In my younger days, I was driven, ambitious, fairly talented and a little bit cocky. Those of you who follow me know a little of my background as a young professional engineer with a silly rock and roll dream. Of course, all of that was driven by complex, subterranean wounds and the need for acceptance and significance, and I didn’t have the emotional IQ to understand that at the time. Which is to say, I was like most young artists. But that begs the question: If I had a moment to talk with my younger self, what would I say? What would I want me to know about me? Here are five things I came up with.
Read More. Take the time to read a good classic novel, or a book of poetry, or a reflective book on the soul. Read classic books on worship or art. Read things I’m not naturally interested in to expand my mind or build a larger worldview. Read for the simple enjoyment of reading.
I find it funny now how the impatience of my youth kept me from great literature and critical thinking. Even today, I meet a lot of young musicians who offer me a shrug and half-confessing, half-justifying, they explain, “I’m just not a reader.” Which in a way is like saying, “I’m comfortable with my ignorance.”
Listen To Lots Of Different Kinds Of Music. As a young musician, I naturally gravitated toward certain styles and ignored others. It’s natural for all young people to do this, because as I’ve discussed before, young people use music to help define who they are becoming. But I listen to that old stuff I ignored back then, and I find myself holding a great appreciation for the musicianship and songwriting. Why didn’t I have that before? Really, there is good music in every genre, if only you look hard enough.
This is even more critical today. Decades ago, the most popular format, Top 40, placed music of great diversity next to one another. Soul, pop, metal, folk, disco, and country rock all played in the same rotation, and you got a sense of what was current in many different genres. However, as the music industry “matured,” styles became more segmented, to the point now where sites like Pandora will completely cater to your musical myopia. If all you want to listen to is Urban Pop Divas, it’s all there.
I was recently speaking to a nineteen year old who just completed his first year of university majoring in jazz piano. He was devouring everything he could listen to. It was exciting to see him sorting through all of these musical genres and gleaning from them all. And in the process, he is becoming an extraordinary musician.
Stop trying to change the world for all the wrong reasons. As a young artist of faith, I had noble and altruistic goals—to write songs about God and the difference He can make in a life, to point people to Him, to glorify Him directly through song. But I wasn’t aware that my own needs were wrapped up in that package too—a desire for fame and the spotlight, a need for legitimacy as a musician, matters of false identity and significance, wanting to meet chicks. And I meet a lot of young aspiring artists who are caught up in these same distortions, and they don’t realize our very great and human capacity for self-deception.
I was talking to a young worship leader once who defended himself by declaring with great sincerity, “My motives are pure.” And my kind response was, “That’s a little lacking in self awareness. And it’s also bad theology.”
Stop trying to write the next big hit. I spent a great deal of time trying to write a hit song in my younger days. Once again, my altruism and my pride both drove me: I simply wanted to write a song that everyone in every church would sing. Ironically, I found myself unknowingly stealing bits and pieces of other songs in my compositions, and the resulting work ended up sounding a bit derivative and stale.
Now it’s true that if you are an artist, you can’t help but be influenced by those artists who inspire you. And that’s a good thing, because those bits of inspiration that soak into our souls feed the artistic vocabulary that allows us to express well. But the real trick to being an artist is finding your own voice—whether it be in sculpture, film making, music, or quilting. In other words, you want to be inspired by Hemingway, but you don’t want to write like him.
Hug people. Those of you who read my book may recall that I created for myself the spiritual discipline of hugging. I am not a hugger by nature, and a number of years ago, I began hugging people simply as a spiritual discipline, to move myself out of my own hangups and comfort zones and to respond to an area I thought God wanted to grow me. And here’s the thing with us artists. We can be consumed by our art because we so crave the acceptance and approval of people, and in the process, we can easily and ironically ignore those very same people.
Of course, it’s not about the hug, although I am continually surprised at how life-giving and powerful an honest hug can be to others—and to myself. It is about understanding the priorities. And our art should never take precedence over loving God and loving people.
[Photo above: My band VESPERS performing at the San Jose Jazz Festival, circa 1997. L to R: Steven Randal (you can see his big bear paw hand on the guitar), Claude Mack (the nicest, most talented drummer I’ve ever known), a Younger Me on keyboard, Trey Thompson (you can barely see him, but I’m certain there’s smoke coming off his bass from the groove he’s carving), and Curtis Gaesser (our fiery sax man blowing something amazing).]