• Max McLeish

PHOTO: Marcus Spiske. (license)

You have probably heard it in some form, somewhere. An author is only as good as their last book, a coach is only as successful as their last session, a songwriter is only as famous as their latest release. Growing up as a musician - and now completing my music undergraduate degree - it is perhaps no surprise that I succumbed to the thought of ‘you’re only as good as your last performance’. 

I was an ambitious child, always hatching plans and new projects. At age ten, I sent off my designs for a toy roller coaster to Playmobil HQ, in a letter demanding payment if they were to take me up on my offer; unsurprisingly, I received no reply. My ambitious spirit fed into my music making, especially when it became a substantial part of my life. I remember when I was in year six seeing Peter Moore, a twelve-year-old trombonist (my instrument!), win the BBC Young Musician of the year. I wanted to achieve the same recognition; to be known and celebrated widely. 

I started to crave affirmation for my playing. A performance was always a chance to prove my skill, but also a potential for mess-up and loss of recognition - after each gig I awaited the moment of truth, subconsciously counting how many positive comments I received.

It is so easy to seek affirmation in things that are quantifiable, whether that is the number of TikTok likes, what we score in an essay or how many positive responses there were to a performance. These things are great, because they are ways of quantifying things that are otherwise intangible: our popularity, our potential or our talent. But they can easily become addictive, and it often does not take long before we feel like we need these affirmations to sense our worth. But can likes, comments or scores really satisfy, or do they just scratch an itch that is only going to come back stronger?

Objectively one of the greatest films of all time, Cool Runnings, provides some appropriate wisdom here, as Irving Blitzer warns the Jamaican bobsled team: ‘A gold medal is a wonderful thing. But If you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it.’ For me, that gold medal was recognition for my musical abilities.

This competitive spirit made it difficult to honestly celebrate other musicians: they posed a threat of being better, and as a result I found myself doing mental fist-pumps whenever someone else made a mistake (picture the meme of the kid in the white and green top doing the fist-pump!).

That is not to say that competitiveness is necessarily a bad thing. It can be a great motivator: in teams of scientists working to be the first to discover the cure to a disease, or even a bit of healthy competition between students and teammates. Competitiveness can, however, easily become toxic when life consistently becomes about comparing ourselves with the achievements of others.

One article from Psychology Today put it like this: The message that you never want to stop striving to improve, even when you are very successful, can be good; the message that each event in life is an opportunity to beat someone else for (another) turn in the spotlight isn’t as positive.’ This toxic, hyper-competitive attitude can be seen in many areas of our culture, from drug abuse in sports, to family tensions over sibling or parent-child rivalry, and in Cambridge’s very own infamous class lists, which make comparative competitiveness all too easy. For me, this toxic competitiveness meant that music revolved around comparison with others, making it really difficult to feel secure if my latest performance was outshone by someone else.

My longing for affirmation in my music started to change when I was sixteen. During the Easter holidays before my GCSEs, I was struggling with the thought of how I was going to make a name for myself in the music industry. I was listening to a playlist on Spotify at the time, when a song came on called He Knows My Name by a Christian artist called Francesca Battistelli. Francesca sang that she didn’t need to strive for fame and recognition because she was already famous in her Father’s eyes. Something about the lyrics just hit me between the eyes like a vexed rhino who has been disturbed from his afternoon siesta!

The song seemed to say that for all my striving to be famous, I already was. I was fully known and recognised by a loving God. This truth is established over and over again in the Bible; for instance, John 1:12 says that ‘to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God’. It is true before I step onto a stage, before I enter a rehearsal room, or before I begin to write a song. I didn’t need to strive to be famous or put my worth in what other people thought about my playing, because God already loved me dearly as his child. Nothing could change that.

My toxic competitiveness began to disappear: I no longer needed to outperform the rest to feel worth something. Instead, I could celebrate with fellow musicians, wish them well and demonstrate the love that I had already experienced. I began to find real joy in the practise room. Knowing that what I achieve visibly does not dictate who I am takes the pressure away, helping me to enjoy the process of learning, and to appreciate the gifts of the instrument, my body, and the time - as wonderful gifts from God. 

In 2018 I took part in the BBC Young Jazz Musician award, which meant a lot to me, but throughout the process I found that my main goal was to enjoy it and not be purely fixed on the results. I even had a little laugh with the judges in the semi-final, my last round, when I walked on stage, waited for an awkward-length pause to see if they were going to say anything, before asking if I should start. A couple of them chuckled and nodded as if to say ‘err...yes?!’ I think that three years beforehand, that would have played on my mind for a while, but as I stood on stage and began to perform, I knew it did not really matter.

Perhaps most significantly, I know that I am not just as good as my last performance, neither is any musician. Nor is an athlete, a writer, or a cook. If you’re a social butterfly, your worth is not based on how many people you spoke to at the most recent party; if you’re a student, your last exam does not have the say over who you are and what you are worth. There is innate worth in everyone before we do or achieve a thing, because of God’s barmy love. Question is, are we willing to accept it, and say to Him, ‘I don’t need my name in lights because I’m famous in your eyes’?

Am I only as good as my last performance?

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