"We've also been told that avoiding strife and strain is proof of real success in life. But deeper inside, we realize this can't be why we're here."
Andrew W.K. is a party rocker and motivational speaker whose advice column at the Village Voice touched millions of readers. Currently he's traveling to all 50 states like some kind of rock 'n' roll Tony Robbins, giving speeches about his revolutionary Party Power philosophy and helping people work on the most pressing issues in their lives. Starting today, each week Andrew will write about a singular topic for VICE, distilling it to its essence and examining it in total. Here now, Andrew W.K. on pressure. #AWKon
When I was a child, performing piano recitals made up a large and ominous part of my musical training. Naturally, there was a tremendous amount of pressure to play my assigned piece perfectly, or at least to not make a blatant and embarrassing mistake. This pressure manifested itself as fear, and I would obsess over the potential horrors awaiting me—the terrifying possibility of a flubbed note or, worse yet, going totally blank and sitting at the piano in dead silence, unable to remember who or where I was, or how my piece was supposed to go.
This pressure to not mess up came from my piano teachers, from the other students in class, from the audience, from my parents. But most of all, it came from some obscure place inside myself. I dreaded those recitals, and I nervously anticipated them with more intensity than I did trips to the doctor's office, or talking to girls I had crushes on, or big year-end final tests in school. I took the stage with hands so sweaty I struggled to keep my fingers from slipping off the piano keys. I experienced that strange combination of red-hot cheeks and ears and icy-wet feet and toes. But I still performed at every recital, year after year. I was compelled to by a bizarre inner drive I couldn't explain.
As soon as the annual recital ended, there was a small window of relief. No matter how poorly I had played, at least I had gotten through it. I enjoyed that euphoric feeling of accomplishment and relief for about an hour, while my parents and I took part in a post-recital ice cream shop ritual. But as soon as I finished my sundae I felt that familiar pressure start to creep back in. On the way home, while looking out the car window at the passing houses and trees, I'd realize it was already time to start learning and practicing a new piece, inevitably counting down to another recital. The pressure started all over again.
Despite all that stressful heaviness, even my childhood self could tell there was something important happening during this vicious cycle of pressure and release. This weight wasn't just pushing me down. It was pushing me forward, pressing more of me out of me. It was shaping and changing me for the better.
These piano recitals were the first time I had an up-close encounter with wanting to do something I didn't want to do and liking something I didn't like. If someone had told me I didn't have to play my piano piece, or that the entire recital was canceled, I would have felt relieved, but I also would've felt oddly cheated. Learning to embrace this paradox has become an ongoing life puzzle. But back then it was fresh and alien, and I was disturbed and fascinated by the collision of these two conflicting impulses—like and don't like, want and don't want—these two strong feelings synthesizing into something empowering and revolutionary.
Pressure doesn't have to only push down on us. It can also give us something to push off of.
It's easy to see why this process is so confusing. Like most people, I was taught that pressure is a negative thing, a malevolent weight we're under, a cruel and impersonal outside force, pressing down on us from above, holding us back. We're made to think pressure constrains our efforts, exhausts us and drains our energies through the endless need to fend off this invisible and formless power. We're led to see pressure as an enemy working tirelessly to thwart our best efforts as we pathetically try to keep up with the demands of daily life.
We've also been told that avoiding strife and strain is proof of real success in life. We are told that all of our hard work is eventually meant to free us of the need to feel any pressure or discomfort at all. We are told that staying at home, resting, and watching TV all day, with no pressure or intensity around to disturb our serenity, is the ultimate attainment. That the most successful person never works and just sits by the pool all day. But deeper inside, we realize this can't be why we're here. There's got to be more we are working toward than just resting.
We are here to grow. We are here to expand. The fruits of our labor are not meant to free us from labor, but to allow us to earn the right to pursue more noble and refined types of labor—to improve the nature of labor we devote ourselves to, and increase our ability to take on ever more challenging pursuits, to engage in greater and greater work. What I understand now about my piano recitals was that they weren't supposed to be easy or pleasurable, but they had a goodness hidden inside them that made even the unpleasant parts meaningful. They were evidence of a process. They were proof of something becoming something more, or something becoming someone, a person becoming a human being.
Pressure doesn't have to only push down on us. It can also give us something to push off of. Pressure can be a platform, a launch pad. As I said before—it's a mechanism through which we can refine ourselves. Much like a diamond is formed by the earth's incredible pressurized forces going to work on a simple piece of carbon, so too do the external pressures in our lives form us into better people.
The pressures of life don't stop until we die. Even if we decide to tune out this fundamental feeling, it's still there, and being alive in a meaningful way means managing and appreciating pressure, not avoiding it. Perhaps it's the best proof we have that we're alive. Maybe that feeling of pressure is the life-force itself—that mysterious spark of vitality that animates and sustains us.
We are worthy of the pressure we have around and inside of us not because it's there to hurt us, but because it's there to propel us. We can get in front of it, we can get on top of it, and we can ride it toward our destiny. This pressure can bring out our best. May we each find the strength to harness the fundamental pressure of being alive and use its power to build something glorious and beautiful.
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