Everything is Possible
You probably know the feeling. You sit down at your studio to do some work and the ideas immediately arrive. You start working and the next thing you know, 4 hours have gone by. You've forgotten about the outside world. The problems plaguing your everyday life have suddenly vanished. You've created a track out of thin air, as if by magic. It's almost as if you found the song rather than actually made it yourself.
Everything is Impossible
You probably know this feeling too. You did your laundry, cleaned the dishes, took the dog for a walk. You decided to rearrange your studio space, clean your cables, organize your sample files. You've checked and double-checked your email, read your entire Facebook feed twice, and watched every tutorial on YouTube. Now that you've done every avoidance activity imaginable, you're ready to make some music. But for some reason the ideas just won't come. Nothing sounds right, you're not happy with your gear, and feel bored about making music.
Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
What's going on here? How come sometimes motivation and inspiration are overflowing, and other times it can't be found to save your life?
I recently read a book that attempts to answer that question. Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi analyzes the state of flow, in which we are completely present and satisfied in whatever we are doing. Time melts away and the present moment is all there is. Worries and cares are suspended and we enter what Csikszentmihalyi calls "Optimal Experience." In today's fast paced, distraction-ridden world it can be nearly impossible to find the state of flow, but there are some things you can do to help get there. Let's start with a TED Talk from the author...
How to Attain the Flow State
Csikszentmihalyi offers a host of ways to attain the flow state. I'd like to highlight a few along with some practical examples of how we can apply them.
Clear Goals and Immediate Feedback
It's important to feel like you are working towards something. Otherwise your ambition and motivation will wander and you will lose interest. Here's a classic, although tragic example of what clear goals can drive a person to: When people are working out, they usually hit some level of exhaustion and stop. They are tired and there is no reason to keep going. However every winter, when a huge snow storm hits, people will shovel snow beyond exhaustion and often shovel themselves into heart attacks, serious injury or even death. The reason is pretty simple. They have determined they will stop shoveling once the driveway is clear, not when they feel like stopping. The goal is clear and it is easy to determine if it has been achieved or not. Thus they push themselves beyond their limits. Although I encourage trying to push yourself beyond your limits, not at the cost of your well-being!
Clear goals can really help you get into flow. But it is important we set intelligent goals. I am not going to suggest a goal like "create a top 40 hit song" or "get 50,000 plays on Soundcloud." Those are goals you have little to no control over. Choose goals you have control over. Decide to work for a certain amount of time or until a specific piece of a song is done. Give yourself a daily schedule and stick to it. These goals are good because they give you immediate and unbiased feedback. You either did it or you didn't.
Make it a game. Over the last two months, I've been using an app, DuoLingo, to learn Spanish. One of the most motivating things about it is that it tells me how long my daily streak is. I find myself opening the app and working for a few minutes because I don't want to end my current streak and I want to see if I can break the old one!
There is No Fear of Failure
You can't be worrying about failure. You have to trust your abilities and training. Often you hear professional athletes talk about how their mind got the best of them. That voice saying "Don't mess this up" can destroy your ability to be in the moment and perform. Remember, your failures are opportunities to grow; try to embrace them. Welcome failure.
One of my most productive musical experiences was creating songs about acceptable social behavior, intended for children with Autism and learning disabilities. The collection is called Social Story Songs and is designed as a non-confrontational way for parents and teachers to teach social skills to children that have difficulty understanding socially acceptable behaviors. (PS if you know anyone that might find this useful, there's an iOS app and our teacher kit is completely free). What I think made this project so easy was that I wasn't worried about being artistic, creative, or if I was expressing my emotions in a cool hip way. Those fears were gone. It was ok to be silly. And without those worries, the work practically did itself.
The fear of failure will paralyze you, make you self-conscious, and ultimately make you overly hard on yourself. Almost every idea will lose to these forces. You will find yourself out of the moment, out of the flow state, and simply not enjoying your work.
There Must be a Balance of Challenge and Skill Level
Ever play a sport against someone who is infinitely better than you? Not much fun right? They mercilessly defeat you every time, to such a degree that you can't even work on getting better. On the flip side, how much fun is it to play against someone who you are destroying every game. Sure there might be a slight ego boost at first (you sicko you!) but the thrill rapidly turns to boredom. The ideal opponent is someone who is roughly at your level. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Your skills are matched and the challenge is just right.
The same can be said for making music. If you aren't challenging yourself, you will get bored. Making the same exact track over and over again is no joy. On the contrary, if you decide to suddenly jump into an expert jazz ensemble with only the knowledge of a single musical scale, you will become frustrated. Give yourself incremental challenges. Perhaps take on a new instrument or learn a new piece of gear. But don't throw out your entire setup and try to figure out 7 new things at once. Find people to play with who are a bit more experienced than you, but not those who will make you feel completely inept.
Check Out Flow
I hope it doesn't sound like I'm preaching! I'm no master of this stuff. A lot of it are things you may have heard before, but it's the kind of thing that I know I need to be reminded of often.
Clearly, what I've written is only the tip of the iceberg. There's tons more in Flow, and mastering these concepts can take a lifetime. I really enjoyed the book, and I highly recommend it. After reading the book once, I know I'll have to revisit it again in the future. But not yet. There were plenty of ideas and concepts I can put into practice now. No need to overindulge. And that is one of the core philosophies set forth in the book. Immerse yourself but don't drown yourself. Take things one step at a time. It's a long journey, and if anything will help you get into the flow, it is enjoying the journey.