A stage is a strange vantage point from which to see the world – all of those faces looking up at you, waiting for the magic to begin, and hoping you’re the one who can deliver it. In all the thousands of times I’ve been on stage as a singer-songwriter, guitarist, band leader, side man, or speaker it never ceases to amaze me just how weird it is, how audacious, how presumptuous to step out in front of a crowd and claim the right to everyone’s attention, and how volatile the situation really is – you could crash and burn or rise up in transcendence. You just never know. In live performance there are no second takes, no do-overs, and no mercy. What you see is what you get. Your blunder will live forever on YouTube. In so many ways, that hour on stage is not all that different from the other 23 hours of the day. In fact, the lessons learned on stage apply with equal force to our so-called normal, everyday lives, because Shakespeare was right – all the world’s a stage.
Be here now. When you take the stage you must leave behind your divided mind and show up as a single point of clarity and simplicity. So too in life, our effectiveness suffers when we show up as a convoluted swarm of tangled thoughts. Dissipated and drained, our energy wanes just when we need it most. And for what? All our busy-mind machinations produce nothing. Only when we arrive fully in the present moment do we have a real shot at getting it right.
Fall in love with what is. Your best performance, and your best life, can only arise in the consciousness of acceptance. Struggling against a bunch of little things that don’t align with your arbitrary preferences only saps your strength and dilutes your essence. Resistance to what is kicks up a lot of dust, like a mule dragging its hooves on a dusty trail it doesn’t want to go down, making it hard to see and even harder to breathe. Instead, renounce resentment and fall in love with the messy perfection of this moment, a unique alignment of disparate elements that have never before and will never again occur in this specific fashion. Buddhist philosophy calls it tathata, the ordinary miracle of every moment. Why would you want to miss that?
Trust your team. Assuming you’ve attracted the right people and chosen well, stop trying to run everything and let the strength of those around you carry you. Allow the unexpected power and creativity of the good people around to you find solutions, build bridges, and show you the way. When you stop meddling and interfering, people feel free to be their best. Everyone has a job to do and a role to play. Let them.
Let yourself be lifted. When you are here now, in love with what is and graced by the brilliance of your team, feel yourself lifted. Let the ground slip away and float on a wave of beauty. Feel fully the freedom that can only exist when you let slip the pedestrian concerns of more fearful souls. This light, this grace, this sublime clarity – this is what you have prepared so arduously for. Don’t forget to experience it.
Smile. You work hard when you’re on stage. You are fastidiously processing a million things at once. Your memory is working overtime – lyrics, lines, notes, timing, phrases, cues. In the middle of singing the third verse you’re thinking should I plug the CD after this song or later in the set? In the midst of all this heavy lifting, don’t forget to smile. This is supposed to be fun, remember? Bringing a sense of play and a sense of joy to your work, no matter what your job is, opens channels within and without you – channels through which the love you and your audience have for each other can flow. Slow down and let the joy of the work sink in. It’ll be over soon enough and after the show you’ll be just another schmuck stuck in traffic. Enjoy this while you can. When you smile, you empower others to feel their own joy.
Feel it, don’t think it. No matter what you’re doing on stage, make sure your heart leads the way. Once the preparations are done, it is essential that you stop thinking and start feeling. What your audience wants most is to feel something, and they’re looking to you for leadership. So too in your daily work leave room for inexplicable kindness and impractical compassion. Institutional and bureaucratic structures are designed to serve humanity, not the other way around. When the machinery of intellect fails, use the Force, Luke.
Prepare thoroughly. Do your homework. Know your tools. Practice all your moves and build a brilliant skill set. Art is not just inspiration. Before the creative frenzy begins, make sure you’ve thought through all the probable steps. There can be no inspiration without preparation. Chefs measure out all their ingredients and gather their tools before a single spoon hits the pan. What if we brought this same attention to detail to our everyday lives? Instead of flailing around and wondering why we feel so uninspired, draw up some plans. Like they say, fail to plan? Plan to fail.
Let go completely. On the other side of the planning process, when the house lights go down and the curtain comes up, abandon all your fastidiousness. Let loose the dogs of war. Time to revel in your abandon. Get a little crazy. Forget about who you are and what you’re supposed to do. Surrender to a childlike sense of play. Step off the path and see what you find. In any endeavor there comes a time to let go completely and trust the process and the preparation and the good people around you and the audience, especially the audience, because they will rise to meet you in that sacred place where all of the lines blur. So too in our everyday lives when we let spirit guide us we feel our fear slipping away and in its place arises a boldness, a willingness, a powerful creativity not entirely of our own making, and on this wave of grace we are carried to a place we could not have found or even recognized on our own. We come together around stages in bars, in nightclubs, in theaters, in concert halls, and also in classrooms, in churches, in seminars, and sports arenas to let our alienation and loneliness fade away in the bright light of our collective reverie.
Play the role you have been given. In art and in life we must play the role that best suits our strengths and abilities – it does us no good, nor anyone else, if we attempt to tackle a task ill-suited to our temperament or talent. Start, and end, with the truth of who you are. Careful, honest, and generous self-assessment combined with a courageous willingness to experiment and fail will lead you through a sometimes painful but utterly necessary series of trials and errors until you finally find the yellow brick road that leads you home to your authentic self and your rightful place in the sun. Your true purpose and greatest joy lay within you. You don’t have to be a professional performer. You don’t need a spotlight or a three-camera shoot with a director shouting, “Action!” You can begin right where you are. Because all the world’s a stage.
Peter Bolland is a writer, speaker, singer-songwriter, and professor at Southwestern College where he teaches comparative religion, Asian philosophy, ethics, and world mythology. You can find him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/peter.bolland.page), follow him on Twitter (www.twitter.com/peterhbolland), or write to him at email@example.com