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Cultivating the Courage to Answer Music's Call

Male lion silhouette on mountain against sunset

“Somewhere inside, we hear a voice… Our voice leads us in the direction of the person we wish to become, but it is up to us whether or not to follow.” Pat Tillman, quoted in Courage is Calling by Ryan Holiday
“How very little can be done under the spirit of fear.” - Florence Nightingale, quoted in Courage is Calling by Ryan Holiday

All musicians know what it’s like to receive the call to make music. It’s an undeniable force that pulls us toward this art in some capacity—whether as a professional, or simply for our own enjoyment. Regardless of where music might lead us, answering this call requires courage in order to move beyond the fear we might otherwise let stop us. We can cultivate courage by understanding the value of fear, clarifying and preparing against possible negative outcomes, and taking action.

Fear is a universal human emotion, one that is essential to our species’ survival. But fear becomes a hindrance when we see it only as a signal to avoid something. This leads many to resist taking on challenges or engaging in activities that could have become meaningful parts of their lives. If we instead see our fear as an indicator we’ve stumbled upon an area potentially worth exploring, it can make us curious instead of overly cautious. As Ryan Holiday writes in his book Courage is Calling: “Our fear points us, like a self-indicating arrow, in the direction of the right thing to do…. Fear alerts us to danger, but also to opportunity.” When thoughts of pursuing music make us scared or doubtful, we can see this as an important call to be answered rather than a danger to be averted.

Often, the potential negative outcomes we anticipate are overblown. As the Stoic philosopher Seneca said, “We suffer more in imagination than in reality.” If we outline exactly what it is we fear, and prepare as best we can, we can remove much of its power. We find this idea expressed in an exercise favoured by the Stoics called premeditatio malorum: the premeditation of evils. By considering everything that could go wrong, we are ready to face them if and when they do. Author and entrepreneur Tim Ferriss’ practice of “fear setting” is a modern example inspired by Seneca. Tim’s method takes it a step further by asking what you can do to prevent—to whatever degree possible—these things from happening, and how you might repair the damage done if you can’t. “What we do not expect, what we have not practiced,” explains Ryan Holiday, “has an advantage over us. What we have prepared for, what we have anticipated, we will be able to answer.” We can take any of the fears we might have around being a musician—like failure, or other people’s judgment of our music—and work through them on paper so they feel more manageable.  

As is the case for mood, courage follows action. If we wait until we feel brave enough to take on a challenge, we’ll likely never go through with it. But if we start taking steps forward, however small, we’ll gather momentum until we’re so focused on the work we’re doing we don’t have the time or energy to be afraid. If we take courageous actions often enough, they eventually become a habit. Over time, these actions will become automatic, and you won’t be as inclined to act out of fear. Or, as Ryan beautifully puts it: “Once you dine on courage…the taste of fear is much harder to tolerate.” Make whatever small moves you can each day until you are so engaged in the process you no longer register the doubts and the fear. 

All musicians have a unique musical fingerprint—one that can add tremendously to the growth and flourishing of music. If we don’t answer music’s call when we hear it, we’ve deprived the world—and ourselves—of something valuable. Although we can’t ever be completely certain our musical endeavors will succeed, it is guaranteed they won’t if we don’t try. By taking steps to cultivate courage, we take ownership of the kind of bravery we need to make and share our music. 


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