Find your Lighthouse [Happy 2021]
Happy New Year everyone!
Now that we have that out of the way, here comes another entry to a blog on the cutthroat-ness of the music business and how to push a way through it. 2020 was a rough year for everyone in almost all facets of human life, but these lessons are valuable step stones to evolve.
What doesn’t kill you, makes you str@nger...
In a previous entry, we discussed extensively how artistic identity can be a source of great anxiety for many upcoming artists. In the early days of apparent endless possibilities, dream jobs, and undiscovered career paths, the pressure to breakthrough as Picasso, Beethoven, Van Gogh, Cage, Zimmer is as nightmarish as it is overwhelming. Most of that entry was focused on the advantages of sound design, and how its broad availability can push your song or project to ride the train of memorability; but we failed to touch the more deep concept of “content” (no pun intended). What are you as an artist? What is there for you to grow on? To capitalize on? What is it that makes you, you, and how do you get to share it with the world?
All these questions may sound more philosophical than “career advice” (or whatever it is that I’m trying to do), because philosophically, you need to sort yourself out. Art and philosophy exist as a content vs. form unit, the same way a novel is contained between plot and storytelling. All art we create is a reflection of some philosophy, whether we are aware of it or not.
Now I’m going to spoil the rest of this entry by telling you what any honest person in the face of the earth would:
I don’t know the answers to any of these questions.
BUT, what I can give you is a couple of mental tools that may help you in your journey of self-discovery. I know the term “self-discovery” sounds like a cliche, psyche-hack, target best seller, feel-good literature that no one wants to read; but I choose my words carefully because it is a journey of constantly looking at what you are, how are you changing, and what can you do now with what you are (or with how much you have learned about yourself). Your philosophical awareness of who you are is embedded in the art you create, so I think it might be a good idea to know what is it that you‘re adding to your mix (no pun intended again, I guess 2021 is pun year...)
Look at the present
Let say you’re a driver going down your favorite highway. As a driver we can assume two things about you: You are going to take an approximate and/or indeterminate amount of time to reach your destination, and no matter what you do, your main priority is to concentrate on the road. Thinking about what you want to do, eat, or drink when you reach your destination might be a little thought in your head, but it is not a priority of your task at hand. Neither is to think about if you could have gotten a better car 3 years ago when you got that 6-year loan, or if you should change your radio, or if you need sport tires. These are all thoughts we all have while driving, but it wouldn’t prone you to grab your phone and text your host-friend what you’re having for dinner, or google up loan refinance websites. You are driving, and that’s what you should concentrate on.
This also applies to you and your upcoming career.
It is very easy to fall into a black hole of daydreaming and frustrated dreams. It is a maelstrom of looking at very successful individuals, classmates with better projects, etc., setting yourself an unrealistic goal of achieving similar success, and frustrating over the fact that “things are just not panning out”. That is the equivalent of looking up if your lotto numbers have a good chance of winning this week while driving on the highway. A great career is not made out of what you want to be, but of what you want to do. If you want to be a great pianist, you play a lot of piano, with high scrutiny, checking every key you play, and finding out better ways to learn pieces faster and better. If you want to be a lawyer, you learn a lot about law, making sure you learn how to understand it, read it, explain it, and work with it, again, with high scrutiny of quality in your process. If you want to be a doctor, but you hate reading about anatomy and cannot live without your beauty sleep, then maybe medicine is not something you should be pursuing.
Work is what guides how you evolve and become a better professional in your craftsmanship. You need to love the hard work, including the bad stuff. Practicing piano for 4 to 5 hours a day is extenuating, learning to think in the type of logic law needs to be read and interpreted is frustrating. But if it’s something you love, you will do it, again and again. It’s a sort of relationship with your profession, in which you love the good and the bad all the same. So don’t think about a future that might be, cause it’s a cheap, temporary high; think of what you are doing now, and concentrate on your work. See the present, and give it your 1000%. The future? Well, it will come, and it will rely on everything that you have done now, today, and in the next hour, and the next days.
Find your Lighthouse
The lighthouse question is borrowed from the book Art Thinking, by Amy Whitaker. She relates business and art as two products of human innovation with strikingly similar and corresponding elements. She describes the discovery process of creativity and ingenuity as starting from ordinary reality and traveling through the weeds of the uncertain following the light of a lighthouse question. “What if?” This lighthouse question is rooted in plausibility and has a transparent objective. An objective rooted in the craft, not in perks or recognitions. Paraphrasing her description, is a question that discovers something so revolutionary, the world needs to change to accommodate it.
But how do you find your lighthouse question?
With work and courage.
You will need to work hard, and adapt to circumstances, and look for alternatives, and sometimes even know when to let go of projects so you can start a new possibility. It’s work that might give you nothing in return, and that‘s why you need courage. Real courage is knowing that your work will end in failure and doing it anyway. You will need courage and a great work ethic because, as any true adventurer, you have no idea what your wins or losses are going to be, but it is the only way in which you can find that revolution that you seek. In a way, we already do this with our lives. When we apply for new jobs, we work in those applications and resumes and interviews without the certainty of a hire, when we go into debt to go to college or start a business, when we talk to someone we like. What we are not used to doing is taking risks with our careers. We want to get a job, make money, live happily... No great artist has ever find greatness in a 9 to 5 job.
Knowing yourself is important because it allows you to find an identity. If you know what you are good at and what you enjoy, you will be able to develop that identity further into something recognizable and memorable. It is confusing because this would state that you need to know yourself, to know yourself (Anyone having PTSD to getting their first job? You need prior experience to get this job, but you can only get experience if you get the job?); but the solution is simple. You can get to know yourself through your work. The Lighthouse question is not only a way in which to explore the unknown limits of your profession, skill, concept, and reality, it is also a way to explore the unknown parts of yourself. You had an easier time doing that weird modular synth project with that visual artist? You had a higher degree of satisfaction? You are proud of the outcome? Maybe you like working with modular synthesizers, maybe you’ll use them more frequently in the future. Maybe that will add something memorable to your music, or art.
Ride the Cycle
You can infer a cycle you can follow, which procedurally grants you growth and a self-defining Identity. You concentrate on your work, following a lighthouse question that takes you into the unknown, and through which you discover what you are good at, or what you like. This allows you to define future work and future lighthouse questions, which gives you a future opportunity to explore your craft and yourself, and so on.
This is how you discover your memorable identity. Little steps hidden in big projects.
The last element that I’ll mention in this entry is as controversial as the public education system, designed to make everyone into a specialized machine. I believe, as Amy Whitaker, that it is as important as working on your craft.
Don’t be a machine
We must avoid labeling ourselves into only one profession as a description of our existence. We are usually creatures with many interests besides work, and those interests can help in your projects to a considerable degree. Especially for artists, getting some sort of knowledge in business and law can be extremely helpful with the entire DIY model and many unscrupulous individuals looking for someone to prey on. You need to learn how to balance your artistic efforts with other non-artistic disciplines to make your projects a reality.
Do not limit yourself to just one thing, you’re not a computer.
Learn as much as you want or can when you can or feel like it. I think that’s a lesson 2020 might have given us space and time to explore. In the long run, through the uncertainty of the weeds in a lighthouse search we might have and not know, it is our humanity, our innovation, and our multifaceted nature that we must rely on. Who knows, maybe you’ll find an answer so revolutionary, your world will need to change to accommodate it.