It creeps into your mind when you’re working, whispering all kinds of dangerous nothings to your subconscious.
“You paint too slowly.”
“Why is this taking so long?”
“You said you were going to finish writing this chapter three days ago.”
“You’ll never make that deadline if you keep working at this pace, you laggard.”
“Mozart composed 13 symphonies by the time he was 15 years old — how many have you composed so far, Mr. 30-Year-Old?”
Comparing yourself to other more successful artists and beating yourself up for not producing work at lightning speed are pernicious habits that all of us creators suffer from, at least on occasion.
And the disappointment of not having made the kind of progress you’d hoped within a specific time frame can be crippling to an artist’s confidence.
However, one lesson that I’ve really begun to embody recently — though it took years to really appreciate despite knowing it all that time — was that pumping the brakes on my eagerness to make progress on a specific creative endeavor and enjoy the process itself has turned me into a better artist.
Stop Chasing Success & Start Chasing Failure: Creative Advice From Willem Dafoe
“Sometimes I flirt with ideas of fucking things up or not being hard on myself.”
A Lesson In Moderation
I studied classical guitar in college as part of my music degree, but haven’t kept up with it as much as I should have back in my early 20s. However, over the last few months, I’ve begun taking it more seriously again, and established a routine to be followed every day, including exercises and pieces I need to work on, all recorded by a practice journal.
But in my excitement to return to a previous passion, my obsession with becoming a virtuoso classical guitarist and impressing friends took over, crowding out my desire to simply learn new things and savor the music I made.
I was making progress on a specific piece of music I loved — one I thought would thrill audiences if they heard me serenade them with it — and I was proud of myself.
And that was my downfall.
Curiosity was replaced by pride.
Joy was replaced by compulsion.
Peace was replaced with mania.
And that’s when I got frustrated.
Because I hadn’t put in the time to properly develop my technique at a slower, more thoughtful tempo, I hit a plateau with my performance of that piece. I could almost play it at my desired tempo, but I was sloppy, uncoordinated, and chasing the dictatorial click of a relentless metronome.
I became angry at the piece and considered giving up to work on something more elementary, even more my less-than-advanced skill level.
But I’d done that before, and was tired of giving up when things got tough.
So I decided to tell my rigid deadline for mastering the piece to go to Hell, and relearn the piece at a much slower tempo. I changed the goal from “conquer this piece by next Friday” to “play this smoothly and tastefully at a relaxed tempo”.
And now my practice sessions are filled with a magic and leisure that I haven’t experienced in months.
I’ve gained a greater appreciation for every note that’s written on the page and cultivated a devotion to ensuring that every note gets its time to shine.
My practice sessions have become almost meditative now; I’m no longer obsessed with getting faster, getting faster, getting faster. I’ve learned to focus my attention on every note I produce, every pluck of a string, every chord change. My mind is no longer cluttered with vanity goals, but is now filled with more meaningful, in-the-moment aspirations.
I’m still not quite playing at the tempo I would like the final performance to be at, but I’ve noticed a drastic increase in the quality of music I produce. The melody is smoother, the position movements are more graceful, and my overall comfort and confidence in my performance of the piece is noticeably greater.
I’m still nowhere near target — and that’s ok.
If anything, that only excites me even more. If my gratification from practicing guitar has exponentially increased despite not even being a master guitarist, then that means I have even more fulfillment to look forward to on my path to mastery.
Oh, and the cool about the massive upgrade in my musicianship?
It only took one practice session.
Now It’s Your Turn
Regardless of what medium you’re working in, this is a lesson that any artist can benefit from.
If you’re a painter, bask in the beauty of every color you choose for your painting. Focus on getting that brush stroke just right, just that one. Then do it again. And again.
If you’re a photographer, acknowledge the wonderful mystery of every shadow, the divine glory of every light, and the spontaneous dance that’s broken out between them. Bask in striking results every change in camera position produces.
If you’re a fiction writer, don’t worry about rushing to the ending of your story — make sure each character lives and breathes like a real, flawed, complex human being does, as if they were an intimate partner.
If you’re a poet, indulge in the whimsical marriage of pairing surprising and disparate words and phrases together. Indulge in the process of adapting memory and feeling into letters.
Next time you hit a barricade in your journey towards prowess, retreat, establish a more resilient footing, and take that first step in your desired direction, and make it an amazing first step.
Don’t worry about that obstacle — you’ll be too busy enjoying your wandering to notice that you’ve elegantly plowed through it.