For a long time, I didn’t think I was a professional musician. I still scroll through my friends’ Instagram accounts, decide I’ve had a good run, and consider quitting music for about two minutes every morning. As a creative, there are no objective criteria to check yourself against, and it inevitably seems like everyone you know is going at 100 mph, while you are driving around the same roundabout with a flat tire.
At first, that feeling was eating away at everything I did, and whenever I came up with a project, I heard a voice in my head saying things like “not good enough”, “you’re an amateur”, “nobody cares about what you have to say”. But throughout the years, I’ve learned to cope with that voice, to hear it mumble something hurtful and recognise it for what it is – fear.
But a year ago, I had put away my guitar after crying myself to sleep for months, and decided I would never be a musician. I went to the library, got out some books on politics and economics, and spent my summer reading, trying to imagine what it would feel like to study something ‘normal’. Studying music in university had proved harder than I had anticipated. It was the first time I was confronted with real criticism, with other musicians who were better and more motivated than me, and I felt like an impostor, as if I’d blagged my way in and didn’t belong.
June went by, then July, and then August came around. I hadn’t touched my guitar and hadn’t written a single song. I wrote a travel article thinking that being a journalist sounded less crazy than being a musician, but then realised it was probably still too much of a stretch. Then in August, I got an idea.
My Songwriting tutor, Lisbee Stainton, says that when you’re not writing, you’re “planting seeds”. I think all through June and July I had been planting seeds, and in August, I woke up in the middle of the night in a garden. I had an idea for an EP, fully developed – I could picture the artwork, hear the arrangement, see the press release. I started recording a week later. I realised that despite my anxiety, the panic attacks, the tears, quitting music was not a solution. Figuring out how to deal with my self-doubt was.
I spent a year trying to work through my fears. I can’t say I never wake up and question myself anymore. I do. But I don’t doubt myself the way I used to, I question myself because that’s what good artists do to get better. But I also believe I am enough now. I believe I am already a professional musician. I believe that I have my own path and I don’t have to be at the same level some of my friends are. And these habits helped me to get to where I am:
1. I Changed the Way I Talk to Myself
We’ve all been told this before. Don’t talk down to yourself, how you see yourself is how others see you, etc. But I never realised how true this was until I started practising it. Overly positive self-talk is exhausting, and I couldn’t get behind it at the best of times, but you can make small changes in what you say that will make a massive difference.
For example: instead of talking about your goals, talk about your challenges. Goals are stressful, and if you don’t achieve them, you feel like a loser. Challenges, however, are exciting and playful, and a challenge is not something you need to achieve, it’s something you want to have a go at. For me, this meant that I stopped beating myself up when I didn’t reach a goal and that I felt extra proud when I tackled a challenge. It also meant that I stopped putting so much pressure on myself and started enjoying myself more. Think about what you say that stresses you out and how you could rephrase it to make it sound exciting.
2. I Took up Running
I’ve always hated sports. At the same time, I’ve always been jealous of people who were good at them because they seemed so damn perfect. So, after another low point of watching Netflix and stuffing myself with Walkers Max, I decided I could either start running every morning or keep wallowing. I chose running.
I didn’t think it would have any effects on anything other than my health. And for the first two weeks, it didn’t. But the longer I kept doing it, even when it was hard and I wanted to quit, the more I started to enjoy it. And I started to get better at it.
Running taught me two things. Firstly, that I am not a quitter, which I had always thought I was. And secondly, that tough stretches result in growth. Those lessons changed the way I saw myself and made me confident enough to take on new projects.
3. I Started a Gratitude Journal
I have always found it hard to get behind the spiritual stuff. I have tried meditation (and I keep trying!), but I find it hard to sit still for more than five minutes. I do yoga, but mostly because it makes my body feel good, I don’t particularly care about my third eye. So, I was also skeptical about gratitude practice, but I thought I’d give it a go.
For months, I sat down before bed every night and wrote down five things I was grateful for. And after a couple weeks, I started noticing how, during the day, I would make music or sit down for lunch or talk to a friend, and make a mental note to be grateful. That warm feeling of content started expanding from my diary pages into my life, and instead of beating myself up for things I didn’t have or hadn’t accomplished, I started thanking the universe for giving me so much. It’s easy to doubt and even hate yourself for what your life lacks, but it is even easier to love the abundance in it.
4. I Took Time to Remember What Mattered
In December last year, I organised an EP release show. I didn’t have any particular reason to do so, other than because everyone else was doing it. It was an extremely stressful process, and in three months time, I had barely got any sleep. The show went well, and I was ecstatic and proud for about two hours, and then it was over and everyone went home. After the release show, I asked myself why I had even bothered putting it on. I got into music so that I could live passionately, doing something I loved. And here I was, doing something I had never planned to do, mindlessly following in other people’s footsteps, so I could tell myself I was doing just as well as my friends.
Over Christmas, I made a list of things that mattered to me – what brought me joy, why I was making music, what life I wanted to live. Sometimes, life goes so fast that, without noticing, we adopt other people’s dreams as our own and try to achieve milestones we don’t care about and then beat ourselves up about failing at something we never wanted in the first place.
When I wrote out my list, I noticed that I was doing much better at what I wanted to do than I had thought while comparing myself to others. At the same time, I noticed that I could cut out a lot of miscellaneous stuff I was doing that was not serving me (like obsessing over my Instagram account) and use that time for things I enjoy (like writing spoken word). Now, I make lists like that every once in a while to check in with myself.
5. I Redefined What Success Meant to Me
When I first started studying music, I didn’t have many expectations – I wanted to write songs, have a good time, maybe learn something. But being surrounded by so many talented people made me want more. I started craving recognition, bigger venues to play in, more followers, and streams on Spotify. Whenever my expectations were left unfulfilled, I felt like a failure.
Over the last year, I started unearthing that person I was before I went to a music university (here’s a blog post on what helped me to figure out what mattered to me) – the one who thought that being able to make music was in itself successful, who believed that success didn’t lie in money, fame, or Instagram. The one who believed that success was doing whatever makes you happy.
After I made my list with priorities over Christmas, I decided I needed to allow myself more time to do the things I loved. And if I managed to get through the day with a smile on my face, I would think myself successful. After that, I did my first spoken word open mic, travelled to Budapest, and dyed my hair pink. Doing those things made me feel alive, present, and, ultimately, confident. Being successful is not about material things, it’s about living your best life. So, live a little.