The Rollercoaster


I’ve just come back from a festival, the National Festival of Making. Me, at a festival, playing music, on a stage, with people watching. Me, with my name printed in an order of events, in a festival programme, in newspapers and pamphlets. Me, surrounded by like-minded creatives and festival goers alike, rubbing shoulders with TV personalities and international stars. 

Sometimes I realise I need to stop and savour this, stop and pinch my skin, and tell myself that this is actually happening. I need to stop and say it out loud, I played a festival this weekend, and not for the first time

The reason I don’t often stop and enjoy these micro-moments of undoubtedly big wins is due to a little thing called the hedonic treadmill. This is the idea in psychology that we live life like we are running on treadmills, endlessly chasing goals and dreams. The closer we get to our goals, the further away the goals appear. We never feel any closer to the goals because we are essentially running in place. We might as well be hamsters on a wheel, or dogs chasing our tails. This is not ideal, obviously, and it is largely of our own making. We get so caught up chasing goals and dreams that we end up losing sight of the thing – the joy, the pleasure, the excitement – that got us to latch on to those goals and dreams in the first place.

The hedonic treadmill deserves a post in itself, one that will do it justice. I’ve opted not to write it this week because I’ve had my hands full with work commitments, preparing for my performance at the festival, and well, life. Instead, I've decided to write about something related to the act of performing publicly, something that is a regular fixture in virtually every gig I’ve ever played. But first, a story, as usual. 

A question I get asked regularly is whether I get nervous before or during gigs. The answer is, of course, I do, all the time. It has taken me a while to admit it. At first, I used to brush off the question and say something along the lines of ‘nah’ or ‘no, not really’, to give off a false sense of confidence. I’m not sure if I was lying to others or lying to myself, but I know now that I was lying for sure. I’m also not sure if I was lying intentionally, and yet, a part of me believed what was coming out of my mouth. 

As time passed, my answer began to change so that I tipped far in the other direction, always answering the question with an emphatic yes. This was also a lie, now I know, because I realise I was trying to lower the bar, to give myself an excuse in advance, just in case my performance ended up shaky or anything short of perfect. This way, I could always blame the subpar performance on the nerves in case anyone noticed. 

These days, I take a different approach. Rather than answering the question I get asked, i.e. whether I get nervous, I answer the question I wish I was asked, and I say I’m excited. This way, I’m flipping the prevailing emotion on its head. I’ve been doing this for a while now, and I didn’t know this at first, but a little while ago I learnt that I’ve been leveraging a cognitive technique for handling emotions, a technique well known to cognitive and behavioural psychologists, a technique that is central to this post.

Last week, I wrote about our predisposition to negative emotions and how it heightens the sting of rejection. Well, I come bearing more bad news, that this negativity bias extends beyond feelings of rejection; I’m afraid we feel this in many more aspects of our lives.

Emotions are rooted in biochemical processes in the brain. In essence, when you feel an emotion, it is due to a specific mix of chemicals, hormones and secretions from various glands. Oxytocin, Dopamine, Serotonin and Endorphins are four hormones that neuroscientists have gained a functional understanding of, and for which there’s a wealth of information available. Oxytocin is referred to as the love hormone, dopamine signals pleasure, serotonin regulates mood, and endorphins help to relieve pain. 

The presence (or lack thereof) of these secretions in varying levels constitute ‘cocktails’ in the brain, and we have emotional ‘apparatus’ – neurotransmitters – with default calibrations that enable us to recognise specific mixes or combinations as feelings that we map to, and label as various emotions. The problem is that the apparatus may malfunction and misinterpret or mislabel a cocktail mix, and this happens in part because a lot of the cocktails have similar ingredients.

It is like going to an open bar and tasting three cocktails, blindfolded. You sample the three drinks and they all taste citrusy; this by itself doesn’t tell you very much. Say you try again, and this time you get a hint of rum from two of them, while the third has a hint of tequila. That’s progress. You cleanse your palette and try again. This time, you get a hint of fizz from one of the two with the rum base; while the other two are flat. More progress. You try again and you discern that the one with the tequila base is juicy (by cocktail standards), one of the two with the rum base is also juicy, while the other with the rum base is watery and minty. Now you know that one has tequila while the other two have rum, one is fizzy while the other two are flat, and one is watery while the other two are juicy. If, at this juncture, the bartender tells you that the three cocktails are a Margarita, a Daiquiri and a Mojito, then you could apply a triangulation of sorts and discern that the flat, juicy, tequila cocktail is the Margarita, the flat, juicy rum cocktail is the Daiquiri, and the fizzy, watery rum cocktail is the Mojito. If you weren’t blindfolded to begin with, perhaps you wouldn’t even need to taste them at all; one look at the cocktail glasses and the whole presentation, and you could tell the three drinks apart. On the flip side, if your taste buds can’t distinguish between rum and tequila, or a flat drink compared to a fizzy one, then you’re out of luck. This is akin to the apparatus malfunction we experience with the ‘cocktails’ in the brain. 

How am I doing for my cocktail analogy by the way? I'm not sure if this is on the money, or if it's a clear giveaway that I’ve googled ‘most popular cocktails and their ingredients’ because I have no first-hand experience with drinks. I'm sticking with it either way. But back to emotions. Our apparatus interpret and signal the emotions we feel, and all is well for the most part, but they don’t always get it right. What's worse, is that the negativity bias may cause the apparatus to interpret a cocktail mix as a similar, more negative emotion when it isn't always the case. 

This is because our emotional apparatus are set up with default calibrations (like the out-of-the-box smartphone presets that specify a default ringtone, wallpaper, and theme). These calibrations were once crucial to our survival, but in the landscape we find ourselves as modern humans, characterised by stimulus overload and fast-paced ‘busyness’, some of these presets haven’t kept up with the times. They haven’t evolved with us, and have thus become obsolete. The upshot is that our physiology hasn’t kept up with the rate of change in our environment, and thus a recalibration is necessary; that’s the bad news. 

But I also come bearing good news; this recalibration is possible. We can update the presets and recalibrate our apparatus through the technique I alluded to earlier, which scientists refer to as cognitive or emotional reappraisal. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I now know that each time I was asked about my nerves and I answered that I was excited, I was practising emotional reappraisal

Emotional reappraisal is the reframing of a situation or stimulus so that we can adjust our approach and response to it. It is essential because we don't always do the best job of objectively interpreting how we are feeling. We are bad at objectively interpreting how we are feeling because a lot of the emotions we experience are grounded in the same cognitive roots (like the shared ingredients in cocktails) and are thus similar, so it is all too easy to misinterpret them. In other words, the apparatus malfunctions more often than it should, or rather, it’s just no longer fit for purpose. 

For instance, psychology studies suggest that there’s a thin line between love and fear, which explains in part why ruthless dictators are adored and supported by a faction of the people they oppress (see this brilliant satire), and why victims of domestic abuse may stay with their abusers. These are both manifestations of Stockholm Syndrome, a phenomenon where hostages or victims develop positive feelings towards their abusers or captors. This is something of an oversimplification, of course, but the same applies to other pairwise emotions such as love and fear (in tyranny for instance), pain and pleasure (in BDSM for instance), and pertinent to this post, excitement and anxiety. 

You might be wondering what this has to do with creativity. Well, the life of a creative is an emotional rollercoaster (we finally reached the title of the post), and like most people (creatives and non-creatives alike), our emotions aren't handled optimally or dare I say, the right way. We seek out and adopt suboptimal strategies for dealing with these emotions, and most of our strategies veer towards saving face and taking shortcuts, basically anything that prevents us from ‘feeling’ and ‘experiencing’.

Like most people, I tend to go for emotional suppression, by ignoring whatever 'alien' emotion I’m feeling and forcing myself to soldier on and power through while wearing a brave face. Studies suggest that not only is this inefficient, it is also inimical to our wellbeing. A better approach is to reappraise the emotions rather than suppress them. Reappraisal is all about acknowledging the emotion, recognising its presence, and framing its purpose or essence. So, when you’re about to go on stage and you feel a swirling pit in your stomach, it may well be the case that you’re nervous and anxious, but it could also be that you’re excited. Succinctly put, it is likely that this is your body’s way of preparing you for the important thing you’re about to do i.e. playing your set.

You might be tempted to wish away the feeling, saying something like ‘gosh I wish I didn't feel so stressed about this’. I've been there, and I go back there from time to time. In times like these, I remind myself that my feelings and emotions are there to help me. If you feel that pit in your stomach before the gig, or speech, or game, or presentation, doesn't it just mean that you care about the thing enough to want to do it to the best of your ability? Doesn’t it just mean that you’d like to do it justice? I'd be more concerned if I was gearing up for a gig and I felt nothing whatsoever. At that point, I'd start to reconsider my love for live music and performing.

Emotional reappraisal goes beyond how we feel when we’re about to step onto the stage, podium or pitch. It also applies to how we think about our efforts behind the scenes. When we tell ourselves we’re not ready to go and play that first gig, or that we’re not good at public speaking, or that we’re not prepared for the match, is it really the case? 

Granted, there’s the concomitant trepidation that precedes any such big event, but is it really a fear of performing, or releasing that video on youtube, or publishing that blog post? Is it a fear of being found out for what we are – impostors? Is it a fear that our work will be judged by the harshest critics? Is it a fear that we’ll be revealed as the mediocre creatives that we are? Is it a fear that the work we put out in the public domain is riddled and laden with mistakes? Is it a fear that the work is not perfect? 

Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Either way, we can reappraise our emotions and tell ourselves that we’re excited about that gig, or that we’re about to take a huge leap in sharing art with the world, or that we care about our art enough to want to do the best possible job we can. We need not stop there. We could tell ourselves that the rejection email for that application we’ve made isn’t an attack on our person or a scathing commentary on our abilities, but simply a mismatch in what we’re offering and what the other entity needs at the time in question. In other words, they’re not rejecting us, and it is certainly not that we’re not good enough, it is just not the right fit at this time.

Not only do we misinterpret the emotions we feel, we also struggle to accept certain emotions when they come around and show their face, which is unfortunate because they all come around eventually. This is because, much like the rollercoaster in the amusement park, the rollercoaster that is our emotional landscape is characterised by ups and downs, manifested as dichotomous emotions. We laugh and we cry, we’re happy and we’re sad, there’s humour and there’s anger, and so on and so forth. This isn’t a bad thing. On the contrary, it is good for us, and it is essential for a well-rounded life, because if the landscape were a flat plane with no highs or lows, life would be monotonous. If you’ve never experienced pain, you can't appreciate joy when it comes around. It is the dichotomy, the contrast between joy and pain, that heightens the feelings of joy, and when you throw in the realisation that it won't last forever (because all things pass and change is constant), the ephemeral, transient, and fleeting nature of the feeling is what makes you appreciate it all the more. 

It makes sense when you think about it. We need the breadth and depth of emotions to live our lives to the fullest, but knowing this is half the battle. It remains difficult to recognise, accept and where required, reappraise undesirable emotions when they come around on the rollercoaster, and I can't think of a better example of this than the life cycle of a creative project. 

Say you have an idea that you’re chomping at the bits to execute, the idea fills you with excitement and this energises you to get started. You work on it for aeons, giving it your blood, sweat and tears, all the while you’re consumed by the thing you’re creating. You develop a form of tunnel vision so that you’re so focused that you can’t see the wood for the trees and you can’t imagine life outside of this thing you’re working on. And then you reach the denouement, the climax, the end, and for reasons you can’t fathom, it doesn’t live up to the expectations you had at the beginning. Maybe you feel down, low, or sad after finishing the big piece, maybe you experience a lull after playing that big gig, maybe it’s an emptiness after your film is released or your painting is framed. There’s a term for this; it’s called post-production depression. 

What happens is you’ve released all that pent-up energy you’ve been harbouring for a while, leaving a void, a vacuum of sorts, and nature abhors a vacuum, so your mind races to fill this void with something, anything it can muster, ergo, a lull in your emotional state. But what can we do about it? Consider the following ideas…

First, is simply recognising the emotional state for what it is – a natural occurrence. It helps to acknowledge that you feel down because the work is done and all your hitherto pent-up energy has been released. This is a signal to slow down and appreciate the thing you’ve made; it is your cue to stop and smell the roses. There is more to life than jumping from task to task without stopping to catch a breath. In this vein, we should set up our project life cycles with a plan for dealing with the denouement. This plan should detail how to tie it off, how to appreciate it, and how and when to realise and accept that it has run its course. 

This is particularly relevant in light of the quote that is often attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci, that ‘art is never finished, only abandoned’. Various forms of this quote exist in the public domain, relating to books, poems, films, projects, and generic ‘work’. I feel this with songs too. There will always be something else you can do on a project, or a book, or poem, or song. There will always be something you can add, tweak or finesse, but if there’s no plan for the ending, you’re setting yourself up for a rude encounter down the line. 

Speaking of endings, a few years ago I attended a conference where one of the speakers, Joe Macleod, gave an interesting presentation about endings. His talk tickled and just began to scratch a long-held itch of mine, which is our collective neglect of endings as a society. Whether it is ending a customer subscription to a business, or ending a long-term project in an organisation, or even the processes and systems that should be put in place towards the end of an individual’s life, we seem to not pay enough attention to the end, and we don’t act like endings are worthy of consideration. 

How many times have you tried to cancel a paid subscription to a service, only to be met with frustration because of the convoluted nature of the process, or even a suspicion that the business has made it as difficult as possible to unsubscribe? If you’re like most people, this frustration often results in making a self-pact that you’ll never go back to the service or use any other products from the business, and that’s how businesses lose customers for life. 

We don’t pay nearly enough attention to endings. Rather, we focus on and overemphasise beginnings and on-goings. Virtually every business tracks customer acquisition and retention metrics, project managers conduct kick-off meetings and periodic check-ins, and there’s no shortage of ceremonies and rituals we conduct at the onset of our loved ones’ lives, but nowhere near enough towards the end. On this last point, I concede that it is particularly difficult to say goodbye to people that have been regular fixtures in our lives for decades, and that the bulk of our cognitive capacity is often taken up with grieving or pre-grieving, thus leaving little or no capacity to plan for end of life. That said, I’d like to suggest that this makes end-of-life planning all the more crucial, and perhaps we could collectively work towards a society where such conversations and processes are void of the taboo and stigma that they currently carry, thus paving the way for the initiation of such plans much earlier in our lives. 

What would life be like if we planned our own funerals? And not just that, what if we held periodic, say annual gatherings where the most important people in our lives come together to celebrate us while we’re living, rather than waiting until we’re gone to say all the nice things and make all the nice gestures? Now, you might be thinking, isn’t this what birthday celebrations are? Not quite, because birthday celebrations are just that – celebrations. We get to be royalty for a day. We throw caution to the wind as we celebrate coming of age when we are young, and we bemoan the passage of time as the calendar reminds us we are getting older. In either case, whether at 18, 38, or 58, our birthdays are often not as reflective as they need to be to get to the heart of the things that matter. Nonetheless, birthdays provide us with a golden opportunity to get the ball rolling. 

Second, is flipping the language. It is all too easy to fall into the habit of bemoaning the things we feel we ‘have’ to do. I hear myself saying things like ‘I can’t believe I have to practise’, or ‘I can’t believe I have to play yet another gig to an empty room’, or ‘I can’t believe I have to wake up early to exercise’. The truth is I don’t ‘have’ to do any of these things, because there is hardly anything that is compulsory in life. When I think about it, I don’t have to practise; but if I don’t then there is no chance of improving my skills. Similarly, I can walk away when I arrive at a venue and there is no one there; I don’t have to play to an empty room. And as for exercise, well, you get the idea. 

This is where flipping the language and turning it on its head offers an opportunity for growth.  In other words, I don’t ‘have’ to do any of these things; rather, I ‘get’ to do them. I don’t have to practise, but I get to practise. I don’t have to play to an empty room, I get to play in a venue that’s been set up for me, even if it isn't the desired outcome. I don’t have to go running or walking, I get to do so. 

These are privileges that not many people possess. As a guitarist, you have cultivated the skills required to extract and create music from a piece of wood strung with metal or nylon; you are literally making an intimate object sing. This is a privilege and a gift, one that you’ve worked so hard to cultivate and hone, but a privilege nonetheless, because at its core, you’ve likely had access to lessons and tutors, or books and online resources (if you’re self-taught), you’re likely not afflicted with a neurological condition that impinges on your coordination and motor skills, and you likely don’t live in a zone ravaged by war, famine, or any such unfortunate circumstances that necessitate that every waking moment you have is spent fighting for survival rather than embarking on leisurely activities like practising an instrument. The same applies to painting, writing, exercise, and many more activities. 

I recognise that not everyone will be fortunate enough to flip the language. Not everyone will be in optimal physical or mental health, not everyone will be in an environment where they can take up leisurely activities, not everyone’s circumstances will allow for the space and peace of mind that facilitates creating. We are dealt the hands we are dealt, and we don’t often get to choose. This realisation helps me adopt a gratitude mindset, and it gives me something to be thankful for every day.

Last week, I wrote about how our brains interpret things with a negative spin and this taints our reality in the process. This was largely in the context of rejection, but the same applies to interpersonal relationships in creative ventures. 

The creative process is one characterised by collaboration, in other words, working and dealing with people. Every interpersonal link in the creative process is a potential source of friction, and any creative will tell you that dealing with people can be unappealing, or in extreme cases, the most unsavoury part of the job. After all, some creatives are drawn to the fields they occupy largely for the solitude it affords. Writers are often introverted (hello), because writing entails being by yourself for long stretches at a time, cogitating, ruminating, and conjuring alternate realities, all the while being untethered to the burdens of social interaction and unshackled by the expectations imposed by society. The same, I believe, is true for creatives that work in many other art forms.

The upshot is that many creatives, if left to their devices, will reclusively focus on their art, and repeatedly shirk the collaborative, people-facing aspects of the creative process, like self-promotion and marketing. Except, these aspects are essential for the art to come to fruition, and required to situate it in the public domain for consumption.

You take an introverted creative with passable social skills at best, or stark, social ineptitude at worst, you plonk them out in the open and expect them to blindly navigate the social landscape, and they falter. Passers-by see them and take note, and in no time, the wolves, disguised as helpful and experienced promotion experts, come out to take advantage, time after time. This is a recipe for disaster, and it has the unfortunate effect of inducing paranoia in the hapless creatives. This paranoia can fester and take hold, and taint one’s view of humanity. I would know, I’ve been there. But not everyone is out to get you. The other day I came across a quote that made me smile…

‘Getting cheated occasionally is a small price to pay for trusting the best in everyone, because when you trust the best in others, they will treat you the best’ - Kevin Kelly

I love this so much because it acknowledges the downsides of expecting the best in others, while extolling the upsides. It pays in the long run, but you'll occasionally get taken advantage of. I can't tell you how many times I’ve been cheated and taken for a fool, partly because I’d like to save face and would rather not advertise my child-like naivety, and also partly because I’ve lost count. Still, I have to believe it pales in comparison to the goodness that other people have brought to me. 

Case in point, the festival I've just played – the National Festival of Making – was a fantastic event that brought together creatives of all kinds. There were musicians like me, spoken word artists, potters, sculptures, painters, dancers, and more. I got this gig because a music promoter emailed me to ask if I was interested, and I obliged. This isn't the first time he's set me up with opportunities either; last year I got to play the Lancaster Music Festival, courtesy of the same individual. 

How do I know this guy? He slid in my DMs a few months ago, asking if I’d be interested in playing the Lancaster festival. I asked for more details, he shared, my interest was piqued and we ported the conversation to emails to finalise the arrangements and sign contracts. After getting the contracts and details out of the way, I asked how he came to know about me and my music; I didn't want to ask sooner lest it came across as interrogatory, but I was curious all the while, so I picked my moment. It turns out that during lockdown, he came across a live stream I did online and noted my details, and ever since he'd been looking for opportunities to hire me for a paid gig. I tell this story not to brag, really, but to show that good stories like this still exist, and good people still abound in the industry, even if it's just at the grassroots level. I want to believe they exist at the top too, I've just not come within proximity of the area to meet them. 

This story is amazing for a few reasons. First of all, he found me through a random encounter, a serendipitous discovery if you will. Secondly, he noted and kept my details for months, waiting for the right approach. He didn't just offer to put me on a show for ‘exposure’, but he waited until he could pay, and he did pay, handsomely I might add. But it didn't end there, because he reached out for another opportunity, and paid well again. The payouts for the festivals he’s set up for me have been some of the most lucrative I’ve had to date. Of course, I had to play my part, I put on a good show, at least he thought so, but it warms my heart to know that people like that exist. I didn't have to apply, the opportunity knocked on my door, and as such is worth dozens of rejection emails from festivals I applied to. This is what I need to remember, this is the sort of reappraisal I need to practise. Ben, if you're reading this, thank you, and please keep doing what you do.

Then there's Mark. Mark came all the way from Scotland to watch me play at this festival in England. He stood front and centre, cheering all the while I played, and took many of the photos and videos I’ll be posting over the next few days about the event. I first met Mark when I opened for Dictator a few months ago, and he's championed my music online and in person ever since. A grassroots music champion like Mark is worth more than scores of industry gatekeepers. Be like Mark. And if you're reading this mate, thank you so much. It means more to me than you know.

Now, I used a word earlier that would be considered by artists to be iffy and dirty at best, or the bane of our existence at worst — exposure. It alludes to this thing some people do, where they hire artists without paying them, or paying them significantly lower than the market rate. They often say things like, ‘just do this for free so that other people can see how good you are’, or ‘I’ll share it on my socials and the exposure will get you more work in the long run’. This may be beneficial to artists that need the practice or experience, but for those that depend on their art for their daily bread, please, for the love of all things good, this is a practice that needs to stop.

This post has turned out to be much longer than I anticipated. If I knew I had this many words in me this week, I might just have written that post on the Hedonic Treadmill, but I guess that’s a post for another week. That said, I’m glad this is where my musings have led me this week, as I have interrogated the curious aspect of the human condition that is the emotional rollercoaster we ride in perpetuity. There’ll always be ups and downs, dichotomous emotional states, desirable emotions, and suboptimal ones. We have to realise that each emotion serves a purpose, or at least it did once upon a time. Some of them may no longer be fit for purpose in the world we now inhabit, and yet they prevail. You’ll do well to remember this the next time your emotions get the better of you. You’ll do well to remember that a reappraisal may be in order. The next time you feel a swirling pit in your stomach ahead of a momentous occasion, the next time you experience a lull after wrapping up a project, the next time you’re tempted to think everyone is out to get you, it might be worth reappraising your emotions. I know I will. 

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