The World Needs Brave Artists: Cultivating Courage through Music

 photo credit: Suzanne Strong

photo credit: Suzanne Strong

Leaving home produces a special blend of terror and excitement unlike any other experience. It’s something that we all go through on one level or another throughout our lives, and there’s a reason why this feeling has been expressed across all cultures and eras of human history (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, read up on Joseph Campbell and The Hero’s Journey). In preparation for making some big career moves and changes this year, I’d like to share a few strategies for managing fear and cultivating courage in our modern lives. This is not only to help any creatives who might read this, but also to remind myself of my own strength as I move through a particularly challenging (and thrilling) bit of life as an independent artist. 

Tonight’s scene takes place on the floor of my Echo Park abode, where I am surrounded by odds and ends accumulated over the past 7 years I’ve spent in Los Angeles. Well-loved guitars, an assortment of outdated MIDI controllers, piles of cable spaghetti, tote bags from every record store within a 20-mile radius, a library of books from Murakami to metaphysics, dirty sunglasses, a section of my record collection titled “scratched vinyl — for sample use only,” and a big-ass bowl of crystals. Because you can’t live this close to Silver Lake and not own at least one piece of rose quartz. Naturally, I’m postponing the chore of packing up my life by sitting here and writing. My mind has convinced me that processing my thoughts takes priority over processing physical things, so here we are in a mess.

Why am I packing, you ask? You didn’t, but I’ll tell you anyway. I’m taking a massive leap outside of my comfort zone and moving to Spain to go to grad school. And now that the initial excitement of getting accepted into the program has worn off, the reality of making this move has set in, and I’m lowkey terrified. Yes, I’m over-the-moon excited to have the opportunity to get my masters in music technology, and yes, I’m stoked to live in a new city, make new friends, eat ALL of the paella… the pros of going outweigh the cons FER SHER. But that doesn’t mean that my fears aren’t wreaking havoc on my psyche in this moment. 

 a fraction of floor mess

a fraction of floor mess

No matter how positive it may be, the bigger the change, the louder the voice of doubt will get. And right now, mine is screaming every insult in the book. “You don’t deserve this, you’re stupid to leave behind everything that you’ve worked so hard to build, you can’t afford this, you’re not good enough, you don’t even speak Spanish, how are you going to support yourself, your music sucks, grow up, no one cares.” All of these words on repeat, plus much more that are too harsh to publicly put in writing. But deep down, I know all of these lies are just reflections of my fear, and not who I really am, or what my soul is calling me to do. The closer I get to reaching any goal I set for myself, the more aggressive this inner-naysayer becomes, so in some ways I can take this as a good sign, albeit a difficult one. But how do we eliminate fear?

Spoiler alert: there is no such thing as fearlessness. Fear is hardwired into our brains as a survival mechanism to keep us safe and protected from danger. If there ever was a truly fearless person, we wouldn't know about it because they would already be dead by now. But if fear is something we're born with, what's the use in fighting it? Why not just sit back and let it do it's thing? If I'm terrified of sharing my work, trying something new, or telling someone how I feel about them, shouldn't I just avoid that discomfort and live a small, safe life?

Herein lies the paradox. If we don't obey our fears in life-threatening situations, then we die. But if we do obey our fears in non-threatening ones, we also die. On an individual level, moving through our fears in the name of love, creativity, learning, or self-expression is the very action that makes us feel most alive. On a societal level, it keeps the evolution of humanity moving forward and growing as we are meant to. To allow our fears to control every action is certain death, just as much as ignoring it altogether is.

So how do we know what to act on? Which risks do we take? The small part of our brains that first sounds the alarm when it perceives danger can't tell the difference between a physically harmful situation and a socially embarrassing one -- it's all the same to the amygdala. Lucky for us humans, we have evolved to develop “newer" regions in our brains that are capable of higher levels of reasoning. We can differentiate between various threat levels and have greater cognitive ability for analyzing risk. While our brain functions haven't fully caught up to the pace of our modern lives in 2018, we at least have the capacity to choose between acting out of fear or acting out of love.

Through every decision we make, we have the opportunity to choose love over fear. Courage and bravery aren't traits that a few select people are born with. These qualities are like muscles that can be exercised and developed over time with consistent practice. Sadly, many young girls around the world are not often encouraged to be as brave or adventurous as the brothers they grow up with. Us women are well-trained in the many ways we should be fearful, thus perpetuating the myth that we are weak, fragile, or in need of saving. Historically, we have been given ample space to live in a fear-based paradigm, and have had very little room to shift into a courage-based one.

Thank God for the mutability of our minds, because we can (and have been) changing this for the better in present times. One of my favorite practices for cultivating courage in our own personal lives comes from Caroline Paul, a firefighter, author, and all-around badass. She suggests that we perform small, consistent acts of "micro-bravery" to begin developing our courage muscles, so that we're fit and ready when those larger opportunities come along (like cross-continental moves, performing for bigger audiences, or telling someone that you have feelings for them but now it’s too late because you’re leaving the country oh god what is life). 

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Through these small acts, we get used to the feeling of moving through our fears, and become more sensitive to other emotions that are also present when in a situation that causes anxiety. For example, a fear most performing artists face on the regular is stage fright. But when you’re about to step in front of a crowd to share your gifts, fear isn’t necessarily the only emotion you’re feeling in that moment. There is a whole range of feelings that can bubble up inside of the performer, including excitement, anticipation, a desire to connect with the audience, and love. The physical reaction to fear is also quite similar to that of excitement — sweaty palms, increased heart rate, butterflies in stomach, and so on. Moving through our fears can heighten our awareness of these subtle differences, and allow us to place more emotional focus on the positive ones rather than the blocks.

Another practice I use when my voice of self-doubt gets extra aggressive is called “fear venting” (inspired by one of my coaches, Bri Seeley). In this exercise, you just let your inner-naysayer go wild on paper. Give your fears about five or ten minutes to air out all of their grievances about a specific situation in a stream-of-conscious journaling exercise. Write down all of the negative chatter, and hold nothing back. Once you feel that everything is out, you can view these thoughts from a higher perspective and clearly see the lies. Patterns become more apparent, and you might even be able to trace back the origins of some of the false stories you were holding on to. Once you have reviewed and forgiven what is written (I love using the Hawaiian mantra for forgiveness), you can then safely burn the paper or discard of it in some ceremonious way that feels good. 

At the end of the day, the ultimate fear-kicker is to focus your mind on whatever is waiting on the other side of the action you’re afraid of. Remember what you’re doing all of this for, and connect with that purpose through mediation, visualization, or prayer. Right now, my biggest missions are to support the artists I work with, to continue building a new type of music company that promotes a healthier industry, and to become the best musician/super-producer that I can possibly be. I’ve got a lot more learning to do in order to get there, and going back to school has been on my mind for years, so it’s now or never.

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Fear isn’t real, and it’s mind-boggling to think about all of the ways in which we let this intangible thing control our lives or make decisions for us. We’re only on this earth for a short period of time, so don’t waste a moment of it outside of love — say what needs to be said, do what needs to be done, and create what the world needs NOW. Waiting gets you nowhere, and the future of this world depends on artists who aren't afraid to speak their minds in service of what they believe in.

With that, I’m wishing you all a future of courageous choices, big or small. If you need me, I’ll be here bravely packing up my crystal collection while trying to learn Spanish via audiobooks and soap operas. 

xoxo

Dot