“You’re not as good as you think you are,” Michael The Realistic Mystic told me in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
I was in NOLA for a friend’s wedding. On the night before it, I’d drunkenly walked past Michael without noticing him in his beach chair on the sidewalk. I was lost in the humid, hedonistic spirit of the city, as well as the contents of my to-go cup filled with Coffee and Kahlua milkshake. But my friend Julia, who has an eye for mischief, saw Michael and tugged the back of my purple-beaded necklace to halt me. “Look,” she said, “It’s Michael The Realistic Mystic! Should you get a reading, Flybot?” Julesbot and I had known each other long enough to have robot nicknames for one another.
Michael was a grizzled, weathered man wearing a faded black cowboy hat. His eyes glinted despite the nighttime darkness. He saw us approach his little station with interest, and beckoned two of us to sit in the two matching beach chairs placed directly opposite his. Julia and I sat; our friend Rachel hovered behind, minding the time. We were late for a party.
“I’m sorry to ask this upfront,” I demurred, as Michael opened up his Tarot deck, “but how much will this cost?”
“You can pay whatever you think it’s worth when I’m finished,” Michael said. “I’m going to do everything I can to provide you clarity, and you can decide what it’s worth to you.”
Michael asked me to close my eyes and shuffle the Tarot deck. I assumed he’d pull a couple cards, offer some tidbits of wisdom, and we’d be off in time for the party. But Michael had more in store for me than that. This was no casual, street-side reading.
I settled my mind on an intention. I wanted to know what to do with the feeling like my life is not enough. With feeling left out. With jealousy that outshines the joys and triumphs I should be celebrating. With the grumpy face I barely recognize in the mirror on mornings in NYC. With the confused and negative thought patterns I feel trapped in; with the feeling of slamming my head against a wall that can’t break.
Michael drew over twenty cards over a 45-minute reading, and this was the picture he painted:
“You’re a person who realized early on you didn’t think like other people. You didn’t fit in because you are different. When the doors were closed to you, you managed to climb in through the windows. You charmed your way into the peripheries of many groups. You flirted with being just on the outside of these families, taking turns with each friend group, never really feeling at home, always just visiting. You became acquainted with loneliness, and though you don’t prefer it, it can be addicting to be alone with yourself with nothing to prove to anyone.”
My eyes watered. I looked over at Julesbot, who looked back at me with wide eyes, jaw dropped, if only because I’d unloaded this exact stream of feelings on her not a week before our trip to New Orleans. Rachel seemed a bit more unsure if what he was saying was revelation or applicable to anyone.
Michael continued, talking of an investment of time and energy that had not paid off for me. He spoke of an enormous amount of my heart I’d put into a project that had failed, and how I was trying to reinvent myself publicly in a new way. I thought of my conflict between wanting to be seen as both a business-minded person and an artist at the same time — of wanting to have it all.
It was then that he told me, “You’re not as good as you think you are.”
So many of my frustrations lately come from assuming I’m fantastic and that people don’t recognize my excellence. It’s ego — ego all the way — and it feeds a repetitive story of unfairness, of being misjudged, or worst of all — ignored. This, along with me getting older, has created a narrative in which I am running out of time to understand myself, to get the recognition ‘I Deserve,’ to be on the sure-footed path toward success - or at least success as defined by external validation.
And then Michael brought the point home: “You think you’ll get somewhere quicker by moving faster. It’s the opposite.”
He got me there. Because it feels like everything in my life lately is measured against time. I get a dopamine hit every-time I complete a task and check a box. Edit a video. Publish a story. Sell-out a show. Check-marks prove I’m making progress, achieving something. This need to complete tasks exists for large and small things. I get a perverse pleasure when the Olive Oil runs out, and it means I can throw out the empty bottle and open a brand new one. Why is that satisfying? I like to clean the apartment because look — I spent some time and made a tangible difference! My favorite moment in yoga is when I can hear my neck crack in a pose…it’s the sign that something locked inside me has opened up.
I’m terrible at things that don’t have a defined deadline. I’m not the kind of person who can just drive without worrying about the destination. I want to recapture the sense of being on a road trip, with plenty of time to spare. To not feel like I’m “behind the curve.”
And Michael led me to remember that feeling of treating life like a student as opposed to a master. I’ve read about ‘Beginner’s Mind’ — the idea that as you get more skilled at something, you can maintain an aura of openness and abandon preconceptions. My friend Nik recently asked me, after I’d complained about my troubles, “What is the curriculum you are learning right now?” Asking ‘What can these challenges teach me?’ as opposed to ‘How can I fix my problems?’
This was exactly where Michael was telling me to slow-down…and help myself to a big slice of humble-pie while I’m at it.
I want to be a student again. I want to return to the process and forget about the imaginary finish line always beyond my grasp. I’m here to learn — and I’m realizing that some of the happiest times in my life have been filled with a childlike spirit of curiosity. I love discovery; I love traveling and being in foreign places; I love being a novice; I love learning.
I’m ready to start over and ask new questions — beginning with a re-evaluated definition of what success means to me. As my wise friend Nik once said to me, “What do you do with ease that brings you pleasure and joy? For you, Philip, ease and joy are found in the beginner’s playground. Seeing the world through fresh, absorbing eyes. Which is why returning to a learner’s posture may feel like returning to your joy.”
I paid Michael all the cash I had on me, which was only thirty-five dollars, hardly enough for what he gave me. But I wanted to share this story and encourage a visit to Michael the next time you’re in New Orleans. You’ll find him in Jackson Square, behind the St. Louis Cathedral, lounging in a beach chair.