Fighting the Symptoms
I took a really long break from being creative for basically my thirties.
The last song I'd recorded in a studio was 2012, and before that it had been nearly three years since I'd released the Native Stranger and Baker Street EPs. It wasn't clear at the time but those records would mark the beginning of almost ten years without recording or producing music. (Save the one-off verse with Heaven Seventies or Chi-Native.. Special love to the fam for keeping me in mind and allowing me to contribute to your creative process)
The pangs of longing don't set it right away. I immediately found my muse in Kelly, and our relationship has only grown stronger since that first day i saw her profile on Plenty Of Fish (I think we were an 81-82% match lol) (also those who know the whole story know we met at work, but POF was the pretext for me to ask her out... for a drink for her 'birthday'... six months after her birthday lol smoooooth).
So I had a bit of a pretext.
In some ways the relationship made me less keen to 'put myself out there' and perform, in others I had just hit a point in my creative output where I was looking for new inspiration.
I was over my own shit.
All artists face it eventually. Especially as a performer where you must participate with your art indefinitely. Sometimes I envy authors/painters that can spend all the intimate time with their craft in private, and then the audience ALSO typically consumes the work privately, and the artist can just fuck off to a cabin somewhere and collect small royalties from their exploitative middle men (can you tell I wouldn't do live book readings lol?) I frequently get bored of my own art, but during that period of time I wasn't pushing myself to create much new. I had the gal, sure (haha I'm not that dude i promise) but there were bigger forces at play.
So, I basically had these dual worlds: a respectable job with a growing reputation for bringing people together and creating great experiences, and an alternate persona as a musician I pursued into the wee hours of the morning. Once the music fizzled I threw my energy into the day life. I took on bigger projects, I earned some attention outside of my own department, I got promoted, took on even bigger projects, and work rushed to fill in that world (even literally when i was on the clock managing programs until 12 - 1 a, but I can't bullshit like I wasn't having a little fun by then). I was, as they say in the biz world, crushing it.
But it never quite hit the right way. I never quite felt, fully... THERE.
And I'll be perfectly honest... I never quite felt there on stage either.
My first stage experiences were in groups, playing saxophone. I knew I would never succeed as a professional sax player early. I had a decent ear but poor sight-reading skills and poor practice discipline (In middle/high school there are, uh, competing priorities). Practices/jam sessions were great, but the critical ear of the audience always haunted me. I always got compliments from friends and family but I just knew the other students and practitioners knew I wasn't quite there, knew I'd flubbed that note, knew I missed that soli run and made the whole section sound bad. The same happened in the rap world. I know I have skill on the mic, and actually put in the practice and paid dues in multiple avenues, but I would perform these gigs where I would be the opener for a handful of cats (Most of whom I'd invited) where the headliner hadn't even shown up yet so networking was shit. Or worse, there were mad heads there but the sound of the conversing crowd was jus a LITTLE louder than my performance in the corner... And once my people stopped showing up, I got fewer looks for a split of the door, fewer repeat invites to rock with people (even if they too couldn't draw crowds....), fewer feelings like it was worth my time to keep grinding, like my skills would never push me into a place where I could make a living off my craft.
So I felt some wins in the world of higher ed, and I kept pushing myself to grow there. And I think I did grow. But those feelings were always there, and they'd get stronger. They're not going to respect you... The compliments are just so you'll take the criticisms easier... You don't belong here. These thoughts are brutal, and they became nearly audible in certain situations. They become exhausting.
Luckily I worked in the arena where I had opportunities to hear about research from prominent social psychologists.
In passing I learned that the name for this is imposter syndrome, a symptom of social anxiety, something I now realize I've carried my whole life.
Social anxiety manifests in different ways for different people, and I'm not trying to draw any larger parallels to anyone else's behavior. But it put into contexts so many inflection points in my life and why I followed the trajectory i did, until recently.
I was never proud of my accomplishments because I always thought I could do better. I was always convinced I'd embarrassed myself or shown myself to be stupid or lazy. I thought of myself in those terms during particular periods of stress where I made a careless mistake or was promoting myself professionally (interviews, presentations, etc.) It made the minor feedback/tweak suggestions by trusted advocates feel like dagger wounds, with the compliments a box of Dollar Store adhesive bandages.
So here's where I tell you that I recognized the symptoms and conquered my imposter syndrome and dominated the world I'd created for myself. Well I quit that job and haven't found another yet after six months.
It's good news and bad news. Honestly.
The bad news is, usually my assessments of imposter syndrome are based on facts obvious and subtle. I couldn't hack it as a professional saxophonist. I hadn't found my voice as a human, much less a rapper, by 25. Even though I'd created some work I'm still 'proud' of, it wasn't enough to avoid feelings like I wasn't speaking my truth in the space.
In higher ed I worked in professional development and also career services. I was constantly surrounded by people that already found their path and were blazing it with high intensity. Then those cats started being younger than me. Then I was supervising some of them while they were undergraduate work-study students. I wasn't jealous of what they had, I was jealous they knew. Whether they felt those doubts or not, they faked it really well.
Ah, but here's the good news! Sometimes when you look behind the curtain the reveal isn't as satisfying as it is enlightening.
One day I ran across this comic. I printed it and pinned it to my cubicle.
Three panels says it all.
I read a statistic once that 75% of the US population is self-conscious. And most of us agree the over-confident people are kind of dicks. I had to confront a simple truth.
Most of what I was feeling was bullshit.
I was holding myself to impossible standards.
I was never meeting myself at my level, only the level I knew I couldn't achieve.
Someone once put it to me like I'm standing in a line. When you jump in line and you're at the back of it you're stressed. If you can't see the front of the line especially. Sometimes you're not even 100% positive you're IN a line... But then people line up behind you. Then the line is eventually longer behind you than in front of you. No, this isn't an analogy about immigration...
I spent so much time looking ahead, I forgot sometimes to look back and reflect on how far I'd come, or who was looking forward at me from back in the line... Sure I'm not at the top of my field, but who is?
And saying I don't belong in a space I occupy is foolish. I am here. I am doing my thing. So, in essence the good news is, all this! I will find work to pay the bills and provide meaning both, I'm sure of it. I've come this far, after all!
Being yourself can be scary, but I couldn't be anyone else. And I welcome you to join me as I continue blazing my own path!
Talk soon! Watts
Native Stranger Productions
p.s. NEW BEAT TAPE UP! holler at me for collabs, beats are going fast!
p.p.s. WORLD PREMIER of my rock band JET SET ROULETTE fronted by the incomparable Tobin Rock. Our first single HiveMind drops on 1/20, with more to follow!