Be A Little Bit Sad About Your Work

Jan 21, 2014

Whatever your discipline, this has happened to you:

You saw something, or you heard something, or you interacted with something that just completely blew you away. It got so many things right in a tantalizing and surprising way. It delighted you. You thought “Hey, I didn’t know that was allowed! You can do that!?” It broke the rules, or taught why something was a rule, or both at once.

And then you got depressed. You are never going to measure up. You’re not going to make a simliar contribution.

For me this is what my life is like listening to and creating music, and I would contend that having feelings like that is a crucial part of a thriving artistic impulse. The key is you can’t let it destroy you. In the right proportion, being knocked on your ass every once in awhile helps you innovate and grow.

The Alternative

If you are exceedingly pleased with all of your aristic output, it’s going to be mostly shit. You’ll never advance. You’ll be baking mudpies unaware that you could use real ingredients to make cakes and cookies.

If you are invariably thrilled, then you’ll never do an extra take, you’ll never try stripping a mix down to its barest elements or try adding that percussion or come back to something a day later with fresh ears. You’ll just ship out the first thing that comes bumbling out of you.

And you’d never learn from it. You need the criticism and attention to detail to know why your stuff isn’t good - not yet.

A healthy obsession

Something that I have observed about artistic endeavors is the phenomenon entering into a paradoxically narcissistic-yet-empathetic obsession with the quality of what I am making. It’s a paradox to me because when you’re in the zone, you’re razor focused on your own creation with its flaws and potential, but at the same time you are constantly putting yourself in other people’s shoes, trying to imagine a 3rd party reaction, striving to make an impact beyond yourself.

I don’t know if that’s actually a thing - empathetic narcissism - but it’s a way I’ve been trying to think about the creative self-absorbtion that happens to artists of all stripes.

How do you find the balance in demanding excellence without completely disabling yourself?

If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth checking out Ira Glass’ rant about the gap between your taste and your abilities.