When I first picked up a guitar in junior high, I loved everything about it: The way it looked, the way it nestled in my lap, and the way it sounded when I strummed that first chord. I couldn’t wait to get home, shut myself in my room and play until my mom knocked on my door to announce dinner.
Playing guitar was something I did in private. No one at school knew. No one was grading me, or demanding I spend 2 hours a night on it. I had no goal, and no performance date to practice for – it was just me, the guitar and the pleasure it gave me.
As a guitar major in college, my ego moved in to my practice room. I thought I needed its help. Everything I did was under scrutiny. I wasn’t practicing enough, I wasn’t serious, I wasn’t dedicated, I wasn’t talented enough, did I intend to perform it that way? The guitar went from being my source of joy to being my ball and chain.
My ego turned out to be quite the harpy. Fueled by the terror of failure, I found myself thinking I should be practicing all the time. Like when I was eating, or sleeping, or in the shower. No matter how well I played something, it wasn’t good enough. No matter how long I practiced, it wasn’t long enough. I still loved everything about the guitar, and the music I was learning was heaven.
The problem was the clipboards. Each time I performed, my teachers would listen for the first few lines, then start scribbling their feedback on the clipboards they carried. My ego became more frenzied and desperate.
Which must be why I came home with a banjo kit in my junior year. I’d never built an instrument before, and I didn’t know much about the banjo, but I loved its mahogany neck and shell. I decided to oil finish it, sanding against the porous grain to fill it particle by particle. My father came into the basement to help, but could not fathom why I was using such a laborious method. I wanted to feel the mahogany grow smooth in imperceptible increments, and watch it take on luster one lumen at a time. He wanted to finish it in an afternoon. He left muttering and shaking his head.
My ego couldn’t abide my process either, and left me in peace. Eventually, I had a fine-sounding 5-string banjo all tuned up and ready to go. I had no goals for it. I told no one at school about it. Since I wasn’t concerned about learning to play it, I’d pluck on it a little before I went to sleep, just to enjoy the sound. Lights-out got later each night, but I always went to bed grinning.
I don’t know how I knew to do it, but I’d built my ego a vacation home, right in the midst of all that pressure. A place my ego could wear plaid and do a terrible job splitting logs to burn in a big, smoky fireplace that no one wanted to sit in front of. A place where I could reach new depths as a banjo player. I loved it there.
I’ve been noticing the pressure building in my life over the last couple of years, so I built another vacation home for my ego: I’m using a kid’s book, Mark Kistler’s Draw Squad, to play around with learning to draw. The rules are simple: 1. No erasers. 2. No pressure. 3. No results. When I get too wrapped up in drawing a perfectly straight line, I draw with my other hand. When I start going too slowly, focusing on getting it right, I switch from pencil to pen and draw twice as fast. If I’m as successful at not learning the right way to draw as I was at not learning the right way to play banjo, I’ll stay a happy doodler forever.
Building your ego a place to go on vacation helps it to relax everywhere else, like in work situations where it is pressuring you within an inch of your life.
Might it be time to build your ego a vacation home?