Look at that cool punk drummer! Ahh… the dream of every young angsty musician, to make a living playing music. That’s the life I thought I wanted while I was drumming away on the back of that flatbed semi trailer in Jonesboro, Arkansas, circa 2000.
I travelled the continental United States with Annie’s Apology for about 2 years, 2000-2002. Living in a Volkswagen Jetta, performing at coffee shops, festivals, youth centers, and even homeless shelters. Sometimes we slept in the car, or not at all, or if I got lucky I would get to share a single bed with one of my band mates (something that happened on more than one occasion).
When I first joined Annie’s Apology it was all about the music. I envisioned being on stage lauded by screaming fans, in the studio making history, or hanging with other musicians and music lovers just living the good life. I never thought about the sleepless nights, loading and unloading the equipment, sparse meals, or filthy accommodations. How naïve and stupid.
The stressful combination of my fame which never came and the necessity of working a paying job caught up to me. I dreaded practicing and playing shows and setting up and tearing down my drum kit made me want to smash it to bits or just leave it behind. I forgot why I even started playing. Music sucked.
The Learning Curve
Let’s come back to my failure as a rockstar a little bit later.
To continue with the musical theme, let’s talk about my failure as a guitar player instead. Although guitar isn’t my main instrument I’ve been around enough guitars and guitar players over the years that I’ve pick up a thing or two. Actually, I’ve been “learning” to play guitar for about 19 years now. With that kind of longevity you’d think I’m a pretty solid guitar player. Wrong! I suck. I’ve never been able to get past the beginner level.
Even though I have everything I need… guitar, books, musician friends… I still suck. Once in a while I get a spark of motivation, pick it up, and swear that I’m going to stick with it this time and fulfill that vision of myself effortlessly playing and singing my favorite songs. You know that feeling I’m talking about. Most of us get it around this time of the year when we swear we’re going to eat healthy and go to the gym everyday before work. We envision that hard body like steel wrapped in leather as we admire ourselves in the mirror. Alas, that body never comes… Why!?
Here’s what I’ve learned: with any difficult challenge, at some point, you are going to stop seeing progress as rapidly as you did in the beginning. This is called “the dip” and it’s a natural part of the Learning Curve.
It goes something like this…when I started playing guitar I was excited every time I learned a new technique, chord, or song but after the excitement of quick learning ended it was time to refine what I had been learning. This is where the fun ends and the work begins.
Illustrated in the figure you can see that in the beginning the effort is low and the results are rising quickly. Once you reach the first peak though the results start to decline even though you’re putting in the same amount of effort. The decline eventually ends in the dip. The good news is that the dip doesn’t last forever and there is a way through it.
It makes me think of a joke about pancakes by the late Mitch Hedberg:
“all exciting at first but then by the end you’re fucking sick of ’em.”
Learning is all fun and exciting at first but by the end you’re fucking sick of it!
A Way Through The Dip
The trick to getting through the dip is putting in the time. Yup, it’s as simple as that. If you put in the time you will see the results. I can think of countless times in my life where I’ve put in the time and the results followed. On the other hand I can think of countless times when I didn’t put in the time and got trapped in the dip. If you were to ask me if I had put the time into learning guitar I would sadly answer no because I quit at the dip every time.
Think about something you’ve failed at in the past. Did you put in the time? I’ll bet the answer is no. There’s likely some aspect that you could have invested more time in.
It may seem obvious that the value of getting through the dip is achieving the goal you set out to crush but I there’s something more…
The Value of Learning in Learning
There’s a scene in The Matrix where the main character, Neo, has a wire plugged into the back of his head that enables him to instantly learn all martial arts and he’s able to use his newly acquired skill on the spot while training with his mentor. How amazing would it be to learn any skill without even trying and then apply it immediately to your life?! It actually might not be as great as you think. If I could instantly learn to play the guitar with no effort, I don’t know if it would be as rewarding as putting in the time and pushing through the dip. I wouldn’t have actually “learned” anything, I would have simply acquired it.
You see, when you learn something what you’re really doing is becoming a better person. The real value isn’t in achieving the goal. It’s in the process of learning. When you think about achieving a goal, don’t think about what it takes to achieve the goal rather think about what type of person it take to achieve the goal. For instance, somebody that plays guitar is likely a disciplined, passionate, and ambitious person. Otherwise how could they get through the dip?
And to take this to an even more philosophical level I believe that learning directly impacts your happiness. Think about some of your happiest times. I bet they’re related to an accomplishment where you pushed through the dip and came out the other side. There is no substitute for a feeling like that. It’s not something that you can purchase. You have to challenge yourself, put in the time, and that’s when you will see results.
Jim Rohn says:
“Time is more valuable than money.”
You can have all the money in the world but you can’t spend your way to becoming a skilled writer or musician. You can’t buy your way through the dip and you can’t buy happiness.
Annie’s Apology forever!
What ever happened to Annie’s Apology? We were supposed to play our last show at the same venue where we played our first show in Jonesboro, Arkansas as a way to bring the experience full circle. For some reason, which I don’t understand, the fans in Jonesboro were always supportive and welcoming and the venue gave us food and a clean place to stay as if we truly were the rockstars we saw ourselves as. Even though this last show would have been a symbolic way to end our run, I was so over the rockstar lifestyle that I canceled the show just a couple days before we were supposed to play. I let a lot of people down when I made that decision and I still feel guilty about it today. That’s how Annie’s Apology ended.
Even though I believe you can do pretty much anything if you push through the dip, I don’t believe that you always should push through. There are some times when you may be unhappy even after getting through it. If I had pushed through the dip with Annie’s Apology, maybe we wouldn’t have become multi-millionaire rockstar, but we definitely could have made a living at it. I’m glad that we ended when we did though because I wouldn’t have been happy with a career as a rockstar.
Put in the time, push through the dip, and you’ll see the results. Just do it wisely and know what it looks like on the other side.
When have you put in the time and seen the results? When haven’t you?
*Although I had heard of the learning curve and “the dip” before I want to thank Alan Donegan from the PopUp Business School for reminding me of this valuable lesson and inspiring me to write this post