re grown up… even though they’re massive and capable of pulling down the whole tent… the instant they feel the slightest resistance, they stop trying – because they already know it’s impossible. This is a really great metaphor. I think almost everyone is living out a version of it in some part of life…
There is no greater example of this in my life, than the following story:
About eight years ago, I released my first album. It was something that I’d been working on like it was the only thing that mattered for nine months. I had forgone the usual social life of a High School senior and opted instead, to fill every spare moment, every night, every weekend with recording.
So… when I finally had a big box of shrink wrapped CDs, I booked a show at a book store coffee shop in town, and got to work promoting.
My release show was a smashing success. There were more than a hundred people packed into a space big enough for thirty, I got interviewed by someone from the college paper, and I sold nearly fifty CDs in the first couple of days. That was my first public show as a performing songwriter. It was also the last time for several years that there were a lot of people at a show because I was there. I kept booking shows in town over the next few months, and every time I played, the crowd got smaller.
Finally a well-meaning friend told me, “dude, people aren’t coming anymore, because you’re loud and obnoxious when you sing.”
And a guy who was sort of mentoring me at the time said, “You’re not a good guitar player yet. You’re just ok as a performer. You have a thousand shows to play before you’re the kind of remarkable act that people really want to go out and see.”
Were they right? Yes. Did it help? Probably not. I tried booking a few more shows, but in a couple of cases it got to the point where I left early and offered to get paid less (than $25) by the venue. So, like the elephant, I decided I couldn’t pull a crowd.
Over the years, I got better. People started responding positively to my music and some with immense sincerity and enthusiasm. I started getting hired to play at nice places, which eventually led to music being my job. But in the back of my mind – year after year – there was this escapist dream of a thought… about booking a venue, taking a risk, trying to see if I could get people out to see me… not me and the three dollar margarita special… not me and a perfectly cooked eight oz fillet… just me – a concert they wanted to attend badly enough to buy a ticket.
It was entirely impossible in my head, so it took eight years for it to become a consideration that was serious enough for me to look for a venue. Once I knew what I wanted the venue to be, it took me three months of feeling like an eighth grader calling a crush, to actually call and book a real date.
The place I booked was Peach Street Studios, a beautiful old school recording studio just north of downtown Bozeman, Montana with a fifty seat music venue built in. Through a lucky conversation, I got invited to make my show a part of “Live from the Divide,” an unplugged radio show that features up and coming local artists. It was an honor, but it also made the impending concert even more terrifying. I was certain at the time that mine would be the only show playing back on the radio with no audience in the background.
In addition to all of the stress about the turnout, I started to worry about the cost… the venue rental, the printing, the opening act… it was substantial and I really didn't feel ready to drop a bunch of money on a flop. My elephant style of thinking made me consider backing out more than I want to admit.
I don't exactly know why, but when I woke up on the morning of my twenty-seventh birthday – twenty one days before the show – I knew I had to go through with it. I decided, then and there, that no matter what – I would do everything I could think of to do, to make this work. I would do my best and find out if I was wrong about what my limits were.
It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t entirely pretty. Those last weeks leading up to the actual show were a roller-coaster. I would feel like I was conquering the world; then call the ticket venue to find out I’d sold three tickets. I would go around town putting up posters all morning; then spend the rest of the day thinking that I probably wasted my money on printing. I wrote a couple of press releases that I thought were brilliant; then re-wrote them because I thought they were presumptuous and overstating and terrible. I performed twelve times in seven days. I called people, emailed people, texted people, and made sure to start a conversation about the show in pretty much every appropriate circumstance. I really did do all I could think to do.
So finally, at about noon on the day of the show, I headed down to Cactus Records – the seventies style record store that acted as my ticket venue – to collect the remaining tickets so that I could sell them at the door. I had a few tickets promised to local media and big supporters of my career. Since I was pretty sure that I hadn’t sold very many in advance, I figured I would be able to give out the promised tickets, and have plenty left for everyone I could convince to show up on this late of notice.
I arrived at Cactus in the middle of a blizzard, tripped over the threshold, and stopped awkwardly in front of Ryan, the manager. I hadn't slept much in a week. I hadn't showered in two days. I had just had 4 shots of espresso, and I was nervous and talking way too fast. The conversation went something like this:
Me: “I'm here for the uhhhh… to find out about the tickets for… ummm…”
Ryan (laughing): “your show?”
Me: “yeah. I want the rest… err… how many are left?”
Ryan (still grinning): “how many do you want to be left?”
Me: “none would be awesome… but…”
Ryan: “ding ding ding! We sold the last two right after we opened. I've been turning people away all morning.”
My heart rate tripped. It was one of the finest moments of my life to date. I shook, laughed, mumbled something unintelligible, then started celebrating like I'd come back from three games down in the world series. I almost cried. Twelve years of stacking fear was blown apart in moments.
Walking out onto the snowy sidewalk downtown, I heard a voice yelling my name from the street. I looked to my left to see my violin teacher from when I was a kid, leaning out the window of his car.
Him: “Aaron! I went to cactus and tried to get tickets for my family, and the show’s sold out. What do I do?”
Me: “I’ll work it out. Just come to the door 15 minutes early.”
I laughed out loud as he drove away. ‘I can’t believe it,’ I thought, ‘this is really happening.’
The supposed max capacity of the venue is fifty. There were seventy-two tickets sold over and above the six that I gave away, and quite a few people were turned away at the door. It was crazy… standing room only… and probably close to half of the attendees were people I’d never met before. Seventy-two people at a show might not seem like that big of a deal, but I had broken through the obsolete limitation of my baby elephant self. What’s more, it brought some of my favorite parts of my spirit back to life. I feel younger than I have since I was eighteen… it's like I finally put down a four-hundred pound backpack that I had been carrying around for nearly a decade.
That experience opened my eyes and my curiosity. I’m not a fearful person, but I was nearly paralyzed in the weeks leading up to the show. I’m not a cynical person, but I couldn’t be positive about the show for more than a few caffeine fueled hours at a time. I’m assuming there are a lot of obsolete limitations that I’m not even thinking about… that’s the tough thing about this stuff… the idea that I “just can’t” is an assumption that I never have a reason to question.
So now I’m looking for more of them. The fight with things I assume I can’t do will continue indefinitely. That’s how I want to live… at least right now. I want my life to stay new and scary… I want to take the riskier road… I want the future to feel as uncertain and exotic as it did before I had ever settled into anything.
I’m going after these obsolete limitations with everything I've got.
I'm going to find them…
one by one…
And take. them. down.