“Nope. Not possible.”
Years ago I was in my first band. I had finished college and while trying to figure out what the next step was in the recession into which I graduated, a friend introduced me to some musician friends of hers. She was playing matchmaker and we all knew it. It was a match. That night was the beginning of a two year group endeavor that was both terribly confusing and insanely fun.
The leader of our band of often merry humans was wildly ambitious. He had a mind for business and really wanted to make a go of our project. He wanted a record deal (that’s what they used to be called, I’m sure the terminology has changed). His optimism was infectious, even if his focus and willingness to do the tedious tasks of band management were not. We were reasonably successful as local bands go, our peak was an opportunity to play at The Bayou (a big deal joint in Washington, DC) as an opening act for an act that HAD been famous at one time. We got enough positive feedback to stoke the fires when we were discouraged and when we ran out of money, which was often. Internal drama aside, we succeeded in making music together and creating good experiences for other people.
The thing is, despite the fact that I was having a great time a lot of the time, and even though I enjoyed the positive attention that came from fronting our madness, I never really bought into the dream. I never really believed that success on a larger scale was possible. I never bought into the collective hope, not really.
I had decided (for a variety of reasons) that what my friend was really hoping would happen was simply not possible. Nope. Not possible. And so, when things got tough personally between us as a group and the shimmer of young love turned my head to the West Coast, I left. They were shocked, and in retrospect, I understand that. They thought we’d all be in it together. They didn’t know I had limited my emotional investment to what I thought was realistic for ME.
A brilliant friend shared a quote with me the other day: “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.” It’s from Arthur C. Clarke, a science fiction writer. The application here is scientific in nature and wildly optimistic in a way that thrills me a little bit.
It’s also pretty clear to me that a contextual shift shows the real power of Clarke’s words. The idea of what is possible is central to so many of our decisions and our personal predisposition towards optimism or pessimism, toward risk-taking or security, towards dreaming big or playing it safe all are touched on by this one sentence.
We can start with a big picture. What is possible? We can come at if from the realm of the physical, the scientific, the laws of nature and physics as we know them. We can take a step in towards the slightly more personal and then as questions like: “What is possible in THIS world? What is possible in a lifetime? What is possible on this current version of earth? What is possible in this culture?” You can see that at each level, with each change, with each contextual shift, there is tremendous opportunity for interpretation. There is a new chance to exercise the choice of relying on what our own experience or the experience of those before has taught us about what we can and cannot do. Between every action, every feeling, every thought, there is a possibility, a choice to don or discard conventional wisdom and common sense about what is possible in this life for humans generally.
If you think that’s complicated, wait until we take the next step, because if you’ve been playing along for awhile, you have to know there is an additional step, towards the even more personal, the more internal, the more self-specific as we assess possibilities. There is a vast expanse of murky water between the question: “What is possible?” and “What is possible for ME?”
When we assess what’s possible for us, individually, as ourselves, we don’t just take on prior knowledge, cultural norms, group experience and common sense, we take on our most fundamental beliefs about our own value, our own worth, and our own capacity.
Common sense and conventional wisdom tend to work against musicians and other artists. The story we have about art as a life is that it is one that is dominated largely by poverty and struggle. I think too that we have some cultural stories about the necessity of struggle for art, but that’s a bit of a tangent. While I know there are plenty of folks who encourage their kids in the arts, even as formal study, there is often a hesitation there – like wouldn’t you like to minor in nursing or apprentice with a plumber while you do that? It is so difficult to make a choice that is not known to be financially stable. I imagine you could make a similar argument for any profession or endeavor that you were nervous about trying out: “Switching careers is risky. Nobody makes a living that way. It will be too hard, take too long, require too much training,” etc.
The only folks who can scale THAT tower, the one that goes beyond conventional wisdom, are the ones who are willing to believe that whatever level of success or satisfaction they are looking for is possible, individually, for them, in this lifetime. They have to set aside thoughts like: “Well, sure that can happen for other people, but it would never happen for me.” They have to let go of the list of reasons that they use as evidence to keep them at half-mast on their willingness to try. They have to go all in.
They have to believe in that possibility often enough that they can complete the tasks, endure the rejection, and find satisfaction even when it’s not going according to big, auspicious, glittery plan. They have to release the idea that they are not worthy enough, or capable enough, or special enough to have the right to do what they are great at in this world.
And then they need to strap on their brave boots and do the things – the things that they love to do, that make them feel fully alive, the things that, not at all coincidentally, just might take them where they want to go.
How much courage do we need to test that boundary of impossibility? Only as much courage as it takes to bridge the gap between what we think of ourselves and the challenge we’d so desperately like to take on.