Competition is based on scarcity. If everyone could win, there would be no competition. But everyone can’t win. So we compete. But what if there is no prize? If there’s no prize, then there’s no competition right? We all simply play guitar because we love to play. If only….
As you know, I’m ‘competing’ in the Guitar Center King Of The Blues competition. I say competing in ‘quotes’ because to me it’s more about facing my own fears of success and failure than winning. I’m uncomfortable with the thought of winning because it takes me out of my nice little comfortable routine. And I’ve already written about the fear of embarrassing myself on stage.
But to some other people, this competition is really about winning. And I think that’s a shame, but I can completely relate to that attitude. I’ll be exploring various aspects of competition and guitar playing in this post, but my general point will be this.
Playing guitar does not have to be a competition, even if you’re competing, and if you relish the competition, you’re missing the best part of playing guitar.
Where to start…..?
I first became aware of how messed up my attitude about playing guitar was when I met Darryl, the rhythm guitarist in my old band Holy Smoke Blues. Darryl had been playing guitar for as long as I had been alive, but yet he told me quite regularly how much he loved how I played, and he often asked me to show him how to play certain things.
It took me a while but I realized something profound. Darryl was happier than I was because he had no ambition to be better than me. He just loved to play. The thought of being the best was so far from his mind that he experienced more joy in whatever he played, than I did in what I played. Even if I played more notes, faster, cleaner and got more attention, Darryl had more fun. Because I had to be the best.
By the time I had been playing for less than two years, I had already developed the mentality that I was going to be the best. Nobody was going to play like me. I was God’s gift to Stevie Ray Vaughan fans everywhere. I just needed to be discovered. But then that punk kid Kenny Wayne Shepherd got discovered first and he took my crown. (plenty of sarcasm in there for those that missed it).
As ridiculous as that sounds it is 100% true. I don’t know how long I held onto that belief, but it’s only within the last few years that I’ve accepted the fact that there will always be someone better than me. I held onto that idea of being ‘the best’ so tightly, there are entire years of my life where I didn’t truly enjoy my own playing because I wasn’t yet recognized as ‘the best’.
What did this attitude do to me? It turned everything about guitar into a competition. If I was at the guitar store, I was trying to show people how good I was. If I went to see a band play, I couldn’t even enjoy the music because I was consumed by the thought that I was better than their guitar player. So much so that I deserved to be on stage. Deserve? I’ll get back to that later…
I remember clearly a night when my band was playing a show at a tiny hole-in-the-wall bar, and the opening band was also a 3 piece blues trio, featuring a young guitarist who had a really great style. As they played, I sat there and watched, pretending to enjoy the music, while my mind was preparing for battle. I was preparing to blow this guy off the stage when I started playing. I wanted to embarrass him. I wanted anyone that saw both of us play to know who was the better player.
But why? Because whether I knew it or not, I was competing for a prize based on a belief about the scarcity of respect that did not exist.
I wanted to be ‘the best’, as in the one, single, known best blues guitarist. Where? In my city, in my state, but why stop there? Why not the world? Or the solar system.
But who gets to determine who is ‘the best’? And once they pick ‘the best’, how do you make sure that everyone knows that this person is ‘the best’? How do you prevent fans from respecting other players who are not ‘the best’? Because if I’m ‘the best’, don’t I deserve whatever respect is being given to a lesser player? Ah… deserve, there’s that word again, but we’ll get back to that later.
The fact is that there is no scarcity in respect. If I am a great player, and so is Kenny Wayne Shepherd, I cannot take the respect you have for him, and force you to give it to me. If you like how he plays and you give him your respect, but then you discover my playing, you don’t have to take back your respect for him in order to give it to me. You simply multiply your respect and enjoy us both.
Respect is not finite. You cannot win it all because people cannot give you all their respect. You can win ‘who’s better’ polls, win awards, etc… but you will never be ‘the best’ because ‘the best’ does not exist.
Even the term ‘better than’ is completely subjective. I can play licks faster than you, but does that make my playing ‘better’? By what metric? By the amount of notes I play cleanly? Than call it that. But don’t call it better. It might be more enjoyable for one person to listen to my playing, so it’s better for them, but ‘better’ as an absolute truth is an awfully hard thing to prove.
Now lets talk about what anyone deserves. We’re so consumed with this idea of getting what you deserve. If I play better, I deserve to win, right? Even though ‘better’ is not really conclusively proveable, if it were, would I still deserve to win?
Here’s what’s funny. So many times in life, we try to avoid getting what we deserve when we’ve done something unfair to someone else, but the second we’re treated unfairly, look out. Clear a path because we’re about to raise hell and everyone is going to hear about it.
So if we’re going to play the ‘deserving’ game, let’s play it all the way to the bone. Go ahead and insist on getting whatever you deserve no matter what. If you run a red light, turn yourself in. If your parking meter runs out, go pay a ticket you didn’t get. And for the love of all things deserving, if you catch yourself speeding, just take your own license and mail it in, and stop driving. You deserve it..
But lets not pretend that we’re so concerned about getting what we deserve when it only applies to the things that we miss out on.
What Deserving Costs Us
One of the side effects of being so focused on what we deserve is that it pushes other things from our mind. Things like gratefulness for the small things we know we don’t deserve. Like the full enjoyment of playing our instrument without any concern for whether or not we’re good enough.
If I focus on getting what I deserve my whole life, and am lucky enough to get what I feel I deserve, it turns me into a critical person that must evaluate everyone who achieves anything. Making BS judgements about whether or not they deserve what they got.
Even worse, if I don’t get what I think I deserve in life (Kanye?…), I can easily turn into an annoying, whiney, complaining person who always focuses on what I didn’t get, and potentially get really, really torqued by people who got what I think I deserved.
The kicker of it is, that whether I get what I think I deserve, or I complain about not getting what I think I deserve, either way, I’m probably not as happy as someone who never felt like they had to deserve anything in the first place.
Why Do You Play?
Let’s take it back home. Playing guitar. Why do you do it? Do you do it because you love it? Or do you do it because you want to be the best? This is important to know. Because if you think you’re playing because you love it, and you actually want to be the best, it doesn’t matter what you tell people, they’ll be able to tell your true motivations.
You’ll say things like “I just love being creative and writing great songs”, and everyone will hear “I need to feel respected for my creativity, that’s why I’m talking about it”. Because people that really enjoy being creative don’t need to tell other people unless they’re fishing for some respect, which is what they really enjoy.
What’s Your Prize?
I don’t play volleyball for fun. I play to win. I compete hard, and I hate losing. I make no excuses for that, I love it, and I can’t stand playing volleyball with people who only want to play for fun. But in volleyball, every game ends in a decisive way. One team wins, one team loses. You can argue the calls, but at the end of the game, the numbers declare the winner. I know I miss out on some of the simple joys of the game by being so competitive, but I love the competition more. And I don’t pretend like I just love the game for the enjoyment of playing.
Maybe you’re the same way on guitar. Maybe you only care about being the best. That’s fine, as long as you own up to it. Don’t play the “I just love music” card, or the “Guitar is my life” card. You should be playing the “Guitar is a sport in which I want to crush my enemies” card.
But what is your prize? Is it something you’ll ever get? Is it even possible?
Those are important questions to ask because they’re a little scary and personal to answer. If you’re like me, you might realize that the prize you’re after doesn’t exist. And if that’s the case, you’ll come face-to-face with the reality that you’re just a lonely, attention-seeking musician who’s missing out on the pleasure of your own art, because you’re after a prize that you made up in your mind.
It’s not a comfortable realization to come to, but it can be the start of something beautiful….
I chose the title of this post based on the belief that it’s possible to win, while losing. Winning the competition while losing the love of the art. Winning respect, while losing our own respect for others. Winning all the short-term stuff, while losing all the things that bring long-term happiness.
I’d rather be a happy losing winner than a critical winning loser any day :-)