There are some situations where showing up is a no-brainer. Like if you have an appointment or a job interview. Not showing up in those situations has obvious ramifications.
But the term ‘showing up’ can be used in other aspects of our life. It refers to the extent to which we are reliably allocating our attention and focus to the things that are most important to us, and which will help us build the best lives possible.
You may ask “why would I not ‘show up’ to things that are important or beneficial to me?”
The answer to that question is complex, but there is no doubt that we all have tendencies to not show up for things that are important to us.
Think about the student who procrastinates on doing their work, even though they really want to get their degree.
Think about the person who regularly cancels social engagements even though they are lonely and would like human contact.
Think about the musician who wants to write a new album, but can’t bring themselves to pick up their instruments.
A few years back I read a book called Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. I wasn’t expecting to like it, but I took from that book a strong commitment to ‘showing up’ to the things that were most important to me. That book was central to me dusting off the pens and pencils and starting to draw again. It will be that book that will get me back playing the guitar after a long hiatus.
That book convinced me that the best and most creative ideas don’t necessarily come to those who are innately talented. They come to those who are willing to show up each day and work on their craft, regardless of how they are feeling or whether, in the short-term, their efforts are producing desirable results.
As I looked around I realised this concept applies in many areas. Whatever you are willing to show up for, and focus your attention on, is where you will show the best improvement, gains and creative leaps.
If you are an artist – it means sitting down regularly with your paints, pens, pencils (whatever your instrument of choice) and creating. And doing this reliably, even if you aren’t feeling creative or what you are producing isn’t that great.
If you are a musician – it means sitting down with your instrument and playing and writing. And doing this reliably, even if you don’t feel like it or the music you are writing is sub-par.
A great piece of art or music is only going to show up one day, if you regularly show up yourself and make it possible for it to happen. Lots of bad music or art might need to be made in the meantime.
But these principles don’t just apply to creative endeavours.
Athletes know they need to reliably show up for training (rain, hail or shine) if they want to get the improvements they seek, compete at the level they want.
Good students know that they need to reliably show up to their study space, read their books, take their notes, write their essays and study for exams if they want to get smarter and more capable (and get their degree).
A parent knows that they need to show up each day for their kids to help them out and help them grow, even if they aren’t feeling like being a parent that day.
What characterises all of these situations is that:
- There is a choice to show up fully or not.
- It is guaranteed that there will be many days when you don’t want to show up – days that you are tired, fedup, sad, lost hope, self-critical.
- It is guaranteed that there will be days where you show up and produce something sub-par.
- b) and c) will leave you feeling demotivated at times.
Showing up can sometimes feel really heavy or frustrating or unrewarding.
You sit down to write some music and 5 hours later, you don’t have anything.
You sit down to study and 2 hours later, you still don’t understand the material.
You show up for sports training and stuff up repeatedly.
All incredibly frustrating, demoralising.
The next day, when you are forming the intention to show up, those setbacks/challenges will be at the forefront of your mind, and at that point you will need to make a conscious choice whether you have another go, or whether you start to neglect that activity.
As you reflect on your life there are probably situations/contexts where you don’t have any trouble showing up. For example, I have no trouble showing up for my job because I love what I do, and even if I have a bad or unproductive day, I know that the next day or the day after that will be better and I’ll be thankful I didn’t disconnect (also I get paid 🤑)
But there might be aspects of your life where showing up feels a lot more difficult. For me, that is in my friendships. I find myself reluctant and anxious to show up for events, dinners, social occasions. I’ve been like that for many years. Intellectually, I know that reluctance is silly. I know that whenever I spend time with friends, I am the better for it. I pretty much always have a good time. But that resistance to showing up is ever-present.
Where in your life do you find it difficult to show up?
Studies? Friendships? Hobbies? Exercise? Healthy eating?
What is driving this reluctance to show up?
A good place to start answering this question for yourself is to start noticing what emotions/ thoughts/ feelings/ memories/ sensations show up (excuse the pun) at the point at which you form the intention to do that thing?
My guess is that it is something uncomfortable and it is the avoidance of that discomfort that is driving your avoidance of that task.
For the artist or the musician, maybe it’s the fear they have no talent, or will produce something crappy.
For the student it might be the discomfort of not knowing or understanding something and the effort it will take to gain mastery.
For the athlete, it might be fear of being beaten, of not being the best, of not winning.
Not showing up alleviates that short-term discomfort, but it holds the person back in the medium to long-term.
That’s because progress, in most areas, requires patience and repetition and moving through significant emotional and psychological discomfort.
The artist/musician may have to sit down for hundreds or thousands of hours before producing something they like.
The athlete might have to undergo thousands of repetitions of the same move before getting it right and feeling some capability.
The student might need a couple of months of consistently pushing themselves to learn the material and write and produce, before they start to feel a little more comfortable in the process.
We may not see the results of our efforts until we’ve shown up consistently for a long time.
But I’m confident it will happen, because I’ve seen it multiple times in my own life and in the lives of others.
That willingness to show up, regardless of how one is feeling that day and put oneself in the situation for success, is what is needed for success. Talent is great and I don’t dismiss it, but a talented person who never shows up to practice, doesn’t get better.
The concept of showing up in a COVID-19 world
With COVID-19 and the various restrictions involved, students are getting tested in their ability to ‘show up’ on a regular basis. Lectures are online and recorded. Materials can be accessed in your own time. You essentially make the choice as to when you show up and to what extent.
That is a lot of pressure for someone who isn’t accustomed to university study and the level of self-motivation that is required to do well at it.
It’s very easy to tell yourself ‘i’ll do that later’ and focus your attention on something fun or distracting, that takes your mind off the work you need to do and the global level of anxiety/uncertainty about COVID.
It is much harder to push through that uncertainty and instead focus on the things that you know will yield benefits (i.e. study) but might take years before those benefits are fully realised (i.e. good career).
But remember, that there are multiple of these decision points in a day. Multiple points where you can make the decision to show up for the things that are most important to you and the things that will help you create a satisfying life. You can say ‘yes’ at any of these points and know that it is moving you towards where you want to go and create more productive and rewarding days on the way there.