One thing that held me back for years from writing my own music was a fear of failure. “What if it’s not good enough? What if no one likes it?” This fear led to an obsession with perfection. I thought I had to create something perfect (whatever that meant) for it to be appreciated. I needed to compose it perfectly. Capture it perfectly. Mix and master it perfectly. There could be no flaws.
(Even as I write and edit this, I feel the tension between wanting to just get out my thoughts, and looking back trying to make sure it’s expressed perfectly, most accessibly, etc. Perhaps I’ll rewrite these ideas later on and reframe them in a way that’s more accessible. It’s hard to know if this will resonate. After spending two hours writing, I even thought of scrapping it altogether. The struggle is real! I thought the same about “slow waltz” before it was released. “Should I bother? Is it any good?” Only to hear from others how much it’s meant to them. You can never know ahead of time what will and will not resonate.)
An obsession with perfection, as you may have experienced, can be counterproductive and hold us back. Does our perfectionistic tendency have a place in the creative process, though? I think so.
where does creative inspiration come from?
Think about a time you felt inspired to create. We’re you out walking in nature? Did you feel a gentle breeze kiss your skin? The warm embrace of the sun? Did you witness a powerful storm, standing on the coastline? Maybe you listened to a beautiful piece of music, or read a poem that lit something up inside you. Maybe it was a divine meal shared with a loved one.
Whatever it was, it probably involved the senses. Something deep inside was stirred after you touched, tasted, listened, smelled, looked, felt. It was a spontaneous reaction. “I want to create this feeling in the world.”
In nature, life moves and breathes spontaneously, in reaction to forces around and within. A hurricane is simply a force responding to other forces around it. Flowers grow as their seeds are acted upon by soil, sun and water. Lions hunt as their stomachs lead them.
I think of the creative impulse in the same way. It drives us forward to make something because we’ve been acted upon by other forces, within and without.
creativity requires work & effort
If it were that simple, though—if it were just a matter of inspiration—we’d all be effortlessly creating beautiful works of art. The reality is, creating does not come effortlessly. It requires work.
There are things to learn and techniques to master. It’s rare for something to come so easily to someone. (Prodigies are far and few between.) This can be the trap of YouTube and social media. We find inspiration there. But we also see the finished products. We see those who are excelling, far beyond what we could imagine for ourselves.
What we don’t see, though, is how long it took them to get there. How much work they had to put into honing their craft.
This should never stop us from creating, though.
For example, one of the reasons I burned out so hard in college is because I compared myself to others in the conservatory who were better. They had better technique. They were better at performing because they didn’t get as nervous. They had better ears and musical recall, and some even had perfect pitch. They could play Chopin Etudes in a way I could only dream of. I didn’t feel like I could keep up.
What I didn’t embrace at the time, of course, was that we’re all different. We all have different strengths.
My desire for virtuosity and perfection had mixed motivations. Yes, I wanted people to be impressed by how fast and technically accurate I could play. Yet deeper down I wanted virtuosity to serve the music.
After that burnout, it took me a long, long time to recalibrate and return to the piano.
balancing our desire for technical perfection with creative inspiration
So how do we balance this desire for perfection with creative inspiration? Why do we want perfection in the first place? Many times there’s vanity tied up in it. (There certainly can be for me.) But I think we also desire perfection because we want the music to come through, unhindered. We don’t want wrong notes, a botched performance or a poor recording to get in the way of someone’s listening experience.
We want technical perfection to serve the delivery of the music. This is a good desire.
It’s good to learn proper technique, so we don’t injure ourselves. Good technique helps set free the creative energy flowing through our body and instrument. It allows us to be a conduit for the music.
In recording, for example, it’s good to understand the different kinds of microphones, and why we set them up in a particular way. To understand how to avoid phase issues. It’s helpful to understand the basics of EQ, compression, limiting, and bussing, etc.
If you’re an artist, it helps to understand anatomy.
If you want to keep your car in good condition, it helps to understand why tire pressure, air intake and proper fluid levels are important.
Understanding your tools, and knowing how to use them is important, regardless of the craft.
keeping perfection at bay and letting our creativity flow
So how do we keep this perfectionistic tendency at bay, and let our creativity flow? I think it’s important to let ourselves live with the tension between perfection and creative inspiration.
If you want the ideas in your head to come through clearly, you have to learn technique.
But don’t wait until your technique is perfect.
In order to get better at your craft and the technique required to deliver it, you need to practice imperfectly.
You need to do it before you think you’re ready. If you want to create, but struggle to think of yourself as creative, you need to practice doing it in spite of your self-limiting beliefs. You need to compose before you think of yourself as a composer. You need to draw before you think you’re an artist.
(Note: I realize this can feel impossible at times. And that’s okay, too. Sometimes we need months or years to heal from some kind of hurt or trauma. Give yourself that time, and pursue healing, first. Creating just for yourself can be part of that healing process.)
At the same time, mindset is everything. Believing that we have something to offer can transform everything. Consistently believing you are an artist can propel you forward. Until one day you wake up and acknowledge, “I am an artist.”
what does it mean to be an “artist” or “composer”? do we ever “arrive”?
What does it mean to arrive at this point, though? Are you an artist or composer when someone pays you for your work? When you pass 10,000 followers on Instagram, or a million streams on Spotify? Of course not. Such measurements are shallow indicators you’ve arrived.
Instead, it’s an inner-knowing. You simply know and believe you are creating something beautiful and valuable in the world.
Does nature and the universe need people to acknowledge and praise its beauty for it to be beautiful? There are things no human eye will ever see—in the depths of the ocean, a remote mountain crevice, a hidden cave, and the farthest reaches of the universe—that are still immensely and incredibly beautiful.
What you make isn’t beautiful or valuable because others acknowledge it or pay you for it. It’s beautiful because it came from your soul.
I’m convinced that creating is an overflow of emotion. It could be sadness or joy, despair or happiness, or perhaps a complex combination of emotions. Either way, it needs to emerge from your soul.
Beauty doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It comes through the struggle.
Paraphrasing some Taoist wisdom:
If you want to create effortlessly
without learning technique,
you don’t understand what it means to be an artist.
You can’t have one without the other.
To give this more context, the original states:
If you want to have right without wrongFrom The Second Book of the Tao, Stephen Mitchell (No. 45)
or order without disorder,
you don’t understand the Tao.
You can’t have one quality
and not have its opposite as well.
You can’t reach for the positive
and not create the negative
by the very act of your reaching.
Let it unfold. Let it take time. Create while learning your craft. Don’t wait until you can do it perfectly.