In Defense of Insecurity
I’ve written previously about having taken slow, methodical practice too far—about having placed so little confidence in my own abilities that I refused to believe that I could play anything without exhaustive (and exhausting) preparation. At the time, I didn’t acknowledge how the underlying cause of that can actually be useful. Yes, that gnawing insecurity, that feeling that we’re not talented enough, not dedicated enough, not good enough, can actually lead somewhere positive. The fact is, we’re all insecure. It’s just the nature of being a musician—we’ve all failed so many times, whether to live up to our own expectations or to others’, that it’s only natural. But there is one essential way in which that can actually be helpful.
I think I’m lazy. Intellectually, I know I’m not, but that creeping doubt in my own work ethic is an element of what drives me to work harder. It all boils back to a productive use of insecurity. Of course, the first and most important reason to continue working is love of the art form. Following that to its next logical step, when we love something deeply, we want to do it well—especially when it happens to involve performing in front of thousands of people. Let’s be frank: The fear of public humiliation, ever-present in the performing arts, is a terrific motivating factor. In its best iteration, it drives us to prepare more than necessary, to be better than the demands placed before us. And that’s a very, very useful thing in our line of work—provided that we don’t become so overwhelmed that we freeze or lose all confidence in our own abilities. It’s a subtle balancing act, requiring that we carefully monitor our mental state and only allow ourselves to give credence to those fears that can be funneled into a productive mindset.
It’s worth noting that this applies differently at different stages of one’s musical development. At a certain, quite advanced point, you’re not going to get a whole lot further through brute force. At that point, the way to continue improving becomes less about the number of hours spent in the practice room, and more about how thoughtfully those hours are applied and how you seek to expand your musical horizons. At this latter stage, insecurity becomes more and more of a crutch—although it’s never entirely gone, and I think that’s ultimately a good thing. But particularly in the early stages of one’s musical life, especially as a student, insecurity that drives us to work harder (albeit still in a thoughtful way) is indispensable.
There are a great many ways in which insecurity can be destructive: if it makes us treat others poorly, if it becomes so overwhelming that we can’t get productive work done, or if it manifests in excessive mental or physical tension. But if you use it to ensure that you continue working, with the feeling that it’s never enough? I know how unpleasant that feeling is—believe me. But you’re probably on the right path.