Are you playing the victim?

A couple weeks back we focused on a tough question for musicians: are you playing the victim or the hero in your own career? It can be hard to spot our own victim stance. Victim-thinking can creep in and undermine our marketing materials, self-talk, and our networking all without our detecting it. Ultimately, it can sabotage our careers. So let’s dive in and consider, Are you playing the victim in your music career?

Telltale signs you’re caught up in playing the victim:

Have you heard yourself thinking or saying something like:

If only I had a manager who’d take care of all the bookings, things would be so much easier . . .
I just need an assistant who can take over all of things I’m not good at . . .
If only we had a “working” board—people who’ll not only raise the money needed but who can take on the admin work that’s not getting done . . .
What I really need is a fundraising specialist: then I’d be able to focus on the artistic work.
This is so unfair. I shouldn’t have to so all this business crap.
With an expert social media intern who’ll work cheap, all our worries will be over . . .
Why is this so difficult? Other musicians seem to have it so much easier!

What’s the problem with these statements? After all, they are understandably straightforward expressions of real frustrations that many of us encounter in our work.

The issue is these statements reflect the “poor me” victim stance that’s typically connected to a fantasy. To the notion that what’s needed is something or someone (a hero?) that can magically make things work out for us.

Too many musicians are waiting for a fairy godmother in the form of a manager, donor, assistant, or board member—someone who’ll save the day and make everything right. (I’ve written before about this in terms of artist management).

So let’s get real . . .

Stop waiting to be saved: “NO ONE is coming.”

That’s a favorite quote of mine from Andrew Simonet’s terrific book, Making Your Life as an Artist, and he follows this line up with, “No one is going to knock on your door and turn you from the artist you are now into an artist who has made it. That doesn’t happen.”

Even when we acknowledge that no one is coming, many of us still harbor the fantasy in the back of our minds. And that can keep us in the maze of complaining (whining) and fantasizing about an unrealistic magical outcome.

Let’s look at a case study:

You decide: was Kim playing the victim?

A musician I know—I’ll call her Kim—is a talented, accomplished violinist. With access to a terrific performance space at a local church, Kim started a concert series to perform chamber music with colleagues and commission new works. All that was great.

But between her private studio teaching and the fundraising and promotion needed for the concert series, Kim was always stretched and stressed. As the chief cook and bottle washer for the series, Kim did everything. So the grant writing and concert promotion was done all too often at the last minute and somewhat ineffectively.

The concerts were great but the turnout wasn’t and the finances were a struggle.

Kim attracted a small group of loyal fans but not enough to fill the church or to build a real community of support.

Whenever I ran into Kim and would ask how things were going with the series, her answers were a variation of, “I need to find an assistant—someone who’ll take the burden of the ‘administrivia’ away so I can concentrate on what I’m good at—the rehearsing and performing.”

In the past, Kim hired interns and people fresh out of school who only lasted a few months. So she was constantly having to reinvent the wheel.

News flash: you can’t hire an expert on an intern’s salary.

And an intern can only be a great hire if they’re motivated, learn quickly, and you train them well—giving them a manageable timeline and the materials and training needed to succeed. And hope they can stay for a season or two.

If you can’t afford an experienced pro or the time to hire and train a newbie, then your only other option is to do it yourself—to invest the time to get the training you need to learn how to do whatever you don’t know.

When I’d ask Kim what she was doing herself that was new to deal with the challenge, her answer was essentially, “I’m doing all I can.” Underneath that, the message I heard was:

I can’t possibly do anything more or anything new.
I can’t change.
What I need is someone ELSE to do things for me.

Complaining doesn’t help your cause. In fact, it’s a turn off for potential collaborators.

And continuing to use the same ineffective techniques and materials to promote your career or projects doesn’t work either.

What’s more . . .

Cultivating an exoneration fantasy is probably the worst thing you can do.

An “exoneration fantasy” is the notion that a necessary someone will make things all better. This is so typical with musicians thinking that a manager is needed who will solve all their problems. But it also applies to any longed-for funder, sugar daddy, or assistant.

Exoneration fantasies let the musician off the hook. In a way, it’s the perfect alibi. After all, if your future isn’t really up to you, then if things don’t go the way you’d like, you’re not to blame, right? You can always say “I was never able to fully devote myself to this because . . . [I never had the help I needed and deserved, or I never caught a lucky break.]

But on our deathbeds, when we look back at our lives, this kind of excuse for not living up to our own potential is going to fuel our regrets. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to go that way.

I know this may sound harsh.

Having had too many exoneration fantasies of my own, I’ve learned the hard way they only lead to heartache.

I get it why we want so much to believe in them. I did, too.

We’d all like to just focus on the art. And in an ideal world we would be able to.

But we don’t live in an ideal world.

And for those of us who are ready to deal with the real world there’s help.

The solution: Accept the 3 Invariable Life Principles.

The celebrated LA shrinks and authors Phil Stutz and Barry Michels recommend looking at reality head on. They teach that no matter what there are 3 principles that apply to life. We need to accept these if want to live life in forward motion. We need to expect, no matter where we are with our goals, that in life:

1. There’s going to be pain.

This, of course, includes the pain of having to manage the business sides of our careers. Of improving skills we’d rather not use but that are needed for the job, whether we have a team or not. Pain is just a given. If you’re truly challenging yourself to develop as a person, as a musician, as a leader, you’re going to experience discomfort, disappointments, and failures. So expect the pain: it’s included in the price admission of becoming the artist you are meant to be.

2. There’s going to be uncertainty.

It’s scary. There are no guarantees. You can’t know in advance that what you’re attempting will work. So you need to wade out into the unknown and do it anyway — knowing full well that it might not work. It doesn’t matter how acclaimed you become. In fact, people who are successful often have even more fear of failure because now they have more at stake. But real artists take risks—they take on the next scary project and do their best to dance with the fear.

3. Life requires ceaseless effort.

Even if you’re insanely wealthy and don’t have to work, you still need to choose how to spend your time and resources. Life still requires us to made decisions. It requires us to take responsibility.

All too often I hear musicians complain, and the undercurrent is a defeatist mindset. When I ask what they’ve been doing differently these days to improve matters, too often the answer is that they’re simply “trying harder” (which means using the same old ineffective tactics and victim mindset). Not surprisingly, nothing changes.

So are YOU playing the victim?

It’s an uncomfortable question. Especially because most of us are unconscious of when and how we’re undermining our own music careers. We’re blind to when we’ve adopted the victim stance — when we’ve forfeited our own agency and relinquished our power.

We tell ourselves that we’re not ready, or that we need the cooperation or the intervention of others in order to move forward.

That’s how we fool ourselves into believing we’ll start the scary work next week, next month, next season. That’s how years go by without our advancing in our careers.

And then we’re suddenly seeing that our opportunities have passed us by.

Instead of waiting for someone, pick yourself. Start now. Don’t try to get it perfect. Just get it going.

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Here’s to your forward motion,

Dream Big, Plan Smart, Live Well

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