Practice makes…

Perfect, better, or worse?

Ever heard of “Imposter Syndrome?” Chances are, if you have ever tried to create anything, you’ve asked the question, “Is my work really worth anyone’s attention?” The ultimate irony here is that the pursuit of your craft, no matter how long or successful, often does not provide reassurance. Self-doubt is one of the hardest obstacles for many artists to reconcile with but it is a crucial part of any creative process.

One of the least glamorous pieces of this process tends to walk hand-in-hand with self-doubt. The day-in-day-out task of practice can be as inspirational as it is frustrating because it demands continuous battle against doubt. Craft cannot hope to improve without it and art of any kind is a constant pursuit of different perspectives, stronger techniques, or consistency of product. The act of practicing requires an awareness of many things; personal aspirations, a continuously honest assessment of ability, and effective techniques for development. Fledgling students and veterans alike often struggle with the frustrating plateaus of development but true masters of their craft all share a common trait: a mastery of practice.

In the interest of exploring how some of the greatest creative minds have dealt with this very issue I recently turned to the musings and curation of Maria Popova, founder of the ever inspirational blog, Brain Pickings.

In “Virginia Woolf on Writing and Self-Doubt” Popova calls attention to this blurb from Woolf’s novel Orlando: A Biography. Though specifically referencing writing, Woolf perfectly captures the trials of creation. No matter the medium, many artists will at some time find themselves caught between exultation and self-loathing.

Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.

Virginia Woolf led both a widely respected career and a deeply troubled life. If we presume that an account as clear and precise as this can only have come from sincere, personal experience, then perhaps we can take comfort in the idea that the struggle with self-doubt is universal even to the most prolific and revered creative minds. The differences between household names and those less known are many, but one crucial step towards success would seem to be finding a way to meet and confront self-doubt.

In “The Pleasure of Practicing: A Musician’s Assuring Account of Creative Homecoming and Overcoming Impostor Syndrome” Maria Popova brings to focus the writings of guitarist, Glenn Kurtz. After studying music and performance for fifteen years, Kurtz found himself completely disillusioned to the point of buckling down and getting a “real job.” It would take another fifteen years filled with heartbreak before he would return to his true passion. Popova writes that this homecoming, “…was made possible by his deep commitment to practicing — ‘a process of continual reevaluation, an attempt to bring growth to repetition,’ a delicate act that ‘teaches us the sweet, bittersweet joy of development, of growth, of change’ — day in and day out.”

Kurtz has this to say about the power of practice:

Together this pleasure in music and the discipline of practice engage in an endless tussle, a kind of romance. The sense of joy justifies the labor; the labor, I hope, leads to joy. This, at least, is the bargain I quietly make with myself each morning as I sit down. If I just do my work, then pleasure, mastery will follow. Even the greatest artists must make the same bargain.

[…]

Practicing is striving; practicing is a romance. But practicing is also a risk, a test of character, a threat of deeply personal failure… Every day I collide with my limits, the constraints of my hands, my instrument, and my imagination. Each morning when I sit down, I’m bewildered by a cacophony of voices, encouraging and dismissive, joyous and harsh, each one a little tyrant, each one insisting on its own direction. And I struggle to harmonize them, to find my way between them, uncertain whether this work is worth it or a waste of my time.

One of the most important feats that every artist must achieve repeatedly is conquering the weaknesses that sting the most. Kurtz writes about the necessity for perseverance and tenacity in the face of frustration and self-doubt.

Limitation is the condition of our lives. What matters — what allows us to reach beyond ourselves, as we are, and push at the boundaries of our ability — is that we continue. But then everything depends on how we practice, what we practice.

[…]

I sit down to practice the fullness of my doubts and desire, my fantasies and flaws. Each day I follow them as far as I can bear it, for now. This is what teaches me my limits; this is what enables me to improve. I think it is the same with anything you seriously practice, anything you deeply love.

Then, in those moments of clarity when the “chore” of practice disappears, you are left only with the joy that brought you to the craft in the first place. Kurtz captures this perfectly in his account of transcendent joy in making music with his guitar.

Each note rubs the others just right, and the instrument shivers with delight. The feeling is unmistakable, intoxicating. When a guitar is perfectly in tune, its strings, its whole body will resonate in sympathetic vibration, the true concord of well-tuned sounds. It is an ancient, hopeful metaphor, an instrument in tune, speaking of pleasure on earth and order in the cosmos, the fragility of beauty, and the quiver in our longing for love.

“Creative burnout” is an ever present danger to most artists so finding joy equal to Kurtz’s in the development of a craft is of paramount importance. In “The Hum of the Universe: Shonda Rhimes on Creative Burnout, the Hamster Wheel of Success, and Reclaiming Who We Are from the Workaholic Grip of What We Do” Popova explores Shonda Rhimes’s message about, “…the paradox of self-made success…and how we can save ourselves from the maze of productivity by getting lost in presence.”

Shonda Rhimes is the writer and producer behind Grey’s Anatomy and one of Hollywood’s most powerful icons. In her TED talk, “My Year of Saying Yes to Everything,” she explores a time when she “lost her hum.” A workaholic who often preferred being at work than being at home, Rhimes was shocked to find that the work that she loved started to “taste like dust.” Her solution is an old one, immortalized by “Jack” and his habits of work and play, and involves a practice of another kind; mindfulness.

Rhimes’s description of her passion for work sounds rather familiar after reading Kurtz’s account of creative joy above.

The hum is more than writing, the hum is action and activity, the hum is a drug, the hum is music, the hum is light and air, the hum is god’s whisper right in my ear, and when you have a hum like that, you can’t help but strive for greatness…that feeling…you can’t help but strive for greatness at any cost. That’s called the hum.

The difference here is that Rhimes soon found that this particular “hum” was not enough to sustain her happiness. She ran into a wall and had to reassess. Later, after some time and practice, Rhimes would find a greater “hum” to balance out her life sourced from more than her work life. She found that the love of her friends and family and the peace of mind afforded by “play” actually refueled her creative passion.

Kurtz rediscovered the same “hum” in his music after fifteen years of having lost it to his Imposter Syndrome and the impending practical needs of the “real world.” Whatever the source of your creative energy may be, if you struggle with any amount self-doubt it seems important to not only identify where and how you find joy but also how you can approach your practice mindfully. Self-confidence would seem to be universally harder to come by than you might think and in many cases remains skin-deep. You won’t find it at all through stubborn practice but only mindful practice. Find your joy in process and make peace with the fact that you are not a “master” and no one (but yourself) is expecting you to be.

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