Switching Tasks

Lots of advice on learning a new language (programming and foreign) or medium or instrument says you should just pick one and stick with it, not give it up and move to something else after the initial bout of getting the basics down. I’m not a big fan of this.

Life is short enough, and there are worse things than trying out several possibilities in a row. Sometimes you have to give something a shot to know it isn’t for you.

Or even that it’s not for you right this minute. In order to give learning something as complicated and slowly-progressing as language or the piano, you’ve got to have a connection to it. There needs to be a spark between it and you in order to make the tough middle part of the journey seem worth your time and occasional frustrated energy. Sometimes you don’t find it right away and you have to try a few different things.

After you’ve learned German or C++, you’ll often want to learn something else, and earlier experiences trying a little JavaScript or Spanish or oil paints will clue you as to the thing you want to put your heart and soul into. Or you dive even deeper into your experience.

But you won’t get chastised by me for abandoning things at the beginner stage because it doesn’t feel right, right now.

More the Thing About Art School

I try to think about how I’m constructing this blog, and the scheme I have for its posts, whenever possible. I wonder if it’s part of a search for something new beyond the massive undertaking going back to school was eight years ago, when I determined to finally finish the biggest thing I’d left undone.

After that push and effort, after all was said and done and I could at last tick off the box [metaphorically] labeled “Bachelors Degree,” I couldn’t figure out what to do. I was Wile E. Coyote in the middle of the air, having run straight off the edge of the cliff. But I wasn’t dropping.

It occurred to me today that an extremely valuable aspect of art school—again, as of school in general—is the forced exposure to things and ideas you’d never have found on your own in such a compact span of time. This might be a thing worth paying for, albeit not necessarily worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars and the commensurate stress of the debt burden.

It’s as easy to get stuck in an aesthetic bubble as a political one, staying focused on the narrow band of favorites you’ve treasured over several years of loving and experiencing art of whatever form. But at school, if you have teachers of any worth, you have a myriad of unknowns thrown at you, and you not only have to experience their work, but also to understand it, analyze it, and put it into some kind of context.

This is important to do as an artist for the rest of your days. You’ll gain insight and depth, even if you don’t like some or most of the stuff, if you take it in broadly.

The Thing About Art School

It works. It’s probably faster. But it’s not much materially you couldn’t learn on your own with the help of some books and instructional videos.

But art school, like many degrees, leads to a network of fellow artists. If you’re lucky, a few want to be curators—or publishers—and they like your work. I don’t regret at all the time I spent inside mine. But it should never be a reason not to start doing your thing, nor a reason to disparage where you are. School will almost always have the advantage in keeping your disciplined and on a path, even if that drifts and veers, sometimes along the way.

Lots of artists have done the academic thing, and lots have figured out their own way outside it. What matters is keeping it up, moving forward.

You May Leave School but It Never Leaves You

A few things I’m learning, because school is never completely over while you can breathe, are as follows:

Despite ambition, drive, ideas aplenty, and opportunity, I am still very, very, very good at procrastinating. If I could market that skill, I’d be CEO of I’ll Do It In A Minute Just As Soon As I Look At This One Thing, LLC. (Market cap: $1.4B)

But two things are helpful in overcoming that trait—Pomodoros and doing the hard stuff first.

If you aren’t familiar with the Pomodoro Technique, here’s a short overview. Basically, you work on tasks in 25(ish) minute chunks and take a 5(ish) minute break in-between, then a long break after 4 of those cycles, of 15–30(ish) minutes. Use a timer. This helps keep you focused during work periods and builds in a recess. Our minds need both concentration and free play to make connections and build memories efficiently. It’s the same with bodies, working out needs sufficient rest to build and strengthen. For me, at least, it helps to know there are breaks coming at specific intervals so I can trick myself into starting and staying at a particular task. One note: I’ve tried to do this just watching the clock, no timer, but I end up going way outside the time blocks. Usually with breaks. Timer.

Making a to-do list before bedtime is working well for the getting more stuff done, and for keeping up with the blog, particularly. Getting started on the hard bits first, I’m noticing better attitude, less sulking, and less angst when I’m not working on things.

And sleep really is, really is, the best component of physical and mental health. If you’re in school, it’s extraordinarily difficult to get your 7.5 hours, I know. But keep it at the forefront of any health concerns. No more midnight oil burning outside of major research papers and final projects, seriously. Putting everything to the side for bedtime has been better for remembering what I’m learning and improving the stuff I’m making.

Collaboration Is the Future

Group projects, co-authored work, co-operative ventures: do them. The image of the solitary artist making all their stuff out of dreams and magic alone in a white room—or dingy garret—is a trope that obscures the increase in group creation. It’s common to see group work and teams, from design to video games to film. There’s plenty of room to grow, too.

It’s healthy and inspiring to get out of your own mindset for a while and work with others to make something.

It feeds your own drive, through ideas and concepts you hadn’t or would never have thought of, and that makes returning to your own projects feel fresh. We learn from teaching, we learn from collaborating, and learning should never end. Otherwise, we can stagnate or lose touch. With the world and our muses.