When I was in the fourth grade, I wanted to try playing basketball. My parents signed me up for a league. At the time, I was somewhere around four feet tall and about 80 pounds. That’s the nice way of saying that I was absolutely terrible at basketball.
I remember one particular practice where I was singled out by the assistant coach who was trying to help me with free throws. It wasn’t a matter of accuracy, it was the fact that I’d throw the ball as hard as I possibly could and it would never even reach the rim. After that, I don’t have any memories of being coached. During the practices, I was paired up with another kid who was as terrible as me and we were mostly ignored.
The coach would play me for about a minute at the end of the games because he had to. I don’t think I ever touched the ball. By the end of the season, I hated basketball. After the last game, I told my dad that I never wanted to play basketball again.
He got mad at me. “Why do you quit everything you start?”
I didn’t understand. I didn’t see it as quitting. I tried playing basketball. It was stupid. I was terrible. I stopped playing basketball. What’s the problem? But my dad called me a quitter.
During the rest of my childhood, I started playing almost every sport you can think of. I quit all of them. Every time I quit, I heard about it from my father. Each time I wanted to try something new, I had to get through the conversation with my dad where I would tell him what I was going to try next and he would respond with, “Why? So you can quit in two months?” And he was pretty much always right. I always quit.
Over the years, I came to realize the basis of my father’s anger over my quitting. When I tried basketball, my parents bought me basketball shoes. When I tried baseball, my parents bought me a baseball mitt. Most of my father’s critique could’ve been interpreted as “Dammit boy, you’re costing me a bunch of money for no reason!”
While my father was definitely trying to teach me about perseverance and dedication, a large source of his apparent frustration and disappointment was based on the fact that I was costing him money he didn’t have. Of course, I was totally unaware of this. My parents did a great job of providing me with everything I needed, while never showing me how much of a sacrifice it was for them. I am extremely thankful for that. It gave me an amazing childhood. But it caused me to confuse their disappointment in a bad financial investment for a disappointment in me and my decisions when I quit something that I was terrible at and hated.
I’ve recently realized that it did a few great things for me. I began to take quitting very seriously. I learned to persevere. I never quit at the first obstacle. I fight and fight and fight until eventually, I come to the shameful decision that it’s not worth the fight. I’ve learned to set and achieve concrete goals. “I want to play basketball” became “I’m going to play one season of basketball with an organized team”. When I set a goal, I achieve it and there is absolutely nothing that can stop me.
But that’s also part of the problem. Before I start doing anything or set any goal, I look at it in depth. Can I do this? What kind of impact can I have? What does it look like when I achieve this goal?
This can be a great tool, but I am often pathological about it. It has led to a problematic perfectionism. As an artist, it is not a great idea to only begin a project when you can see the finish line. I have a need to know the impact my project will have in order to confidently begin. I have to know that it will mean something before I even try.
While this has provided me some periods of great momentum, it’s a terrible way to succeed at anything new. This mentality constantly stops me from following my passions. It is the reason that jamesistrying.com is so rarely updated. It is the reason I can’t sit down and write. My greatest achievements only happen when I naively and almost accidentally start something mindlessly. The magic always happens when I foolishly dive in without thinking.
When I stop to think before taking action, trying and quitting become very tangible, black-and-white ideas. I’m either trying, or I’ve quit. In my head, these are clear concepts that I must make conscious decisions about.
I dropped out of college. I quit. I was studying finance and I hated it. I decided that even if I finished the degree, I wouldn’t want a job that had anything to do with finance, so I cut my losses and walked away. After that, I focused my attention on music. Writing songs, playing with bands, performing.
After that, I decided to go back to school to become a doctor. It was such a difficult decision because I’d already quit college. I was a quitter. It was over. I failed. And now I’d have to quit music. But somehow, it became something that I had to do. Not only did I want to be a doctor, I also wanted redemption. To show that I can succeed even after I quit the first time. So I went to college, got a degree and now I’m in med school. Yeehaw! I’m breaking the cycle. Maybe now I can believe that quitting isn’t so final, so black and white. Maybe there’s an ebb and flow to life.
Nope. Even after that should-be epiphany, I still carry around the stigma of quitting. I wrote a blog post called “I am not a musician” about a year ago. It is about me coming to terms with my decision to quit music when I went back to school. I quit writing songs. I quit performing. It was final.
It’s been painful. There are times that I want to jump on stage and play a brand new song that I wrote, but I can’t. I quit. I have such a mental block about writing songs that even when I pick up an instrument and start to come up with ideas, I just stop, tell myself that I can’t and think of myself as a failure. It’s such a narrow-minded way to think about it.
About a month ago, I was walking around on a warm, sunny day and I started singing the Little Mermaid classic, “Under the Sea” but I couldn’t remember the words. I’d been studying Immunology, so I started replacing Sebastian’s lyrics with concepts from the class. “Under the Sea, Darling it’s better, down where it’s wetter, take it from me,” became “Immunity, when you’re infected, you are protected, by IgG.” I had the whole song worked out. I pulled out some paper and wrote down all the words.
Oh no! Did I just write a song? Naw. It was only a fun way to study. I don’t write songs anymore. A struggle came up when I had the opportunity to perform it for my classmates. This was a serious issue for me. I accidentally, kind-of wrote a song. Fine. But performing it? I can’t. I quit performing.
In writing this, I understand how silly the conflict looks, but it was not silly to me. I had a sincere internal war going on. It turns out that I not only set concrete, unfaltering goals in things I want to achieve, but also in things that I will not achieve. When I “quit performing” I put it in terms of a goal of never performing again. Playing this song for my classmates would compromise my concrete goal. It would be a failure. It feels ridiculous to articulate this irrational thinking.
Luckily, my girlfriend came home while I was in the middle of playing the song. My girlfriend is an amazing, inspiring artist herself (DesignLisa) and we often have conversations about art. She knows all about my artistic struggles and always supportively and bluntly puts things into perspective for me. When I told her that I couldn’t perform the song, she said, “You’re so stupid. You have to perform it. It’s really funny and your classmates will love it.”
I realized that she was right (she’s always right). My classmates really would enjoy it. It took about a week but I finally decided to perform it. I still thought of it as a failure, but it was worth it for my classmates.
I carried my guitar case up to the front of the auditorium classroom with the idea that I was doing this for them, because they’ll enjoy it. They’d better enjoy it. But when I put the guitar strap over my shoulder and stood up, looking out into the packed room, I realized that I was doing this for me. It didn’t matter if they liked it.
When I’m holding an instrument, I have endless confidence, no anxiety, no fear. In front of that classroom, I felt more like myself than I have in a long time. I am a performer. I didn’t quit performing, I just haven’t done it in a while.
I played the song. People were cheering, laughing, clapping along, but mostly, everyone was smiling. I’ve missed that feeling. It was fun. I love singing for people. I love the chance to make people smile. I love performing.
Singing an immunology-based version of “Under the Sea” for my classmates was the most profound therapy session I’ve ever experienced. It wasn’t a failure to achieve my goal of never performing again. My only failure has been denying myself the opportunity to shine, to do something I love because of some belief that I imposed on myself.
I am not a quitter. I act on impulse. I pursue whatever ideas I have. I shouldn’t need to see the finish line before I start. I shouldn’t need results. I shouldn’t need impact. I simply need the opportunity to express myself in whatever form happens to fit the moment. I have to stop attempting to keep score of my pursuits. If a melody pops in my head, I’m a songwriter. If I learn about medicine, I’m a student. If I think of a story, I’m a writer. And if I’m ever tempted to define whether I’m trying, or I’ve quit, I need to always remember, James is Trying.