Lessons Learned From a Self-Conscious Creative
Read time: 10 minutes (its going to feel like forever though)
Art by: Sara-Jane Scholfield
I grew up convinced that if I didn’t become a professional athlete, I would die. I then swapped my hockey gloves for a pair of drumsticks and majored in music throughout university. I was then bit by the entrepreneurial bug and I started my own company. Now, the two things consuming my attention most are my passions for psychology and writing. In my last article, I talked about why creativity should be our new definition of success and why it’s the best way to make life more beautiful. But what if the creative projects that we hold so dear are the causes of our mental health problems? What if our worries seem to always come from our craft?
I’ve “switched” passions too many times to count, and I used to let it get me down. I’d be absorbed in a new subject, and constantly interrupted with worries that if I just stuck to ONE thing, that I surely could have “made it” by now. Looking back on it, I switched away from music because every time I played, I was crippled with fear. I loved the idea of being a great drummer, and had the dedication to make it happen, but every time I played, the only thing I cared about was if people thought I was “good” or not. With every mistake I made, I believed that people now had evidence that I was a horrible drummer. I’ve since realized it wasn’t a lack of passion, dedication, or skill that held me back from achieving my rock star dreams. What held me back was a negative mindset. What held me back was simply that I cared too much about what other people thought of my playing. Maybe, if I practiced my mindset as much as I honed my technical skills, I wouldn’t have ever put the sticks down. I now believe that every artist should learn some basic principles in psychology to improve their art and their lives.
Before we dive in, I’d like to clarify that a “creative” doesn’t have to be an artist. A creative is anybody who brings new ideas and new ways of thinking to what they’re doing. Entrepreneurs are creatives, the world’s top athletes are creatives, great leaders are creatives, amazing parents are creatives, just as much as artists are creatives. Basically, we’re creating something NEW to solve complicated problems that are circulating our minds. Like how to create a profitable business, how to get around the defensemen, how to motivate a team, or how to express a feeling you have on canvas. These problems are difficult to solve, so difficult that they make us question whether we’re smart enough to solve them. So difficult that sometimes we feel like quitting. Only when we resist this temptation can we truly master our crafts.
Every sane creative has experienced the feeling of fear when trying something new, sharing a new idea, or showcasing a fresh new painting. Usually, it’s a fear of what other people think of our art. Sharing our art puts us in a vulnerable position. We pour an insane amount of energy into it, and have no idea if it’s “good” or not. So we use other people’s reactions as measuring sticks for our talent.
Caring what other people think is paralyzing, it makes you hold back from writing a poop joke when you think a poop joke would be the perfect analogy for your article. Some people would definitely hate reading a poop joke in a psychology article, but some would become lifelong fans, because it’s hilarious and fun. There’s a reason Mark Manson sells so many books. Our creative process HAS to be fun for us, or we’ll convince ourselves that the energy we pour into it isn’t worth it, we’ll convince ourselves that our negative thoughts were right.
Now, telling you to “not care what other people think” may sound like shit advice. Because everybody says it, and it’s NOT that easy. Most people who seem to give that advice, aren’t usually able to clearly communicate HOW to stop caring about what people think. I’ve always understood that it’s important, but how do I do it? As a self-conscious creative myself, I’ve found a way. Through the sum of my passions for music, poop jokes, and psychology, I’ve discovered how to not care what others think of my art in a logical way.
First off, when a creative person “stops” pursuing one passion and starts exploring a new one, the old passions don’t magically disappear, the knowledge they gained in passion A will help them understand passion B (or passion W in my case.)
Sometimes, we may mistakenly keep “taking a break from” or we “put down” our passions until we learn how to get over the fear that has followed us throughout our lives in general. We think we’ll be a better “fit” for something new, and that we won’t be as self-conscious with a different art form. But getting over self-doubt is a deeper problem than that, and it’s what I wish my music teachers were able to teach a young 18 year Jeremy in university.
I’ve recently had an epiphany that music (my passion B) can actually help creatives understand some complex concepts in psychology (my passion W) which can help them get over the same worries and fears that I’ve experienced as an athlete, musician, entrepreneur and writer. These concepts will help you perform better as a creative and help you extract your best creative ideas. Think of it like sports psychology… but for creatives.
We’ve all experienced certain pieces of music that correlate perfectly with the moods we’re in. When you’re asked to be in control of the music on a road trip, your first question is usually “What are you feeling?” If you’re alone and sad after a breakup, John Mayer has you covered. If you just hit your thumb with a hammer, Metallica will help channel the pain. If you’re on top of the world because you just had the best day, you can enhance this experience with some James Brown.
It’s not just the words in these songs that determine the mood. The harmonies behind the words are usually the most important part of the mood or feel. Certain musicians dedicate their lives to making you feel the emotions the director wants you to feel during a movie. Using music to enhance emotion is what the art of film scoring (my passion C) is. When you watch a movie and the bad guy walks up, there is usually some creepy, eerie music playing in the background that makes you not like him. When Orlando Bloom finally kisses Keira Knightley (my passion D) the orchestra plays beautiful music with amazing harmonies to make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Without the music, movies would be hard to follow.
The connection between music and our minds goes a lot deeper than just how we feel. Even a basic understanding of music can help us understand three very important principles in psychology. These three principles are: Chaos, Order, and Entropy. Understanding Chaos, Order, and Entropy is foundational in being able to understand our minds, and being able to make the changes necessary to improve the quality our lives. Especially if you’re searching for more confidence in your creative expression.
Don’t worry, these complex concepts of chaos, order, and entropy don’t need to be fully understood in a detailed textbook type of way in order to help us. They’re better understood “felt,” just like music. A visit to a 100 person classical symphony orchestra will help us “feel” these definitions.
Imagine you visit an orchestra, and on the program is an intricate piece of music by J.S. Bach. But, it’s being performed by 100 people who just learned their instruments 2 months ago. They would likely be playing the wrong notes, be off-time, and playing at the wrong volume level. The “music” would sound like shit. The only way you wouldn’t want the song to end as soon as possible would be if your kid was playing lead violin. This beginner orchestra would be an example of when things are out of control and disorganized. This disorganization, this shit music is an example of CHAOS. Chaos in our mental health is associated with anxiety and depression.
If we then visited a professional 100-piece orchestra playing the same beautiful symphony by J.S. Bach, they’d play the piece together in perfect harmony. All of these professional musicians have perfected their instrument over thousands of hours of practice. Every violin, cello, flute and oboe is carefully tuned to the same key, all playing at a predetermined volume level and speed (dynamics and tempo for the musicians reading.) The conductor ties everything together to ensure the most honest interpretation of the piece. This cooperation amongst every single person in the orchestra comes together and provides an experience that makes you feel something. Something that you’d want to last as long as possible. This professional orchestra is an example of things being under control or organized. This organization, is ORDER. Order in our mental health is associated with feeling good, having high energy levels, and overall happiness.
Being creative, whether you’re a painter, a writer or an entrepreneur, is a process of transforming complicated thoughts and ideas in your head that feel and sound like the beginner orchestra, into organized thoughts and ideas that feel and sound like the professional orchestra. Creativity is taking complex thoughts that are swirling around your head like turds in a toilet bowl into beautiful, fully formed pieces of art like the Mona Lisa. A great piece of art comes from an artist genuinely creating order out of their own internal chaos. Being creative, and being happy, is THE PROCESS of creating order out of chaos. And this process is insanely difficult. This process is difficult because of the almighty power of ENTROPY.
Imagine if we took all of the instruments in an orchestra and left them outside for 5 years with no protection from the elements. Would the instruments sound the same after this 5 years of neglect? No. It’s easy to predict that the instruments would deteriorate, fall apart, and no longer produce the beautiful sounds they once did. The reason is because of one of the strongest forces in nature, ENTROPY. Entropy is basically a universal law in physics that without an external energy source, the natural tendency for things is to decay and “fall apart,” or become “less complex.” An egg can only break and rot, or be eaten, it can’t become a better egg.
Things like violins, eggs, animals, and environments need extreme amounts of energy to maintain their “perfect” status, to grow, to get better, or become “more complex.” Without an external energy source, these things would get worse, get less complex, or decay. If you maintain a humid and safe environment for your violin (a case,) your effort would be the external energy source needed for the violin not to decay into a rotten piece of wood.
If we were in the middle of the biggest and steepest and soapiest Slip N’ Slide in the world on stairs, entropy would be the gravity pulling us down, and chaos would be what would happen if we would slip. Order would be reaching the top of the staircase free of injury and winning the Japanese game show. This slippery, soapy, stairy, Slip N’ Slide is about as accurate as I can describe the struggle of the creative process. This is also about as accurate as I can describe how difficult creating order out of chaos is.
When we’re worried about what others think of our art and our self-worth depends on it, we’re in a negative, chaotic mindset. When we’re in this chaotic mindset, we’re in “fight or flight,” we’re reactionary, we’re stressed. We’re consumed by the need to end the chaos, we need to make things make sense again, we need order! The easiest way to make it stop would be to quit, which is why it’s so tempting sometimes. But the struggle is what makes the finished product so worth it, so quitting isn’t an option. When we find a way to create order out of this chaos, our mind gives us the ultimate rewards: Relaxation and Happiness. When we put order to the chaos, we’ve achieved something, we won the current battle against entropy, and deserve some positive feelings.
When we’re creating, we’re at war with entropy. We may have a lot of confusing thoughts and emotions that we want to express in our project, but entropy is trying to slow down our progress as soon as it can. One of the best strategies entropy uses to slide us back down into chaos is placing the virus of self-doubt in our minds. These are the worries that we’re not good enough, and these worries multiply exponentially when we assume that others are thinking negatively about our art. But when we assume they’re thinking negatively, it’s because WE think negatively. And that’s what we have to change.
This self-doubt can now be viewed as entropy trying to bring us down that slippery slope of soapy stairs into chaos. If we start to view this struggle as our current battle against entropy, and as an inevitable part of the process, we can start to recognize the struggle, and even ENJOY the struggle. We can embrace the negative thoughts and self-doubt that are inevitable and welcome them as old friends, and politely ask them to leave so we can focus on our art. This is a mindset better suited for our creativity.
When art truly resonates with somebody, when that John Mayer song is PERFECT for what you’re feeling at the moment, it’s because that’s what John Mayer was feeling during the process of writing it. Your complicated shitstorm feelings aligned with the shitstorm feelings John had while he was writing. John happened to have complex, chaotic thoughts and feelings in his mind, and John put in the work to win the war against entropy and come out with a musical Mona Lisa that put order to the chaos in HIS mind. John spent a lot of energy creating order out of that specific chaos in HIS life. So now, you don’t have to waste energy creating order out of that same chaos in YOUR life. He’s saved you a lot of time and energy by writing that song if you think about it. This song enabled him to relax because he expressed what he was feeling, and he can now move on.
That finished product in form of song is an example of creating order out of chaos in art. When the artist makes sense of something that didn’t make sense to you before, you’ll interpret that art as beautiful. If not, you’ll forever go on thinking that John Mayer’s career was based on luck.
If your art is a true expression of creating order out of the chaotic thoughts in your head, it’s only going to align and speak to those who have a similar chaos in their minds. If your art misses the mark with a close friend, it’s simply because you have different chaotic thoughts that you both need to solve at that point in time. It’s not because you’re a bad writer, or because you’re lazy and don’t put in the work. It’s because you need a different reader whos chaos is similar to the chaos you experience and wanted resolved. Understanding THIS is how you can eliminate that gut wrenching fear of showing somebody a new piece of art. REALLY understanding this thought will help you perform better not only as a creator, but in life.
So, if I could speak to 18 year old Jeremy West who was in university for music, I’d tell him that he shouldn’t focus on what people are thinking of his playing. He should focus on being genuine in trying to create the “professional orchestra sounds” in his head out of the “beginner orchestra sounds.” He should focus on just playing the best music he can. He should focus on being better than he was yesterday, he should focus on PROGRESS. Because if he doesn’t, he’ll have that same fear in his relationships, in his next passion, and in his entire life. And it’ll take successfully walking up a lot of steep, slippery, soapy stairs without worrying if people are laughing at him or not, if he wants to “make it” as a creator.