Selfishness or Self-Maintenance?

Photo credit: Stella J.J.

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)

Selfish, self-centred, self-absorbed, self-serving. All of these terms skew negative; selfish implies a person who is happy to put themselves first to the detriment of others, even when they have other options. The other three call to mind a person who would think about every event in relation to themselves, or who may not even consider that other people and their problems exist.

What are the words that exist at the other end of the spectrum? I’ve always found the phrase ‘self-care’ a bit grating, but the definition is rather lovely: “The practice of taking an active role in protecting and maintaining one’s own well-being and happiness, in particular during periods of stress.”

I’m trying to become more conscious about putting myself first, or more accurately, in the centre of my own plans for my own life. (Which is pretty logical when you think about it.) It doesn’t sit naturally with me but I’ve found a good way of framing it: you either develop an ego, or you learn to act like you do.

I used to be reluctant to take on new opportunities because I vaguely thought I needed to be ‘ready’ first, and perfect my skills in theory. A few years ago I would never have started up a blog! Although that wasn’t entirely due to lack of confidence- I didn’t want to start a blog unless I knew I could structure it well and tackle particular topics I was passionate about. After a year of studying musicology, I realised I could treat a blog as means to an end, the end being practical journalism and writing experience.

The following two quotes helped me completely flip my mindset on being ready/ taking random opportunities life throws you:

It’s a terrible thing, I think, in life to wait until you’re ready. I have this feeling now that actually no one is ever ready to do anything. There is almost no such thing as ready. There is only now. And you may as well do it now. Generally speaking, now is as good a time as any.

Hugh Laurie- Actor, writer, musician

If someone offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure that you can do it, say yes, and work out how to do it later.

Richard Branson- Serial entrepreneur, founder of Virgin Airlines, general out-of-the-box thinker

The way these two men describe it (and it’s worth noting that both have had sustained and successful portfolio careers), the willingness to take chances and try new things can be learnt. And it’s true! You can become better at putting your hand up, without being stopped by the thought ‘Am I worthy of this opportunity?’. You’ll probably never stop asking yourself that question, but you can learn to ignore it.

To be honest and quite rude, the world is full of people who may not deserve the opportunities they have been given (look at the president of the United States, and the person who wrote a few chapters of Twilight fan fiction and got a book deal and a multi-million dollar film adaptation in exchange). They aren’t apologising, so why should you?

Now for some music-orientated thoughts on the topic… After years of being an avid music student, soaking up everything said to me by teachers and coaches, I’ve realised the best thing I ever did for myself as a performer was concentrate my energy on the skills that had nothing to do with singing.

Being a capable singer is a matter of discipline, technique and healthy sound production. I’m not downplaying the skill of being able to accurately replicate pitch and rhythm, read music, and be heard across a concert hall. But those things alone don’t make you an artist. Interpretation, acting, nuance of phrasing, being generous with your colleagues, telling a story, having charisma on stage… These are the qualities that make you a performer. And they require you to form your own opinions.

Photo credit: Stella J.J.

More than becoming technically faultless, my ultimate goal is to become an independent artist who is capable of maturely receiving constructive critique, but is still strongly guided by my own internal compass and creative ideas. Finding some midway point between trusting myself, but still being able to listen to others.

Listening to mentors and experts is essential but it can be hard. Especially if you’ve thrown years of your life and thousands of dollars at a dream of singing opera in Europe, for example.

Over the course of many conversations during my degree, I learnt that while there are hundreds of opera houses in Europe (Germany has one in almost every town), there must be thousands of singers. The general standard of talent and technique that a top or mid-tier opera house would see during their auditions would be staggering. I have no doubt there would be hundreds of working singers in Europe who could become star soloists overnight. They might spend their entire careers singing in the chorus without progressing past an audition.

So the odds are intimidating and kind of ridiculous. Why would anyone bother? I guess the better question to ask is, why not?

Nothing is certain. In many sad and scary ways, COVID-19 has proven that. So if chasing a difficult dream is what you want to do, I absolutely respect that. Go for it. But go for it with your eyes wide open. Know that things aren’t necessarily ‘fair’. No matter how talented or determined you are, there is no absolute guarantee of success. You will always be at the mercy of certain forces outside your control: the random alignment of being in the right room on the right day, the people around you auditioning, the people on the audition panel…

But no matter the outcome, pursuing a goal you are passionate about will bring its own rewards. You might end up having an exciting and fulfilling life in the process!

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