• Mike Monday is a veteran music producer and DJ, who now helps beginners to big names like Claude VonStroke to enjoy making more music in less time with better results. Click here now for his free video training series and ebook on the most effective ways to get the music out of your head and into the world.
Since hanging up my headphones on a long, successful global DJ career a couple of years ago, I've helped hundreds do what I did. My mission is to help many hundreds more do much better than I did! And to do this one of the most useful questions I’ve asked myself is: If I knew then what I know now, what would I do differently?
My 17 years of studio experience, the hundreds of tunes I've released, the countless gigs I've played, the multiple record labels and club nights I've run, the hundreds of hours of research on how the creative process works - all have contributed to a unique perspective on what it takes to make it as a DJ/producer. And in my last post I started sharing this perspective with the three mistakes I made before my career as a globetrotting DJ took off. These mistakes meant it took me at least six years to get out of playing in my friends' kitchens and into clubs.
But I didn’t just make mistakes before I got going. There were also plenty during and after I got successful.
You see, I did pretty well. I got to have many experiences I dreamed of when I was a kid; performing to big crowds, travelling the world, earning a great living doing I what I loved. Although looking back now, I sometimes wonder how I got there at all. Because I made multiple mistaken (yet very common) assumptions about many things which held me back - assumptions that meant I made the same mistakes time and again. But there were three mistakes in particular that nearly ended my career. Here they are:
1. "I can't make decisions"
This isn't a good look for a DJ/producer. All we do is make decisions! Think about it. How many decisions do you have to make to do one single mix? What tune do you play next? When do you bring it in? How do you bring it in? How do you take the last one out? When do you take the last one out? Do you use effects? Which one(s)? This is before you make all the others. Like what kind of music you play, what equipment you use, what your DJ name is, what you want from your DJing (the list goes on).
You see, any creative process is a very long list of very small decisions. And any creative career is another extremely long list of yet more decisions! These decisions will determine the quality of your career, DJ sets, mixtapes, life, happiness, fulfilment, bank balance; anything you care to mention. Now I knew this. But it totally freaked me out! So I did everything I could to put off that moment of decision. And I'm ashamed to say, in my most unfortunate moments, I made no decision at all.
For example, let's take the biggest decision I never made: My “sound”. As a classically trained musician (I did a music degree at Oxford Uni) I could have chosen almost anything. Any style, genre or sound. But instead of choosing anything, I chose everything. (Actually that's not strictly true, not absolutely everything. I don't recall playing any country and western gigs!) But I didn't decide. I never made that (admittedly difficult) choice. I just kept my options open. For 17 years!
And If I did start to get known for a particular sound? I’d promptly move onto something else. So promoters, audiences, other DJs - they never quite knew what they were going to get. Exciting? Maybe. A risk? Definitely. Because it was almost impossible to put me in the right clubs, at the right time, in front of the right people. It made it harder for me to be consistent and meant I had many more creative decisions to make with every gig, tune, remix and album.
I have no doubt this single “non-decision” limited my success. Worse than that, it nearly ruined my career on more than one occasion, because when I went in another direction, it was like starting all over again.
What I'd do differently now...
I spent countless hours honing my DJing and production skills. Because I had more expertise to draw on as time went on, of course this led to me making better decisions. But what about the shortcut? What about learning, honing and practising the skill which would have made decision making a million times easier and smoother? The skill of making great decisions fast! Learning how we decide. Understanding the various mental processes we use to make decisions. Using this to get better at decision making.
You see, I've now realised just how much time I wasted. Because if you don’t know how your brain makes decisions, the only thing you have to go on is the content of each decision. So you amass more information. You learn more stuff. You weigh up the pros and cons time and again. All of which you hope will help you come to a better, more informed decision. (Incidentally research has shown this is the worst way to make a good decision!)
And as result, too often you never make that decision. You run out of time. You let circumstances, events or other people decide for you. Or like me, you just avoid the decision altogether, spinning all manner of elaborate justifications for avoiding that hard choice. And this is a terrible strategy! I missed many opportunities by not making decisions. The biggest one being the success of my entire career.
And if I knew what I know now about decision making itself, this difficult decision would have been much easier. Because one of the best ways you can make great decisions fast is to learn how to make decisions! (Seems obvious doesn’t it?) So the next time you have a decision to make, please don't make my mistake. Make it. Remember, the best decision is a good decision. The next best is a bad decision. But the very worst decision you can make is to avoid deciding.
2. "That made me scared"
I always assumed that my confidence was solely down to what happened. Like if I had a gig where the crowd went wild, or got a great review for one of my tunes, or an amazing reaction from one of my DJ heroes; my level of confidence would go up, and my fear and anxiety would go down. I'd ride that wave of confidence, and while it lasted it was exhilarating. I was on fire! I could do no wrong! What’s next?
But there’s a problem here. What goes up must come down. A dodgy gig, a bad review or a negative reaction... Where was my confidence now? Replaced by that familiar gnawing fear in the pit of my stomach. So all I could do was wait for the next good thing to happen. (Although somehow I always needed about five good to cancel out one bad!) This endless oscillation between confidence and fear was how the majority of my career went. And if I had a bad run? Getting out of a funk like that took months…
What I'd do differently now...
Of course your confidence grows when good stuff happens. And you will feel anxious when the inevitable bad stuff comes knocking. But my biggest mistake was thinking that my confidence or anxiety was solely down to what happened to me. Because it's a two-way street. When you're confident, stuff happens which makes you more confident. And when you're scared, you stop those things happening. This make you more scared. For instance, who's more likely to rock a crowd? A confident or a nervous DJ?
Plus, just like making great decisions, feeling the fear and doing it anyway is a skill. You can learn it and practise it. You see, it doesn't matter who you are. Even the biggest DJs in the world feel that fear. No matter how much swagger they exude. (Between you and me that swagger is usually a way of masking that fear!) Confidence is not an absence of fear. Confidence is the skill the DJs you love use to feel the fear and do it anyway. And there is nothing stopping you learning this skill too.
3. "I am [this]" or "I always [that]" or "I never [the other]"
How often do you find yourself saying something similar to "I'm lazy", or "I always procrastinate", or "I never have the willpower"? If you're anything like I was, you say stuff like this a lot. For example, I used to think I didn't have much willpower. I believed I was pretty useless at seeing stuff through. And I got into a mindset where I’d never make music when I was tired because... yup, "I don't have the willpower".
Now this was OK before I started playing everywhere. But to a DJ who plays all over the world every weekend? This single belief can fast be your biggest downfall. It has the potential to sink your career. Flying out of London on a Thursday or Friday (depending on whether I was playing in a country east or west) and getting back on a Sunday or Monday leaves you four days a week to produce music at best.
But as “I didn't have willpower”, that meant I needed at least two days' recovery time (to recharge and get what little willpower I had back). So that left two days. Put aside one of them for sorting out tunes for the next weekend, and I had one single day each week to make music. Music got me gigs. No music, no gigs. But “no willpower”? No music.
You see, in a sense I was correct, willpower does become depleted when you’re tired. It’s a finite resource. But being exhausted comes with the job. So does making music. And by telling myself (and others) constantly that "I didn't have willpower", I was doing the worst thing I could have possibly done to support myself. The truth is that assumptions like this are nearly always based on a partial assessment of the facts. When I had a big remix deadline I somehow managed to find the willpower to finish some of my best work, no matter how tired I was.
And take my “I can’t make decisions” assumption. Looking back I did make decisions, and some of them were great! Every time I invested in myself and decided to learn my craft in the studio and club; every time I took the plunge and did that thing which scared me most; every time I wasn't sure of the outcome but did it anyway. Actually, these were the decisions which created and defined my success.
How I'd think differently now...
This way of talking to yourself about yourself is actually what's behind the other two assumptions (and many others). It the most insidious assumption of the lot. I assumed the characteristics essential to success - like willpower, decisiveness, confidence - were just that. Character traits. Who I was. But by saying you are indecisive, you always procrastinate. By saying you don't have any willpower, you are making it true! And what’s worse, you are reinforcing the underlying assumption: The assumption that these traits are fixed. They are not.
Because where do your habits, willpower, courage, confidence, decisiveness, skill and even talent come from? They come from that lump of grey matter between your ears. And as the last 10 years of neuroscience has now proved, your brain is malleable and is constantly changing until the moment you draw your last breath. Some areas get bigger, thicker and stronger while others get weaker and smaller. It literally changes (and this is the important and massively exciting part) according to what you ask it to do.
So if you ask it to make decisions again and again? You will become more decisive. If you consistently take the action that scares you? You will become more confident. But if you give up time and again? You will lose your willpower. What does this mean? In both a physical sense and a literal sense - you are who you choose to be.
What to do now
Click here for Mike's his free video training series and "Seven Steps Every Music Producer Needs To Take" ebook on the most effective ways to get the music out of your head and into the world.
Did your career finally get going after a false start or two? Are you still waiting for something to happen to kickstart your career for you? Do you recognise the way you currently think in Mike's lessons? Please share your thoughts in the comments.