Bad Habits

Jealousy | Bad Habits, part 6

Note: this page is part of the Cliffjump! Manifesto. If you’ve arrived from an external link, and haven’t read the previous parts of the book, you might want to start at the beginning

Photo credit: Derek van Vliet

Our next guest needs, I think, no introduction. We’ve all experienced jealousy, and most of us have been told since childhood that it’s not the healthiest mental habit to indulge in. Creative jealousy is a special breed and in my experience it’s poison to the kind of creativity this book is about, Fearless Creativity.

In his extraordinary book ‘Effortless Mastery‘, jazz pianist Kenny Werner describes a moment of transformative clarity encapsulated in 4 simple words. He was listening, with a fellow pianist and friend, to an extraordinary performance by a classical virtuoso, and was in a kind of agony as he realized he would never play like that. He looked at his friend, who was transported by the beauty and perfection of the performance, and the friend looked back at him and said: “Be Friendly to yourself!”

Werner describes this as the moment when everything changed for him, but he never really defines exactly what this ‘friendliness’ means and why it’s so essential and powerful. I guess everyone needs to find out for themselves in the end… but I’ve thought about it quite a bit, and come up with three essential aspects of ‘friendliness’:

a) unconditional support and encouragement
b) honest criticism when needed, and
c) sincere praise when deserved.

These are things that I think we should extend to those closest from us, and that we should be able to expect in return from them. I think that ‘being friendly to ourselves’ means extending them to, and expecting them from, ourselves as well. Let’s take a closer look at each one, in the context of creativity:

a) unconditional support and encouragement… I think this is relatively easy. We want to be creative, even if it’s difficult sometimes. We don’t tend to beat ourselves up too badly for the basic impulse. But it’s a good idea to make it explicit anyway: you need to be unconditionally supportive and encouraging towards yourself in your creative endeavours, the same way you would with your closest friends. No matter what.

b) honest criticism when needed… We touched on this in the last chapter in the context of overconfidence. It’s completely destructive to believe that everything we do is brilliant, or that we ourselves are so talented that everything is fine and we don’t need to really work hard or apply ourselves to create masterpiece after masterpiece. Not many people really suffer from this, in my experience – there are more people sabotaging themselves with insecurities than with genuine overconfidence. However, again, let’s make it plain: you need to be able to take honest stock of where you’re at and what you need to work on. It doesn’t get us anywhere to pretend our weak points aren’t there.

c) sincere praise when deserved… I think this is the hardest one of all, but in some ways the most crucial. It’s also important to look at the more subtle layers of it; this isn’t just about patting yourself, or your friends for that matter, on the back. It’s about being able to recognize and acknowledge, in a genuine way, when we’ve done something really good, or beautiful, or fascinating. In the same way that it isn’t helpful to deny our weaknesses, it doesn’t get us anywhere to deny our moments of clarity and luminosity. I’ve known a number of highly creative people over the years who seem unable to let themselves accept that they did something well, and this seems to sabotage their ability to enjoy the whole process… this has always struck me as tragic.

Apples and Oranges

As subtly powerful as this Friendliness idea is, I’m aware that it’s not a magic pill that will instantly free us from deeply ingrained habits. And the habit of comparing ourselves to others, always judging our own worth and talents in comparison to the perceived worth and talents of others, is one of the most deeply ingrained habits there is.

This is true for most people on some level, I think – at least, that’s the conclusion that a lifetime of observation has led me to. However, in the context of creativity it’s especially poisonous, because our sense of self is often tightly bound up with what we do, what we create, what we feel we’re capable of.

It’s very easy to misjudge our own talents and those of others; we tend to downplay our own abilities, and overestimate those of others. Their work seems so effortless, so fully-formed and, most of all, so beyond us and our meager talents.

We forget the work that lies behind the work we see, and we forget to value what we can do that they can’t, the products of our own hard work and unique experience. In short, we lose sight of our own creative identity, our own amazing possibility, when we indulge in this kind of creative jealousy.

The Fame Game

It’s the same when it comes to judging success – we are unable to focus on our own success because we are distracted by that of others, and jealous of it – and by the feelings of unworthiness that come with that. We are especially jealous of people who are ‘famous’, whose work has led in one way or another to mass recognition, which our culture continually tells us is the ultimate measure of worth and talent.

Personally, I think that the cult of fame is an unmitigated disaster – generally, and more specifically with regards to creative work. I think we lost something very important when we made fame the goal of creative endeavour, and not only because not everyone can be famous.

There’s a passage in Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard where he talks about how the scale of recognition has changed in the last few hundred years. To paraphrase rather liberally (I haven’t read it in many years)… there was a time, not so long ago, when the village bard was likely the ‘best’ musician anyone in that village had ever heard. Everyone played a little music, but he or she was the specialist. Hardly anyone had ever travelled further than the next village, so opportunities to hear ‘world-class’ musicians were notably thin on the ground. So much so, in fact, that the very concept would have been alien and meaningless.

Now, however, if I happen to be the one on your block that specializes in music (assuming there aren’t eight or ten others), I’m up against the whole world. I have to compete for attention, appreciation and recognition with everyone who’s ever played a concert, released a CD or made a music video. Why would anyone pay attention to little old me? Our whole sense of what is good, what is talent, and above all what is successful has changed. Now it’s perspective that’s thin on the ground.

[I managed to track down the original passage, for those interested…]

Chasing shadows

So it’s not surprising that we respond with jealousy towards the famous. But in reality fame is mostly an illusion, and setting it – even unconsciously – as a goal is for most people antithetical to cultivating a genuine creative life. In fact, even if we could magically switch fame on, most of us would probably hate it and in fact we would likely self-destruct if we suddenly found ourselves in the limelight. Personally, I like a bit of privacy…

Why do we think we want fame? Why are we jealous of it? I suppose we think it would make everything easier… but I suspect that this is largely untrue. Sure, it would allow us to buy more things, live in bigger houses, stay in more exclusive hotels… but simpler? I’m not convinced. In fact, I’m pretty confident that it makes most things a lot more complicated. Do we really want to be those people we’re jealous of, so that someone else will be jealous of us? Does that really improve our lives in any meaningful way?

Moreover, fame requires intense focus and relentless hard work to maintain, as well as tremendous personal sacrifice and risk. Doubtless it would make paying the bills a bit easier, although there would also likely be a lot more bills to pay; but I’m really not at all sure it would make creating anything of value any easier at all, and quite possibly it would make it harder. Some people seem to handle this better than others…

I believe that it really is better to focus on hard work and creativity on our own terms, and define success as when those things are working, making us happy, and, for those who choose to make a living from their creative work, providing a reasonably comfortable and sustainable one. Jealousy about others’ fame kills that. Leave it behind.

Of course we cannot ever leave it entirely behind. These habits are very human and the best we can do is keep a close watch for them and try not to let them dominate us unconsciously.

I have a little mental game I play, which like all the others in this book is not intended as a ‘magic bullet’ but as something to think about. It’s this: when jealous thoughts inevitably do come up, I try to replace or at least match every jealous thought with one of gratitude. I think about something I do have that I should be more grateful for, take less for granted, and focus on that instead.

It’s not magic, but it helps.

What’s your take? Does this make sense to you? Have you had creative experiences that confirm or contradict these musings? Please leave a comment in the Discussion section below, and start or join the conversation!


* used (with much appreciation!) according to a Creative Commons license:
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0

Fatalism | Bad Habits, part 5

Note: this page is part of the Cliffjump! Manifesto. If you’ve arrived from an external link, and haven’t read the previous parts of the book, you might want to start at the beginning

fatalism

PHOTO CREDIT: intellax *

Fatalism is another powerful enemy of creativity: it tells us that it’s not worthwhile starting anything, because it, and/or we, will almost certainly not amount to anything anyway. At least, nothing is likely to live up to the image we build in our minds when we allow ourselves to dream for a minute, to imagine what ‘success’ would look like.

Now, I am not a big fan of ‘manifestation’ or ‘Law of Attraction’-style visualization. I think many people waste a lot of time and energy that they could be using to actually do or create stuff, daydreaming about what could happen if the world were completely different. I think most people selling this stuff are selling snake oil, and I don’t recommend buying it. You’ll only end up back in fantasy-land.

However, I do recommend keeping a close watch on yourself for signs of fatalism, which is kind of the opposite of believing in benevolent spirits which will make our wildest dreams come true – it’s believing in malevolent spirits that keep good things from ever happening. Both versions are a little bit delusional, and neither helps us get, or stay, creatively unstuck.

As I see it, there are two main manifestations of creative Fatalism:
a) I’m not creative – I don’t know how, I don’t have the talent, etc.
b) why bother trying? Nothing ever works out for me anyway.

Both are excuses for maintaining inertia, for not taking risks. In the first case we are dealing with the Talent Myth – the idea that it is not worth doing creative work unless you are a certified genius. I’ve been around a lot of very creative people in my life, but I’ve never met a single one who does it by magic, who doesn’t have to work and sweat and work through all of this stuff, one way or another, in order to do the work that makes us wonder.

Mythbusting

This brings us to one of our culture’s key metaphors: the myth of the Genius, the transcendentally gifted or creative person. You know, the one who doesn’t really have to try or work or practise to be brilliant.

This is a tricky one for me personally because I was given to believe, for much of my early life, that I was a particularly talented child. And it’s true, some things did seem to come very easily to me – so it’s very hard for me to say there’s nothing at all behind the idea of talent. But I can tell you that it’s highly overrated.

First of all, talent is not particularly rare. Many children are gifted in unusual and fascinating ways, and indeed I’m quite fascinated with where that might ‘come from’ – how do we make sense of a child’s seemingly preternatural gift for chess, or music, or a particular sport? I don’t know, but I do know that in the long run it doesn’t count for much. Hard work and dedication to craft count for far more in the long run.

Let’s take the perennial example (and one of the most extreme), Mozart. He displayed prodigious talent as a performer from a very early age, and was composing short works on various instruments by the age of 5. His first operas were written as a young teenager and he was employed as a court musician by the time he was 17. By this time, too, he was writing symphonies and concerti that are now considered staples of the classical repertoire.

So that’s a clear case of transcendental genius, right? Well, I’m not so sure.

What’s hidden behind this story is the astonishing amount of work it must have taken. We know that his father, a relatively established and certainly highly educated musician himself, gave up his own career entirely to cultivate the remarkable talent of his son. His ambition manifested itself in a rigorous program of musical education, as well as a demanding travel and performance schedule. Mozart acheived his ‘greatness’ largely through working harder than most of us are capable of imagining.

What about Beethoven, fretting over flaws in the 9th symphony while the audience at the premiere was in rapture? More than just a poetic image engaging our pathos about the irony of his deafness, it shows his perfectionism, the tenaciousness with which he pursued his vision – instead of succumbing to the fatalist “I’ll never be good enough” line.

Beethoven and Mozart, while obviously enormously talented, were not so different than you or me; again, there are lots of kids with amazing talents, but they don’t all end up making lasting masterpieces of art in their fields. But they were definitely less prone to fatalistic surrender. They stuck with it until it worked. And then stuck with it some more, until it worked better.

Lives of the Rich and Famous

In case of our second fatalistic cop-out, we are dealing with fear of judgement, mapped onto ‘success’ as the objective of doing art or being creative – it’s not worth doing creative work unless you’re going to get rich and famous from it, or at least unless it’s going to ‘pan out’ in some way.

Whatever this imagined form of success might be for you, I submit that drawing lines around it in advance is not doing you much good. We don’t know, not really, what will happen to any creative work that we do, where it will lead us, how it will be received. If we think too small, we’re limiting ourselves; if we think too big, we risk disappointing ourselves. Either way, we’re focusing on the wrong thing – we’re keeping ourselves from giving full attention to the creative work.

Yes, it’s nice when people notice and like our work, and yes, it’s worth putting the energy into ‘getting it out there’ if we believe our ideas are worthwhile. But ‘success’ in the sense of becoming famous for our art is largely an illusion and for the most part does more to discourage than encourage creativity.

Be reasonable!

In place of the two-headed hydra of fatalism, I am offering the idea that doing creative work is worthwhile for two reasons, which have nothing to do with ‘being creative’ and are independent of the outcome of our endeavours, and whether it ‘works out’ or not:

The first reason is simply that it’s more interesting (and more fun!) than being a passive observer of the world. Interesting things happen when creativity starts flowing. Moreover, problems get solved, and if there has ever been a time in the world where we needed creative solutions to some very big and pressing problems, this is that time.

The second reason is that, if we approach it in the right way, it makes us better and healthier people. It cultivates generosity of spirit, it promotes empathy and tolerance, it connects people across boundaries and borders, opens minds and hearts and generally makes the world a better place.

(Artists know this intuitively. We are puzzled when people demand that we demonstrate the ‘usefulness’ of our art, as is becoming more common these days. The question doesn’t make sense to us, and it’s hard for us to imagine the mental state of someone who would be capable of asking it.)

Nothing is really fated unless you accept that it is. ‘Creative people’ do not do creative work because they are fated to do it, but because they have an idea they can’t get out of their head, or they are willing to assume that one will come along if they pick up the tools and get to work… and once they get started, things get interesting and they start having fun and want to see where the process takes them. That’s pretty much it. Ideally, at least.

And of course there is a flipside of fatalism: overconfidence, assuming that because we are ‘talented’, everything will fall into our lap… we’ll come back to that in a bit. Patience, grasshopper!

What’s your take? Does this make sense to you? Have you had creative experiences that confirm or contradict these musings? Please leave a comment in the Discussion section below, and start or join the conversation!

continue with JEALOUSY


* used (with much appreciation!) according to a Creative Commons license:
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0

Control | Bad Habits, part 1

Note: this page is part of the Cliffjump! Manifesto. If you’ve arrived from an external link, and haven’t read the previous parts of the book, you might want to start at the beginning

control

photo credit: Lori Photography

Full disclosure: I’m a bit of a control freak by nature. I have a strong tendency to try to do everything myself, thus controlling all variables and reducing my level of dependence on others. I’m a fairly quick study, and can learn the basic skills needed to dive into almost any problem relatively quickly, but obviously there are limits.

Nothing can substitute for real, deep and specialized skill, and even people far more talented than I am have not been able to achieve that kind of skill at more than a few things in one lifetime. In some ways, despite the fact that learning new skills is fun, interesting, and generally not as hard as many people imagine it to be once we dive in and start solving problems, there is also something to be said for focusing on your core aptitudes and collaborating with other specialists on things outside that area of expertise.

Control is the opposite of being open to the unexpected, the surprises which are such a big component of creativity as I have come to know it. And I’ve found that my creative work is more successful, more fun, and more fulfilling when I let go, at least a little, of my need to control everything.

Risky Business

Creativity is inherently, and by definition, at least a little out of control. If everything is perfectly predictable and goes 100% according to plan, it’s hard to call the process creative, since nothing really new or surprising can come from it. It’s probably also not going to end up being very interesting or exciting, because you’re not really taking any risks or discovering anything.

Risk is where the magic is; perfect control means that you’ve closed your door to the unexpected. And as Heraclitus wisely told us, “Expect the unexpected, or you won’t find it” 1

This is a bit of a dichotomy, since of course a certain amount of control is also essential. In the arts, you need a significant degree of control over the tools or the instrument or the language you’re using; in any case, these skills can bring depth and subtlety that is impossible to acheive without them. In science or business, control would probably equate to thorough understanding of the core concepts and relevant methods.

And of course control does not necessarily mean you are not taking any risks at all; in fact, in some ways you can break the rules a lot more creatively, or in more interesting ways, when you know them inside out. Also, unconsciously breaking all the rules all at once tends not to be as fruitful as consciously breaking one or two while following the rest…

Master and Commander

Control is technique, skill, command of the medium; it comes from training and experience, and without it your work will only go so deep. Technique is essential inasmuch as it makes it possible to work at a high level. When you have a solid grounding of technique, you can assimilate the happy accidents into a deeper network of knowledge that lets you recognize, replicate, and develop them more quickly, more thoroughly and more powerfully.

However, technique for its own sake can be a trap. It can become an addiction, where you are so busy learning and honing and perfecting technique that you never get around to doing anything creative or beautiful. And if you become lost in that maze, a slave to the myth of perfect technique and total control, it can sap the joy and the surprise and the life from your creative work. We don’t want that.

As a pianist, I made a decision at a certain point that developing a strong personal style based around my particular strengths and weaknesses was more interesting, a deeper well as it were, and a faster track to doing good work than spending 20 years trying to eliminate the weaknesses entirely, as if that were even possible.

I still work on my weaknesses, yes, but not with the illusion of perfect technique in mind. I try to balance practicing things I’m not so good at, which is essential, with reinforcing the things that come more easily, which keeps me connected to the pleasure of creating.

The essential thing is to let this happen organically – allow the work define the practice, not the other way around. If my creative curiosity leads me to something I need to build up some skill to pull off, it’s time to work on that skill – not to perfect it for the sake of perfection, but to do the thing that I can’t get out of my head, that I need that skill in order to do. And so that I can uncover the next unexpected connection that drives the next creative fascination.

Making it up as we go along

Technique and control of our process should be at the service of the unexpected, not in opposition to it; and we should not waste our time, energy and talent pursuing the illusion of perfection or of being able to control every variable. We need to find a way of working that makes the most of the limits of creative control, while simultaneously expanding them.

I have found that the best way to do that is to focus on the work itself, rather than the technique. Instead of viewing my creative work as an opportunity to show off skills, I view it as an opportunity to explore something, some new problem or possibility, find the pattern and the beauty in it, and develop the skills needed as I go along.

It’s a dynamic process. It’s at the heart of my approach to creativity. And it depends on recognizing both the value and the limits of control.

What’s your take? Does this make sense to you? Have you had creative experiences that confirm or contradict these musings? Please leave a comment in the Discussion section below, and start or join the conversation!

continue with Limitations


* used (with much appreciation!) according to a Creative Commons license:
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0