Ask the following question out loud: “How patient can I be
with myself today?”
Now, ask it again.
Now ask it one more time.
Say it when you wake up every morning, and perhaps also
before beginning the day’s work.
Of all the skills that go into learning a new skill,
accomplishing a difficult task, or achieving a goal, few are more important
than simple patience.
Are you enduring a difficult trial, and do not know when it
will be over? “How patient can I be with myself today?”
Are you attempting to learn a complicated piece of music,
and it is not working? “How patient can I be with myself today?”
Are you creating a new work, but it is taking longer than
anticipated, or the ideas are simply not flowing? “How patient can I be with
It is tempting to fall into the trap of, “I must solve this specific problem”, or, “I must force the ideas to come quickly”, only for them not to come or the problem not to be solved (or even for it to be compounded). If the solution to a problem is like a cat, then simply calling it to come to you, or attempting to force it to do so, is unlikely to be effective. The only reliable way to entice a cat to come to you is to bait it with its favorite food…and then wait for it to come to you. (Read more about this idea here.)
This does not mean that a writer should not keep writing in
an attempt to break writer’s block. It simply means that constantly writing
serves a different purpose than it, perhaps, is thought to. The purpose of
freewriting to break a block is not to actually use the material that is
freewritten (much of which is likely to be utter rubbish). The purpose of
freewriting is to identify the “favorite food” of the cat. The phrase, the
concept, the small group of words, the character, the anything, that
will entice the creativity to flow again.
This, of course, requires patience. The same patience
exercised by an archaeologist who digs in the dirt to find a valuable artifact.
The same patience exercised by a poet shaping words to find the perfect verse.
The same patience exercised by a violinist who practices a given bow technique
over and over and over until the bow glides across the string.
And this is the patience that a composer, a writer, a
painter, a choreographer, or any other creative professional, must master. We
do not wait patiently. We must write patiently. A composer must sketch
melodic fragments…patiently. An illustrator must scribble random lines,
shapes, and objects…patiently. Freewriting seems most effective when
done quickly…but with an underlying attitude of patience. To the
creative person who is stuck, who is frustrated, who feels no inspiration, but
who keeps writing anyway, know this: you will find a great idea. You will
identify the favored treat. The cat will come to you.
How patient can I be with myself today?
With all of these things, patience is the real game
that one must play. The only one against whom I am competing is myself (and no
competitor is more fearsome for an artist than himself), and patience quiets
this inner competitor. It gives assurance not that a project will be completed
by tomorrow, or that a certain skill will be mastered by next week, or that a
trial will be over by the end of the month, but it does provide hope through a
reminder that these things will be completed…sometime. They will be
completed eventually. They will, indeed, be completed.
And when we complete something, we often forget about the
effort that it took to complete it. A former student of mine who was a United
States Marine said, “After the training is over, it just seems like it was a
bad dream.” It did not “scar” him, and he did not appear to agonize over it. It
was simply over, and he now possessed the skills that it was intended to teach
him. A mountain climber may not remember the pain or endurance required after
he reaches the top and beholds the glorious, cloudless sunrise. A child does
not remember tripping and falling on his face while learning to walk. He simply
knows that he can walk now.
In many things, patience is a key ingredient, and mastery of
it is often one of the greatest determinants in success. As students, may we
always ask ourselves, “Will I remember this struggle five years from now?” As
teachers, may we always strive to remind our students of this simple, critical
skill. May we provide ample opportunities for our them to practice it, and may
we especially model it for them through our own patience with them. May
we remind them that, whatever their current struggles with learning may be,
they will not remember most of them five years from now. Let us remind them
that struggles are often brief, but that the skills gained from them last a
One of the most common afflictions for the creative type is the fear of failure. It can be debilitating and destructive, and it manifests itself in many ways. But what exactly is this fear? Why do we have it? Why is it so much more pronounced with creative types? And most importantly, how does one overcome it? I have pondered these questions, and believe I can illustrate the issue through a short story. I call it The Traffic Cop and the Archaeologist.
The Traffic Cop and the Archaeologist
The composer sits expectantly in front of his blank staff paper, pencil in hand, poised to write the first note. An idea flashes into his mind, almost too quickly for him to transcribe it. Instinctively, the pencil moves toward the page. The lead almost contacts the paper, but an invisible wall halts the pencil a mere split-second before.
“Stop!”, a mental voice screams. “That’s garbage!”
The composer is bewildered. He listens to the idea again. It is garbage. He crumples it up and disposes of it in the blast furnace of his mind. He starts again, this time with a different idea.
“That’s garbage, too. Those chords are way too conservative. Make it more dissonant.” The composer does so.
“There you go. Sort of. It sounds more modern, at least.”
The composer has, for the time being, pleased his inner traffic cop. As he continues the project, however, he struggles at every stage. He fights the process, rather than participating in it, the ever-present traffic cop belittling him and critiquing his style, technique, and even the topic behind the music. After months of struggle, the composer gives up on the piece. He throws it away, never to return to it. He perhaps never even returns to writing music. What should have brought pleasure and enjoyment has brought only pain and disdain.
In another scene, an archaeologist digs in the desert. The coarse sand has squirmed, grain by grain, into his boots. The monotony of the desert deprives his senses of anything entertaining or inspiring. The searing sun wears away at his spirit, and the dehydration parches his skin. He has just arrived at the spot where he wishes to dig. Taking his shovel, he sticks it into the ground, heaves a great pile of sand, and casts it aside, leaving a gaping hole in the ground.
There is nothing in it. The archaeologist is frustrated. “Nothing here, I guess.” He digs some more, finding a small piece of…something? He holds it up to the sunlight.
“It’s just a piece of clay with random-looking scratches on it.”
He casts this aside, just like the sand from before. He continues digging, this time with greater frustration. His frustration is so great, in fact, that he swings the shovel slightly too hard, hitting something else and shattering it. He picks up several broken pieces.
“These just look like a jumble. The markings on them look fragmented and make no sense. They’re not even complete. They have no beauty in them.”
He casts aside these pieces as well. Now boiling with frustration, he drops his shovel and storms away, never to dig again.
What does this
If any of us have experience digging for fossils or ancient artifacts (or if we watch the Discovery channel), the second story will sound utterly ridiculous. What archaeologist or paleontologist would give up like this? Which one of these professionals, in their right mind, would find a small piece of something, and casually dismiss it simply because it did not appear complete?
Neither of them, of course. And yet, this is exactly what an artist’s “inner traffic cop” does. This is what perfectionism does. This is its folly, and its danger. It exists because an artist knows what great art looks like. He wants to create something like it. He sees the result in his mind, and does not wish to waste time not getting the result.
What the result will not show, however, is the process through which it was found. That process is frequently met with much disorganization, confusion, and even pain. As the archaeologist must dig through much sand to find the clay pieces, the artist must often create much nonsense to find the beauty. As the archaeologist must find many disconnected clay pieces before putting them together into a beautiful ancient vase, the artist may need to find many disconnected ideas before bringing them together, into a coherent whole. After all, every novel is made up of sentences, every painting is made up of individual brushstrokes, every melody is made up of small motives, and every symphony is made up of individual melodies. The traffic cop sees what the disconnected fragment is. The archaeologist sees what it could become.
Like the disconnected clay pieces, the creative process and the initial ideas it produces are often delicate. They are easily disturbed and even shattered by more forceful aspects of our personalities, and perfectionism is often one of the most forceful aspects of an artist’s personality. It is the proverbial “bull in the china closet.”
This begs the question: why can one not compose a memorable melody, write a great story, or paint a beautiful picture, in a single try? Why must we “dig” for our ideas?
I believe we have to dig for ideas because the imagination is inherently disorganized. Since it is constantly influenced by data it receives from the outer world, and is constantly shifting its inner world based on it, the ideas are “buried” underneath much mental clutter. This aspect of the creative process may be compared to finding a specific set of compatible sentences amid piles of recently-returned library books.
Does perfectionism have its place? I believe so. The creative process is like an unmapped jungle. It has no roads, bridges, or other infrastructure. The only way to traverse it is for curious explorers to travel it. This simple curiosity is the “method” by which the grammar of each artistic language was developed. One of the first artists asked, “What color will result if I mix this blue with that green?” A composer, “What will it sound like if I combine the cellos with a solo horn?” A novelist, “What if I write this surprise ending?” (Ironically, without this risk-taking exploration, no art would exist for the traffic cop to criticize.)
Can a traffic cop direct a jungle? Of course not. This is the realm of the archaeologist. It is the place where one asks questions, digs in the dirt, and explores. In this way, the creative process is often chaotic and leaves quite a mess. By itself, it cannot guarantee that a comprehensible order is built. It cannot guarantee that an audience will understand what is being presented. It cannot guarantee that the artist will connect with others through his work. The initial results of its efforts are often jumbled, incoherent, or incomplete. The process is characterized by much questioning. “I wonder what happens if I do this? What happens if I go there? I think I’ll observe this – ooh, shiny!” This process is the very lifeblood of creativity.
However, imagine attempting to direct traffic this way. The result would be total pandemonium. Can an archaeologist dig in the middle of a busy city street? For the sake of the traffic, I would hope not. So, who guides the creative process once its initial stages are complete? Who takes over once all of the individual pieces are found? Who ensures that the audience will understand what has been created? The traffic cop. He guides the cars to their destinations. He ensures that signs are clear. He guarantees that no one gets lost. He is the one who permits understanding between the artist and his audience.
I have found it helpful to think of it in this way: as an archaeologist digs up more pieces, he begins to find patterns within them that suggest how they ought to connect to one another. As he connects them, a coherent vase, urn, or tablet begins to form. In a sense, the finished product almost builds itself.
It is at this point, once all of the essential pieces have been placed, that the traffic cop is most useful. He identifies the cracks in the finished product and tells the archaeologist how to glue them together. He ensures that the vase does not simply crumble as soon as it is removed from the dig site. He ensures that the finished product is comprehensible to an audience. To a composer, he might say, “This transition is clunky.” To an artist, “This color isn’t obvious enough; it’s almost invisible in this bright light.” To a novelist, “This character’s decision doesn’t seem realistic.” And then, it falls back to the archaeologist to apply the remedies: smoothing out the musical transitions, darkening the paint colors slightly, or revisiting a character’s odd decision.
And so, the traffic cop can only direct existing traffic, but cannot create it. The archaeologist maps the area, builds the cars, and paves the roads, and the traffic cop directs them smoothly. In this way, the finished product and the creative process itself are actually improved. The traffic cop has his uses, but he is not meant to dig for fossils. The archaeologist has his uses as well, as long as he does not attempt to direct traffic. As long as they are carefully separated, perfectionism and creativity need not be enemies. In fact, their relationship is downright symbiotic.
How should we,
For me, and for my students, I have discovered that a shift in attitude is necessary to put perfectionism in its proper place. Rather than thinking, “I must create something,” (even though we must), I have found it helpful to think, “I will explore something.” As mentioned in the previous article, the key to creativity appears to be curiosity. Curiosity is incompatible with perfectionism. An artist cannot cultivate both at the same time. One cannot simultaneously say, “I wonder what this piece of pottery connects to?”, and, “This piece of pottery is useless”. Rather than asking ourselves, “Is this good enough?”, let us ask ourselves, “I wonder what I can do with this?”
Perfectionism is quite dangerous at this point in the process, when many ideas are too fragile and unformed. We must allow ourselves to see what the next few notes suggest, what the resulting hues from our paintbrushes will be, or what a given character’s decision will lead to down the road. After all, is there any penalty for playing a sour note? Is there any real consequence for painting an unbeautiful color combination? Will anything terrible result if we write an imperfect word? Not at all. In fact, one must be willing to dig through the dirt to find the gold.
Late in the process, when an idea is more fully formed and, therefore, less easily disturbed, perfectionism is incredibly helpful. It allows an artist to assess a project objectively, with regard to how it will be perceived by an audience. (And I believe that our inner traffic cop is a manifestation of how we imagine our audience will react.) It helps the artist to better communicate with, to connect with, the audience. Over time, this perfectionism also allows the artist to improve his craft.
Therefore, let us listen to the traffic cop, but only once the infrastructure is built. Let us explore with the archaeologist, but without presenting unfinished or chaotic work to our audiences. Let us keep each one in his proper place, so that we may create art that both deeply expresses and immediately connects.
Has perfectionism posed a problem for you? How?
Has an audience ever reacted in a way that you
didn’t expect? Put another way: has your inner traffic cop ever turned out to
have been wrong?
How would you characterize the relationship
between your inner traffic cop and your inner archaeologist?
“For heights or depths no words can reach, music is the soul’s own speech.” – Anonymous
Why do I write? This is really two questions. One of them is, “Why do I communicate?”, in a general sense. The other is, “Why do I communicate in this way?” And this line of thought spawns many other questions, but they all lead back to the first two. Therefore, I’ll just start with those, in the hope that answering them, answers them all.
We communicate, quite simply, because we have something to say. Many times, it is out of practical necessity. (“Honey, can you pick up some flour on your way home from work?”) Other times, it is “small talk.” Yet other times, we attempt to influence others. And of course, there are many other reasons, too numerous to write about here. Yet all of these reasons and modes of communication share a common purpose: to forge a connection with someone else.
We communicate because we are relational creatures. Humans were simply not meant to be alone. We all feel compelled to share our thoughts, experiences, beliefs, and desires. We all possess tales to tell, and all of these aspects of ourselves feed our imaginations. An imagination is not merely an instrument. It is a world. It is, and creates, a world within itself. In this way, we all possess an inner world,1 and language is the vessel through which our inner world is shared. If an inner world exists behind a locked door, then language is its key.
Why use music?
But why do creators communicate? Because we, too, have something to say. It is a matter of necessity, but it goes beyond the practical. It is because we feel there is something we must say. Something we are meant to say. If we do not say it, we feel confined. This confinement can manifest itself emotionally as depression, frustration, anxiety, or a feeling that there is a “missing piece” in the artist’s life.
We all communicate most naturally
in our native tongue. It is what we know best. We can manipulate the language
as we choose, using patterns to weave nuance, metaphor, and analogy as we wish.
It is the most effective means we know of to convey an aspect of our inner
world to someone else, whether relaying a simple piece of information, planting
an image, or expressing a raw emotion.
For an artist, this everyday
language stops short. Our true native tongue is, in fact, our art, and our
inner world can only be shared through this art. Many use painting, drawing, or
sculpture. Others dance. Some create movies. A writer or poet, of course, uses
words, but in a way that makes them dance across the page. The writer makes
others see, hear, and feel what they imagine with only a well-chosen metaphor.
I, on the other hand, am not such a
person. Words in social settings feel unnatural to me (although I probably hide
it well). Words on a page are not my first choice, nor are they my foremost
skill. My words can describe, but not often evoke imagery. They can dance
around a subject, but do not dance across the page. They can help a reader to understand the subject, but they can
never quite express the subject. Words,
for me, are simply guides. I use them to point to something else; something
that, for me, is more powerful.
My true language is music. It
allows me to bypass my linguistic and social clumsiness. It does not merely
allow the listener to understand a subject, but to experience it right along
with me. It is breathless, yet lives, wordless, yet speaks, legless, yet
dances, colorless, yet paints. For me, music encapsulates all of the other
languages. For me, it is the most fundamental language of all. “For heights or
depths no words can reach, music is the soul’s own speech.” The soul’s own speech. Not simply the soul
of a person, but the soul of a subject. The soul of a story. The soul of an inner
Incidentally, this is why arts education is so critical. Improved academic
performance is a wonderful side effect of it, but it is not the most important
reason for teaching the arts. Artistic languages allow one to communicate deep
thoughts and feelings that are otherwise inexpressible, and to connect with
others on a level that is otherwise inaccessible.2 Most would agree
that social skills are fundamental life skills. In this regard, artistic
ability is one of the most fundamental social skills there is. To teach someone
an artistic language is to open a world of wonder to them for the rest of their
lives. It is to give them a powerful tool that allows them to learn about
themselves and others. To deprive them of it is to deprive them of a
fundamental means of communication.
Consider a leaf carried by the wind.
It appears small and simple, yet houses an entire microbial world which
constantly shifts and changes as the wind carries it. In the same way, the
human brain appears inert, yet it sails oceans, soars among the clouds, and
dances with the stars above many skies. My inner world is not a world; it is many worlds. Galaxies, universes, characters, stories. Fanciful
tales, slowly told, epic journeys crossing mountains, seas, stars, worlds,
empires, kings, and times. Within this small, oft timid, and socially awkward
mind lies a vast expanse, bold with its ideas, gregariously soaring wherever it
When someone asks me, “Which
instrument do you play?”, I answer, “Piano and trumpet,” but this is not the
whole truth. Within my mind, I hear an entire orchestra. I compose for and conduct the symphony at the same time.
Outwardly, I play only two instruments. With my inner orchestra, I play them all.
However, it seems quite empty to inhabit
this vast expanse alone. Every orchestra needs an audience. Inner worlds are
enriched through connection with other inner worlds. Indeed, my inner world is
made more comforting, more vibrant, more complete, by the presence of others. This
is why artists share them. This is why I share mine, and I share it in many
ways. I share it through writing, to bring others to its doors. I share it
through composing music, to take others on a grand tour. I share it through
teaching to give others the keys to unlock their own inner worlds.
And so, my fellow traveler, I
invite you to share this experience with me. I invite you to hear the symphony,
and with it, to run, to sail, to soar; to laugh, to cry, to dance; to hear and to
tell grand stories, to be transported across many lands. I invite you to be
I invite us all to hear, and to
share, our inner orchestras.
Why do you create?
Has your imagination ever surprised you? How?
How might this experience differ for someone who
creates in isolation, versus someone who creates through collaboration?