Train Wrecks Are Your Superpower!

One simple tweak in the way you think can determine whether or not your accomplish your dreams.

By Dave Fox
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
May 11, 2018

I’m going to make an ass of myself tomorrow night.

I’m going to go to a bar, stand up in front of several hundred strangers, and play a bunch of tunes on my fiddle that I don’t know very well, with a group of musicians I don’t understand very well.

France last summer. (Yes, I usually look this panic stricken when playing music in front of an audience.)

I am going to screw some things up. I am going to play some wrong notes. I am going to play some right notes when I shouldn’t be playing at all. I am going to play too fast, or not fast enough, My fingers are going to tangle and freeze.

People in the crowd are going to notice I’m not on top of things. Some of those people will probably cringe.

“Wow,” they will think. “That new fiddle player kind of sucks.”

At least, in the fog of my own imagination, that’s what they’ll be thinking.

It’s going to be awkward.

And awesome.

A couple of months ago, I went to see Gwennili, a Saigon-based folk group from Brittany, a region in northwest France with a strong Celtic heritage. After the show, Agnes, one of the band’s singers, came to our table because she thought my pal, Natalie, looked Irish. (Natalie is actually from Virginia. She had just dyed her hair red.)

“Hey,” I said to Agnes, feeling confident after a couple of ciders, “I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes, but if you guys ever need a second fiddle player, I’ve been looking for a band.”

“Actually,” Agnes said, “our violinist just told us an hour ago he’s moving to Belgium.”

She texted me a few weeks later to invite me to a practice.

(To answer a question I get asked a lot, “violin” and “fiddle” are two words for the same instrument.)

Gwennili in France (sans Dave).

I went to the practice expecting a casual audition. Nobody in the group had ever heard me play. But when I arrived, they greeted me as if I was already in the band. They plonked down a long list of songs and guitar chords and said, “Here. Figure out the fiddle parts.” They asked if I’d be free for a bunch of upcoming concert dates. They told me to book a plane ticket for their gig in Danang next month.

For the next couple of hours, I fumbled my way through tunes in a musical style I’d never played before.

By the end of the night, my synapses were fried – partly from the music, partly from the fact that I’m the only non-French member of the band. I speak enough French that I can carry a conversation, but sometimes with high levels of confusion and brain-ache.

For the past three weeks, I’ve been scrambling to learn around 30 tunes. Yesterday, feeling panicky that I hadn’t learned them well enough, I practiced so much on my own that in the evening, I had to bail out early from our group rehearsal because I’d developed microscopic cuts on my fingertips – booboos too small to see, but ouchy enough to hinder me from pulling off certain techniques.

So my first concert with Gwennili is tomorrow night. I don’t feel ready and I can’t practice today because my fingers need to heal. Also, I’m not convinced they’ll be healed by tomorrow.

My debut performance could get train-wrecky.

Why We All Need Train Wrecks

I wasn’t happy yesterday about my looming catastrophe, which was far worse in my mind than in reality. I had a brief, self-flagellating meltdown. Then I caught myself and remembered:

We tend to give our weaknesses far more weight that we give our successes. It’s a subtle form of self-abuse.

I reframed my thinking. I told myself that, yes, one or two moments of my performance tomorrow might be shitty, but I’m not a shitty fiddle player. I was able to walk into a roomful of French-speaking strangers three weeks ago and dive – albeit imperfectly – into a bunch of songs I’d never heard before because I’m actually a pretty good fiddle player. And I play the fiddle pretty well today because many years ago, I was willing to play it really badly.

(The violin is not a nice sounding instrument when you’re just starting out.)

I also speak quasi-decent French today because when I started learning it, I wasn’t afraid to speak it badly. I speak fluent Norwegian, dreadful Vietnamese, and snippets of a few other languages for the same reason.

People sometimes tell me I’m lucky to “have an ear for languages.” They wish I could unlock my secret for them.

You want to know my secret? Not just to languages but also to music, writing, and everything else I’m good at?

I’m not afraid to screw things up. Or actually, I am afraid to, but I do it anyway.

It’s that simple. Screwing things up is my superpower.

And, come on, admit it. You know how to screw things up too.

You possess the same superpower!

When your ego tells you not to fail, it’s also telling you not to succeed.

It’s easy for me to sit here and write that tomorrow, I shall embrace my flaws and gleefully endure the potential scorn of strangers for net accomplishments down the road. I’d be lying if I said a small patch of my headspace – wait, no, a medium-sized patch – isn’t clouded with neurotic worst-case scenarios about how badly things might go.

Playing wrong notes in the privacy of my apartment is one thing. Playing them in the midst of a welcoming gang of musicians, who have been through the same learning process, is also okay.

Messing up in front of an audience that doesn’t know I’m in the earliest stage of this new journey is another matter.

I’m dealing with that by considering where I’ll be with the band once I’ve had more time to learn the music ­– one month, six months, two years from now.

I have two choices: I can rise above the possible judgments of the crowd and the probable voices in my head, and be a rock star later if I endure a few awkward moments tomorrow. Or, I can quit the band and avoid the possibility of failure – thereby avoiding the possibility of success.

So! You! What would you like to do well that you currently suck at? Are you actively sucking at it? If so, hooray for you! You’re moving in the direction of success.

If, however, you’re not doing something you dream of mastering because you think you’re no good at it, I have a simple solution: It’s time to start sucking. It’s time to do something that makes you feel a little pathetic – maybe even in front of other people – and to then congratulate yourself for your bravery.

Because, yeah, we all have egos. We don’t like to see our shortcomings and we really don’t like other people to see them. But more often than not, in order to become great at something, we first have to be bad at it.

Refusing to accept that reality is one of the biggest reasons people don’t achieve their dreams.

Gwennili is a Breizh (Breton / French-Celtic) folk group based in Ho Chi Minh City. They play around Vietnam, and occasionally elsewhere in Southeast Asia and France. To find out about their upcoming shows, check out the Gwennili Facebook Page.

Dave Fox is a professional writer, an amateur fiddle player, a writing coach, and a certified life coach. His specialties include helping people accomplish their creative goals, and helping expats and other nomadic types thrive amid the challenges of overseas living. Learn more about his writing and life-coaching services here.

Dave has also created two online courses to help aspiring writers overcome the mental challenges of the writing craft. (Many of the tips in these courses are also helpful for other creative endeavors too.) These courses are usually priced at US $34.99 each, but because you’ve made it all the way to the end of this article, you can grab them now at a huge discount.

Follow these special coupon links to learn more:

Published on Tuesday, May 15, 2018

3 Responses to “Train Wrecks Are Your Superpower!”

  1. Bill Poorman
    May 24, 2018 at 4:35 PM

    Great post, Dave. Thanks for sharing it. Needed to hear this.

    Hope the gig went well. Or wait, no, I hope it failed well. Wait, nope, hope it went well!

  2. June 7, 2018 at 12:19 PM

    So…how did it go?

    I just conquered my fear of sharing my writing and have registered for Don George’s annual Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference in August where I will be rubbing shoulders (and sharing writing) with people like Tim Cahill, Michael Shapiro, and Pauline Frommer. I’m completely intimidated, but also very excited to stretch my writing wings. Thanks for giving me a good start!

  3. June 23, 2018 at 1:48 AM

    “I’m not afraid to screw things up. Or actually, I am afraid to, but I do it anyway.”

    Exactly. Are we really living if we stop doing things out of fear? This post is a great reminder that it’s the things we fear doing and want to do that make life exciting.

    I hope your gig went well.

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