Dear 18-year old Jesse,
After you’ve written your masterpiece, you will never again feel misguided, lost, or without recognition. Your achievements will be in plain sight, your existence forever validated. The uneasiness and self-doubt you felt at the pit of your stomach will be a distant memory. The money will flow. You will know exactly what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, and you can finally exhale knowing that you’ve made the right choice. You’ve proven everybody wrong. You’ve made it.
I hate to break it to you, Jesse, but that moment doesn’t and will never exist.
This summer you will try to write the best song of all-time. When that doesn’t work, you will furrow your brow and try to captivate the Internet with a series of blog posts about the meaning of life that your mom will halfheartedly insist are “a step in the right direction.” You will pour your heart out to a response of three comments from spammers advertising discount handbags and penis enhancement supplements. Needless to say, it won’t be the earth-shattering reception you were expecting, and after weeks go by and Oprah still hasn’t called, you will be crushed. Instead of writing or making music, you’ll retreat to the couch, disappointed, playing Xbox and stuffing pizza in your face.
Because if nobody has responded, that means that what you’re making isn’t good enough to be noticed. By definition, what’s not good enough is bad. And what’s the point of making bad art?
First off, and you’re not going to want to admit this, but you’re being way too hard on yourself. I mean lightyears beyond what’s acceptable. You’re putting the weight of the world on your shoulders when you can barely lift your backpack. You somehow think that being hard on yourself is the only possible way to light a fire under your ass to make something great. But more importantly—and more concerning—is the fact you’re operating under the assumption that making a masterpiece will solve everything, forever ending any and all insecurity, anxiety, and self-doubt. In other words, you believe you’ll be happy only after you’ve written your masterpiece.
Trust me when I tell you that you’re chasing the wrong car.
Let’s be honest: you don’t really care about writing an amazing song. You don’t have respect for the craft, you don’t want to put in the time to become skilled—you just want everything that comes along with having written a classic.
What you really want is to be loved, accepted, praised, validated, and recognized. Focus less energy on trying to do this through your art and spend more time trying to understand why this is such a burning need that runs so deep. Go to therapy—yes, I’m serious. Book an appointment this week. This is more important than another round of Call of Duty.
You want to be great, and you want to be great now. I get that.
But I think there’s something in your core that believes making a masterpiece is the only way you can be understood, taken seriously, and get the praise you crave.
If there is something magical about creativity, which you know there is, it will be eroded by the overwhelming pressure you put on yourself to make something amazing. All of the magic will be stripped away when you insist that you need to be the second coming of Bach and achieve artistic immortality. When you demand perfection from your art, you’re abusing both the art and the artist, and the childlike joy you felt when you first started making music will transform into a burning impatience; where you are becomes an obstacle, and you’ll desperately try to leapfrog over yourself until you’re finally at the top.
Right now you think that artists either have “it” or they don’t (and you’ll scramble to prove to yourself and the world that you do have “it” and should be treated as such), but you’ll eventually discover that any creative ability is less about inherent talent or genius—some cosmic dice roll at birth—and more about discipline, patience, and respect for the craft.
Your job as an artist is not to sit in your bedroom like a scientist, devising the formula for the most mind-blowing song that gets the most likes, favorites, and retweets. It is not to get your own Wikipedia page or become verified on Twitter. Your art does not have to be deep or complex or show that you’re smart or make you understood or give meaning to your existence. The most important thing is to lead with your curiosity and chase it until the sun goes down. This is a personal exploration that first and foremost involves creating for yourself, following your interests because they’re interesting—not because you want to appear interesting to others.
You don’t need to make something profound. Give yourself permission to make something truly awful.
Trying to write something meaningful for the sole intention of writing something meaningful is the quickest way to make a steaming pile of shit. If you go in with the intention of making something ‘good,’ you’re cheating yourself, and the work is compromised from the start. The more invested you are in something being ‘good’, the worse everything gets—suddenly the stakes are higher, the walls closer, and curiosity morphs into aggression. Instead of letting curiosity take you along for the ride, you’re holding your art in a death grip, suffocating it before it can grow into what it needs to become.
So experiment. Make a mess. Your career does not hinge on the success of this next project. Loosen your grip, play in the mud. Just writing is more important than writing something good. It’s okay to be dissatisfied with your work, but don’t let it stop you from coming back tomorrow.
And please, try not to be so hard on yourself.
With love, and fewer pimples,
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