Improvisation On An Out-Of-Tune Spinet

It’s one of those mornings. Hectic, exhausted, and creatively stifled as my schedule is all messed up. A formerly hot cup of black coffee nearby, kids playing in the background, and a few minutes at the piano to stretch my artistic muscles. This might be all I get to do today and I’m trying to remind myself that it’s okay.

 

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10 Skills Every Artist Needs For Success

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If you follow this list I can’t guarantee that you’ll be a millionaire or have a legacy like Picasso. You may not have incredible talent or mastery of your craft. But if you combine the following list of skills with talent there’s almost nothing you can’t achieve.

Now, perhaps a few people will complain and say that some of the choices I’ve made below aren’t exactly skills per se’ but are more like character traits. I would argue that a skill is anything you learn. Its something you practice and repeat over and over. By seeing health, or mental toughness, or protecting the downside as a skill to be learned, it gives you the freedom to not be perfect and learn as you go.

CHARACTER VS. COMPETENCE(SKILLS)

Too often, after some business or personal failure, people will beat themselves up for thinking they have ‘bad character’ when what they really have are underdeveloped skills. Character traits like loyalty, honesty, integrity etc will help you stay grounded and healthy as you move toward developing your competence and skills. You need both but I’m assuming and hoping you have good character. What you need are some skills to help you get to that next level as a creative person.

Here is my list of ten skills that you need to succeed in todays world as an artist.

1) Mental Toughness

Mental toughness is about handling pressure and not being impacted by what people think. As an artist there is already a lot of vulnerability as we expose our emotions, but in todays world, with social media, we open ourselves up to massive criticism from complete strangers. I’ve had friends who thought they were being funny with a silly comment to something I’ve shared online but actually it came out really hurtful. Just imagine how it feels when a complete stranger unloads their venom in a vicious attack? You have to be tough mentally and know how to keep going and ignore that criticism and comments. Even more so when its your own inner critic.  Mental toughness helps you face the uphill climb and not give up when you want to quit.

2) Discipline

You’d think this is pretty obvious, and it is, but its amazing how important follow through and work ethic are to success. Not so much the 4:30am workout routines or working 19 hours a day, although the evidence for early rising is pretty strong, I’m referring more to the discipline to see things through. Finish what you start. Even if it takes a year to finish something you should have been able to do in a couple days, the rewards of eventually completing is the greatest feeling in the world. Keep going.

3) Protect the Downside (make sure there’s a way out so you can walk away and try again).

This is super important and where most of my entrepreneurial mistakes have usually come from. Be sure to create an exit plan when you’re hatching up an idea or business. Before you make a huge investment ask yourself what the worst case scenario is and then protect yourself from those outcomes. In the early 80’s, when Richard Branson was running a successful record label, he decided to start an airline. Instead of putting his entire empire in jeopardy by buying an expensive plane and hoping he made money he negotiated with Boeing to let him lease one and if after a year he decided to shut the airline down he could return the plane no questions asked.  Simple but very smart.

4) Willing to Experiment (and fail)

If you are afraid to try new things and possibly make a mistake here or there you’ll miss out on incredible opportunities. Maybe you are afraid of ruining your brand. Unless you try you’ll never know. Maybe you’re afraid people won’t like it. Its also possible you might find a new audience you didn’t know was there. There’s always a trade off. A willingness to experiment is fundamental to being an artist. Don’t be afraid of making crap. Everyone feels this way. Its healthy and important to do it anyway.

5) Have An Open Mind

Visit new places, try a new type of food, try a new experience, be willing to learn new things. You have to be open to the world around you. Its how you increase your archive of ideas in order to create. If you only listen to one kind of music then you’ll only copy that sound. Listen to a lot of different styles and you’ll combine them into something original.

6) Empathy

What makes an artist relatable? Empathy. Why? Because it allows you to connect with your characters, your audience, your collaborators, in a way that is human and real. If you are portraying Hitler standing in the hot sun before a large crowd ready to give a speech, empathy allows you to understand that he got hot and sweaty too, and you wipe your brow. Now, an audience can relate to him as a human. A flawed, psycho, very real human. When we lack empathy we often create art that is flat and one dimensional. If we can be empathetic with our medium or expression the painting or music etc has more soul and life in it. Now we are connecting not just creating.

7) Discernment Of People

You need to know how to ‘read the air’ around people. Beyond what someone says, knowing what they are thinking or feeling is super important. This skill set will give you Jedi like abilities of knowing how to negotiate contracts, how to build trust and love among friends, and how to communicate with an audience.

8) Basic Money Management

If you can’t manage your money find someone who can. Make sure you know enough to be sure you aren’t getting ripped off. Your art is more important than your money but your money is important so you can keep making more art.

9) Ability to Network 

This isn’t as big a deal as you might think but being able to find mentors, teachers, new friends and contacts is incredibly important. Learn to be interested in others. Ask questions. You’ll avoid countless mistakes by being curious about other people’s stories and learning from them. You’ll also find more work, build more relationships and expand your worldview.

10) Personal Health

If you aren’t healthy you have nothing. Physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health is fundamental to the life of an artist. You’ll live longer, be happier, and inspire more people. Don’t sacrifice your health for your art. Its not worth it.

How I Quit Worrying And Started Creating

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For most of my life I struggled to create anything because I was always waiting for the conditions to be right. I was waiting for inspiration to strike, for the coffee to be brewed perfectly, for all my ideas to be worked out in my head, before I ever started. I felt this overwhelming sense that anything I created would never be as good as someone else’s. I was gripped with fear and self doubt and I was way too caught up in my head.

The problem was that I didn’t understand how creativity works. Instead of waiting for creativity and inspiration to strike I needed to learn to find a way to master the muse.

THERE ARE THREE WAYS TO DO THIS:

1) Narrow Your Options

Whether its time, materials or methods, finding a way to cut out all the possible options is key. One of the most successful musical albums I’ve ever created was produced in a week. Instead of endlessly wrestling with all the crazy ideas I had swimming around in my head for years I decided to simply record a solo piano album. I wrote, performed, mixed, and mastered the whole thing in seven days and people love it. By putting restrictions on myself it forced me to say no to a lot of decisions that could have normally caused me anxiety and wasted my time.

2) Make A Game Of It

Often times, creating our own deadlines or having someone who pushes us as a creative partner can help keep the juices flowing. Games are fun. When you’re playing a game the adrenaline kicks in and you get your mind off of being self conscious and all you care about is the game and winning.  The reason so many successful business people call what they do a ‘game’ is because it dehumanizes it and allows them to make choices based on winning and not on how it affects the people around them.  I’m not saying that’s right or wrong, but what I’m saying is that if you’re having trouble being creative, tricking your brain into thinking what you’re doing is simply a game will help you have way less anxiety about getting things ‘right or wrong’.  It’s just a game, so let’s relax and have fun and watch the ideas start to flow.

3) Under Think It

You’ve heard it said, “don’t over think it”. Well, what does that mean? Over thinking is the curse we face where we take some information we’ve received and we start running down every potential scenario about what could go wrong. This is usually only a good idea for engineers at NASA and other dangerous professions where people’s lives are at stake. When it comes to brainstorming or trying to be creative don’t over think your options. Its easy to get analysis paralysis. Where you overanalyze so much you can’t actually make a decision. Instead, under think it. Stop considering that every idea is so valuable it has to be looked at through a microscope.

We often believe that creativity is this thing that comes out of nowhere that the gods impart to us. That in the midst of our boring uneventful day any moment some brilliant idea will come upon us and then that’s when we put in the work.

The truth is, creativity IS work. To create means to MAKE something. Creativity isn’t some abstract thing but its the process of making something. A creator is someone who brings things to life. Whether it be an idea, a project, a person, or a universe.

Too often, people will believe they aren’t creative. As though creativity is about having an original idea and everything they think of isn’t very ‘creative’.

Creativity is a byproduct of ‘the process’. 

We tend to think creativity is some abstract thing but its no different than work. The more you do the easier it gets and the more ideas flow.

JUST DO IT

If you ever went to Sunday School as a kid you’ll remember the Bible talking about how God created the world in six days, and then rested from his work. It wasn’t that He ran out of ideas but that the creative act needed a break.
If we could show up everyday and put the work in ideas would show up. The reason you don’t have any ideas is because you’re probably over thinking things and not being active to discipline yourself everyday to put in the work. As John Maxwell says, you “have uphill hopes and downhill habits”.

If you wait to get inspired to work out you’ll never get in shape physically. But work out daily, whether you feel like it or not, and when those moments come when you’re excited about exercise you’ll be in shape and enjoy it even more.

If you’re a writer. Write. Anything. It doesn’t matter. Some guys will write about their morning bowel movement just to put thoughts on paper. If you’re a painter. Then paint. Paint the sky. Paint a flower. Don’t wait to be inspired. Most of what you make won’t be great. So what? If you don’t consider yourself a writer or a painter then do those things anyway. Let go. Draw a picture of a tree. Now you’re an artist. Its that easy. Stop worrying about the quality of your work or what people will think. Just make things. Of course it sucks. Its like cooking. The more you do it, the more higher quality meals you eat, the more your taste buds will develop. The more refined your pallet becomes the better chef you’ll be. Art is the same way.  Increase your intake of quality and as you copy it and learn from it you’ll find your own tastes improving as you decide what you like and don’t like.

COPY THE MASTERS

For those that believe they aren’t creative enough you need to ask yourself if your definition of creativity is wrong. Maybe you’ve been thinking about making a Youtube video or a short film, but you ‘don’t have any ideas’. Perhaps you want to draw something or sew a quilt but you don’t have any ideas.

First of all, you probably lack the skill and craft to truly be original so stop worrying about it. Just copy others. Look at other artists or businesses or ideas out there and see what moves you emotionally. Get inspired that way. Copy everything you can. When you feel you’ve mastered one style of something change it up and explore another. Eventually, your skill and craft, and the time invested, will give you the tools needed to branch out on your own.

You’ll start thinking of a song you’ve been writing in the style of Elton John but you love this Stevie Wonder lick and how Metallica kicks off that anthem you’ve listening to. You’ll start combining and blending things. You’ll eventually find your own voice.
Sitting around and waiting for that epiphany to hit is the surest way to frustration. Your brain isn’t wired that way. It needs references and experiences like a well you draw from, to give you the resources to create.  Fill your well from lots of different sources and you’ll never run out of water.

If creativity is the work, then your life experiences are the tools needed to bring that work to life. As you add to your life experiences and put in the work eventually you’ll start to find your own voice and begin coming up with something original and unique.  Until then, just relax and play and have fun. Some people don’t do that. They are original geniuses who create masterpieces out of thin air. Those people are immortal gods that the rest of us just marvel at. That’s not you and that’s not me. We are mere mortals. Embrace it and go make your art.

FINAL THOUGHTS

For me, the three steps above have been a tremendous help in freeing up my mind to simply embrace the moment and put in the work.  When I realized that creativity was simply the act of making something I no longer worried about the outcome but focused more on the journey.  There is a huge metaphor for life here.  Stop worrying about the goal and simply use it to chart the direction you walk.

The real joy is in the travel not the destination anyway.

Stop Doing and Start Being


Do more!

Hustle Harder!

He who works the hardest wins!

We live in a world obssessed with work. Work is great. Doing things is healthy, in a way, but being consumed with winning and competition is pointless and not healthy at all. So you make a ton of money or you achieve your goal to travel the world? So what? It doesnt make you any better than anyone else. There’s no first place ribbons given out at death that you take with you into the afterlife.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m NOT saying don’t have goals and dreams or don’t be competitive. This isn’t about handing everyone a trophy. I’m talking about focus. If your legacy was simply about how much you aquired, or how hard you worked compared to others, you’ve achieved nothing of value.

PERSPECTIVE

One time I interviewed for a part time job at a crematorium. I was going to be picking up the dead bodies at the hospital and other places and bringing them back to be cremated. I met with the owner. We talked about the job but I also asked him what lessons he had learned about life by owning a place like this.

He had two answers.

1) Everybody dies with a ‘todo’ list left unfinished.

2) We spend an incredible amount of money to help keep someone alive for a few extra months but what’s the point? They eventually die and now the family is deeply in debt. There’s no reason for it in the long run. Everyone dies and all that money and effort for a few extra hours was for naught.

That meeting had a profound impact on me.

Everyday I push myself to ‘do’ things. When I have a day where I’m not productive I feel like it was a wasted day. Why? Because we’ve been programmed that way. Society loves to get us to work harder and be more efficient because that’s how people make money. Like I said earlier, work is great and there’s joy and value in it, but just ‘being’ is something that we should actually celebrate more.  We need to know that our value comes from God and what He thinks of us, not what people think, and He thinks you’re pretty amazing.

Are you breathing? Are you healthy? Are there people who love you? Do you love them?

So what if you don’t write your masterpiece today? So what if you don’t work a 100 hours this week on your business? What if you don’t complete that ToDo list?

You still die one day and one of three things will happen:

1) You and your work will eventually be forgotten.

2) Maybe you’ll be famous and someone else will come along and write your biography but you’ll have no control over what they say.

3) Someone will take the business, art, or project you worked on; and run it into the ground, destroy it, or use it in a way you would never have wanted.

And there’s nothing you can do about any of it.

I see all these posts online about hustling and winning and all that matters in life is getting to the end with your dreams realized and I think, so what? So you worked hard? You’re still gonna die like the rest of us. We all have the same grave size. You didn’t actually win anything. Whatever trophies you win in life eventually find their way into the garbage when you die.

I do love to achieve things. I get it, I really do. I love working hard, and reaching a goal or crossing things off my to do list, but no one ever gets to tie their life up in a nice little bow at the end and hand it over. Life will be taken from you. You’ll have your todo list one day and it’ll still be there, unfinished, when you die the next day, and no one will pick it up for you and finish it. It will have no value except that it consumed your life. Have a todo list to help keep your life on track but don’t let it become your life. Working all the time and ignoring your health or family are short term sacrifices that sometimes have to be made.  But when was the last time you sacrificed your work for your health or your family?  Almost no one believes that work is the most important thing in our life and yet we treat it as it is.  As though our work defines us.

I know a lot of pastors and religious leaders who believe the work they do is so important that they are willing to sacrifice their health and families in order to pursue this great calling.  They see the sacrifice of Jesus and how He had no one with Him when He died and they believe unless their life reflects that they have not given enough.  The problem with that idea is its not healthy at all.  There’s only one Messiah, and you are not Him. Jesus gave up everything so you would be able to know true health.  Physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.  Everything He lost when He died He eventually regained. Remember, the people He went to visit after His resurrection were His friends and family that had deserted Him. He went back to them to comfort them and let them know they were still loved.  He wasn’t mad at them and still saw potential in them. If you believe that not having friends or healthy relationships is a sign of your commitment to the cause you might need to take another look at what you’re serving and building.

LIFE IS NOT A COMPETITION

If you wake up today and decide to eat an extra piece of bacon or swim by the pool instead of working on that business or project why does it matter? So what if someone else beats you? Who came up with the lie that life is a competition? Why do we think there’s a finite amount of resources out there we all have to fight over? There’s more than enough to go around.

Should you get up early and go for your dreams and all that? Sure. It makes life fun. But please don’t beat yourself up for not working the hardest or that you decided to enjoy the moment and watch TV with your kids while someone else only sees theirs a few hours a week because they were too busy ‘hustling’.

In the end, you can’t take memories with you either. So if you never made it to Paris like you wanted or you never had children or never started that business relax.

The way to not live with regret is definitely to get out and do things. But in the end there’s no point in hustling so hard that you miss out on life. It goes by in a blink. Don’t regret THAT. Don’t beat yourself up for sleeping in or hanging with friends while others are working at the office. Go sit by a pond or have coffee with a friend. There’s no competition for enjoying the moment.

Don’t be afraid to simply be.

There’s a lot of hustle porn out there. Its garbage.

Make your art. Build your business. Start a family. Love your neighbors. Those are all great things but life is unpredictable.

Sometimes your art is terrible. Your business fails. You can’t get pregnant. Your neighbors hate you. It doesn’t mean anything. Its just life. Sometimes you procrastinate when others are working. So what? They don’t get a prize. They don’t win anything and you’re not a loser. Sometimes procrastination can be a good thing. Listen to your body. Find your own rhythm.

If you’re life is all about climbing the next mountain top eventually you run out of mountains. If you’re life is about being in the moment there’s an endless supply just waiting to be discovered. If the hustle brings you joy then that’s great. But if it doesn’t then that’s great too.

Do what you can to enjoy today. It might be all you have and whether you ‘do’ anything or not you still get to ‘be’ and that should be celebrated. You exist. You lived.

Human life is one of the greatest miracles in the universe. Simply existing is the greatest mathematical phenomenon ever. We are all contributors to a larger story and there are no small parts. Even if your life is quiet and simple and quickly forgotten once you pass on, you still matter.

Enjoy the music. Enjoy the sunsets. Enjoy the laughter. Enjoy the food. Enjoy your friends and family.

Life is like a morning mist. Here for a brief time and then evaporating through our fingers. Stop trying to hold on by doing. Enjoy the wonder of the moment by being present in the mist and let go.

How Do I Reinvent My Life?

Ever have moments where you feel like you’ve changed or outgrown your friends, place you live, or job? Maybe the clothes you wear no longer feel like a reflection of you and you’re beginning to wonder about making a fresh start. It’s possible you’re needing to reinvent your life. In this episode we discuss asking the right question to help you on that journey.

Mental Toughness


What does it mean to be mentality tough? Is it really that important? Wouldn’t it make more sense to encourage someone to be loving or caring or peaceful etc?

Those attributes are all great, but mental toughness is about endurance. Its about going the distance and lasting till the end. Its about dealing with adversity, and knowing who you are and being comfortable in your own skin. You can be the most loving person in the world but if you aren’t mentally tough you’ll most likely self destruct when the haters show up. And they always do.

MY JOURNEY

I was not raised to be mentally tough. That’s no criticism of my parents its just that while most students were involved in sports (where mental toughness is more often a focus) I was drawing or playing music or working in my laboratory in the basement. There were never any discussions about ‘drop and give me another twenty pushups!’ Or ‘finish what you started’. It was, oh man, I’m all out of crimson red to finish the sky in my painting so I think I’ll go cry. Or, someone said something really critical of me and my codependency issues and wanting them to like me made me want to find a corner somewhere and cry. Starting to see a pattern here?

It wasn’t until recently when I discovered some great books and teaching on mental toughness. I can see now how so much pain in my life was caused by not being able to mentally handle tough things.

Being overly sensitive to criticism. Lack of discipline or follow through. Plagued with thoughts of fear. Lack of focus.

All of these issues arise from a lack of mental toughness. People who are strong mentally are able to handle the pressure, rejection, criticism, etc because they’ve conditioned their mind to handle it. Its not like things don’t impact them but they know how to stand when the fight comes at them.

Being in shape isn’t about lifting weights in the gym, its about lifting weights in the gym so you’re in shape when you leave. You have to put the work in so you’re ready when adversity and stress comes whether mentally or physically.

NOT MY FINEST HOUR

Years ago I was employed by a company where I asked tasked with leading someone who didn’t want to be led. She had been at the company for decades and I was just another new guy hired to oversee her. She had seen guys like me come and go so there was no interest on her part in doing things the way I needed her to do them. We clashed from almost day one. I tried everything but I was immature as a leader and unable to bridge the divide.

Eventually, we were both called into a leadership meeting with the board who wanted to help find a workable solution. About five minutes into the discussion I began to cry. Not ‘Gilmore Girls reunion movie’  tears, but like ‘death in the family’ tears. Everyone was stunned. They all gathered round and tried to calm me down.

I eventually left and went into my office to pull myself together and I sat under my desk and wept like a baby. The pressure of all that conflict between myself and this person had been building up over time and I finally let it out. In a very public way.

I lacked mental toughness. I also lacked emotional health and the ability to understand my inner dialogue, or lack thereof. I’ve since learned how to recognize the signs so that I don’t let things build up like that.

Mental toughness is key to managing complicated relationships. You have to know who you are, who the other person sees when they look at you, and not let their false impression become your identity.
Mental toughness is also key to success because it will help you embrace challenges and problems others would run to avoid.

HOW CAN YOU IMPROVE YOUR MENTAL TOUGHNESS?

1) FOCUS ON IT

I’m a firm believer that unless you are intentional its hard to make anything a permanent habit or life change. There are countless books and videos that discuss the topic of mental toughness. There are great coaches and teachers discussing this issue all over the internet. Watch them. Every day. Make it a goal to listen to something about this topic several times a week for a year. You’ll be amazed at how, in a very short time, you view the world and handle conflict.

2) PRACTICE IT

Just like any muscle in your body, mental toughness takes deliberate daily work. You have to look back at situations you have been through and reevaluate them through this new lens you’ve acquired. How could you have handled things different? What situations are you in now where you feel anxiety and fear? How should you respond? Instead of worrying about where you are and how far you have to go take it a day at a time. Learn to rest in the daily decisions and choices you make and look for opportunities to practice your new skills.

3) SPEAK IT OUT: VERBALLY OR INTERNALLY

As silly as this sounds a huge part of implementing this into your life is to simply address situations with “I got this” or “I’m a little freaked out right now but I’m going to do it.” When a coworker says something that riles you up, telling yourself, “okay, no problem, I’ll work through this” has a dramatic impact on your life. I can’t explain how important it is. I think it must rewire the brain or something because when you actually talk to yourself and say things like “I’ll get through this” or “this isn’t that big of a deal, I can do it”, you start believing it. When you start believing it you start living it. There’s tremendous power in our words and when we talk to ourselves in this way we start to realize just what we are capable. Problems, tough relationships, difficult jobs, are no longer things we run from but challenges we know we can handle.

FINAL THOUGHTS

As you can see, being mentally tough takes practice and consistency. Its a muscle that needs worked on. Deliberate focused attention will reap incredible rewards as you find yourself running towards your problems instead of away from them and handling all the chaos that life has to offer.

Art vs. Commerce

Have you ever noticed how so many artists hate talking about money or business? Why is that? Where did the mindset come from that the two are mutually exclusive? Why does someone who loves art need to hate the entrepreneurial tasks of making a living?

 

Now, some will say its a right brain/left brain thing. That creative people don’t always enjoy the mundane number crunching of business. But that seems short sighted to me. Business is as much an art as painting is. You don’t have to enjoy numbers to be a business person. I know plenty of entrepreneurs who are terrible with money. They just love to create and businesses are their canvas.

 Art is about ideas. About challenging the status quo. Its about connecting with people at an emotional level. Businesses and brands do that all the time. Its storytelling at its finest.

Perhaps you find yourself as an artist being forced to deal with numbers or facts and figures and things that don’t interest you. Find the story in it. Find the emotional hook. Its possible to become as interested in building a business as you are any story you create in your mind whether that’s expressed through painting, music or film.

When that business is you, the emotional hook is knowing how to protect your creations and make money so you can continue to create for years to come.

Realize that art and commerce aren’t mutually exclusive. They are two sides of the same coin. You are expressing yourself through something you create, and at the end of the day, that’s what’s important, right?