Monday, September 30, 2013

Yelp Yourself

My BFF Steve Morton and I used to play a lot of music together. After one sparsely attended coffee house gig many years ago a guy in the audience came up to us and said, “Man, you guys got balls.” To this day I still don’t know if he meant it favorably, as in, Wow, it takes courage to get on stage and I admire you for that, or, if he meant God that was awful and how dare you. Learning how to be a performer is hard. But the hardest thing by far is learning how to navigate audience feedback.
Every performer knows that the only people who come up and talk to you after a show are people who really liked what you did. Therefore, their opinions give you a false sense of awesomeness. None of the people who were bored or underwhelmed bothered to bring that to your attention.
The same dynamic holds true for writers, teachers, and artists of all stripes. Compliments come your way far more readily than rebukes. People who don’t like your stuff just ignore you. If you want to improve, you have to be your own harshest critic. You can’t really trust what people say, especially in the early years. Your friends and family just want to encourage you. “Great set,” they say. “Good job.” Thank them for their support, but don’t believe a word of it.
And then along came social media.
Everything changed.
Now everybody really is a critic.
In the digital anonymity of the Age of Yelp every tiny flaw is photographed, videotaped, and posted for all to see alongside scathing essays articulating the myriad ways you suck.
But Yelp isn’t all bad. It’s been a great help to me, especially when I travel. It quickly lets you sort through a long list of local restaurants and hone in on the best. You can’t trust those guidebooks in the hotel room – they’re just paid ads. Yelp, on the other hand, is beyond the reach of the chamber of commerce, much to their horror. Businesses live in fear of Yelp, and rightly so. Yelp is nothing more than the hive-mind reacting immediately and without filter.
It’s funny to watch some restaurant owners log on and try to respond to critics. Some take a conciliatory tone and apologize for the negative experience, vowing to improve. To me, that’s a good sign. Others launch into open combat, attacking their critics. I tend to stay away from those places.
Maybe it isn’t so complicated. If you’re a restaurant and you serve thoughtful, well-prepared, flavorful, creative, wholesome food of any genre in a clean, beautiful, fun environment staffed by decent, kind, attentive employees your Yelp reviews will be golden. If your restaurant smells like wet gym socks, you serve (gasp) canned refried beans and you haven’t changed the oil in your deep fryer since the Bush administration, people are going to talk.
It’s the same with songwriting, painting, poetry or any creative endeavor – bring together the right elements, put in the years of disciplined training, work hard every day and learn to trust yourself. No song, or plate of food, is going to please everyone. But if it’s good, it will find an appreciative palate.
And what about the naysayers? What about those bold, opinionated folks who feel the need to point out all of the ways your work falls short?
Give them a moment of your attention. Take in their criticism. They may be pointing out a weakness to which you were blind – a weakness that needs correcting. But bear in mind that no opinion, no matter how well articulated, is a fact. Sometimes critics know more than you and their observations help steer you toward higher quality output. Other times they are simply using your work as a sounding board, an opportunity to demonstrate their cleverness and alleged superiority. It takes great skill to navigate the hurtful assessments levied against us by our most vocal critics. Have the courage to listen. But don’t linger. Let it roll off your back like water off a duck.
In the end, it is we who must decide what good means. And we have to take full responsibility for working diligently to achieve it. Creating anything means you will be misunderstood. The only way to avoid being misconstrued or criticized is to produce nothing. Sit on your bed, don’t move, don’t say a word and don’t create anything. Oh wait. Somebody will probably criticize you for that too. Damn. Turns out there is no way to avoid negative criticism. So what the hell – might as well create something.
The process of giving birth is always painful. It’s bloody and it’s messy. The newborn thing is unformed, indeterminate, and waiting to be molded by a thousand different internal and external factors. Yet we can’t stop making things. It’s what we do. It’s who we are. We use these hands with these opposable thumbs and these minds and these hearts to fashion new works from the raw materials around us, wrought with the hammer, anvil and fire of our own experience. How can you not be hurt a little when someone thinks your baby is ugly? And yet you’re head over heels in love with it anyway. You nurture it, and draw sustenance from the conviction that somehow, someway, the world will be just a tiny bit better off because this thing was born. This faith, this na├»ve confidence, is easily misconstrued as arrogance or Narcissism. But don’t let that stop you. If you have something to say, say it. Don’t let the naysayers in the peanut gallery shush you. If someone unfairly criticizes your album, your restaurant, your book or your painting, just say, “Thank you. Can’t wait to hear your album, taste your food, read your book or see your painting.” Creativity is courageous, criticism is cowardly. It’s easy to sit on the bench, not play and criticize the players.
So all this new social media isn’t really new after all. Open forums like Yelp and Facebook simply give voice to what were formally private thoughts and impressions. As creators, as artists, as restaurateurs, we have to turn this new reality to our advantage. In this strange new age of universal journalism – every phone a television camera, every schmuck a media mogul – we have to learn to thrive.
Instead of being defined by the new reality, you have to define it.
You have to learn how to Yelp yourself.
What do I mean by Yelp yourself? You have to carefully assess your work from every conceivable angle and ask yourself all of the hard questions. You have to learn to see your work through every eye, hear it through every ear – you must, in effect, become the hive-mind, the crowd source, the omniscient Zeitgeist. An entrepreneur who fears feedback is an entrepreneur doomed to fail. Learn how to put up with a couple of grouches. But also learn to read feedback as invaluable data that helps you hone your gift into its sharpest focus and deepest impact.   

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Nature of Fear

Fear is good. It keeps us alive. It keeps us from falling off cliffs, touching fire and kissing rattlesnakes. But fear is also our greatest liability. It keeps us from taking the risks necessary to develop our unrealized potential. If we let it, fear has the power to keep us from becoming who we really are. Fear is a thief that steals our joy.
The daily work of every thinking man and woman is to practice careful discernment in the assessment of their fear. A life of pointless risk-taking is dangerous and foolish while a life devoted to the avoidance of all risk is doomed to frustration, stagnation and incompletion.  Fear is neither good nor evil; it is a message from our psyche that must be read with great care. Cultivating the skill to interpret fear accurately is an essential task in the creation of the well-lived and fully-realized life. When fear arises, ask yourself these seven questions.
1. If I do this frightening thing, will it bring real quality and beauty into my life?
2. If I do this frightening thing, will it move me further toward the fullest expression of my innate potentialities?
3. Am I respecting my health and life, and the health and life of others?
4. Is this fear really just a misguided attempt to protect my fragile and limiting self-image?
5. Is this apprehension and anxiety simply the death-throes of my outmoded ways of acting, thinking and being in the world?
6. If I took these risks and let go of my old ways of acting, thinking and being in the world, would I be closer to my highest good?
7. Is the larger purpose of my life the realization of my highest good as opposed to being comfortable?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, your fear is telling you something important. You should probably listen. It’s difficult to reach your highest potential if you are maimed or dead, and it’s difficult to manifest your fullest happiness if your actions harm others. But if you can answer yes to even one of these questions, then you should override your fear and take action. And by the way, if you can answer yes to even one of these questions, you are implicitly answering yes to all of them.
Helpful research from the field of psychology shows that our thinking is stuck in two important and debilitating ways. The first is negative thinking. We tend to exaggerate the scale and frequency of negative situations and minimize or overlook positive situations or circumstances. Through tens of thousands of years of evolution, human consciousness has grown highly adept at scanning the horizon, both literally and figuratively, for problems and potential disasters. The individual who most rapidly perceives the impending problem – the crouching Saber toothed tiger, the lethally poisonous snake, the toxic forest mushroom – has a far better chance of survival and passing on his genes. Natural selection rewards caution.
If negative thinking isn’t successfully challenged, the mistaken notion that fearful living equals wisdom takes hold, hindering the necessary risk required in any process of growth or advancement.
The second prevalent mode of consciousness that seems to have grown beyond the bounds of its usefulness is confirmation bias. We exaggerate evidence that supports our preconceived positions and ignore or denigrate evidence that challenges our preconceived positions. The positive aspect of confirmation bias is that in enables us to bond tightly with an in-group that shares our perspective, a dynamic that helps us form close families and tribes. The negative aspect of confirmation bias is that it locks us into a worldview in which accurate and wide-ranging critical thinking is no longer possible. Our fears become dogma – unquestionable truths closed to inquiry and investigation.  
When you put negative thinking and confirmation bias together, you have a serious problem. All manner of evils begin to take shape – racism, xenophobia, nationalism, bigotry, arrogance, and ethnocentrism. In other words, fear becomes the idol before which all must kneel. To move beyond fear means to correct the imbalance and empirical inaccuracy of negative thinking and confirmation bias. An honest assessment of the environment shows that the universe is not a hostile, dangerous field of impending disasters. Yes there are dangers, but the fact remains that we are supported and nourished continually by an uninterrupted flow of abundance. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the light and beauty and love of the world and its myriad creatures hold us aloft in an unbreakable web of being. This isn’t some hippie dream. It’s a measurable fact.
And when we begin to awaken from the illusion of individual and tribal superiority, our natural humility is restored and we begin to recognize that our ideologies and arguments are not universally authoritative – there are other, equally valid ways of understanding the complexities before us and there are other, equally viable ways of organizing society, determining justice and supporting what is best in us. In other words, we move from fearful self-obsession to loving-kindness. A broad and generous smile replaces the narrow, guarded squint through which we had been viewing the world.
And when we begin to view the world differently, the world changes. As the Talmud reminds us, “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.”
Breaking free of the debilitating effects of fear is an inside job.
Maybe the first step is to recognize that uncertainty is a necessary precondition for all growth and emergence. How could a seed know what lay above the surface of the soil? Yet it pushes upward anyway. How could a mother know what lay ahead for her and her baby? But she gives birth anyway. How could a guitar player know if this solo is going to be great or an awkward failure? But he throws himself into it with finesse, skill and abandon anyway, trusting the truth that there is no beauty without risk. Becoming comfortable with uncertainty is an essential component of any creative process, especially the creation of a magnificent life.
It was early in the year 1933. America was in the abyss of the Great Depression and genuine hardship was tearing apart the fabric of this once great nation. In the opening lines of his first inaugural address, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke the immortal words, “…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Ten million Americans heard his voice crackling through their radios, and many more read his words in the next morning’s paper. His simple truth struck a chord and sparked a shift in consciousness. The radical notion that fear itself was the enemy – not external conditions no matter how dire – was a message that brought hope into a hopeless world. How powerful it is to consider the possibility that fear, an important ally when carefully and critically managed, can become the most crippling hindrance.