There’s this person I know who’s a great songwriter. I was a fan of theirs in high school. They can write beautiful, haunting melodies and catchy-AF-tunes that get stuck in your head for weeks.
That was then. This is…17 years later?
This person is still making music–the exact same kind of music (only, I might be bias, but I think their old stuff was better).
They’re obviously successful. Not a superstar by any means, but they’re making a living off their music, and that’s great. I’m happy for them.
But I’m also just… floored.
I mean, how does someone do that?!
I wrote music in high school, too. Grungy-ska-punk-teen-pop-songs (followed by acoustic/folky stuff). I can’t even fathom still writing the same kind of music now! I could see myself writing a song from time to time, but writing grungy-ska-punk-teen-pop-songs as my only form of work, year after year after year?! I can’t imagine doing that and being happy.
But that’s me. I’m a multipotentialite.
When we become our projects
I think it’s really common to find something we’re good at, put a project out into the world, get positive feedback and then the medium we used for this project instantly becomes our identity.
For example: someone writes a novel that they’ve been thinking about for a decade. This novel is raw, honest, and brilliant. It’s also a financial success. Now everyone starts calling them a Writer. They start thinking of themself as a Writer. And what do Writers do? They write. So they continue writing more books because that’s what they’re supposed to do. But their big idea–this story they’ve been pondering for a decade–they already expressed it in their first novel. They don’t have much else to say and their subsequent books just aren’t as good.
Maybe, just maybe, we should all appreciate that first brilliant novel for what it is and let the creator decide for themself if they want to continue using the medium of writing or not. Perhaps it’s okay to have just one great novel or song or painting in you.
Picking the best container for an idea
Imagine what the world would be like if, when we have a creative idea, we think: which container would best suit this idea? Is it writing? filmmaking? sculpture? interpretive dance? Heck, an app?
After we choose the best container for the idea, we begin working on our project and gain skills as we go or collaborate with someone who already has those skills and bring our project to light.
However, we don’t then automatically go on to become the medium we used (Writer, Filmmaker, Sculptor, etc.) That decision is up to us. It’s not assumed.
And when we have another idea for a new project, we ask the same question: “which container would best suit this idea?” Maybe it’s the same medium, maybe it’s a different one.
Of course, there are reasons we might want to identify with a medium. I’m a fan of adopting labels when they help and ditching them when they hold us back. But there are also reasons we might prefer to focus on the project itself and not on what that project says about who we are and what we should be doing with our lives.
What about “honing your craft”?
According to Malcolm Gladwell, the Beatles put 10,000 hours of work into music before they were able to write their most critically acclaimed album, The White Album. But what about all those musicians whose “old stuff” is their best stuff and the novelists whose first novels were better than any that followed? That happens, too… A lot!
What if, instead of automatically moving on to album #2 or book #2 or film #2 simply because it’s the “natural next step,” those people had decided to try a new medium or do something different entirely? What if they had asked the container question? Perhaps their work would be stronger and more inspired.
Have you ever felt like you needed to work in a particular medium or assume a certain role simply because that’s what’s worked in the past? Have you ever broken out of that and done something radically different?
Note: I focused on the arts in this post but I think a lot of this applies to non-artistic careers, as well.