He knows not the feeling of embarrassment. Total humiliation is a mystery to him, an incomprehensible misfortune. Proudly he stands behind every action and every word. To his credit, he is extremely intelligent and adept. He carries conversations with ease and brilliance. A master storyteller, he can captivate whatever audience lucky enough to be in his presence, large or small. He can relate a joke with every nuance appropriately placed and with impeccable comedic timing. He himself is a master of wit, making every conversation not only fascinating but funny as well. His friends will try to describe the aura that surrounds him as a heady cocktail of charm and charisma, but it is difficult to explain why. And if his attractively confident personality wasn’t enough to convince you, he is also an extremely talented musician – one of the best I’ve ever seen in terms of technique, precision, and raw but extremely refined ability.
He is the very definition of a Rockstar.
And he intimidates the crap out of me.
Truly, I can hardly look him in the eye. With a little alcohol, this feat becomes a possibility. Without it, an impossible risk I’m willing to forego. And I won’t even discuss the unlikelihood I will even speak in his presence, other than the casual, quietly uttered “heywhatsup.” It rarely goes beyond that anymore.
Because as you know, I am the very opposite of a rockstar. I struggle for every scrap of self-confidence. I wrestle with feelings of self-doubt with every word, every decision, every action. I analyze everything, dissecting it all down to expose every flaw and imperfection until I’m thoroughly convinced of my status as a failure. With such a terrible lack of self-esteem, perhaps you are wondering how I even bring myself to share my words in the unforgiving, harsh universe that is The Internet.
I wonder that, too.
But with the intimidation he brings, there is a kind of fascination as well. What is it like to be him? I wonder. What is it like to have a built-in suit of armor, so thick it is impenetrable by even the harshest of critics? What is it like to operate under the belief that It’s Not You, It’s Them? What is it like to have your own fan club of friends who hang on your every word? What is it like to possess such confidence?
And so I sit back and observe, hoping to uncover some scientific equation, or expose some hidden method, so I, too, can one day have a glow from that spotlight that shines from within. I want to be invincible, just like him.
But with self-doubt like mine, I will probably never see that day.
However, I wonder if others will. Is this is a learned behavior? A genetic thing? A result from years of praise and accolades?
Do real rock stars suffer from crippling self-doubt?
I know I’m not the only one asking this question. One aspiring author is wondering the same thing. Is it possible to get on stage and put on a show, knowing without a shadow of a doubt that you’re an amazing, awesome, perfect, incredibly talented creature, and if someone doesn’t like you, there is something wrong with them?!
How do the real rock stars do it?
So, I asked.
Recently I attended a music festival in my hometown, a 3-day immersive experience with acclaimed musicians from all over the world. I had the privilege of meeting a very talented band from the UK called A Silent Film. They were second-year veterans as well, having performed last year, and on a whim (or a dare?) I waited in line to meet them last year, too. But this time, I was prepared. I had my questions ready.
Robert Stevenson, the lead singer, extended his hand to me first and asked what my name was. Then he introduced himself. I exclaimed cheerfully, “Oh, we met last year!”
He clutched his heart and bowed his head. “I’m so sorry.” (He had no need for apologies – I never expected him to remember me.) He then opened his arms to me. “We’re old friends, then!”
I laughed good-naturedly, hugging him. “Oh, that’s all right! Of course we’re friends. Thank you so much for coming back this year. Congratulations on your upcoming third album, by the way.” (He had announced at the end of the performance just minutes prior that they were returning to the UK to make a new record.)
However, he was quick to correct me. “Well, it’s not finished yet.” Then he appeared to laugh nervously, and mentioned how it’s a difficult process but they were very hopeful.
“Can I ask you a weird question?”
He laughed again. “Absolutely.”
“So who writes the music?” I looked at all four of them and waited for an answer.
Robert motioned to them collectively. “We all do,” he said.
“As artists, do you ever suffer from crippling self-doubt?” He paused for a moment, so I explained myself a little. “Like, do you think, ‘Oh, that song’s not good enough’ or ‘God, that song is terrible!’ or even ‘I suck, I’m just going to quit!’?”
He closed his eyes and had a good, hearty laugh.
“That’s so funny,” he cried. “We were just talking about that. I think the question should be ‘When Do We NOT Suffer from Crippling Self-Doubt?’ Because it’s a constant exercise, Colleen. It really is. That’s partly why we tour so much. If we stayed at home, we would deal with it constantly. It would consume us. Does that answer your question?”
“Yes,” I replied. He even answered my next question before I could ask it, which was How do you combat it? The answer must lie in the feedback they receive from fans. It drives them to continue. Likely, it inspires them to create more. Perhaps it temporarily quells the crippling self-doubt they experience in those dark hours between shows, at night on the tour bus during a quiet moment. Well, maybe I suck, but how do you explain the 50+ people who waited in the sun for an autograph and a handshake? And The Girl With the Weird Questions who waited a second time? She must have liked what she heard. How do you explain THAT?
In addition to this exchange, a few weeks ago I asked another friend of mine the same question. He was a touring musician himself some years ago, and his response was very similar to that of Robert’s from A Silent Film. In fact, he made the statement he didn’t know a musician who doesn’t suffer from crippling self-doubt. “If you’re not John Mayer, you’re suffering from doubt,” he said. “You think, ‘Well I only sold 15 CDs today. Was it because of that one song?'” He said there is the daily reminder that there is someone better than you, someone who sells more albums than you, and sometimes there is no explanation for it. And naturally, you are left to second-guess yourself and your art.
Well, the fans, of course.
They are the people that line up outside the venue hours before the show, bursting to see you perform. They know your lyrics by heart. They are buying your music, wearing your T-shirts, and tattooing their devotion on their bodies. So in the middle of your own wrestling with self-doubt, they are there with their devotion, reminding you that you are an amazing, awesome, perfect, incredibly talented creature.
If this is true – that all musicians suffer from crippling self-doubt – then where do we get the label of “rockstar” for people who clearly have no self-doubt at all? Or is John Mayer the only true rockstar there is? (Other than this enigma I know personally, The Man With No Self-Doubt?)
One day, if I ever work up the courage – probably with the help of a few beers – I will ask Mikel Jollett if HE ever suffers from crippling self-doubt. Although, from everything I know about him and musicians in general, I think I already know the answer. And as much as even he intimidates me, I can still look him in the eye. Somehow I don’t think this would be possible if I sensed that he didn’t.
I feel I must mention there is a downside to having No Self-Doubt, but it is one you would never know if you had it. It has to do with the 99% of the rest of us who DO suffer from self-doubt. With No Self-Doubt, you have a tendency not to think before you speak. You lack a common and very human understanding of the concept of failure. And with that comes a lack of empathy, making you seem unapproachable to those who need it most. At the end of the day, you are beloved, but never for your flaws and the failures that make us all human and connect us to each other in the deepest and most complex reaches of the human heart.
Given the choice, I think I would take the crippling self-doubt. At least I know I’m in good company. And I’d rather have a few devoted fans (friends) than a million who think I’m just a rockstar.