You Will Never Be "Good Enough"
— A simple phrase that has been echoing into even the farthest reaches of my soul for the last 22 years. Though my mind has been expanding like the universe, it feels like “you will never be good enough” permeates every square inch of new territory before light has a chance to glow over any of it. Fresh off a birthday and near the end of my time as a student at UNC-CH, I’ve been reflecting on the last four years and realizing how God has been teaching me to understand “you will never be good enough” through my pursuit of music.
I entered into my time at UNC with few certainties, but one thing I had complete confidence in was that I was not under any circumstances going to be studying music. I had received a letter of rejection from my first choice music school and took it as a cue that music as a vocation wasn’t for me. Bless my kind academic advisor because my first year of college was nothing but academic searching. I applied to UNC ready to study mathematics, then journalism, then… astrophysics? When I walked into my advisor’s office to explain that I wanted to change my major to music I thought he was going to jump over his desk and tackle me.
1. Pursue your passion even if it means being choked out by your advisor.
Oh! I mean…
1. It is ok to not be “good enough”
I remember being in kindergarten with my friend Jamie. We both wanted to be in a rock band (maybe it was just me that wanted to be in the band but Jamie was an encouraging friend). I named the band “The Diamonds” (first mistake), and then proceeded to design all of our merch on Microsoft Paint (second mistake). I asked my oldest brother for what would be my first and last guitar lesson until college. He tried to arrange my clueless fingers into the shape of a D chord before breaking the news to me softly.. “You suck at this.” — I wasn’t good enough.
Fortunately I kept at it and before long I was performing at my church. I joined the school band as well and ultimately ended up as the drum major and as a trumpeter with a good seat in the top district band. When it came time to graduate, I had my eye set on Appalachian State University’s Hayes School of Music where I proceeded to absolutely bomb my audition (hence literally receiving a rejection letter). I got to UNC and though I was determined to study anything but music, I couldn't stay away. I switched my major and joined the trumpet studio where I was, without a doubt, the least technically proficient of the bunch. Technical ability has never really been my forte. I was in theory classes where I felt like one of only a few people with no background in the subject. A year later I went through the same sort of situation when I began studying classical guitar under the great Billy Stewart and again this semester as I began studying jazz theory and guitar under Dr. Stephen Anderson and Scott Sawyer. At times it felt like I was perpetually a beginner, but a deep desire to be better kept me to it.
What I am getting at is this: if my willingness to continue in my studies had been based on whether or not I felt “good enough” as a player, I certainly would have given up long ago. So many times I entered into subjects where I had little to no experience, but what was pulling me forward was the absolute joy I got out of the process of becoming something better.
2. Joy is in the process, motivation is in the destination.
The problem with hanging your hat on “good enough” is that “good enough” is a destination. Music has shown me that destinations are ultimately not as satisfying as we were hoping they would be. My first year of college, I dreamed of performing at Memorial Hall, the premier concert venue on campus. It is a glorious concert hall that has hosted performers like Buddy Guy, Wynton Marsalis, and groups like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It is the pinnacle of performance on campus. The kind of goal you shoot for even though you secretly know it isn’t possible. I joined the Carolina Bluegrass Band for its inaugural semester during my junior year and was shocked when I found out we would be playing at Memorial Hall. Not only would we perform in the dream venue, but we would be opening for the Grammy winning Steep Canyon Rangers. The show was SOLD OUT! Suddenly I found myself guitar in hand, center stage, leading the band and singing one of my hero’s songs to a sold out crowd. WOW. The next day I woke up, brushed my teeth and went to class. It was fun while it lasted… It’s amazing how pinnacle moments like that are here and then gone. Though they are incredible experiences, I think the lasting joy is found not in the fleeting moments of the dream performance, but in the diligent and result-yielding hours and hours of practice. On November 17th I had another milestone performance. I led a band at a local music venue and performed nine songs I had worked tirelessly on over the course of my time at UNC. So many people I love came to see the show and support me. It was a gathering of friends I have made over the last four years that was made complete by the presence of my loving parents. What a night. There was a moment in my song “Jewel” where I almost teared up on stage. You can hear my voice crack a little in the third verse as I realized how cumulative the moment was. Three days of rehearsals, four years of writing and friendship, nine years of practicing, and a lifetime of love from the two most important people in my life. It isn’t the moment of the performance that is satisfying, but the accumulation it represents. The cliche “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey” rang a little more clearly last semester. I’m afraid “good enough” won’t be as satisfying as I might have hoped, but now I am starting to see how joy dwells in the processes of greatness, not in the achievement of it.
3. Greatness is beautifully unattainable to us
Instagram is awesome. I can get on Instagram and instantly be connected to thousands of other guitarists. Brilliantly rhythmic and complex flamenco players, passionate blues artists, technically virtuosic classical guitarists, mentally dominant jazz players, and beautifully simple folk artists who seem to say it all by saying less. Greatness is everywhere and it takes more shapes than we can begin to describe. Because instrumental greatness covers such a sonically diverse world, it would take lifetime after lifetime of work to come close. I’m no mathematician but if I learned anything from my two months as a math major I can tell you that greatness is like a limit that can be infinitely approached but never equalled. Fortunately for us all, our works are not saving us, rather they are a joyful expression of gratitude for our rescue. This frees us to use greatness as a means rather than an end, yielding a lifetime of process-joy. All the greatness in the world has already been achieved by the One who created it. When we concern ourselves with out-achieving Him, we surrender our opportunity to see the process-joy He has in front of us.
What God has shown me to be true in music, I have seen to be true in other infinite situations. Just as mastery in an instrumental focus is joyfully unattainable, so it is with any other skill or vocational area. It seems to even be the same with love. Just last Sunday a couple in my church celebrated 55 years of marriage with room to grow. For anything we develop, our joy is in the accumulation of the process, not the arrival at its pinnacle. At the end of the day, to arrive is to quit moving forward.
Often I still am discouraged as I practice. The things I don’t know about the guitar far outnumber what I've learned in this first decade of work. But the joy I experience in progressing on this journey helps me to see the uncharted territory as fertile ground. “You will never be good enough” means that your purpose knows no limits. It is less a crushing weight and more an invitation. The Westminster Shorter Catechism asks “What is the chief end of Man?” and answers “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” If our greatest purpose is joy beyond our lifetime, it should be clear to us that we are far from arriving - and that is absolutely fine.