From Self-Doubt to Self-Discovery: Unleashing Your Creative Potential
Creating art is one of the most rewarding experiences one can engage in. But you would be hard-pressed to find an artist that doesn't regularly experience some amount of self-doubt, negative self-talk, and limiting beliefs. I lived with this problem for years, which I still grapple with as I start to write these newsletters. For years I used to be down on myself for not being in a world-famous band at nineteen. Twenty-five came around, and I felt like a clock was ticking on my career. At 30, I felt like it was all over. Like there was no reason to keep making music and that I had failed miserably. These thoughts would often keep me from writing songs altogether. While no panacea exists for eliminating these difficulties involved in being an artist, I've learned how to manage these feelings and move past them when they arise. If you struggle with these issues, I want to share the lessons I've learned that can give you perspective and allow you to enjoy the songwriting process for its own sake.
Don't Compare Yourself to Others.
It's hard to stop comparing ourselves to others because we inundate ourselves with highlight reels via social media. Recognizing your self-worth can become difficult when you see people you know getting sponsorships, promotions, and all the other things one hopes for in a successful career. The critical thing to remember about seeing these types of announcements is that they only happen after a substantial amount of hard work, boredom, and drudgery. The celebration pictures never capture the moments in between that yield those accomplishments.
Why does this matter?
It matters because it's generally true that people have complex and messy lives. Comparing yourself is generally unwise because you don't know what someone went through to get where they are today. I've learned that congratulating and rooting for people is best. When we feel bitter about the successes of others, we trap ourselves in a scarcity mindset. I hate that pop-psychology buzzword, but it's pretty accurate. Some resources and opportunities are scarce, and being positive isn't magically going to manifest more of them. Nevertheless, scarcity in one situation doesn't imply that all opportunities are closed off to you. We can never know the totality of opportunities available to us, so we shouldn't be so quick to assume that because one door has opened for someone else, a door has closed for us.
Cultivate a Growth Mindset
I started writing and recording songs when I was about 15. My friend Jack loaned me a Tascam four-track tape recorder, and I started learning how to program drums and synth parts on a pirated version of Fruity Loops 3.5. I still have many of the tapes I recorded from that time, and one thing that sticks out to me is how playful and imaginative those recordings were. To be sure, none of those old recordings are things I would release to the public now. Still, I marvel at how audacious I was about trying out ideas and inviting people to listen to my experiments.
When I got my first Mac, I started using Logic Pro, and something changed. I stopped writing altogether. I had all of these workflows that I was used to, and I had grown more in my expectations of what a song should look like. Most importantly, I was 18 and had to start figuring out how to make money doing this stuff (side note: still not making money doing this stuff). These considerations paralyzed me and kept me from doing much of anything. I didn't write a single song for about three years because I worried it would suck.
What I had at 15 that I lacked at 19 was a growth mindset. A growth mindset is a commitment to learning and becoming better than you were the day before. When we compare ourselves to others, we often lose our growth mindset because we see where someone is today without realizing they once struggled like us. It wasn't until I was about 25 that I regained my growth mindset by seeing each day as an opportunity to do better in my day job as a computer technician. Whatever you're passionate about doing, commit to being better than you were yesterday instead of focusing on where someone else is today.
Seek Feedback, Not Validation
In my early 20s, I had a few close friends with whom I would share my music. I'd finish a song and send it around to them. I always got positive responses from them, which was gratifying at first. But over time, I stopped enjoying the praise because it felt like people were saying things to be nice or polite. I knew my songs weren't all they could be, and I would ask my friends how to improve them. Reliably, I'd get a pat on the head and walk away feeling hopeless. I learned from those experiences that validation is like a cheap high. It feels good when you're low but it doesn't help you grow. The problem was that I didn't even have the language to know what I was looking for. I was looking for feedback.
I worked as a computer technician for several years. Through that experience, I built skills that would help me seek better feedback. I learned to watch people and observe their strengths. If I wanted to improve at repairs, I asked the best repair tech to review my repair. If I wanted to be better at managing appointment times, I asked the person with the best time to watch me and point out where I could be better. I learned that feedback isn't just about asking for help; it's also about finding the right people to ask for help.
It can be tempting to ask those close to us to provide feedback because we know we'll likely get a safe response that makes us feel good. That's validation, not feedback. To get meaningful feedback, you need to find the people who inspire you because they're damn good at what they do and ask them to help you see your shortcomings, weaknesses, or opportunities. Whatever euphemistic terms you want to use, you need someone to help you see your bullshit, and all the better if it's someone who's rooting for you.
Don't be afraid to face the areas where you come up short. If you're a songwriter who struggles with lyrics, ask your friends who are good at lyrics to critique your work. If you struggle with music, ask your friends who are good arrangers or instrumentalists to weigh in. This approach applies to any domain or endeavor. I'm still learning how to write, and I've been lucky to find people interested in what I'm doing that let me know when I make crazy mistakes like talking about Brian Johnson when I mean Brian Jones. Whatever you're doing, find excellent people and ask them for feedback, not validation.
Overcoming self-doubt is a fallacy. The only people who seem to avoid it are narcissists. What we can do is build a bulwark against self-doubt. We can collect tools that allow us to get perspective when we make mountains out of molehills. We can remember that this is all a journey and that there is value in an honest effort. Most importantly, we can surround ourselves with people we strive to be like and be grateful when they are willing to help us slough off the parts of ourselves that hold us back. These things can't prevent us from being intimidated by life's challenges, but they can make us bold enough to confront them head-on.