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.
It’s still getting better.
The Long, Slow Grind Out of the Valley of Winter, Where Hopes and Dreams Are Concerned
The rush of fresh year ahead of you is enough to get you started on new habits. But it doesn’t last. What matters isn’t how you start the year, it’s how you keep going when late January looms and you don’t feel like doing anything.
It can help to keep in mind that these concepts are just things other people made up. In reality, nature knows no months, it just goes through the regular cycle around the sun, perigee to apogee, and the 182.625 days in between are mirrored by the same number on the backswing around to the solstice.
Every day is a new start. No matter what, when morning comes, it’s yours to do with what you like. Start a daily habit or continue one, everything is always in motion. You might as well join in.
In the immediate human world, we can see the passage of time in seasonal change, at least, beyond the equator. We remember the past winter, we chop up time into moon phases and days. It’s easy to be hard on yourself for not being where you want when the new winter supplants the old.
But in a grander sense, there is no specific division of time. The illusion of time as a discrete thing is easy when it’s light and dark, cold and hot. Step out a million miles, and we’re all falling around the sun in a smooth curve, any moment like any other.
You could say there’s no starting point, or you could say every moment is a potential start.
So leverage the excitement of New Year’s to get started on new howls, or reinvigorate old ones. But don’t forget you always have a chance to start again, from wherever you are along the curve.
New Year, Same You, but Remember the Power You Have to Remake Yourself in Every Moment
Say goodbye to 2018, and hello to a shiny new 2019. But in the end, it’s just another day in winter (or summer, if you’re south of the equator).
Every day is a new chance to create. Piggyback on the enthusiasm of the world’s love of arbitrary starting and end points. That can get you going on a daily habit or further toward a creative goal. But keep in mind that it doesn’t matter if you fail. Stumbles are part of life.
You always have a new year to start, every day, what matters is that you do start. And also celebrate. Putting new things into the world is a worthy goal and a benefit to you and to us.
If you’re lucky, some of them like to write, and they’ll put that out into the public sphere, too. It’s helpful to have a broader picture of the artists you admire.
Sometimes, they’ll disappoint you. That’s okay, it happens to our family and friends now and then. Once in a while it’ll be so far from your personal beliefs, you lose respect for them and won’t want to support them. That’s also useful to know.
Mainly, though, following along with a few artists you enjoy gives you an inside perspective on art that art history rarely will. We study works in isolation, much of the time. We hop around in time at a dizzying pace. But it’s like waiting for the next album from your favorite band when a painter you love announces a new show or upcoming project.
It’s the view from here, in real time, and it puts our own work on the same scale. We can be motivated and inspired by artists working right now in a way that is immediate and visceral. Uncle Paul (Klee, for any new readers) and Georgia O’Keefe are great and inspiring. But we see all their best work at once, and the scale and temporal connection is gone, just as they’re gone.
We learn a lot from the masters of the past. But the future masters who might arise from the ones we admire today can teach us just as much.
Things That We Scare Ourselves With And Things That Ought to Scare Us
We’re getting pretty good at fake-scaring ourselves. Movies and series and books that terrorize us, temporarily.
But being scared of bigger things is kind of helpful. At least, it can be to your practice. Helplessness, stagnation, despair, apathy—I think these are worthy of our fear, if it leads to our doing something against those. Your practice is your expression of your humanity. It brings a part of your essence into being. Into the world comes a new thing, and we need it.
The List of Best Get Your Little Buns Outa Bed Albums
Sometimes, when life matters become overwhelming, it helps—for a time—to indulge in some intense trifles to distract ourselves with stories, music, video, memes. As long as we don’t let that go on too long. Scott Thompson, as his Buddy Cole character in The Kids in the Hall, said in a sketch, “I believe in moderation. Within reason!”
Indulge completely and work completely. Too much of either can burn you out or waste time that shouldn’t be wasted. Once you’ve wasted some and fed the furnace with either energy of inspiration, it’s time to undistract.
The impact of scaring ourselves deliberately is a magic trick of the mind. We aren’t the only ones who do it: I’ve watched our cat pretend I’m terrifying just to get a good chase vibe going through the apartment.
But we should acknowledge the delight that a little fear can bring. It motivates and stimulates, and we can apply the same principle to the work we do as creators. Go scare up some magical art moments.
The Boring Reasons Get More Done and Further the Journey Better Than Desire and Dreams
Desire is the tool most of us use to motivate ourselves into creating, whether it’s an experience or a thing, your thing. We want something and that moves us to try to get it. But desire can be deceptive and distracting.
That’s because desire isn’t real. I mean, yes, it’s real for us inside our heads and hearts. But it isn’t reality, the stuff outside our private thoughts and feelings. Sometimes we’re lucky and what we desire syncs with what we feel. And often it doesn’t, or doesn’t quite.
Here’s when two vaguely Buddhist ideals come in handy. First, ignoring or casting off desires as unimportant can help get over things like wistfulness and hesitation. Those are roadblocks to creation. Fantasy is always easier than boring, cold reality, after all. But nothing happens if we spend too much time in dreams—cue that Dumbledore quotation that was such a key moment for me.
Second, the crazy simple Zen notion that plain, ordinary work—not noble aims, not high ideals, and not really backbreaking work, just work—gets us a little closer to the end of whatever we need to work on. And that’s the habit, see? The daily thing, a chunk chipped off of the big block. It’s enough.