I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve finished speaking at a conference and someone asks: “How do I get started?” My response: What are you doing NOW?” It makes no difference whether you are 14 or 64. Your response to that question will tell you a lot about how you will do as a farmer. […]
Fundamentally, you must look around and ask: “What am I doing NOW? What can I do NOW?” You see, most folks I’ve dealt with, who really want to farm, have the notion that if they just had some land, or if they just had more land, they could farm. It’s as if an elusive something—land, equipment, buildings, markets—is always just beyond their grasp, and they are just stuck until they can acquire that magic “thing.” […]
Chances are if you have no desire to grow anything now, you probably never will. You can grow something, even if it is a plant in a window box. But most folks can get access to a few square feet of ground, even if it is a spare flowerbed around an apartment complex. Quit mowing the lawn and turn it into a backyard market garden. If your more concerned about what the neighbors will say when you convert your lawn into garden beds than you are about getting started in farming, you’re too peer-dependent and would not do things differently enough to succeed even if you did have a larger acreage. Better to find that out now rather than later.
Goodness, there’s so much wisdom set down in those few paragraphs, wisdom that is applicable to just about any endeavor. Here are a few things that occur to me as I read it, with examples taken from the adventure Chris and I have had with music.
- Salatin’s question, “What are you doing NOW?”, is a close cousin of Elisabeth Elliot’s advice to “do the next thing.” If your goal is at all realistic, there is almost always some small step you can take right now that will get you closer—maybe not much closer, but closer—to that goal. And taking that step will put one or more new steps within your reach. And even small progress toward a goal can motivate you to strive more diligently for it.
Our goal was always to learn to perform at a professional level, but we weren’t sure how to get there, or if we were able to get there, or if we would like it once we arrived. But at any given point there was always a “next thing”—jamming with other people, playing at an open mic, working up a performance, playing on the radio, playing a dance, scheduling a weekly date—that was a worthwhile and achievable challenge all by itself, as well as a step toward the goal. Following that path has kept our progress quick and steady, and also kept us motivated to put in steady hard work.
- There is also safety in making sure you’ve harvested all the low-hanging fruit, i.e. completed all the easily accomplished work toward your goal, before you attempt the more ambitious work. Best to know as early as possible, and before making major investments, that certain parts of your plan are unrealistic.
We’ve always looked for the shortest, easiest, least expensive path to learn a particular lesson about music. We attended our first jam camp when we hardly knew anything about music, figuring it would be an easy way to learn if we actually liked playing music with other people. We spent a couple of weeks preparing for an open mic so we could find out if we liked playing on stage. We spent two months playing scattered weekend dates with a local band, just to see if we liked it (not much, it turned out).
- It is good to put yourself to the test early and often. As Salatin says, it is way too easy to blame your lack of progress toward a goal on that “elusive something.” If only you had the proper tools, or if only you were given a job where you could perform your magic, or if only the right people were paying attention to you—then you could really do something impressive. Such idle daydreaming is only possible when you do everything possible to avoid the tests that lay close to home, i.e. facing up to the question “What are you doing NOW?”
We’ve seen folks who have what we call a “Nashville talent scout” problem. They are convinced that they’ve already arrived, and it’s simply a matter of getting the right break to achieve stardom. So they spend all their energy chasing down gigs in hope that one of them will be their big break—and none of their energy improving their basic performing skills. Unfortunately, there are enough people around them who think they are called to be encouragers, praising them unduly and avoiding any sort of criticism. It’s much easier to bask in unwarranted praise than it is to seek out an honest evaluation.
We try to stay realistic about both our ability and our potential. More accurately, we don’t spend any time worrying about our potential, which is out of our control, and we work hard to improve our ability, which is very much in our control. So we’re constantly seeking out people who can tell when we’re missing the mark and are willing to tell us so. Finding such folks is harder than you might think—people are so unteachable these days that takes some time to persuade someone that not only do you want their honest opinion, but you will actually follow the advice they take the time to give.
Some of the honest advice I’ve taken about my singing stung badly enough that it wasn’t easy to go back for more. It would have soothed my ego—and saved me a lot of work—to decide that I just needed to find “my own sound” and then wait for the world to learn to appreciate it. Instead, some very kind and patient folks have told me how to get more bluegrass and old-time sound into my singing, and after a couple of years of humbly and faithfully submitting to their advice I think it’s beginning to pay off.