Tuesday, May 10, 2011

What's stopping me?

If you're a creative artist, but you spend too much of your time not creating anything and feeling stuck, take heart! You're not alone. Most creative artists are stuck most of the time — which is a sorry state of things!

It's not that we're weak-willed; will power has nothing to do with it. It's not that we lack discipline — though discipline might help out in the long run. And in most cases it's not that we're not trying hard enough. Many of us run ourselves into the ground with an excess of hit-or-miss effort.

Our fault, if anything, is in neglecting ourselves. We artists are subtle and complex instruments that require careful tuning and alignment for best results. We need to learn to play our creative selves with the same skill and attention that we play our musical instruments, to wield ourselves with the same finesse that we bring to a pen or paintbrush.

Back in February, I signed up for the February Album Writing Month challenge — to write 14 new songs in 28 days. Writing that much material that quickly is indeed a challenge, but, as I pointed out at the time, it's an opportunity to purge your creative process of the difficulties that slow you down. You can set realistic standards based on the limitations of the game, and find new ways to collect creative ideas and make quick decisions.

In the FAWM challenge, I would never ding a songwriter who made a real effort but ended up short of the target of 14 songs. But I was stunned by the actual results: more than 3 out of 4 songwriters who signed up never even wrote their first song. This made me speculate that Just Getting Started is a bigger hurdle than I'd given it credit for. I mused that it's a huge but invisible problem: No one ever finds out about The Things You Didn't Do, no matter how great they might have been.

What would the world be like if we could change the game a bit, so that even a fraction of these lost inspirations instead came to fruition? It would certainly be a much richer place.

This issue of getting started had special resonance for me, because I've often had great difficulties getting started on creative projects. I've learned over the years that it's important to start from where you actually are, no matter how badly you wish your starting point were a little bit closer to your goal. I've learned that if a project is too big to start today, you should pass on it, no matter how cool the idea is, because it's just too big for you. And it's easy to underestimate the importance of simply being comfortable in your creative space.

As I thought further about the difficulties of getting started, I realized that creative artists have a unique challenge: our work requires the ability to enter the creative state of consciousness, a special brain configuration that is not always available when we need it and not under our willful control. Without the creative state, we can't do good work. We face what's called "writer's block" or "being stuck."

The creative state can only emerge under certain conditions. First of all, you must be fully in charge, fully responsible for the creative work to be done. In addition, you must believe you can be successful in solving your creative problem, and also that doing so will make a difference that matters. These two key beliefs — "Yes I Can" and "Yes It Will" — must be in place. If doubts arise and interfere with either of them, you won't be able to enter the creative state.

Luckily, these two key beliefs are only loosely based in reality, which means you have the power to fix your creative block just by changing your thoughts.

On the "Yes I Can" side, you might want to pick a smaller goal, one that's easier to achieve, and give up trying to prove yourself. You also must be careful that your goals don't grow out of control, because your own excitement and enthusiasm can quickly build them up into mountains so high that you can never scale them.

Or you might just need a boost of confidence in your abilities, especially if you've spent too much time in an environment of overly negative and critical people.

On the "Yes It Will" side, you can sidestep your doubts by changing what you focus on. If your focus is on your to-do list, you could easily feel you're getting nowhere. And if you're worried about what people will think, you can never feel sure of success. So focus on things that are already inside your control, and you'll feel more positive about moving ahead.

If you're stuck, don't just say "I procrastinated," because that's an explanation that explains nothing. If you just try again, with more exclamation points this time, you will probably just fail again with more exclamation points. You don't need more will power. You need a different game board. You don't need incredible luck. You need to pick the winning cards and put them in your hand to start with.

Take a closer look at your situation, make a reasonable guess about why you haven't taken action yet, and then try something different. Change your goal, or redefine what it means to be successful at your goal. Change your environment, your thoughts, your timing, your tools, your attitude, or your behavior. You're tuning your instrument for the first time, so don't expect to get it perfect on the first try. But if you keep trying things and paying attention to the results, you can create the right setting where it's easy for you to create beautiful works of art.

It takes time and careful attention to turn going-nowhere into momentum-of-a-freight-train. Don't expect an instant, miraculous solution. But you don't have to do it all at once. Solve today's problems today, and save tomorrow's for tomorrow. One bit at a time, you can build momentum and get your creative life moving. Let's get started!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Don't say "procrastinated"

Procrastinate is a funny word: it's an action verb for a passive state of non-action. More to the point, saying "I procrastinated" doesn't help you understand and change a pattern of inaction. It's easier to defeat procrastination if you get past the word procrastination and get to a slightly deeper understanding of what happened.

If you want to change over to a pattern of action, take a look at your pattern of inaction with these five questions:
  1. What created the expectation of action? How vague or specific was your plan, commitment, or deadline?
  2. What actually happened? (Stick to the facts. Skip the judgments, excuses, and apologies.)
  3. What's a simple and reasonable explanation for the inaction?
  4. Do you still intend to take action? (Make a conscious, active decision.)
  5. What could you do differently that might lead to different results? There's no point in trying the same thing that didn't work, so think of something you could change.
If you keep it simple, you can run through these five steps in less than a minute. For example:
  1. What created the expectation? I promised myself I would start on this project yesterday.
  2. What actually happened? The day went by, and I didn't do anything.
  3. What's a reasonable explanation? There were several unexpected things in the evening, and I completely forgot about my plans.
  4. Do you still intend to take action? Yes, today I'm going to start on it, even if it's just for five minutes.
  5. What could you do differently? I'll put a reminder on my pillow, so I can't go to sleep without doing something on this project.
Here's another, slightly different, example:
  1. What created the expectation? Every year I say I should do my taxes early, so I won't be up against a deadline if something goes wrong.
  2. What actually happened? The filing deadline is two weeks away, and I haven't started.
  3. What's a reasonable explanation? I hate working with numbers, especially with the pressure of knowing that a mistake could get me into legal trouble.
  4. Do you still intend to take action? Yes, I must! I'll be in even more trouble if I don't do my taxes on time.
  5. What could you do differently? I'll sidestep the math fear for now: I'll just do the initial work of gathering the information I need. Then I'll at least be one step further ahead.
As you work with this process, don't sweat over it. You don't have to come up with the perfect explanation (step 3) or the best way to change things (step 5). Just make a quick guess, try it out, and see what happens. Even if it fails, you have one more example of something that doesn't work. You'll still be one step ahead of where you'd be if your thought process ended with "Oops, I procrastinated again."

Sunday, May 8, 2011

You were born successful

I confess I'm sort of squigged out by the current flood of experts, coaches, and authors who promise that they can help you "be successful." Whenever I see that promise, I have to ask, "successful at what?"

I would hope that people want to succeed at some specific, worthy goal that inspires them. The promise that you can "become" a generically "successful person" rings very empty to me. It sounds like a sales pitch that would come from someone deliberately targeting people with low self-esteem, people who might hope to be rescued by some external, magical form of redemption.

To me, you start out successful — no redemption required. You can't "become successful," you can only become "more successful" by adding to your trophy collection of meaningful accomplishments.

I'm sure there is some real value in the current crop of success books, and I'm sure that "success coaches" are really helping people improve their lives. One thing you won't get for your money is becoming successful. You are already successful.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The to-do list and hopelessness

In theory, a to-do list pulls together all of your best current opportunities to improve your life and make an impact on the world. This supercharged piece of paper is a physical representation of your personal power and immediate potential!

Does looking at your to-do list make you feel powerful, engaged with life, and ready to jump into action?

No? Not exactly?

In practice, confronting someone with their own to-do list is more likely to drain the life right out of them. You see their face going pale, their gut clenching, their muscles getting weaker. Their mood somewhere on the spectrum from stoic resignation to utter hopelessness.

The to-do list unfortunately has become a locus of discouragement that seems to make life even harder.

For most people, trying to move forward in the face of this kind of discouragement is like trying to walk with an extra fifty pounds on their shoulders. For creative people, it's like trying to walk while chained to the wall. You'll get nowhere.

You can't use your creative mind -- which is your most valuable asset -- while you're in a state of discouragement.

Time management tools don't work very well for most creative people. As far as I can tell, all the standard tools and systems you can buy were invented by non-creative people for use by other non-creative people. If you've sincerely tried to use a time management system and it didn't work for you, don't let that experience make you feel guilty and inept. If you needed a hammer and the closest thing on hand was a screwdriver, that doesn't mean you're bad with nails.

If your to-do list isn't a happy place, then don't try to use it to manage your whole life. Use it in the narrowest way possible: to keep track of your non-routine obligations that have real-world deadlines and real consequences. Hopefully, that's a short list. (If it's not, let's face it, your life is out of balance right now, and your creative life might need to be put on hold while you clean up more urgent messes.)

And here's one more suggestion for you to think about: You're a creative person, so why not create your own time management system? Devise something that actually works for you, your own idiosyncratic system that organizes the information you need and actively helps you feel inspired.

If you've found or invented an effective tool to organize your creative work, please post a comment here and tell us briefly about it, how it works, and how it helps you.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Backwards advice: "Visualize your goals"

Yesterday I wrote about the Tommy fallacy, the misguided idea that you can copy someone's results by painstakingly mimicking their actions.

Of course, there are some things that you can effectively imitate and copy. You can watch how a chef chops onions, watch how a rhythm guitarist uses his whole body in the rhythm, or watch how a singer's facial expressions enliven the vocal line. By teaching your body the same motions that you observed the experts doing, you can improve your technical skills.

You can also find, on the web, recipes and how-to instructions for a million different problems. That's a very precise and practical way to copy someone else's successful actions.

But a generation of slightly confused success coaches took the copying idea too far and made it the centerpiece of their success advice.

They made detailed studies of some extremely successful people, people who had accomplished extraordinary things. They discovered common behaviors among all of those highly successful people. And thus they reverse-engineered a recipe for success. If you imitate all of these success behaviors, they said, you too can be successful.

Of course, those success books that delivered this recipe weren't really any more helpful than the diet books, one shelf over in the same bookstores, were. Unfortunately, their methodology fell prey to the Tommy fallacy; they assumed incorrectly that you can copy the results by copying the visible behavior.

The trouble with relying on a strictly retrospective methodology is that it can only show correlations between two variables, but it can't actually tell you which variable is the cause and which is the effect. The behaviors they observed and recommended were actually the results (or side effects) of being successful, not the ingredients of success.

For example, successful people are passionate and work long hours to achieve their goals. But this doesn't mean passion and hard work are the cause of success. The truth is the opposite: feeling passionate and working hard are the result of highly effective, successful action. Of course you work hard and feel enthusiastic if you see that your actions are highly successful.

Along the same lines, successful people quite often start out a vivid and compelling mental picture of their goal, almost as if it were already real. This observation was turned into a bit of widely repeated advice: "visualize your goals."

The advice goes like this: First, pick a goal. Then, take the time to develop a clear and powerful mental picture of that goal fully achieved.

Visualizing your goals isn't a bad thing in itself. But there are two things wrong with this line of advice:
  • For most people, it's not easy to generate vivid, detailed mental pictures on demand. It takes a lot of time and real effort.
  • Even if you can painstakingly build a mental picture of your goal, this willfully-created image still isn't the same as the visions that led other people to extraordinary success.
The original observation was correct: People who accomplish extraordinary things usually had a vivid picture guiding them. But none of those highly successful people picked a goal and then sat down and spent an hour trying to create a mental image of it. The truth is the opposite. These people had the vivid mental image first, and because they couldn't get it out of their head, they adopted it as their goal. They let their visions guide them.

My read on the profiles of extraordinarily people is that they were not so much driven to be successful per se; rather, they were driven to accomplish specific worthy goals. These people were struck by inspiration, powerful inspiration that arrived with a detailed vision, with a flurry of helpful ideas, and with a big blast of energy to get them started. Each of these people were poked pretty hard by one of those angels who drop in, seemingly at random (from our human perspective), with a mission that they could not ignore. Given a clear sense of direction, these people worked hard, overcame big obstacles, and invented things that had never been seen before, all to bring their visions to life.

You could go through the motions until you drop from exhaustion, but you cannot willfully recreate this pattern of success.

For those of us who have the capacity to receive the poke from an angel, the gift (if you can call it that) of this kind of inspiration, we still have very little control over how and when the angels of inspiration will visit us. I've written at length about how to encourage inspiration in your life and how to make the most of it when it arrives, but inspiration still remains a force that is fundamentally outside our control.

Here's some forewards advice about visualization: A strong, clear vision of a possibility is a good sign that that might be a good goal to pursue. But if you can't seem to visualize a creative goal, or if it's a weak, confused image, that might be a sign that it's not the right goal, or that the time isn't ripe for you to pursue it.

If you are struck by a powerful, vivid, detailed picture of something, something that seems cool and exciting and worthwhile, you might want to consider adopting that as your goal — even when it seems to go against ordinary business logic and common sense. That clear and vivid image just might be a hint that you have an opportunity to accomplish something extraordinary.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Tommy fallacy

Imitation is a powerful way to learn new skills, but the specific techniques and strategies that worked for other people won't necessarily work for you.

In the Who's rock opera Tommy, the title character experiences enlightenment and healing through obsessive practicing of pinball games. (Pinball is a mechanical predecessor to video games.) But when Tommy urges others to play pinball and follow his path to enlightenment, it doesn't work for other people. They play and play, but they only become frustrated, not enlightened.

The moral of the story is that everyone has to find their own path to enlightenment. A spiritual path is a personal thing, and if you randomly follow someone else's path, it won't necessarily work for you.

Guess what? This lesson applies to more than just your spiritual life. The path to success in life is just as personal as the spiritual path (and that's assuming that those two things can even be considered separately, which is debatable). And what about your path as a creative artist? That path is most emphatically a uniquely personal thing that you must discover yourself.

The Tommy syndrome is the misguided (but understandable) tendency of coaches, mentors, and advisors to expect their students to repeat their own path to success, no matter how ill-fitting it is.

The Tommy fallacy is the incorrect assumption that you can achieve the same results that someone else achieved, just by copying all of that person's actions. It's the assumption that you can do great stuff by carefully studying and exactly copying someone else's process for doing great stuff.

In practice, this copying process sometimes partly succeeds, but it often utterly fails. Imitating people who are good at something is a fastest and powerful way to learn — but you still have to find your own way to success.

Why doesn't it work to copy someone else? There are several reasons why it fails.
  • Everyone is different, with a unique set of strengths, limitations, interests, and values.
  • You're in a particular time, place, and set of circumstances. It's never a match for the situation of the person you're trying to copy.
  • While some behaviors are obvious and easy to copy, some behaviors are subtle and hard to discern — and these subtle differences sometimes make a big difference.
  • Noteworthy success is rarely a one-person effort, and key contributions can come from invisible supporting players who chose to stay out of the spotlight.
But the key flaw, the centerpiece of the Tommy fallacy, is this:
  • The successful person you're imitating did what they did as a natural expression of who and where they were and what they wanted to achieve. The one thing they didn't do is copy someone else's actions.
As a creative artist, you can certainly pick up tricks and techniques from others and use them as raw material. But you fundamentally can't find your creative way by copying someone else's path. This is a practical thing; not some moralistic imperative to "be original." The creative process simply doesn't work if you put someone else in the space where you are supposed to stand.

You, the artist, are the catalyst that sparks the chemical reaction. You provide the transformative space that makes magic happen. And the magic only works if you are whole and intact, taking ownership of the creative process and taking responsibility for the results.

But don't trust me on this. I don't want to be just another one of those coaches, mentors, and advisors that I warned you about eight paragraphs back. Check this out for yourself, and see what your own experiences tell you.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Of course you worry about what people will think

It's important to be cool. It matters that people notice and like the things that you've created. It's the very rare artist who doesn't care what people think of their work. Most of us are driven to create in order to communicate something profound that can't be properly expressed in ordinary words. It's a powerful and reassuring experience for the artist when someone in the audience gets that message and acknowledges it.

But there's a pitfall: If you focus on what other people will think of your work, you won't be able to create.

Remember that you can't enter the creative state of mind unless you feel confident that your work will make a difference. And the definition of "makes a difference" is very flexible — it depends almost completely on what you focus your attention on. If your attention is on what other people might think of your work, how can you feel confident? Other people's reactions are almost entirely outside of your control.

Here's my suggestion: Do your creative work on Tuesday night; then worry about whether you're cool or not on Wednesday afternoon. If those worries start to creep into Tuesday night, gently brush them aside, saying, "Please, just hold onto that very important thought, and bring it up in our Wednesday afternoon worry session, when we will cover it in exhaustive detail."

You may, of course, adjust the schedule to suit your own calendar. The point is that worrying about people — which is an undeniably important matter in life — must go into a different time slot from your creative work sessions.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Avoiding "inspiration inflation"

In the past few days, we've looked at a few unhealthy ways that your creative goals can become oversized and thus too big for you to handle. But there's also a perfectly normal process of inflation through which your goals grow larger, when you're filled with enthusiasm and under the influence of the overoptimism that often comes with inspiration.

For example, you have a great idea for a song, and before you even write it, the idea grows into a concept album in which the song is the centerpiece. Your story idea becomes a novel, and then a trilogy.

One thing I've pointed out before as a songwriting coach — and it applies in any creative field — is that any idea can be done at any size, large or small, and on any "budget," simple or elaborate. Don't let your ideas, no matter how brightly they glow, tell you what size they have to be. Make them fit into your creative context in a way that supports your large-scale career goals. In other words, be practical in setting the size of each project.

How do you know when an idea has gotten too big for you? One sure tipoff is if you put off working on your idea until tomorrow, because it seems too daunting to handle today. The sobering truth is that if you put off your project even once, there's a fair chance that you will never complete it. If it's too big to handle today, it's probably destined for the junkyard of brilliant projects that you never got around to working on.

So go ahead and take out that pruning saw today. Cut your project down to a size that you can handle right now. Don't think of it as diminishing your idea or undermining your own inspiration. On the contrary, scaling it down means rescuing it from oblivion. It didn't take any time or effort for your idea to grow oversized, and it shouldn't cause you any pain to scale it back down again.

I make a rule to resist the temptation to make a project bigger until I've gotten the first version of it basically completed. Then, if I still have plenty of energy and enthusiasm, and if the idea seems to have room to grow, I can still go for it. But I don't want my ideas to swell up before I actually start working on them. (My junkyard of abandoned projects is a very large junkyard.)

What I've learned is that inspiration often arrives with its special kind of optimism. This burst of optimism can can give you a big push to start working, but it has a dangerous pitfall: it seriously distorts your judgment about how much work the project will take.

You might feel sure that something will take just one hour from start to finish, and before you know it, you've stayed up working all night, and you still seem to be "just one hour" away from finishing.

When your estimates can be off by an order of magnitude, that means that any little addition to the project might be ten times as expensive as you think they are. So it's prudent to be firm about limiting your ideas and pushing back when they want to get bigger. Figure out what part of the project is truly essential, and chop away everything else.

Again, the appropriate time for your project to grow is after you've already finished creating the first version of it.

Monday, May 2, 2011

If you're just plain discouraged

I've spent a few days talking about how artists get themselves trapped holding impossibly large goals, goals that they can't even begin to pursue because they don't believe in their ability to complete them.

As I keep saying, if you don't believe you can do it, your mind is literally unable to enter the creative state that makes creative work possible. The belief that you can't becomes self-fulfilling truth, as you find yourself stuck, unable to move forward.

Now, these beliefs have very tenuous basis in physical reality. They come from our interpretations of past events and lessons, haphazardly applied to hypothetical future scenarios.

Sometimes the only thing holding you back is the misguided belief "I can't." Your goals aren't unrealistic or inflated; instead, your self-confidence is undersized.

Maybe you had parents who told you a thousand times, "You never do anything right." Maybe your junior-high-school music teacher told you, "You're not very good at music." Maybe your first performance experiences were painful humiliations.

And it's not just experiences from your past that knock down your self-confidence. There might be people in your life today who intentionally undermine your self-esteem. For example, bullies and psychic vampires who enjoy building themselves up by putting other people down. Or there might be family member or close friends who have begun to sense the positive vibes coming from your creative work; they might (correctly) fear that your success will change the dynamics of your tangled, dysfunctional relationships.

I can't go into detail about how to protect yourself against toxic people and clean up relationship messes — there are plenty of experts in that area who can guide you — but do whatever you have to do to keep their energy out of your creative space. Probably the single most important thing you can do in this regard is to keep the details of your creative work secret, except perhaps for a few trusted, supportive friends whom you select.

If you have family members who are threatened by your independence and success, don't give them a reason to push back. Instead, come up with a pathetic-sounding cover story. All that guitar playing that people can hear coming from your room? Don't tell them you're halfway through recording your debut album on Garage Band. Tell them you're just learning to play along with some Radiohead songs.

Anyway, if a legacy of people trying to discourage you has left you feeling thoroughly beaten down and discouraged, a feeling you've internalized as "I can't," then I have good news: There is a proven antidote. What you need is a massive infusion of encouragement, a steady diet of "I can." Find supportive people, and look up books of affirmations and other encouraging materials. It takes time to tip the balance against years of discouraging voices, but it absolutely can be done.

Meanwhile, don't try to push ahead with goals if you really can't muster the belief that you can do them. But start with smaller and simpler creative goals, and see if you're willing to suspend your disbelief in yourself and give them a try. It doesn't matter how small you start, because if you keep gradually moving to bigger challenges, you'll be doing big, impressive things before you know it. A pattern of success will help you feel bolder, and you'll build a habit of saying "I can."

Sunday, May 1, 2011

What are you trying to prove?

Yesterday I described the creative artist's equivalent of being stuck in a one-way cul-de-sac. When your goals are so big that you can't believe you can achieve them, but lesser goals seem too insignificant to bother pursuing, then you have no way to move forward. It's a trap that many artists wander into, and once there, you can feel very, very stuck.

But remember, as I explained just a few days ago, although the condition of being stuck is very real and nothing to joke about, it nonetheless is not a physical trap. It's a mental trap. And sometimes it's possible to think your way free.

To start with, you might ask yourself: How did an impossibly-big goal become the only goal that I'm willing to think about?

Or, you could be blunt about it, and ask yourself: What am I trying to prove? And who am I trying to prove it to?

Are you asking your creative process to carry the burden of problems from your financial life, your social life, your troubled relationships, wounds from your childhood? Are you asking your creative output to redeem yourself, to prove your worthiness, to make up for past sins or errors?
If so, that might be more than your muse can handle. Who wouldn't freeze up under that kind of pressure?

The point is, if you let these external concerns govern your creative life, then it can cause a kind of ambition inflation, where only huge and heroic projects seem worthwhile, and only over-the-top, best-in-the-world results seem adequate.

Do what you have to do to disentangle your creative process from these pressures. If necessary, swear off for a few months any goal that sounds even faintly ambitious or impressive, and let your muse just have some fun with absurd and whimsical goals. Write some short songs about snails and other small, lowly animals. Write fanciful essays about random objects found on the roadside. Draw sketches of office supplies and electronics accessories.

And this would be the perfect time to get Julia Cameron's terrific book, The Artist's Way. Her book is a 12-week course designed to heal and strengthen your relationship with what she calls your inner artist, which I call your muse.

Now, I feel I have to mention, as an aside, that there's nothing wrong with trying to prove something — if you do it in a way that doesn't break your creative process. Instead of letting that impulse distort your planning process and steer you towards bigger and grander goals, bring in into the studio and let it goad you into doing better and stronger work.

And there's nothing wrong with bringing your social woes, your relationship problems, your childhood wounds, and all the darkness of your soul into the studio as raw material. The magical alchemy of the creative process can transform all of that dark stuff into works of transcendent beauty and set you free of the past. The trick is to bring that stuff inside the creative process as fertile material instead of letting it sit on top of the process like some kind of taskmaster.