“Musicians should go to a yard sale and buy an old fucking drum set and get in their garage and just suck. And get their friends to come in and they’ll suck, too. And then they’ll fucking start playing and they’ll have the best time they’ve ever had in their lives and then all of a sudden they’ll become Nirvana. Because that’s exactly what happened with Nirvana… and they became the biggest band in the world.”
— Dave Grohl, Nirvana / Foo Fighters
There is one thing preventing you from getting really good at that thing you’ve always wanted to be really good at. Your ego.
Maybe you want to learn how to play piano, maybe you want to learn how to tango, how to speak Swahili, act, cook, do Taekwondo, start a blog about nothing in particular so you can impart self-aggrandizing wisdom on strangers… Whatever it is, there’s really only one way to learn how to do it:
Start doing it.
Let’s get one thing clear: this is not a moturbational (motivation + masturbation… I made that up) post vomiting out platitudes like: “Your only competition is you!” or “When people ask what you do, say ‘whatever it takes!'” or “Don’t talk, just act. Don’t say, just show. Don’t promise, just prove.”
No. While there is truth in all of those banal phrases, I want to talk about how to begin and how to learn well.
Some personal examples
While I never planned on it, I’ve made somewhat of a lifestyle of this. I started a podcast (before podcasts were cool), even though I knew nothing about radio/podcasting or interviewing. The show became mildly popular and dovetailed into an artist management company through influence and connections. I knew nothing about artist management (thankfully my business partner did), but we ended up signing and garnered publishing deals, television appearances and song placements for multiple up-and-coming artists. I helped start and grow a healthcare business, even though I knew nothing about the industry or starting an actual brick-and-mortar business with customers. That business did well enough to get absorbed into a big dermatology clinic.
Those are all examples of jumping in and figuring out those things weren’t for me — or maybe they were for me, just temporarily. That’s an important distinction. Imagine putting time and energy into planning, learning, and practicing a new craft, then slowly rolling it out to the public… just to find out you hate it. Jump in, suck, and figure out that you hate it.
If you love it, it will stick. Period.
I also started acting, improvising, and writing before knowing what I was doing. Those all kind of became my thing.
You’ve likely heard interviews where the interviewee says something to the effect of, “I didn’t have a plan B.” If your passion for a craft begins to fade, there’s a reason for it. If your passion is misplaced (e.g. wanting to be famous, over being a working actor), you’re going to fail — or at least have a fleeting, meaningless career. Passion must drive you because, at times, it’s all you have.
I’ve always considered myself an opportunist, so I’m thankful to have had these opportunities. However, I went in to a lot of them blind. Sure I brought my own special set of skills, Liam Neeson style, but ultimately, I started because I just decided to.
Just Decide To
“From now on we live in a world where man has walked on the Moon. It’s not a miracle; we just decided to go.”
— Jim Lovell, Commander of Apollo 13 (1969)
“Just start doing it” is easier said than done… or is it? Sure there are tips, tricks, and “hacks.” There are good and bad ways to go about things. Yes, it takes a lot of hard work to become great. But to begin is a very simple choice. Everyone has to start somewhere. So start. Wherever you are is as good a place as any.
You want to write a screenplay? You don’t have to be Aaron Sorkin. Start writing. You want to lose 10, 20, or 100 pounds? You don’t have to know everything John Romaniello does. Start moving around and eating less shit. You want to quit your job and start your own freelance business? You don’t have to have a business degree. Start here and start asking questions. You want to be a rockstar drummer? You don’t have to be Dave Grohl. Go to a yard sale, buy an old fucking drum set, get in your garage and just suck.
Don’t overcomplicate it.
“There’s really not much of a secret to it. You eat less, you do more.”
— Christian Bale on losing weight for characters
Hard work does pay off, but why make it more complicated than it needs to be? My generation is obsessed with self-help books, fad diets, guru podcasts, and inspirational quotes. While all of these things have their place, they pull our focus in a thousand different directions and create tribe mentalities of “this is the right way.”
Know that anyone who is prescribing a right way to do something (with rare exceptions) is trying to sell you something.
I’ll go back to a previous example. You want to lose weight? Eat less, do more. Now if you want to look like Arnold, you’ll have to finely tune it a bit more. However, if you want to lose 10 pounds, you don’t have to intermittently fast, do high intensity interval training at exactly 11am, or join CrossFit; you don’t have to be gluten free, dairy free, preservative free, and carb free except on Thursday afternoons, or eat Keto, Atkins, Whole30, or Paleo; you don’t have to be vegan or vegetarian (although I do like that lifestyle).
Eat less. Do more. Want to get a little more specific? Eat more plants, drink more water, stay away from processed shit, and try to break a sweat every day. Don’t make it more difficult than it is. Once you get into it and fall in love with it, then experiment and fine tune.
Don’t overthink it.
“The first key to writing is to write. Not to think.”
— Sean Connery, Finding Forrester
I’m a big believer in learning everything there is to know in your particular field of interest. Become a master of your craft. However, there is also truth to the notion, “the more you learn about something, the less you think you know about it.”
Many many success stories are born out of naiveté. Richard Branson has made a career out of it, having launched companies in high-risk areas he knows (or knew) very little about, including magazines (at 15 years old), record labels, airlines, and space travel, just to name a few. Bryan and Ronald Williams (aka Birdman and Slim) from Cash Money Records were among the first artists to own their own masters after demanding a bonkers deal with Universal. Why? Because they didn’t care (or maybe they didn’t even know) how things were conventionally done. The short film Bottle Rocket was made by three kids from Texas (two actors and a director) who just decided to make a thing. They submitted it to the Sundance Film Festival because why not? It got in. It got developed into a feature. That feature got made. Those kids: Wes Anderson and Luke and Owen Wilson.
Don’t lose the childlike joy of magic. I’m not advocating ignorance — naiveté isn’t the same thing. Naiveté involves keeping rose-colored glasses on a goal by not overthinking it. Whatever it is that gives you pleasure and drives you forward is what you should be keeping your eye on.
“Let go of the thing that you’re trying to be (the noun), and focus on the actual work you need to be doing (the verb).”
— Austin Kleon
I wrote aaaaall about this here. But in other words, don’t worry about being a Writer. Write. Don’t worry about being X. Just start doing it and see where life takes you.
And what if (as in my case many times) you focus on the wrong noun or change your mind? (And by the way… that’s totally ok!) Then you’ll be doing the wrong verb too. If you focus on the doing, it could lead to all sorts of other opportunities. I’m a Graphic Designer. But if I only identified as such, I’d have problems getting acting jobs, and people would be confused (more than they already are) at how much I write. If Dave Grohl only identified as a drummer, Foo Fighters would have never been conceptualized.
Find a mentor.
“Show me a successful individual and I’ll show you someone who had real positive influences in his or her life. I don’t care what you do for a living — if you do it well I’m sure there was someone cheering you on or showing you the way. A mentor.”
— Denzel Washington
You simply can’t always go it alone. While a good way to start is just to start, trust me… you’ll make mistakes. While those will be far more beneficial to your growth than any success (oh look, a banal but true platitude), you’ll need someone to guide you, to push you back on course, or even to show you what the right course is.
Of course I’m going to mention improv…
A couple great improv sayings: “First you get up in the air and then you build the plane;” and “jump off the cliff and figure it out on the way down.” Sometimes they are combined: “Jump off a cliff and figure out how to build a plane on the way down.” No matter how to cut it, you’re jumping, falling, and figuring it out.
This is why improvisational theater pertains to life in so many ways. First of all, say “yes.” Say yes to any opportunities that come your way. Second, there is a thing in improv called “initiation anxiety” — being afraid to begin a scene. Being afraid to jump. Here is the best part about improv: you can rest assured that when you jump others will too. This is where mentors come in. This is also where just having a good support system comes in. Get your friends to come in and they’ll suck, too… and have the best time you’ve ever had in your lives.
In improv there’s no such thing as a mistake — it’s a gift (a learning opportunity)! You’ll suck at first, but you’ll learn from it. Mistakes are gifts.
On a more practical note, you have to learn how to play Zip Zap Zop before you can try to do TJ and Dave (and no one will ever “do” TJ and Dave like TJ Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi). What I’m saying is… even the best sucked at some point.
Figure it out
When you’re on stage and in the moment, you’ve got no choice but to do something. I especially learned this doing musical improv. I also learned that it’s ok to suck at things! When they say “necessity is the mother of invention,” they aren’t joking. And it’s amazing what you can actually accomplish if you go to a yard sale and buy an old fucking drum set and get in your garage and just suck. You can become (or to some extent — watch this turn of phrase — reach) Nirvana.