Essays on Technology and Culture

Air Guitar and the Craftsman Mindset

It was a little over two years ago when I stepped on a stage at Johnny Brenda’s, clad in a white Tyvek jumpsuit with red duct tape accents, and a red flower pot like hat on my head. I stood in front of a crowd of drunken onlookers, raised my right arm, and proceeded to flail my arms like a madman to a sixty second clip of “Be Stiff” from DEVO’s 1981 live EP. It was my first air guitar competition. Yes, this is a thing. I’ve competed three times since, once more in Philadelphia in 2012, and twice this year in New York. Each time, I’ve made failed to make it past the first round. [1]

The best I ever did was my second year, performing DEVO’s “Girl U Want”. I scored a 5.7, 5.7, and 5.0—one judge claimed my track was a “keyboard based song” and docked me (in)appropriately. After a dalliance with changing my stage persona and performing some David Bowie, I tried to replicate my success by doing “Girl U Want” again, only to end up with the same middling scores I had earned a week before. Even while I was up there, going through the motions, I felt something was off. Perhaps it was the lack of rehearsal—it had been just over a week since the previous competition—or perhaps it was too many beers and not enough to eat. Either way, I knew I could and have done better.

As it stands right now, I’m a weekend warrior. There’s folks in the US Air Guitar scene who have been competing for years, and consistently kill. It’s not about the song, or the crazy costumes—though costumes help with stage presence—it’s about impressing the judges and nailing your routine. It’s about melting faces off. It’s about being really good, and being entertaining to watch. This is why the best judges for air guitar competitions are other air guitarists. They know what they like when they see it, and they can express it properly. It may be couched in a bit of verbal abuse, but that’s part of the show.

This came into perspective as I started diving into the book So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport at the behest of Merlin Mann on his recent solo episode of Back To Work. The book’s premise is twofold. First, the idea of “following your passion” to find the career that’s right for you is bullshit. Second, by developing rare, valuable skills—what Cal refers to as the “Craftsman Mindset”—you can parlay those into a career that you will enjoy—you just have to put the time in for it. One of the first people Cal talks about to illustrate his point is Jordan Tice, a twenty-one year old bluegrass guitarist of some renown.

Music is one of those things that people pursue out of passion, but there’s more to Tice’s success than simply loving bluegrass guitar. It’s his dedication to the craft of playing guitar, reaching the outer limits of his skill, and banging away at a difficult lick until he can play it as fast as possible with no mistakes… then trying to do it again, even faster. It takes Hours upon hours of dedication and practice. It’s a tactic that appears time, and time again in the book, from Steve Martin’s ten years honing his act to the outer limits of stand up comedy (and forty years practicing banjo), to Ruby programmer Giles Bowkett stretching the limits of the programming language to create an application that generates dance music, and Cal Newport’s own practice with understanding difficult Computer Science proofs.

What does this have to do with playing air guitar? Quite a lot. Focusing on skill acquisition, practice, and relentless improvement in any sort of field where you’re up against other people certainly can’t hurt your chances. Air guitar competitions are only a small, and somewhat absurd example. I don’t see myself making air guitar my life’s work, but my recent experiences, along with Cal’s book have inspired me to take the endeavor with a bit more seriousness for 2014’s competition season. It’s also had me thinking about how I approach all the other endeavors in my life, personal and professional. Being willing to bust my ass at my craft, be it what you see on this page, my role as a Community Lead with Trusted Insight, or just playing air guitar in my bedroom, it’s all building career capital that will serve me in the future, one way or another.

  1. USAG competitions are actually highly structured. They consist of two rounds, the first being a sixty second song of your choice, the second being a compulsory song. The top five scorers from round one move on to round two.  ↩