I spent some time in my twenties involved in various mystical pursuits. They didn’t go very far, but some principles I thought were useful, and so I kept them even when I dropped the rest of the woo.
One of those is that when you feel you’re standing still, you’re actually growing more than in times of great excitement and action. The concept is similar to that of exercise is general, that training is growth, the competition is when you put that growth to use.
If you feel at all stagnant, do keep this in mind. As long as you’re still working, there’s growth even when it feels like you’re standing still.
One of the advantages of moving is gaining new perspective in a new place. Whatever routines and stagnation you might have gotten used to or stuck in, say bye-bye, pal, they’re gone and you have to establish new ruts and habits.
One of the disadvantages is that it’s not completely safe. Case in point, I fell down a few stairs and am very, very sore. Luckily, it’s mostly bruises, both flesh and pride. Care has to be taken.
But the small risks of breakage—both flesh and dish—are worth it, since breaking the old routines and changing spaces are good food for creating things.
It’s tax time, more or less, in the United States. The pressure to navigate the labyrinthine codes of law that drive even seasoned accountants to distraction are a lot to deal with for any citizen. For artists, there’s a metaphor.
There are the things we make. There is the money we make. There are the people who like the things, who may pay us something to keep or copy them. Usually not, and those elements don’t necessarily cross over. This is a regular cycle, and we don’t often understand how it works, just that it needs to happen.
But if I want to grow the number I make for the things I make, I do need to grow the people who like the things. And that’s what this year is about, for me. Getting ways established to do both. Stay tuned, I’m working on them.
That’s an old trope, made prominent by some New Age guru types. “It’s when you feel you aren’t making any progress that you’re growing the most!” It’s a good thing to tell yourself, especially when you’re feeling down about how slowly your work is going, or how terrible it all seems, right now. Conversely, it’s good to stay a bit humble about it when you think it’s brilliant (and I hope you do, sometimes!). An even temperament is the machine that drives a steady flow.
And there’s some truth to the trope, in my experience, but I’d say it’s more true that you don’t know how well your work is progressing in the time you make it. Look back on last year’s work and you can see good stuff and not-so-good.
But we are poor judges of today’s work, yesterday’s work, even last week’s work. It’s not important how you feel about what you just made. Remind yourself that future you gets to evaluate. Present you has one job: keep making it.
What we want is to be different in some essential ways as we move our work along. We’re aiming to be better than we were yesterday, to change and to grow.
Actually, it’s best not to be specific about day-to-day progress or lack of it. There may be long periods where you feel like you’re getting nowhere, or even getting worse. But in the grand scheme, better than before.
But if you only ever do what you know how to do, you risk ruts and stagnation. It’s great to thoroughly explore mediums and idioms, but it’s in trying new things and new ways that we gather a storehouse of future possibility and potential.
Try new tools, new methods—your other hand if you’re not ambidextrous. Keep trying when you’re better, too. No dinosaurs. Art should be just as challenging and open as when you first started on your 100,000th piece.
If you want to get better at a thing—your thing, let’s say—you have to get out of any routine where you’re comfortable. It has to hurt a little, be annoying, a bit hard. The muscle metaphor is spread around a lot regarding this principle, by any number of experts in motivation or self-improvement: no pain, no gain.
But I’m not talking about being so sore you can hardly move. I just mean a small amount of discomfort. See, I don’t think you have to push your limits all the time. Steady progress can be had with the smallest nudge against your present abilities.
What matters is that you notice. That you recognize breaking out of easy routine, or you look ahead to where you’d like to be with your thing, your work. It can be discouraging to hurt a lot, even if you know the gains will come faster. I’m for whatever keeps moving you forward, and outside of the gym, it’s perfectly fine to go slow and get better in very small steps.
We like to think of our progress as a diagonal line moving ever upward. But that not how we experience change and growth. There are plenty of moments we regress, stumble, forget, and falter. Looking back over a long series of projects or experiences, we can see we’ve come a long way from where we started. But if you get into the details of the actual days—even weeks or months!—there are some plateaus, sometimes backslides, and occasionally valleys.
Those times, we feel like our work is stagnating or moving in the wrong direction. The insight or breakthrough happened and then, for a while, it’s like we got worse again. This is normal.
Try not to sweat it. The important thing is to keep going. You can only really see the massive improvements you’ve made when you look back at a big section of what you’ve done and where you’ve gone.
Is it dramatic or overtly pretentious to use song lyrics as titles?
I’ve been pondering seasonal change now that I’m somewhere there actually are seasons. Do they correspond with changes in our work? Not usually, of course.
They’re inspiration, guidelines of timing, reminders. This sort of thing helps in planning and shaping. But the actual doing, I’m certain, isn’t changed by what’s around us. That happens no matter where we are.
And we always have to deal with inner change. It’s not a cycle, it’s a line beginning behind you and pointing ahead. View your work through that lens and be kind to yourself when it’s not what you thought. It will change again.
When you live in New York or any big city, it is easy to fail at growing up. The city is designed to keep you in a state of perpetual adolescence. You never need to learn to drive if you don’t want to. And even if you do drive you can go back to that bar you went to when you were twenty-one, and it will still be there, and it will still be called Molly’s, and the older waitress there will still remember you and let you sit where you want. And feel be years later, when she is no longer there, when there is just a picture of her above the bar on a place of sad honor, and you know what that means and you don’t want to think about it, guess what: you do not have to. Because no one is driving home, and you’re back again, listening to “Fairytale of New York,” which is still on every jukebox, falling into the same conversations you had with the same friends in the ’90s: about how the internet is going to change culture, and what you are going to do when you grow up.