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.

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.

The Difference Between Craft and Art

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist”. – Picasso

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Art is about making an emotional connection with people. Craft, like Picasso said, is about being a pro. Its about meeting a need. 

Anyone can make art. Not everyone is a craftsman. 

I remember when I was growing up and studying music composition a lot of the elitists would decry film composer John Williams as not being a true artist in the same vein as composers like Stravinsky or Schoenberg. 

Later, I read something in which Williams himself stated that he didn’t see himself as an artist when it came to his film work. The artist is the director and his role as a film composer is a craftsman who’s services are utilized by the director to help achieve his vision. In his mind, the film composer is no different from the visual effects team or model makers or green screen technicians. A film brings together all of the best craftsman they can to help the artist (director) achieve their vision. Each craftsman sets aside their own artistic ambition, if needed, to serve the film. 

Developing mastery of a craft takes years of dedicated work to achieve. The reason anyone can make art is that its possible to not have very good skill and still provoke or make an emotional connection with people. 

Now, when you combine a high level of craft, and the ability to connect with people emotionally, that’s when you create a Picasso. That’s when you become a master. That’s when you leave a legacy. 

The clockmaker who toils away for years honing and refining his craft doesn’t often worry about whether her work is making an emotional connection with people. What she creates might, but usually the goal is to create something of high quality that serves a function, telling time. 

Whereas the artist, may not have the mastery of clockmaking skills that the craftsman does, but he has a way of building that clock so interestingly that it provokes or challenges people when they see it.   

Picasso was famous for mastering traditional art methods when he was younger and then began looking for other ways to express himself. When he began inventing new styles and methods for his art was when he really pushed the boundaries of what was expected.  He became Picasso not because he painted naked women in weird shapes but because he was a master painter who saw the world in a new way. 

Art is about purpose. Craft is about skill. When you can combine the two at their highest level that’s when you make history. 

We Don’t Need Better Artists We Need Better Taste

How many times have we heard the complaint that the internet is giving a platform to millions of talentless hacks who think they can write or sing or create art? How many artists are in the world that a record label or publishing company didn’t give a chance to and we all missed out on their talent?

Yes, the internet has opened the door for anyone to create something and put it out there and this has given us ample amounts of rough to sift through to find the diamond.

What we are forgetting though is that art is a craft and craftsmanship takes time.  It takes lots and lots of drafts and multiple versions of models being made.  Walk into any craftsman studio and you’ll see remnants on the floor of experiments and test copies that didn’t quite make it.  What the internet has allowed is for more and more artists to find a place to practice.  No longer do we need to slave away in the darkness for years creating art that no one sees, now we can create it and share it immediately and get instant feedback, good or bad. And those first drafts or experiments are now around forever and we need to be okay with that.

The internet lets everyone see your art in all its humiliating glory.  Now, there are no secrets or years of solitude.  Now, we get to practice in broad daylight and let the world watch us grow and improve.  It’s a brave new world but one where the process of making art, like sausage, is there for the world to observe, and criticize or love.  So stop worrying about what they think.  Chances are anything you make probably sucks right now.  It will for years and decades.  Develop the thick skin needed to handle the feedback. But keep creating.  Keep writing.  Keep drawing.  Share your art and your craft with all of us.

There’s a lot of more noise out there but remember that a lot of it is first, second, third drafts.  A lot of it is years of art being developed and practiced and tried out before its really ready.

The biggest skill set needed in society is not that we need better artists but that we need better taste so that we can identify which one is the artist in training and which one is the hack wasting our time.

Do We Need Your Art? Yes!

Should you make art even if no one looks at it?  Yes!

Should you make a podcast even if no one listens? Yes!

Should you start a business if no one buys anything? Yes!

Should you write a book, a blog, an article even if no one reads it? Yes!

Should you sing a song even if no one dances? Yes!

Why?

Because the world needs your creativity. It needs your talents. It needs your voices.

The world needs your art. It needs your expression. It needs your taste and your choices.

You have to share it even if its mocked or ridiculed or ignored. There’s no point in living if your life has no point…

… of view.

Creative expression is at the heart of what makes us human beings. If God made us in His image, and he said everything he made was very good, then when we refuse to create or share because we think its not good enough, then we’re taking the place of God and thinking our taste is better than His.

Stop playing God.

Stop deciding ahead of time that something’s not good enough. Just make it and put it out in the world. It’s not narcissism to share your art. Art is made to be given away. Its the ultimate act of selflessness. It enriches and encourages and makes life that much fuller. Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth – with your art – your offspring. If God can make a world full of ‘half starts’ and ‘works in progress’ and call it good then you can share your creativity too and know you’re in good company.

Being creative is a divine act. He made us out of His love. Let that love flow out of you.

Go for it.

We need your art.

We need you.