3 Personal Development Lessons We Can Learn from Slash

I started listening to rock music in the late 80s, with likes of Bon Jovi, Europe and Skid Row.

And Guns n Roses, of course.  So yeah, I’m a hard rock guy.

I was a goody-two-shoes (at least on the surface) and borderline teacher’s pet most of my school life.  But I had a secret crush on punks.  I thought that their devil-may-care attitude seemed freeing.  I imagine being a punk, a rebel or even belonging to gangs probably have lots of rules, expectations and constraints, but I didn’t know it then.  I was busy meeting other people’s expectations, while listening to rock n roll and dreaming of defying it all to live freely.

Guns n Roses had a turbulent career but instead of getting tossed around and fading away, Slash hang on to build an amazing career on his own.  But this is no accident.  Even compared to his peers, I see the things that he did differently, and he did right:

  • He differentiated himself from his peers.  At the time he came on to the scene, few others were playing Les Paul, and even fewer were wearing a top hat in a hard rock band.  I don’t know if this was a conscious decision or not, but he knew the value of uniqueness, to follow his own muse rather than trying to fit in.
  • He stuck to his strength.  Slash knows his sweet spot is as a lead guitar in a two-guitar hard rock band with a singer.  He may experiment and venture out on occasion (like playing the guitar for Michael Jackson) but in all his bands he creates this same situation.  He knows he can’t be everything and he doesn’t compromise on creating situations where he can shine.
  • He is authentically consistent.  If his persona and style wasn’t an honest expression of who he is, he wouldn’t be able to do it this long.  Slash makes it look easy because his “top hat, sunglasses, leather pants and a Les Paul” style is simply him.  What he did even before he came on to the scene was to do the soul searching to find out who he was.  And he didn’t have any blockage in being who he was.  That’s a stark contrast to someone like me, who knew what I wanted but somehow didn’t feel free to be it.

Wandering is not evil.  Evolving and changing is welcome.  Experiments are encouraged.  But equally important is to find your true core, the part that doesn’t change throughout your adult life.  We discover who we are and then change our approach to life.  Slash somehow arrived to his core first and then used that as the main sail to help him navigate the treacherous ocean of music industry.  Today, he’s still wearing the same hat and playing the same guitar.  He occasionally picks up different guitars — like the red B. C. Rich with a whammy bar — but he always comes back to his Les Pauls.  He knows where his home is, and he has no issue being who he is.

So yes, when I grow up I want to be like Slash.  Not like him actually, but just as comfortable, clear and expressive in being who I am.  Because there is the pinnacle of life — 1) finding who you are, 2) being it, 3) making something unique from it, and 4) being received.  He made it to the stage four and stayed there.

I myself am still struggling somewhere around 2 and 3, but I haven’t lost my hope.  I’m still chasing my dream.

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Work in a Way That Works for You

I come from Japan, where they value hard work and diligence more than Americans do.  I have been to a number of countries but I haven’t seen a culture with more rigorous work ethic than Japan.  But I say that with mixed feelings because I don’t believe that all that hard work makes people happier.  If that were true, Japanese should have been the happiest, most fulfilled people on earth, which they are not.

The myth of hard work lies in the carrot-at-the-end-of-the-stick mentality.  The idea that achieving leads to happiness.  Accomplishments and meeting goals being valued above all else.

But life is what happens on the way.  An achievement is just a point on your history line, not a segment.  The issue with this mentality is that you live under pressure to incorporate any and all best practices in your pursuit of achievements.

I’m a guitar player so I stop and look at articles and videos with headlines like “5 licks that every guitarist must know.”  But while I applaud the writer for being bold, that kind of blanket statement ignores all contexts.  And the most important context is you.

For example, people have different learning styles.  When you are an aural learner, reading books may not be the most effective or fun way to learn.  Or another example is how my business coach Tom Volkar had me go through a “marketing eagerness” assessment.  It was simply a list of business marketing tactics, from social media to networking, where I rated them in terms of how eager I was to engage in those activities.  For many years I tried to work the marketing machine by incorporating bits and pieces of advices I read online — only to peter out in frustration.

The simple truth is that if you don’t love what you do while trying to achieve your goals, you are not being as effective as you can, if at all.  If the work feels hard then maybe you’re not going about it the right way.

There is no one path to success, and all who claim so are either lying or being misled themselves.  For every best practice or rule there are exceptions.  Good work ethic comes out of loving what you do, instead of having to enforce it in the name of “getting there” as quickly and efficiently as you can.

So hard work and achievements are outcomes, not methods.  If you’re having to drive yourself very hard (a bit of drive is always involved, because Resistance stands in the way of anything worthwhile in life — says Steven Pressfield) and it feels straining, you haven’t found your way.  Don’t get me wrong, challenges and some frustrations are normal and integral parts of any pursuits.  Good games are full of them and we keep going back for more.  But if it feels like a back-breaking hard work, it’s bound to be neither effective nor sustainable.  It’s OK to take a break and re-evaluate.

In short, I abandoned my faith in hard work.  Instead I believe in loving what I do.  I do have a good work ethic, I do work hard but it doesn’t feel hard.  I enjoy a sense of progress, of course, but I don’t think about whether I am getting there as fast as possible.

Work in a way that works for you.  Then the journey to get there becomes the reward, and the end result will just be an icing on a cake.

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“Just Keep Swimming”

When you don’t feel inspired, just keep swimming.

When life feels heavy, just keep swimming.

When you fail, just keep swimming.

When you triumph, just keep swimming.

When you’re bored, just keep swimming.

When you feel like you need to change, just keep swimming.

When you are unproductive, just keep swimming.

When you procrastinate, just keep swimming.

When you feel miserable, just keep swimming.

When you need a break, take a break, then just keep swimming.

When you are lonely, just keep swimming.

When you feel like stopping, just keep swimming.

When you are sure it’s not working out, just keep swimming.

When you need a new direction, change direction, but keep swimming.

If you feel stuck, just keep swimming.

If you feel like you’re going nowhere, just keep swimming.

Freddie Mercury, on his death bed, sang

Just savour every mouthful
And treasure every moment
When the storms are raging round you
Stay right where you are

— Queen “Don’t Try So Hard” from Innuendo

How do these two songs relate to each other?  It becomes hard to keep swimming, when you’re trying too hard.  I need to learn to take it easy, so that I can keep swimming.

Don’t misinterpret “stay right where you are” and apply it to a wrong context.  If you are suffering from an abusive relationship, sometimes you have to let go and get out.  But then after you mourn and get over it, then get back swimming — as in, don’t give up on your quest for a meaningful relationship.  “Just keep swimming” is not the same thing as keep doing the same things expecting different results.  Change, experiment, try out different strokes.  Reduce your run to a walk, or a crawl, if it’s too hard to keep up.  But keep moving.

You know I love songs that contain wisdom.  It hits me much deeper than just reading something.  With some rhythm and harmony, songs deliver lessons I need to learn, so that my stubborn mind can soften and finally let in something.

That was the lesson I needed to be reminded of today.  Just keep swimming.

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Dare to Be Disappointed

Disappointments are very uncomfortable.  It fills the center of  my chest with this pang and I have a hard time thinking of anything else.  It’s no use trying to trick my mind into “be positive.”  When I feel let down, the emotion consumes me.

So I built safeguards in my life, to prevent disappointments as much as possible.  I wouldn’t take risks.  I wouldn’t even dare to be happy.  Don’t get your hopes up, the voice in my head would say.  Or else.

As the result I’ve become a safe and tame person.  I wouldn’t crack a joke when the situation calls for it.  I wouldn’t sing when a groovy song comes on.  I wouldn’t say “I love you” even to my loved ones.

Apparently I’m not alone.  Because in our society there are entire industries set up to minimize the chance of disappointments.  It’s good to be prepared, they say.  You never know what will happen, they say.  So we are supposed to have insurances for everything.  And tuck your money away into funds that some nameless fund managers manage for you, because most of us don’t know what we’re doing.  You’ll be very disappointed if you lose money because you dared to learn how to invest it on your own.  Let the pros do it.  And throw as much money as you can, even if it means it limits the resources and opportunities for you today.

Never mind that none of us have tomorrow promised.

Simply put, we give up living when we give in to the fear of disappointment.  We say it’s better to prepare for safer tomorrow than to live today to the fullest extent.  Prince Ea said that all of us die but not all of us live.  I agree with that, but I disagree with him on one thing.  It’s not doubts that stop us on our track.  It’s fear.  What do we fear?  We fear disappointments.  We fear that pang that can stab us all the way through our chest.  It’s one emotion that’s more terrifying than all the rest put together.  Even the emotion of fear is not nearly as debilitating as the experience of let down.

But life is not a renewable resource, the longer we wait the less we have left.  We can’t wait for the fear to dissipate.  In fact, it never will, on its own.  We can’t wait to place safeguards everywhere so we can’t fail.  Because it’s impossible to safeguard everything.

We have to do it afraid.

But we’re not hopeless.  Life has given us an ability to heal and grow stronger where we get hurt.  But one requirement we didn’t realize before was that we have to accept the hurt.  Even embrace it.  There’s no need to go looking for it, but when you encounter a disappointment, don’t say “I don’t want to feel this ever again.”  Because that’s precisely the thing that’ll make you vulnerable.  When you face your feeling and experience all the hurt, that’s when you will also heal and grow stronger.

I’m not talking about a dramatic revolution, though it may feel like that at first.  All we need is just an adjustment in our trajectory.  There’s no need to take senseless risks.  Just be mindful of when you back off, shy away, because you are afraid of the possible let down.  And instead of stepping away, you step in.

I can tell you that I’ve been trying.  It’s very hard at first, but it gets easier.  Disappointments sting less and less.  I feel freer.  The straitjacket doesn’t restrict me as much.  On the outside, little has changed — I’m still where I live, work where I do, talk to the same people.  I’m still the same person, with the same dreams and desires.  The only thing changed is my approach to life.

But that may just be enough to make all the difference.

Dare to be disappointed.

It’s never too late.  Start today.  Now.

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One Man Progressive Rock Band

I am making progress on my next single, “She Straightened the Veil over Her Face” and this time I’m making a series of videos to describe what goes into making these songs.

Here are the first couple of the episodes.


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