Today we’re going to talk about mastery. Thats right, you heard me. Mastery. Not ‘being pretty good at something’ or ‘knowing more or less what you’re doing’ or even ‘being in the zone’ or ‘feeling the flow’. Mastery. Being a master of whatever it is that you do. You in? Good. Buckle up…
So. I have a few piano students these days, and while the lessons are largely focused on practical pianistic things, I try to teach from the same kind of holistic perspective and approach that informs my composition and performance work – and of course, this blog. So from time to time some of the more abstract and philosophical stuff does find its way into the lessons.
Recently I found myself trying to convey something which has become very central to my whole thinking about music and piano-playing, in a kind of subconscious way, and I think it applies to creative work more broadly. It concerns, as you may have guessed already, the concept of mastery.
I suspect that many creative people tend to have a vague idea of mastery as something unattainable, or at least attainable only by an elite and supremely gifted few. Something for the rest of us to strive towards, perhaps, but never attain. And what would it feel like to attain it, anyway, since we never really sit down and define exactly what it means? How would we know that we’ve arrived?
Some of us are even uncomfortable with the whole idea, mistrusting perhaps the elitist overtones… And yet there are masters, undeniably – those whose abilities seem to transcend normal limitations, whose confidence and poise match their technical command, who make it seem easy.
I believe that coming to terms with this word, and what it means to us, can have a profound impact on our approach to creative work. So I’m going to try to get very specific about what it means to me (and as always, you’re heartily invited to join me with your comments at the end!)…
I picked up an unusual little ebook recently, called ‘Graceful: Making a Difference in a World that Needs You‘*. It’s by the notorious Seth Godin (and if you don’t know who that is, now would be a good moment to go find out…) and it’s a tiny little thing, consisting of 30 short chapters that are very much in Seth’s trademark rapid-fire, gently provocative style. You can read it in about half an hour.
I’m not exactly sure why but it’s really gotten under my skin. It’s not long on specific, actionable content, so if that’s what you’re looking for you’re likely better off seeking elsewhere. Rather, the chapters seem to unfold like a series of Zen ‘koans’, planting little seeds here and there which quietly blossom, as the book unfolds, into something quite remarkable.
Without getting into a serious review, which could easily end up being longer than the book, I want to touch on what it’s had me thinking about…
I did an interview recently, focused on my compositional work and approach (I’ll post a link when it goes live) and, as often happens in these things, once we’d wrapped it up and signed off I found my brain spinning with other ideas. You know, things we didn’t touch on but could have, things I wish I’d said or wish I’d said better. So it goes. I guess I just need to do more interviews…
However, one of these ‘afterthoughts’ has stuck with me, and I’d like to try to expand on it a bit here. It has to do with authenticity. Now, this is a subject I’ve touched on here before, and of course it’s also something of a buzz word in the interwebs generally and the blogosphere more specifically. We need to be more authentic, we’re told; people like authenticity, it’s generally considered to be a Good Thing.
But, ummm, what is it? What does it mean? I suppose standard answer would probably be something like “being true to yourself” – but let’s face it, that’s basically a meaningless cliché and doesn’t tell us much of anything at all. It’s an unexamined platitude.
(Quick aside: I’m generally allergic to unexamined platitudes – ideas or terms that are bantered around without anyone ever seeming to take the time to really question and define them, or find out if in fact there’s any substance to them at all. Or perhaps allergic is not the right word; I’m actually kind of attracted to these linguistic or logical black holes. I’m driven to try to figure out what, if anything, they mean – or at least, what they mean to me.)
Give The People What They Want…
A slightly better / more complete answer, then, for me – and the one I’ve been using for a while now, in various contexts – is this: Always try to be the best, most honest version of yourself, rather than being what you think people want you to be (or saying what they want to hear, and so on). It’s still pretty vague, but at least it’s something. The key here is that in fact we can’t ever know, really, what people want us to be, so it’s best not to spend a lot of time trying to reverse-engineer it.
However, I still think there’s room for improvement. And while I don’t claim to be any kind of ultimate authority on the subject, I do seem to have stumbled on something that is serving me reasonably well – for the moment at least – as a kind of guideline to help me move towards some kind of authenticity in my own life and work.
And it has to do with stew. Or goulash, gumbo, whatever, take your pick…
I have been battling monsters.
Given the topic and focus of this blog, you might be assuming that I’m speaking metaphorically, and that the monsters in question are some kind of inner/psychological demons that thwart creativity or productivity and that I’ve found some devilishly clever way to keep them at bay.
Nope. I’m speaking literally, and the monsters in question are members of the plant kingdom, but they are monsters nonetheless. They are roses. Known as ‘Multiflora Roses’, ‘Baby Roses’ or ‘Rambler Roses’, Latin name Rosa Multiflora, they are native to Eastern Asia and considered, here in Nova Scotia, an aggressive invasive species.
I’m currently visiting my parents in the countryside, and their large and lovely property has been invaded by these plants in what I can only describe as a hostile takeover. I have set myself against them. It’s war. But, as always, there’s a creative lesson to be learned here… More
I read a short blog post a few days ago called ‘Creative Privacy‘, which posed the question “Do you agree that it’s best to keep your creative projects private until you’re ready for input and criticism?”… here’s what I posted by way of a comment:
This is a thorny one. I think it really depends on what you’re looking for by ‘letting people in’… and on your degree of artistic confidence. If you’re looking for approval or validation, because you need those things in order to feel OK about your work, then I think there’s danger there for sure. If you’re looking for criticism to hone your ideas, and you’re confident enough to handle that, it can be a healthy part of the process. It’s not necessary – some people create in a very private way, some in a very public way. I’ve experimented with both, and have pretty much arrived at a place where I’m confident enough to have a very open process; the project I’m immersed in now is a relatively public one, where I put out works in a very raw form and I’m not much bothered by how people respond to it. I’m really just happy if there is *some* response as opposed to deafening silence…
Predictably, there was a range of other responses, ranging from the somewhat paranoid (“what if someone steals your idea?”) to the more blustery (“I’m an artist. I don’t care about input and criticism!”). Some found an ambivalent middle ground; I guess you could put my own response in that category.
I think it’s worth examining our responses to this a little more closely, because they say a lot about our relationship to our work…
As mentioned in the previous post, I’m travelling in Canada just now with my family, on our yearly whirlwind visit to see friends and extended family. As I often do, I have a ‘mobile rig’ with me, with a view towards doing some creative work while I’m here, rather than putting everything on hold until I get back to home base in Berlin.
This year I’ve been somewhat more successful at this (so far, at least) than in previous years, partly because I have an ongoing project that lends itself to ‘short-burst’ creativity: the Sound Fascination project. I thought I’d take a moment to look at that and why it’s helping me keep the creative juices flowing a bit more.
I think it’s important to clarify that this is not accidental. It’s kind of built in to the framework of what I’m doing, and that was deliberate. I’m not saying this to blow my own horn and point out how clever I am; it’s taken me a long, long time to arrive at this point and I’ve had to confront a few creative demons along the way. So, in the spirit of learning from my mistakes and sharing the few bits of wisdom I’ve been able to glean in the process… let’s get into it! More