Rough Mix: Embracing the Learning Curve

Recognizing the cycle of highs and lows in the creative arc
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Self doubt—it can be the enemy of creativity. Focusing on our faults and weaknesses, whether real or imaginary, can paralyze us, but it doesn’t have to. So how do we put the negativity to good use?


No matter what our artistic practice is, at some point we feel like we’re stuck in a rut—neither growing nor moving forward. We may even see our earlier work as being inferior and not as good as we once thought it was, especially when compared to that of someone we admire. Consequently, we feel like we’re standing still or, worse yet, moving backward.

These feelings are, in fact, normal, and understanding that they are part of a natural cycle can help us find breakthroughs that take our practice to new levels.

So let’s start by viewing the source of our frustration from a different angle: Imagine a graph that tracks our skill level against our ability to analyze and evaluate it, starting from the beginning of our career. Occasionally, the lines will crisscross each other: improvements in our skill set lead to a plateau, where we work for a time; then, at some point, we begin to recognize possibilities we hadn’t seen before. It is at that point where we get the feeling that we’re stuck, behind, or incapable of doing the level of work we think we’re capable of.

Could it be we feel that way because our ability to analyze our work, or the work of others, has surpassed our skills at that moment?

These are frustrations we go through from the moment we start learning our craft. In the beginning, everything is new to us, and there is rapid growth as we move from the basics to an intermediate level. For example, a guitarist graduates from memorizing the note names to mastering chord progressions and scale relationships, whereas recording engineers move from the fundamentals of acoustics and signal flow to mic selection and positioning, processing and mixing techniques, and so on.

As we grow through each level, there is an interplay between our skills, goals and developing interests. Through trial and error, we figure out what works for our own needs, guided by our ear and subjective tastes.

But growth isn’t linear: We don’t develop at a steady rate throughout our lifetime. In the early years, everything above our skill level needs to be discovered and untangled, and the more effort we put into it, the faster we progress. Eventually, we get to a place where we feel competent and able to do the work at a level we’re proud of. If we’re lucky, this will lead to greater challenges and further opportunities for growth.

But while the result of all the time and energy we put into our craft is a greater understanding of our field, the accompanying increase in critical faculties can, paradoxically, highlight our shortcomings, making us feel like we haven’t progressed at all.

I’m not talking about the emotional peaks and valleys we experience daily, but the longer process, where the short-term ups and downs are merely the harmonics of a larger, fundamental emotion. Recognizing that a broader pattern exists, and then trusting that it is a cycle that we will survive, is a key to long-term success and happiness in your chosen vocation.

This is not to suggest that all of our discontent will suddenly vanish. Rather, by approaching the occurrence of self-doubt as a trend (one that you know will be followed by a period of challenges that take you to a higher level of proficiency or awareness), the fear of failure can be avoided. At that point, it simply becomes a matter of finding the path that satisfies our inherent need to grow.

Here, we can use the crossroads as a metaphor, where we are presented with an opportunity to push ourselves forward, even though the direction might not be obvious just yet. If we permit ourselves to focus on process rather than goal, and look at our work in the long term, then we can better determine which is the best direction to take. And each time self doubt crops up, we use it as an impetus to ask new questions, challenge ourselves, and generally up our game.

My favorite example of a simple, yet creative way of using a creative block to one’s advantage is the Oblique Strategies, a deck of cards created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt. Each card presents an idea or approach—some of which are generalized, others more specific—that can be used as a strategy for breaking through an impasse. The deck’s subtitle, Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas, is telling because it includes the word “worthwhile.” In other words, it is the process through which we overcome the creative obstacles that makes the results worthwhile.

However, some of the most debilitating obstacles come from within. And although that should make it easier for us to recognize the situation and immediately rectify things, it often proves to be the most difficult.

It is in the moments of my own self-doubt when I am reminded of a recent tweet from Yoko Ono: “If someone is unpleasant to you, draw a halo around his or her head in your mind. He/she is an angel who came to teach you something.” Then I turn the thought inward and ask, how can I use the frustration I have with my own work to move forward?

It’s times like these that we have to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt.