Breaking Through the Wall of Fear

This is embarrassing, but for your sakes, I’ll throw myself on the grill.

My girlfriend Susie & I lived in Madison, Wisconsin. I worked in a bookbindery—a factory that made covers for books. My job: someone slid a stack of naked books to me, I’d hold each book up against a hive of cardboard end sleeves, select the one that fit the book’s spine, insert it into the book, and slide it down the table to the next workstation. I did this for hours. I disliked my job, but it was a necessity. We were broke.

I’d played guitar for many years, —but rarely in front of anybody. Odd, right? Too shy. Plus, I stunk.

An ad in the paper said a ‘Country & Western’ band was looking for a lead guitarist. I’m from New York, never listened to that stuff, —but the gig would pay, and it would sure beat binding books—so in a blush of bravado I called for an audition, and to prepare, went to the library and asked if they had any ‘Country or Western’ music. They had three albums. I checked them out. One was Merle Haggard.

By astounding coincidence when i went in to audition, there alone was the band leader, with that very same album on his turntable. He asked what i wanted to play to audition, and I said, “Oh, I dunno…how about I’ll just play along with whatever that is you got on the turntable…’.

He raised his eyebrows in surprise, shrugged his shoulders, put the needle down on the album; I played for like 20 seconds—he picked the needle up, stared at me kinda stunned, and said, ‘You’re hired.’

“I am?!?”

“Yes. Our first gig is this Friday night.”

“THIS COMING FRIDAY NIGHT??? What about rehearsal?”

“You kidding? the way you play, you don’t need rehearsal, you’ll do fine.”

I didn’t own an electric guitar, didn’t own an amp, and I had never stood on a stage. I was stupidly sick with fear—and rightly so. And yet, in my stupidity: I borrowed money for the guitar and amp, quit my job! (‘Aren’t you going to give two weeks notice?’ my boss demanded. “Yes”, I replied, “Between now and for the next two weeks, you’ll notice I’m not here!). And I moved from renting a single bedroom to a second floor full apartment. Moving on up.

Friday night at the first gig, i was so scared i drank two shots of bourbon just to steady the shakes. I had to go to the bathroom every 8 minutes. It was terrifying. The only two recollections I have of that night are one, making a lot of mistakes, and two, no one being in the audience.  We did the Friday & Saturday night gigs, I ‘phewed’, and looked forward to some much needed rehearsal—which never happened. For five days in a row they wouldn’t answer nor return my phone calls. On the sixth day they fired me. “You suck. We hired Danny P”. Turns out everyone knew Danny P—guitar & fiddle extraordinaire, he was the best in town.

Bleak despair. I sulked in my apartment with the shades drawn dark, TV on bowling. That is truly glum. My grandmother called, said she’d just heard the good news about my new job in the band, said she was so happy, so excited, and so proud of me. I couldn’t tell her I’d just been fired…

Despair led to depression. Which led to angst. Which led to anger. Which led to resolution. Somewhere in those 24 hours, with the unblinking love and support of my girlfriend (who’s now my wife), I decided to become a professional guitar player.

Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly—until you can learn to do it well” –Zig Ziglar

Here’s where it got scary. I committed.

My calendar was clear for practice (imagined my old boss at the bookbindery saying: ’That’s right sonny: you’ll notice between now and the next two weeks.. you’re UNEMPLOYED!). I signed up for guitar lessons from the local teacher and committed to rigorous practice.

Here’s where it got even scarier.

In my gut, I knew I had to get stage experience….so I decided to go to this local bars’ Monday night country & western jam sessions. You walk in carrying your guitar-BIG RED FLAG, no sneaking in–sign up on a list, and wait until they call you up on stage to play.

The band leader that had fired me was right. I sucked. I knew it, —but this wasn’t about ’not sucking’, this was about getting experience, standing up in front of an audience and playing. So I stood up and played. Soon, everyone at the jam sessions knew I sucked, too.

On the following Monday I signed in and then waited a looong time to get called up to play. It was pretty late when they did so—and it was for one song. “We’re gonna take a short break, folks, we’ll be back in a bit”, nodding me off the stage, dismissed for the night.

Honest truth: I would not let Susie come along to those Monday night sessions. It was too embarrassing, too humiliating, and in my weakness, I could not tolerate the thought of her seeing me so scorned —the snickers, comments, fingers-in-ears, laughter, rolling eyes. It was dreadful, and frankly took me several years before I could even talk about it without tearing up.

But brother, I did learn how to play guitar. Not over night, not over a month; but over several years, I leaned in. Hours of practice, steady improvement, gigs with bands, 45 mins on stage, 15 minute breaks in the backroom kitchen practicing. Up late, then up in the morning, guitar in hand.

I loved playing. Loved it. Couldn’t believe they’d pay to play.

Three years later, just before Susie & I moved to California for music school, we entered a Battle of the Bands contest. First place prize was $1,000. The towering favorite was a regional touring group that was a shoe-in for the win. Musically, we could not compete—so we didn’t sweat it, we just went out and did what we always did: played our best and had a blast. Fun, Fun, Fun.

Guess what? We won, won, won! I guess the judges judged us with their eyes instead of their ears.

Guess what else? The band that came in second, the touring band: their lead guitarist was Danny P.

In LA, after music school and the opportunities I had to interact with some top professionals, I made the eyes wide opened decision that the music business was not for me. We went in another direction—another scary choice. And as far as music goes, it was the second-best decision I ever made. The best decision was going for it in the first place, —for had I not done so, it might have haunted me….gee, could I have done it? But having done it, I walked away free, clear, content with what I’d done.

**

I’m coming to believe that the opposite of fear is Love.

How many times have my little fears been interrupted by the laughter, effervescence, and outlandish love of my wife, daughters & son! – they give, they share, they lift & elevate those they love – and their radiance dispels the shadow of fear.

Love induces Bravery.

Fear is a shrinking vacuum, Love is an expansive radiance. Fear sucks us inward, Love thrusts us outward, ‘out there’ with our peeps. Your ‘neighbors’ stand to benefit by your outbursts of Love. Fearful, they may never know you. Loving, you can deep connect.

Fear may be the wall blocking you from the desires of your heart. But the wall of fear melts in the face of love. So go ahead! Be loving! Be brave! crash through the wall and bless the objects of your affection.

**

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? I want to hear from you. Please tell me what you think.

Dirk Mullenger

Raised in NY, college at University of Iowa, year abroad in Paris. Tight with my wife and 4 children. Business, writer, guitarist, skier, drives a convertible. One person’s hindsight is another person’s foresight.

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Discussion about this post

  1. Memoona says:

    HI I m amazed there r no comments or questions abt such a beautiful and encourging article.Thank u so much for sharing.I m glad i read this.Helps a lot in living life.We alwaz fear a lot abt everything i do most of the time and this makes me frustrate. Life becomes so hard with fear.I m happy u ve a wonderful family to support u in gud and in hard times. My question is what we can do if sometimes we dont ve anyone to share our anxiety wid cuz wid me this happens most of the time wen i wanna be loved there is no one to whom i can go,to whom i can share my feelings someone who understands me.This makes me feel so much pain i feel so down so sad.I tried hard but i cant help it.And btw i wanna add something i was feeling scared before sending u this but wen i remember wat u said in this article i just do it 🙂 Thanks once again. Have a blessed and happy life. Take care 😉

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