Finding the “Why” – Your Musical Mission Statement
By Chris Cotter
The number one reason that most people give for practicing the guitar is usually very generic. It is commonly stated as “to get better at it” or to “be good at it.” But “to get better” at what? If you don't have a goal, a long-term goal, you're doing two things that will hold you back. The first thing: You're going to spend a lot of time doing things that you don't need to do. The 2nd thing, and probably more important, is that when you do get relatively good at something, you have no place to use it.
The world is full of people, and guitar players are notorious for this, that can do something in isolation but can’t use the skill for anything useful or meaningful. The world is full of guitar players that can play 180 beats per minute on a metronome, only can't really play anything musical. It’s true.
When I studied for a short time at Berklee School of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, I saw this all the time. Drummers would sit in this place called “drummer’s row” and do rudiments for hours on these little pads with a metronome. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this. If fact, for drummers this is a necessary skill. But many of these same people when sitting behind a drum kit with other players, couldn’t deliver a good groove for the music.
The world is full of guitarists who can play a lot of the first four measures of the intro to every single one of the Billboard’s 100 greatest rock songs on the planet but can't play anything beyond that. There's no shortage of players who know what a major scale is and have no idea how to use it other than to play patterns at lightning speed. But many of these same folks claim: “they don’t need theory” (which they do), “they don’t know theory” (because they don’t), or “can’t improvise” (because knowing the shape of a scale is not equal to knowing how to use a scale).
Practicing the guitar without a destination, a goal, is very difficult to do for a sustained length of time, because normal is wanting to “do” something and practicing that skill or skills in isolation. You get on a roll, and all of sudden the bottom drops out, you get stuck, the brakes are on. Now what? Every guitarist that I’ve ever met has at least one time in their lives experienced this.
Without having a plan and knowing what to do, you’ll always be kind of stuck. If this description fits you, you are not alone. The reason for this feeling “stuck” is that because maybe your short term (0-30 days) goal setting is pretty good, but your long-term vision is not there, or is not clear. You have to get clear on that, That's also true.
If you have been a guitar player for any length of time, you’ve already made a considerable investment in time and money. If you haven’t been at it long, you WILL make those investments. You’ll invest in guitars, and “guitar stuff” like books and music lessons. You need to start investing time into really giving some thought to where it is that you're going in the long term. What is it that you eventually want to be able to do with the guitar? You might not know that yet.
In order to set a goal that's 30, 60, or 90 days from now (shorter term goals), you need know where you're headed beyond that or at least where you want to head. That makes the short-term goal setting way more effective. Consider this: Currently, you can get on an airplane and fly to London from the U.S in about 5 hours, if you've got the right airplane and a good flight route. In 1776, to go from New York to London you’d have to sail for 8 weeks. If you actually made it, it would take a long time. But many ships had the wrong navigation or maps and were lost at sea.
If this sounds like your guitar playing, you are not alone. If you don’t know where you want to go, getting “there” will take a very long time. In fact, it will be next to impossible to get “there,” because you don’t know where “there” is. However, if you know where the destination is, then you can choose your route. You can choose how long or how short a time it takes you to get there. You need to start working on your destination. This destination is your long-term goal.
Your destinations are going to change over the of course your life. In my case, the long-term guitar goal that I had 20 years ago has already been reached. I wanted to have written and published Rock ‘n’ Roll records. I achieved that goal. But I am not, or never have been, a rock star. Why? I didn’t care about being a rock star, especially once I got past age 20. Number one, I really wasn’t willing to make the sacrifices necessary to become a rock star. Being a local and regional pro suited me just fine. I realized that even at the smaller level, I hated playing live shows until 3am. It was a huge big pain in the butt to me. I'm at a point in my life right now where I’ve already reached a long-term musical goal. Now my goals are different. Obviously, because I'm older, I don't have “as long a term” to make a goal, you know? But I'm still sitting here thinking about how the 5 to 10-year plan. I’ll always going to be doing that.
You might think you haven’t progressed very much in the past year. If not, a big part of that is probably because you didn’t have solid goals. You may look back at the end of the year and think: “I should have improved a hell of a lot more this year than I have.” If you didn’t have a good enough goal, you've probably spent most of the past year spinning your wheels.
I am now going to share with you some of the most powerful things I have ever learned regarding setting and reaching goals. I didn't invent this. I learned this. Three great teachers opened my eyes to this me. Some of the advice you’ll get here come directly from, or from my interpretations of, the ideas that they helped me to realize. I am eternally grateful for that.
One of these teachers was my first guitar teacher. He was amazing and great source of inspiration. His motto was “Song is King.” I never would have learned and built a lifelong career in the music business if not for his influence. The second teacher is a world-class player, teacher, and businessman. He is my mentor, trainer and coach in guitar teaching. He said to me one day on a conference call a quote by Jim Rohn: “Reasons come first. Answers come second.”[i] It was among the best pieces of advice I have ever received. The third teacher that I mentioned is, to me, a man that has an amazing perspective and ability to advise on the topic of goal setting. He has, through his work, inspired mine.
In this essay, I’m simply passing on my understanding, how I have used the concepts that I was taught, and the results you can achieve with them. This is an eye-opener for anybody that I've ever known that has gone through this, myself included. If you actually use it, it will change your life.
The last time I went through this process, I conceived a rock album in May 2015 with the intention of releasing it in 1 year. I then put a band together, wrote the songs, professionally recorded and released the album to worldwide distribution on April 23, 2016. All less than 1 year after the goal was set. Did I become a rock star and sell a million copies? No. That wasn’t the goal. Did I make a lot of money? No. That wasn’t the goal. The goal was to write, record, and release the album. And I did just that. The point is that when you have a solid destination, it’s pretty easy to get there.
When it comes to achieving any goal, you need to know the 4 basic factors that make up any goal.ii They are:
1. The goal itself, stated clearly
2. The reason, or the “why” behind the goal
3. The “how-to” of actually achieving the goal
4. The benchmark of when it will be completed
Of these, there is one factor that the majority of people miss. It is the reasons, or the “why” behind the goal. The reason, the “why,” is so important because it’s what connects us to our goal at the emotional level. The stronger that connection, the more powerful the goal and the better the chances of following through and achieving that goal. All of the factors are important, but the reasons come first. Your reasons, and the emotional connection to them, help us to overcome negative self-talk about why we “can’t” do something. They help us to reach and try things that we would normally ‘rationalize” our way out of doing.[ii]
You need reasons before you will get answers. You have to have that. You will never get answers to your questions like “How come I can't grasp this music theory concept?” or “How come I am not a better guitar player?” You'll never get those kinds of answers unless you know what the reasons are that you're doing or not doing something. I share in the belief that most people are generally lazy. But it is the emotional attachment to our reasons that helps us overcome that laziness and do what we have to do to reach our goals.
Think back to that 1st time you decided to pick up a guitar. What were you doing? What was it that made you feel the way you felt? What was the reason that you started? When I thought about that for the first time, it became very clear to me what I needed to do. Once I became clear about my reasons, good things started happening. It didn't take long before I was playing music professionally. Later, I used the same technique and basically found my calling in my work as a teacher. I may not be the greatest music teacher on Earth, but I love it. I found the work I loved by having reasons, and a strong “why” to do it.
Before I learned the importance of the “why”, I was constantly wondering;
“How am I going to get to there?”
“How am I going to do it?”
“How am I going to write those songs I've always wanted to write?”
“How am I going to express myself with this guitar?”
“How am I going to make it more than just this big pain in the butt when I pick it up?”
“How am I going to turn this into something that is not some “Negative Nancy”, crybaby thing that always happens to me every time? I pick it up, put it back down, pick it up again and a year later still feel like I can’t play my barre chords or whatever it is.”
Once I got clear on my goals and the reasons behind them, I was able to improve and reach those goals quickly. On the surface, it seems simple. It seems pretty obvious that you've got to know what you want to do or achieve in order to do it or achieve it. But sometimes we are oblivious to the obvious.
Many times, we talk too loosely about the word goals. If you ask someone “what do you really want?” What are your goals?” most people will say “I don't know.” They don’t have an answer because, if they are like most people, they can’t answer. They can’t answer because they don’t have strong enough reasons to answer. But when we have a strong “why”, a strong reason, we can nail it down. So how do we come up with the “why” for our goals? How do we know our true reasons? Here are some ways to come up with a stronger “why”:
Sometimes the why is based on one thing being dependent on another. You need to complete one thing to start another. “I need to get an associate degree before I can go for a bachelor’s or master’s degree.” Most of the time, there is something positive for us behind the why. “Things we want” are the motivation. “I want to go to Rome” or “I want to run the Boston Marathon.” You may not realize that there can also be negative reasons behind a goal. These can be very powerful because they take us from pain towards pleasure. “I want to lose weight, so I won’t get so tired walking up the stairs.” The why can also be super simple and mundane, like “So I can pay rent”, or “Because I enjoy it” (ii)
Before we get on to finding your why and helping you set your real goal(s); before we watch you set off on the road to your success, we need to talk about your mindset. It’s the critical ingredient.
I will assume that you all know what optimism is, right? And if you know that, you know what pessimism is, right? If you consider yourself to be a pessimistic person, or if throughout your life people have told you that you are a pessimistic person (even though you might deny that), and you typically:
- Always find a reason why it won't work.
- Always find the worst possible outcome.
- Say or think things like “I know it's probably going to rain today” (even though the sun is shining bright outside).
- Hear someone say to you “It’s a beautiful day today” And you answer “yeah, for now, but it’s going to be rain tomorrow.”
- Come in 2nd place in a race. People say, “nice job, that’s pretty awesome.” You answer “No it’s not. I didn’t win.”
That's pessimism. It will get you nowhere in life.
The problem is, when you when you're a pessimistic person you'll generally look to somewhere else outside of yourself, or outside of your method. You’ll constantly search for the quick fix. Pessimistic people, because they fail so often and have no follow-through, are constantly looking for a new thing. A new way. This can be in any part of life. And, as guitar is a part of life, the pessimism will get you nowhere with the guitar. You'll eventually quit. In fact, if you are a pessimistic person, you’ll probably get nothing from this essay and lecture. Your time may be better spent doing something else, or at least adopting a more optimistic attitude.
Pessimistic people are in a perpetual quandary about why nothing works out for them. For example, “I'm not really making progress on my scales so I'm going to search the internet for a new scale.” Seriously?
Go and do this: If you really want to scramble your own eggs, go to Google and type in “guitar warm-up exercises.” There are millions of them. And you know what? None of them are going to help you unless they are directly in line with your goals. If you don't have goals, nothing is going to help you progress very far. Why? Because you're just going to pick stuff at random to do on the guitar instead of working on doing something with the guitar. You might be like “I want to do this new thing this week.” Then you turn around with “Now I’m tired of that and I want to do something different next week.”
But If you have a path, if you have an idea of where it is that you want to go, then you are really making a solid investment by being here at this time. If this advice can do one thing for you, it can help you get to where you want to be, providing you know where it is that you want to be. However, if you're pessimistic, you're going to have a hard time getting anywhere with the guitar and with life in general.
So the question becomes: “How do you become optimistic when it comes to the guitar?” Again, all you have to do is to think back to what made you want to play guitar in the first place. What was it? Think about what that felt like. That was optimism. You were excited. Nothing could hold you back from learning this awesome instrument. You took it in. You practiced. And you (hopefully) made some progress.
Sometimes through series of failures, ups and downs, etc.; you get to a point where you lose that optimism. I know. I’ve been there. It happens to many of us. It sucks. But when the short-term setbacks come, when you have a bad week of playing guitar or when things come up and you find yourself without enough time to really practice. Whatever it is, it’s going to do very little to damage any of your progress if you've got a lot of vision. Especially long-term vision. You know what it is that you want. You know the reasons why you want it. You know 5 years,10 years, 15 years out. You know where you’re headed. Providing you have your destination in mind.
I’m going to share with you THE BEST strategy (i) I have ever seen on how to determine your real reasons, your “why, and finding your true, reachable goal. I’m going to give you an “assignment.” This is something you need to write down. You are going to want to get a piece of paper and something to write with. You're not going to want to do this in your head. It won’t work at all unless you can see it.
What you're going to do is you're going to write down your goal or goals. You can do this for more than one goal, but you have to do each goal separately. Keep this to strictly music/guitar goals for now. Now rather than ask yourself “What is my goal?” ask yourself “What excites me?”
An example could be something like: “You know what excites me about playing guitar is having people buy my records and say; “Man that's a great record” or being recognized as a great guitar player. It could be just the feeling you get from playing the guitar. It doesn't really matter what the goal is as long as you write one down.
Realize that “I want to be a better guitar player”is not a great goal. It’s too vague; too general. Get specific. Really take the time to think about this. Take as long as you need to do this exercise. There is only one rule. You have to do this in one sitting. The only way this exercise will not work is if you don’t do it,
Write down the main guitar playing goal that you have. It can be anything.
“I want to write my own song.”
“I want to make my own album”
“I want to go on tour”
“I want to play in a band”
“I want to just sit on my front porch and enjoy myself with a glass of iced tea and a nice day with a guitar my hand like an old blues guy”
Take as long as you need. But again, the only way this exercise won’t work is you don’t do it. I went through many years spinning my wheels not doing it, and of course it couldn’t work.
Now that you have your list of goals, no matter how many there are, pick the one that is the most important to you. This will almost always be one of your long-term goals. What is a long-term goal? A year from now is a good start. Longer is fine. Any less than a year is probably not far out there enough. Mid-term goals are between 90 days and a year. A short-term goal is within 90 days from now. Write them all down. And pick the most important. That’s the only thing you have to do right now.
Now that you know what that most important goal is, get it clear in you mind and imagine that you already have it. Sit there and close your eyes if you need to and think about that. Take as long as you need. Imagine what it will feel like. Imagine that you now have that goal.
Next, answer this question. What would that give you that you did not have before? Think about that and write down the answer. Now that you have that answer, what will THAT give you. Again, imagine you have it and write that down. Now that you have that new thing, imagine that you already have that. What will that give you that you didn't have before? Write your answer. Now that you know what you're doing, you continue to ask yourself “What did this give me that I didn't have before?”
Keep repeating that process all the way down until you can't answer that question anymore. That is what you desire more than anything else regarding that goal. That's your true goal. That last answer that ends up on the page, that's the that's the goal itself. That'll be what excites you the most. That will be your REASON. That will be your “WHY.”
I have an example here that come from an article written by my guitar teaching trainer and business coach. (i) It will illustrate the process. If you’ve ever done this before that's fine. Do it again. Here's the example:
Question: What is your goal?
Answer: I want to be wealthy.
Question: Now that I’m wealthy, what does this give me that I did not have before?
Answer: It would allow me to stop worrying about having enough money to pay for my expenses.
Question: Now that I would be able to stop worrying about paying for my expenses, what will that give me that I did not have before?
Answer: It would give me the ability to buy whatever I want, do whatever I want.
Question: Now that I have the ability to buy and do whatever I want what will this give me that I did not have before?
Question: Now that I have this new freedom, what will I do or experience with it that I’m not doing or experiencing now? what would that give me?
Answer: I wouldn’t have to work. I could spend more time with people I care about.
Get the picture?
So, you can see that in this case what this person wanted most of all was to be able to spend more time with the people the person cared about. He/she wanted to spend more time with his or her family. The money, the wealth part was just the vehicle to get there. It was just one of the steps. Consider the “wealth” in this example to be for you one of your guitar goals. That would be just one of the steps; not the real goal.
Here's a typical ‘goal’ you might hear from guitar players: “I want to be a faster guitar player.”
That's not really a goal. It is a way to reach a goal. If you set a goal to become a much faster guitar player when you don't need speed at all for your guitar goal, then you’re just wasting your time.
The heart of the matter in the example above is that the real obstacle wasn't a lack of money, or a lack of time. it was a perceived lack of freedom. This person said: “I want to be wealthy” and the cause wasn’t time or money, but that they had perceived a certain lack of freedom. When they got to their final goal and asked, “What would I do with this freedom?” The answer was “I would spend more time with people I love.”Prior to that, this person perceived that they didn't have the freedom to do that. (i)
This exercise is powerful. It is powerful. It will change your life. This can a game changer for you. It has been for me as well.
In fact, I'll put my money where my mouth is. I will do this exercise to right now as you are doing it, because I need a new goal. I need a long-term goal. I've been spinning my wheels for a while and need the next thing. I'm with you. I'm not I'm not going to pull the ivory tower stuff. I’m not just passing this off and telling you what you want to hear. I'll do it too and I'll share it with you.
If we go back to our hypothetical example, we can learn something else. Although becoming wealthy is a perfectly good vehicle to achieve that thing for that person, it might not be the most effective vehicle for all people.
This is where your goals come in. Your personal goals are so important because there are a lot of people who “want to be a better songwriter.” There are a lot of people who want to be able to sit down and “just be able to play what comes to mind.” There are a lot of people that come here, and their main thing is that they “want to learn songs.” Some people come in with goals like “I want to play professionally, play gigs or play shows.” “I want to be a band.” “I want to record.”
All of those things are vehicles. Learning to play songs is a vehicle for what? Keep doing this exercise. You will find out what that is right for you. If you have separate goals like “I want to write songs”, start with one. You can do this exercise with many goals or many situations where you don't know what the goals are.
Where am I going with all this? Life happens all the time. The older and more experienced you get, the more times it's happened. You have to dig deep and be honest with yourself. You are going to find that more times than not, that when you do this exercise and you get down to what that real goal is, that rue reason, that it's going to be something that is more of a deep human thing rather than a material thing. It's going to be big time about life. It's going to have a lot to do with something that makes you feel good. It's going to be an emotional thing. Exactly like in the hypothetical example “I want to be able to spend more time with the people I love.” That’s not a material thing.
Maybe the initial goal of “getting faster at your scales” will lead to “communicating through my songs” or “my ability to express my own emotions through my songs.” or whatever. It is it's going to be more of a “human” thing.
You know what is going to happen? You're going to learn a lot about yourself by doing this exercise.
As far as your guitar studies are concerned, it will help you to dial in exactly what your program needs to consist of. You can put together the exact thing that you need to get. It will help you to develop your strategy.
If your strategy is “I’m going to wake up every day and I'm going to just play the guitar if I feel like it.” Let me be the bearer of bad news: That strategy sucks. I guess It’s cool if all you want to do is screw around, but you will not get anywhere with it. You will continually go around in a very small circle and come back to wondering why you still haven’t done anything.
How do I know that? I've done it. I've seen most of my students and associates do it at some point, too. It doesn’t feel very good to be right back to where you started. It doesn’t feel very good going back to “I don't feel very good about my guitar playing anymore.” The reason why that happens in such a small cycle for some, is that there is not a good enough goal and/or reason. Or, there is not a good enough strategy. Or worse, you don't have a goal or a strategy at all.
I want you to break that cycle. You owe it to yourself. You deserve it. And by the way, this not only works for your guitar playing, but it also happens to work for other parts of your life.
This exercise will help you if you do it. This is the most important part. You need to take your time and do it. It’s not something you do in 5 minutes. You have to really think on this one. I can't emphasize this enough. You just have to take your time when you sit down to do this. Just go through it and do it. Go where you feel most comfortable in your house, outdoors, wherever. Get a cup of tea or coffee or something like that and just commit to thinking for a while.
You want to dig deep. You want to think about this. Take your time and don't rush it because this will quite probably will save you years of time with your guitar. If you do this with other life things that will save you years of time in your life. You'll hit goals man in a fraction of the time if you know exactly what the goal is.
You can consider all of the areas of your life and do something similar to this to find out if you're on track. Remember that guitar is not life, it is a part of life. If there's someplace else in your life that's real out of whack, then your guitar playing doesn't have a prayer. Especially if it's a big part that's out of whack.
Some people find they need to put the guitar on hold while they really get clear on some of the other things that they need to do in their lives, or that they might need to change their lives altogether. If that’s the case, you'll notice that when you pick up the guitar, your guitar playing feels better because you start to get a handle on some of these other things.
You are about to find out what you really want when you have total clarity about what that is, based on your reasons: based on the why of what you want. You will have the reasons, you will get the goal. The research strong. You will find your destination.
Put it this way: It is extremely difficult to plan a route when you have no destination in view. “It is extremely difficult to hit a target that you cannot see.”
I truly wish you all the very best.