Driving over empty roads at 12:30am in rural country has that unique ability to bring lurking emotions out of the shadows. As usual, it’s after the gig. Sometimes I feel high and inspired on these late night road trips, reflecting on how the audience and I synchronized through the simple act of producing and receiving sound. Other nights, it’s negativity that grabs the reigns, and I feel as helpless as a horse in the hands of a skilled rider. This time, it happens to be one of the latter.
Inside a heated cab, frustrating memories from earlier in the evening flash through my mind like the brightest stars streaking above my windshield. I’m driving 70mph, but my mind’s driving angrier and racing faster. Earlier, my band once again found ourselves battling background music, dealing with disinterest, receiving small appreciation, and even smaller tips. We were the featured entertainment for the evening, but we couldn’t compete with the large muted screens, let alone the tiny ones. Unfortunately, it’s not an anomaly. The feeling is all too familiar.
The performance sets an underlying tone to the week, but if there’s one bit of relief I can squeeze out of the situation, it’s that at least I have a steady-ish gig—a place where I can often literally take the stage and express myself. Many musicians would find that to be a win despite everything else. But on the weekend, I get a call from my band leader. He usually texts.
Yes, the last positive disappears.
Twenty years of dedication to my craft doesn’t even earn an explanation or personal conversation with the employer. Come to think of it, what has it earned? But I’m not sure if I’m really surprised, considering similar occurrences have happened multiple times over.
Regardless, as it sinks in, fuel is added to the fire. Confidence wobbles. The downward spiral is in full swing.
When events like these take place, they always seem to follow a nearly identical pattern: resentment forms, aimed at the outside circumstances, but before long, the blame turns inward. Emotions run their course, and disempowering questions surface like unwanted side effects.
“Why am I not better? When will I succeed? What do I mean, when? “‘If'” is more like it. Will I ever succeed at all? And what does success even mean?”
Then, there it is, the one question that always seems to cut through the rest: “Was 10,000 hours worth it?”
No, it’s not the first time this thought has paid a visit, nor the second or third. In fact, this question or various permutations of it has impacted me so many times that I actually gave it its very own name: naturally, the “10,000 hour question.”
Why 10,000? It’s the basically arbitrary, but common, number of hours that society thinks is necessary to master a skill. For me, including the mental practice over a 20-year span, it almost feels more like 20,000 hours. Ironically though, in this moment, I feel further away from mastery than ever. Each time the “10,000 hour question” visits, the sting swells up a little more than the last.
In the days immediately after, it is so easy to find reasons to answer this seemingly important question with an emphatic “no.”
10,000 hours for what? Only to be drowned by excessive conversation time and time again? Only to feel less relevant than the twice-told joke three tables down? Only to be constantly dealt with as an outsider in “the band?” Only to be found indispensable at the highest branches of power? Only to find the art failing to connect with people?
I have no choice but to let it simmer—for days.
And it does take some days later, on a walk in familiar places, when I finally feel a slight change in the wind. For me, nature has always had a way of healing a bruised ego, perhaps by its subtle hint of perspective, or maybe because it listens. Today, nature has my mind seeing clearly, and I keep receiving a thought that negativity implies positivity.
As an artist, I’m ever-so-slowly learning to accept and recognize these negative states. Just because some feelings are dark and gloomy doesn’t mean they are any less right or important than the positive ones.
Often I forget that all forms of feeling are beautiful in their own way. Intense reactions, like frustration and loss, provide bridges to insight. In a single evening, I gained more respect than ever for those who continue to make art, despite the setbacks. In a single evening, I learned that a genuine show of appreciation can mean the world to someone. In a single evening, I learned that one’s insecurities and vulnerabilities can be powerful driving forces. And yet, it was these negative feelings, the “wrong” feelings, that helped me see the world a little differently from the day before.
I’m starting to see the pin of light, and a pin is enough to provide much-needed guidance. When revisiting my age-old “10,000 hour question,” a surprising thought develops. What happens is that the question itself feels flawed. This time, from a place of macro, big-picture thinking, I simply don’t see a relevant or useful answer. The whole experience begins to remind me of what author James P. Carse calls “finite” and “infinite” games.
As artists, when facing the inner art critic from an emotionally compromised state, we tend to get trapped in the finite game. Those playing the finite game see their lives through a lens of results, constantly judging experiences, emotions, and feelings as a win or a loss. In this way, it is not good to feel negatively, or to experience melancholy states, as they aren’t a desired result. A loss implies that we can’t reach our goals. But still, there is always some place to get to, and if we finally arrive, then there’s a new place just around the corner.
One who asks the “10,000 hour question” while playing a finite game will likely be met with core-rocking anxiety and resentment.
Luckily, there is another side to the coin, and it’s called the infinite game. Those who start playing this game begin to see existence as a continuous process. It’s a state where we see that every experience, emotion, thought, and feeling matters.
Playing the infinite game is a realization that life is an opportunity for endless growth. It’s not about results as much as it is a process of constant learning, or of molding and shaping who we are as individuals and who we are as a society.
For musicians or artists in the modern age, there are times when we feel like we’re becoming fixtures of the past, or that the deck is already stacked against us economically. The 10,000 hours of time that we put in might feel more like a badge of sheer madness than honor. However, when the ever-present inner art critic wonders whether to keep going, or excessively ruminates over seemingly persistent negative results, we can choose to focus and reflect on what empowers us.
As futurist and digital visionary Kevin Kelly eloquently expresses:
“There are two kinds of games in the universe: finite games and infinite games. A finite game is played to win…An infinite game, on the other hand, is played to keep the game going…to explore every way to play the game, to include all games, all possible players, to widen what is meant by playing, to spend all, to hoard nothing, to seed the universe with improbable plays, and if possible to surpass everything that has come before.”
If we play the finite game, we tend to see 10,000 hours as evidence of our own insanity. If we play the infinite game, we see our major usage of time as evidence of who we are, and who we might be able to become.
So, instead of struggling to answer the “10,000 hour question,” or one of its close cousins, it could be time to start openly asking better questions altogether.
In other words, what game will we choose to play?