As I turn 40 this month I’m writing a few reflective posts. It’s always good to take step back and ask, “What have I been learning and experiencing these last few years… or better yet, decades?”
Betony and I often find ourselves in incredible conversations with awesome, creative people. We talk about the how-to’s and inspiring maxims and stories we find.
These seem to be Betony and I’s top 5; the wisdom we’ve come into over the years we keep returning to. What would you add to the list?
1. All Projects Have 3 Parts
Let’s stop viewing art through a romantic lens for a moment and get down to the flesh and bones.
A project has three distinctive phases:
creating/ producing/ sharing
We write the songs or dream up the idea or finish the screen play. That’s the creating part. But then we have to get out the microphones, gather the teams, rent the rehearsal space and produce what’s been dreamed. We’ve got to give life our ideas. Producing is such a hard phase!
And most creatives stop there. I know I have before. Your dream has come alive and can be seen or heard or experienced…
but who’s going to invite your friends and fans to the glorious thing you’ve made?!
Marketing is difficult but for the most part no one is going to do it for us. We have to find natural and loving ways to share our work with those who we know will love experiencing it!
2. The Journey of the Project is as Important as the End Product
Early in my career I made an album that ended, I believe, 4 friendships. I was close to each of these musicians and invited them to play on this new project, but after so many rehearsals and events and lack of communication, I burned them out. They didn’t want to work with me after that.
The final project turned out great; everyone played beautifully and it sounded wonderful. But it’s my least favorite album of mine. I actually rarely open and listen to it because it relives, for me, such a failure of leadership and lack of understanding.
There’s a love of journey and joy in making that needs to resonate in the creation of a thing. Climbing the mountain can be tough and challenging, but a great time too. That’s why we do it. It shouldn’t be a miserable experience that turns people against each other or creates bitterness.
I’ve tried to take this to heart. A few years ago Betony and I finished a project called Becoming. When musicians came over to record in the evenings we would often feed them and spend time with them, just hanging out. Then when the album was done we had everyone involved over for a foodie’s paradise experience, an award giving ceremony (think Throne Room scene from Star Wars and old war medals), and a Becoming listening party. I look back on the creation of that album with warm memories of special times. The journey was wondrous.
3. Make Lots of Work
There’s a wonderful passage from the book Art & Fear below and Betony and I reference this whenever we start to romanticize our current project too much. It goes like this:
The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.
Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
I talk with young music writers that have been working on the same 5 songs for 3 years and my first challenge to them is: You have 20 minutes. Go write a new song. And then after that we’re going to do that exercise again and again. It’s shocking what people start to make when they get unstuck from what they’re trying to perfect.
We learn by doing or make the road by walking. In the arts it’s no different.
4. The Most Personal is Often the Most Universal
My friend and artist Wes Sam-Bruce was where I first heard this idea: the most personal is often the most universal. I was still surprised when it came true for me.
I was getting ready to release an album called Frailty and was a little worried with how personal the themes were. My first daughter had been born and all of a sudden I was faced with my own morality. It sank in that one day I will leave her, my wife and family, leave all this I love, and walk through that passage we will all walk; death. So the album was a collection of my reflections in that season; facing my own frailty with bitter-sweet sentiment and outrageous hope for the New to come.
As I shared the album from this place of uncertainty and vulnerability(on social media, email, and beyond) I was surprised by many responses that came my way. Lots of parents had experienced similar feelings and struggles. Lots of people in general wanted to talk to me about these themes charged throughout the songs.
When I was willing to write from the personal places of my story
it struck a chord in the story of those I loved as well.
5. Just love them
There are two things I do before going on stage. And this is whether I’m leading worship at a church or performing at a concert or teaching or whatever.
And they are a bit embarrassing to disclose. (At least the first one is.)
The first I learned from a TED Talk.
I look into the mirror of the nearest bathroom I can find (a place of privacy). I look into my reflection and give a big smile and I square my shoulders in a sort of power-pose. The TED Talk explained that doing this physical act of showing yourself to be strong actually helps our brains believe we really are. The study involved people doing these power-poses in the mirror before job interviews and they reported an increase in confidence.
I’ve done it for years. Even more than confidence, I’d say it helps me focus on being present and energetic and fully ready to be a good leader.
The next thing I do I consider the most important.
I look in the mirror and I say, Just love them.
The power-pose was from a TED Talk but this one is from some article my wife found. It was by a motivational speaker who traveled and spoke all the time. He made sure it wasn’t about his performance or some results oriented marker. Just love them. That was his main goal entering the room.
And so I find myself at times wondering,
will I do a good enough job?
what if my voice doesn’t hit those high notes?
what if they find my songs boring?
what if I’m not cool enough or say something stupid?
what if no one shows or no one buys any CDs or what if…?
Just love them.
I’ve found that if I orient myself around that, everything else will be secondary and I will have achieved what I was supposed to and I can let go of the outcome.
There’s my top 5 pieces of wisdom I’ve returned to over the years in my creative field. I hope you found it helpful and/or interesting.
I would LOVE if you wanted to add to the list below in the comments. What’s an anecdote or concept you’ve found helpful?