Just Show Up

This past week I heard a song playing in Starbucks that stopped me in my tracks. At first I couldn’t quite place it, but then I quickly recognized the voice of James Maddock, a terrifically gifted singer/songwriter that I’ve known for years here in New York. He even played at my birthday party once. But hearing him on the radio like this for the first time literally gave me goose bumps. “Ah,” I thought to myself. “He’s arrived!”

But like a lot of “overnight success” stories, James is no stranger to heartache. Which may be why his songs are so damn good. Signed to Columbia records at a young age, he was then unceremoniously dumped when his first record didn’t sell well. But he never stopped believing in his talent. Writing, gigging, recording demos when he could afford to – he gradually honed his craft to perfection over a period of ten years or more. And the result is a dreamy new album of songs called Sunrise on Avenue C which if you’re lucky, you may hear in your local coffee shop. You might even catch him in concert, that is, if you can squeeze through the door.

While not new – I believe his story is instructive for many reasons. The problem with most of us is that we simply give up too soon. Or too easily. What James’s story exemplifies for me is persistence. It’s about showing up for the gig when there are only four people in the pub. It’s about performing at the highest level when there appears to be no obvious reward. Why? Because you’re a professional. And that’s what professionals do: they show up.

Back when I was running a lot of marathons, I discovered that most of the battle in training was simply getting beyond my own mood. A lot of the time, I didn’t even feel like running. I’d be about to lace up my shoes, when suddenly I’d think of a hundred reasons I shouldn’t go. Similarly, on race day, I never felt fully prepared. But by virtue of just putting one foot in front of the other – I got myself out there. We’re usually told that action follows motivation – when in fact it’s often the other way around. Action first, and the motivation or insight typically follows. In 1987, when my brother Walter was graduating from The Cooper Union and interviewing for jobs, the market for engineers was grim. He tells a story of having an early interview scheduled one Friday morning following an all-night party with some of his fraternity brothers. When he awoke the day of the interview, he felt like death warmed over. But something told him he needed to show up anyway. If someone was going to give him their time, he felt it important honor that commitment, regardless of how bad he felt. Luckily he did, and the rest is history. He’s been with the same firm for 23 years where he is now a partner. That little effort, which he could easily have not made, changed the course of his life.

I recently asked Nicole DeBoom, ironwoman competitor and founder of Skirt Sports if she could describe a time for me when she showed up for something that had impacted her life in a positive way. She admitted that this pretty much happens every day. She is a big believer in connecting with everyone she meets. Sitting in a middle seat on the airplane must always be accompanied by this thought, “today I’m very lucky. I get to meet not one, but TWO, potentially great people.” On one such trip, Nicole sat next to the man who would later become her husband. So her advice is to always engage with the people next to you. You never know who might just appear!

One of the things I hear in my career coaching practice when clients are exploring new options is some variation of the theme “But I’m just not ready!” To which I always reply, “neither am I!” One of the great lessons I learned from a public speaking class I took last year was to “trust in the moment.” The best communication happens when we let down our guard and allow the experience to unfold in its own way- even when we may not be 100% prepared. If you feel lost, lousy, or clumsy – say so, but don’t let it stand in the way of your showing up. We’re not here to put on masks; we’re here to live, learn, and share a little of ourselves.

I’ve noticed that what typifies people who don’t lose heart in spite of challenging setbacks, is that they tend to focus on small, achievable goals that can be reached on a daily basis. And typically, they don’t dwell too much on the difficulty of their situation (what I like to call story fondling). Instead, they learn to stay forward-focused, and harness their energy for what can be done. Even if you don’t feel like doing anything, maybe there is just one thing that you can do that will move you closer to where you need to go. And in doing that one thing, you will muster the inspiration to do the next thing.

I have many days when I don’t feel like showing up for a task. But over time, I’ve found that I don’t always have to feel like it. Nor is it always necessary to be fully prepared, or perfectly groomed, or feeling on top of the world. Nobody feels that way all of the time. What is essential is that we open the window to allow for the possibility of good things to enter. Each new day, and each new opportunity is a chance to practice this. And practice is what makes perfect. Just ask James Maddock. The long road to Carnegie Hall begins with showing up. Because you know what happens when you don’t?

That’s right: absolutely nothing.