Your Least Prized Possession

Great art often springs from the confluence of dedication and good fortune. In attempting to realize this wonderful confluence, however, there's a significant

Great art often springs from the confluence of dedication and good fortune. In attempting to realize this wonderful confluence, however, there's a significant risk of being too dedicated: going too far and falling into the abyss of overwork. Obviously, the trick is judging the distance to the edge. Where does shadow turn to darkness?

Most projects entail an intense and concentrated period just before fruition, which generally requires working very long hours. This can be your entrée to high-stakes personal brinkmanship. You often must push yourself right to the edge in order to get the job done. But past that point lies self-destruction: once you enter into working crazy hours, you are headed toward the abyss.

In the best case, inspiration and enthusiasm for the project generate a momentum that carries you along. In such cases, the amount of work you do, while certainly noticeable, does not seem to be an issue. This is a blessed state. Certainly, the reward for extreme effort is clear: accomplishing something great and grand, or at least, accomplishing something. The value of this accomplishment requires no further comment.

But what can you lose by working all the time? Rest, diet, society, personal business, and primary relationships can get put on hold. Not all of these are necessarily compromised (though they frequently all are), but it's a good thing to figure out how much of any one or all of those things you are willing to sacrifice and for how long. Consider, too, your physical limitations: some people can maintain a relentless pace for months, others wear down and start getting sick. Know yourself.

Before you can fully evaluate how much you can endure, you must consider how much the project is worth to you. Is this your first solo album or an ad campaign for a good client? One of those is likely to bring more satisfaction and the other more money. Put it all on the scales.

An interesting lesson I wish I'd learned earlier is that there can come a point past which devoting oneself to a project in place of living life causes long-term damage to the soul. Going up to the edge is dedication; beyond that is possession: you belong to your work. Admittedly, many great works have come from artists going over the edge, but the image of that experience has been greatly romanticized. In reality, a tragic life sucks.

I've known a couple of great musicians who got stuck on one set of works, constantly refining them without end. In both cases, it was an eerie thing to see the person after years and hear about the latest work on the same pieces. Perhaps more common is a job that's the proverbial three-alarm fire and requires full attention. If the burst is short-lived, that's normal, but if it goes on for months, watch out. At some point, you simply have to say “basta!” no matter how carefully you word things.

Freelancers' clients always want to negotiate a project fee rather than an hourly one. This is how freelancers get slaughtered, financially and timewise; that is why I eventually instituted a time cap on any bid, beyond which the contract went hourly. The idea is to take possession of your work and be the one who decides where the edge is. Know when you must draw a line and follow through, even if you must spend some time and flexibility working things to a firm stop before you reach the edge.

If your work owns you, keep one thing in mind: you are its least prized possession.

Larry the Ohas been one of Electronic Musician's bluebirds of happiness since 1986. Yes, his arms are tired.