What Esperanza Spaulding’s 77-hour Livestream Taught Me About Being Abusively Self-Critical
And making sure your self-critique isn’t self-abuse.
Despite having started numerous endeavors, written countless pieces, and created many types of art, I have a wildly disproportionately small amount of finished product out in the world. While part of that can be blamed on many external factors, the largest culprit is certainly my own perfectionism. And it’s not even perfectionism, really. I never strive to make things perfect, I just almost never feel like the finished product is good enough.
On September 12 at 11am, Grammy-winning jazz artist Esperanza Spalding began live streaming her effort to conceptualize, write, and record a 10-track album in 77 hours. This is a process that most artists take months to complete, and she was condensing this into a few days and streaming the whole ordeal to hundreds of thousands of people on Facebook Live. The goal was to start the process, and whatever they had at 77 hours was it. No backsies. And she did it with 7 minutes to spare.
Seeing her approach the 30 minute mark with no vocals or bass recorded on the final track was incredible. While watching this, I was lying in bed, thinking about all the things that I should be doing, and scanning through my neglected mental checklist. I started to feel like a total trash heap. This girl is only a few years older than me and she’s pulling this off. Then that self-loathing morphed into something else: inspiration. And that’s the appropriate response! This thinking, this process of seeing someone doing something that should be inspiring and instead transforming that feeling into self-loathing is common. Lots of us do it. But the truth is, it’s really abusive.
I started thinking about all the stories, poems, songs, articles, and screenplays I’d written that no one would see, all the art I created that has been tossed in dusty corners instead of being displayed with any semblance of pride, and more recently all of the apps and websites I’d conceptualized but felt too inept to pursue or complete. So many of those things — all of those shards of my past, my identity at various points in time — will never been seen by anyone, simply because I felt that my work, my story wasn’t good enough. Don’t get me wrong, some of it was awful. In fact, a lot of it was pretty awful. But that’s the point of crafting. You create something, and if it’s not that great, try again. You keep crafting until you’ve created something that isn’t awful. Maybe that never happens, but you keep going anyway.
Watching her move to recording her vocals while the clock was quickly winding down to 10 minutes was enlivening. She was creating something better than most musicians will ever create, but she was doing it with teeth clenched and a diminishing timer in an opposing corner. She didn’t flip out, she didn’t scream when she’d make a vocal misstep, she simply tried again. This is a huge part of the creation process that I would struggle with occasionally. Things would start getting frustrating or something would get in the way, and I’d get so upset I’d mentally block my own progress. By breathing and trying it again, or maybe even taking a break before it gets too infuriating, you allow yourself the opportunity to solve the problem and continue forward.
Another hugely inspiring aspect of this was the time limit. Imposing time limits on your work can be hugely hindering, but on the other hand allowing yourself too much time to get things done can be almost just as damaging. What I saw in this project, as someone who so very rarely gives myself time restrictions, is that there is tremendous value in limiting the amount of times you can go back and revise or refactor. This Grammy Award-winning musician basically said whatever we create will be this album and that will be that.
Which brings me to the scariest aspect of this project — the final product. Whatever she managed to do in that 77 hours was what this album would be. No rerecording, no scrapping certain tracks. And even if they fixed a few things in the mixing, the vocals and all accompanying instrumentation were locked in. One reason that so many things I’ve created have never seen the light of day is that I’d take a look at the finished product and get overwhelmed with the anxiety of not being able to go back and change something later. Even if I love it when it’s finished, there’s a chance that I could hate it later. Watching someone who has so much at stake just shrug her shoulders at the fact that this could end up being the worst album ever made (she’s Esperanza Spalding, though, so it really couldn’t) was beyond inspiring. Instead of looking at something you’ve created like, ‘this could be absolute garbage,’ it’s much better to look at it like, ‘this is the best I could do right now and I will look at this piece of work as what it is: a snapshot of who I am and what I have to say right now.’
This project was an absolutely incredible and inspiring feat in so many ways and it really made me rethink not only my own creative process, but also the way I think about myself and the things that I create. Self-loathing is extremely common in creative types, usually offset by enough ego to overcome that and release the art. But self-criticism and self-loathing, when allowed to work together enough to become abusive, can become completely crippling.
What I got from all this is that it’s important that you do the best that you can now, and respect it for what it is. Your best. And by all means, feel free to go back and critique it. However, it’s crucial to view it from the perspective of ‘this is bad, let’s do this a different way next time’; instead of something like, ‘this is bad and you’re the worst.’ One way is constructive self-criticism that can help lead to growth and the other is simply abuse. We often make sure we’re considerate of people’s feelings when providing critique to our peers. Let’s try to give ourselves that same compassion.