A psychologist who I follow wrote once about what he called ‘vegetating in potential’. It is a concept I had never heard phrased so clearly before and it shocked me into awakening to an aspect of my work and creative flow that is not good.
It is a subversive force that certain personality types are more prone to, but I think in differing areas of our life, we all are guilty of it. It’s an affliction that’s particularly hard to notice as it comes when we feel good and have made progress – not a time when one is usually on the lookout for pitfalls.
The Greeks knew about it, it's been around for a long time… It's called resting on your laurels.
The first fruits are sickly sweet
A very recent example of it in my work is having just finished building Lean Musician’s website. We’re just up and running with it, and it looks and feels great. There's great images, satisfying fonts – and it's nicely mobile responsive (*geek warning… in case you hadn't noticed already).
There is something incredibly satisfying and trustworthy about the work one does on websites. It’s like new media carpentry – the objective is clear; build a great website, and when it’s done – you have the entire fruits of your labour to observe in front of you.
The embarrassing thing to admit to you is that in the past, I have all too often stopped at this point; the point of the first win. I’ve sat and basked in the feeling of having achieved something, as opposed to pushing onwards and reaping greater rewards and growing more.
The thing is, it's more pervasive than this – I do it when I buy new software or virtual instruments for my sequencer. I've bought the thing so that my creativity can benefit, but then action on using it doesn't come immediately, and in the worst cases – I just vegetate in the potential of all I could do with the new tools or information. Buying books for your shelf is the archetypal example of this…
Can you relate? I know it's unconscious, and we don’t do it all the time – but why do we do it at all?
Getting out of bed feels uncomfortable
The part of you that enjoys that feeling – really loves it. It wants more of it. Having tried hard to achieve such comfort – it doesn’t want to move on, back out into the cold, and so it keeps you in the warmth of your recent achievements. From that place, it prefers to project a future that feels like the current chemicals running through your brain, as opposed to a future of uncertainty and more challenge.
So you go nowhere, and waste time. Whilst you can walk through your life for a period of time with a warm feeling of satisfaction – of potential, the water is only rising around your feet and after a while – the feeling will go, and you'l have nothing to show for it.
There is a clear difference between genuinely celebrating achievement, and laurel-resting. It's so important to celebrate your wins, so don't think I'm being harsh here. I have been getting to know the latter creature in myself for a while now, and today I know I need to get rid of it more, as it doesn't help.
Informing the child inside
The thing that the childish musician in me finds hard to integrate and has done for years is that not all creativity feels good.
Immediately I’m reading that last sentence back as a reader and thinking I sound like one of those jaded, tired and cynical adults who like to tell you ‘how life is’, or ‘what being an artist is really like’. That is NOT who I am or what I am saying, and a million miles away from what I’m about.
No, what I’m about is something much more hopeful and inspiring – but deeper than just blue sky, pumped-up platitudes that say creativity is a breeze.
All of us got into the the music we make because it felt good (or if we didn’t we are trying to find it now). As you grow as a musician though, you hit challenges, roadblocks, boring towns that feel like nothing going nowhere, and you wonder why you got into music in the first place.
The child in us just wants to feel good all the time, and so when we’re not feeling good, something inside of us wordlessly thinks we must not be doing music anymore, or not properly anyway. We stop, don’t push onward and go back to the departure lounge looking for something else, something more immediate and shiny. We think we took the wrong flight, as opposed to admitting that journey’s take time.
Momentum and Commitment
What I'm discovering at the moment is a commitment to momentum. Momentum for me means three things: 1 – pushing through the pain barrier, and 2 – having a diverse portfolio of projects that you work on, and 3 – moving straight on to the next thing. Let me explain each of them.
1. Pushing through the pain
There is a principle that I talk about a lot which is deceptively simple. It's the warm up.
Warm ups are something we discount in the process of practice and creation. We expect that if we've sat down to create good music and we have some skill under our belts – that music will come, or it will feel good. This is often not true, and the more you expect or feel entitled to this feeling, the more it will elude you.
What we need as practicing musicians is often a more humble attitude towards practice and creation. Our work is to push through this first stage to a point where we are supple enough for true inspiration, musical connection and creativity to come through. We can't roll out of bed and expect miracles to happen, it's deeper than that.
2. Having a diverse portfolio
Projects have stages: inception, hard-graft, crisis, renaissance, completion… to name a few. People who haven't matured in their creative process tend to feel exactly where they are in their most significant project. When it's going well, they are elated, when it's tough – they doubt everything.
The thing is, it's really hard to not identify with your work. But there is a way to mitigate the negative effects – diversify.
Having multiple projects on the go spreads your identification; you no longer are someone who's writing that piece – you are a composer who is really busy with a rich number of projects. Or your no longer a pianist who feels like they are going nowhere in a band – you are a freelance session musician with a growing career.
3. Move straight on to the next thing
Moving on to the next thing, the second you finish it probably feels quite harsh to many. It's like a machine that just keeps moving and never gets to appreciate what it's done. What's the point?
My advice is to keep the momentum. Celebrate later – that evening, or the next morning. For now, move straight on. Celebrate when you are resting, not creating. Always have a project on the go, or at least right around the corner (except when you know it's time to have a holiday – of course you should clear your plate).
Nike's slogan, whilst being a little too simplistic – has power. Noting the cold, the discomfort and moving past it – warming it up – is a great mindset skill to involve yourself in. Let me know how this lands, and whether it helps your work.