Dear Andrew W.K.,
You seem like a very confident and fearless person, so I kind of doubt you feel this way, but I was wondering if you ever suffered from stage fright in your career as a performer. I’m a musician who has always played by myself or just jammed with friends for fun, but recently I’ve wanted to take my music to the next level and play it live, in front of a real audience.
Unfortunately, the few times I have tried performing at shows, they have been completely terrifying. How do I conquer those fears and live my dream of unabashedly rocking out onstage?
I don’t know if the term “stage fright” can convey the range of devastating sensations I regularly experience in regards not only to performing live, but in nearly every aspect of my work. It’s a constant combination of severe humiliation and embarrassment, fear and anxiety, and a type of ever-increasing anticipation that occasionally grows into full-blown dread. It never fully ceases; it just rides along beside me as a constant and horrifying presence.
From the first time I ever went up onstage (as a six-year-old, to give my first piano recital), this feeling of an all-encompassing and transcendent fear descended on my spirit and remained there. In fact, it has only increased over time. I would’ve thought that after thirty years of performing, these feelings would’ve subsided, but instead, they’ve actually grown stronger and deeper.
But other feelings have also grown alongside them. Feelings of determination. Feelings of focus. Feelings of a deep and insatiable need to do this work, no matter what. A commitment to fulfilling what I know I should fulfill — of doing what I know I must do in order to be worthy of the opportunities I’ve been given — in order to fulfill my own humble yet very important destiny. It never really gets easier to be alive, but you get better at handling the challenges you’re confronted with, and you get used to the feeling of impending doom, of some sort of cataclysmic disaster being right around the corner. I think that’s just the natural pressure of mortality. The key is to harness this pressure and use it for good. You realize you can feel these things without letting them prevent you from living your life. And when you can face those feelings in small but meaningful ways — like playing a show in spite of your stage fright — it counts as a genuine victory and a moment of triumph.
Each time you push forward and follow your dream, each time you meet a challenge head on, each time you recommit to not giving up, you get a little stronger. You get a little better. You get a little more familiar with who you really are inside. And though that doesn’t make the process less painful, it clarifies your devotion to your own life. You make a promise to your own destiny, one to follow what you were born to do regardless of how hard it may be, how torturous, or how ridiculous it makes you look.
Each and every time I go onstage, I feel like an incredible fool. Like a complete and total idiot. But there is something completely empowering about that feeling — it’s as empowering as it is crushing. It’s liberating to realize that not even my own worst fears can stop me. We have bigger and more important things to focus on: our purpose, our chance to exist, our chance to play the music, spread the energy, and unleash the feelings of joy. There has never been a single show I have played where I felt I did a truly good job — so then I try again. There has never been a show where I didn’t feel completely mortified and immersed in anguish as soon as I got offstage — but I still go back for more. I do it because I can tell that somehow this all means something, and that it’s good. It goes beyond feeling bad about yourself or how you did. In those moments, you are almost removed from being a person — you’re more than a person. You are a mission; you are a cause; you are means to an end, and hopefully that end is something truly good and full of love and power. I turn myself over to that cause every day and pray that it brings out the best in me.
Sometimes, it can feel like an outside force is taking over and making it possible to do things that were otherwise impossible. I don’t actually think that force is “outside” us; I think it’s who we really are inside, and our true essence is being amplified and brought to the surface by our desperate need for it. If you have a need to be at your best, for transcending your fears, your spirit will respond and give you the power you need to fulfill your destiny — to become who you really are. Having a mission, and a sense of purpose, gives us that strength to follow the path, even when it’s scary and awkward and discouraging. When we care more about doing what we love than we care about being afraid, we will ourselves to do it.
You simply remove the option of quitting from the array of possible choices. You promise to do what you know you must do, no matter how much it scares you. And in that promise lies all the strength you will ever need. The promise is the key. The promise transforms your weakness into your strength. And even though it’s frightening and overwhelming, you can tell that keeping that promise is literally making you into a better person.
That’s when all the fear and humiliation and confusion turns into something greater — something joyful and wonderful and strong.
The promise to follow your destiny turns you into yourself. And that is the most beautiful transformation of all.
[Editor’s note: Every week, New York City’s own Andrew W.K. takes your life questions and sets you safely down the right path to a solution, a purpose, or — no surprise here — a party. Need his help? Just ask: AskAWK@villagevoice.com]
Read all of Andrew W.K.’s advice columns here.
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