Through high school and college, I thought I wanted to work in music.
I actually started by playing a little piano back in the day – first as a little guy, eventually as a keyboard player in a little jam band project. Just for fun really. Nothing too serious.
I was… not very good. So being a career musician was out for me, but my passion for music and concerts kept me interested in the business and industry side of things.
I tried a bunch of different stuff. I dabbled in “management” (if you can call it that), in recording as a sound engineer, and in live event production – sound, lights, you name it.
I threw concerts, hosted a small music “festival”, started an online music magazine, and got into music marketing and street teaming – the latter experience actually eventually leading me to starting SimpleCrew, and, today, CrewFire.
Through all those years, I had the pleasure of working and interacting with a bunch of musicians and artists in a number of different capacities – as a promoter, a recording engineer, a writer, a fan, a friend.
Here’s a fun question: what do you say to an artist after they step off stage, or finish recording a take?
Do you offer them your opinion right away? Do you congratulate them for their epic performance? Do you console them for the less epic one? What do you do?
Over time, I developed a favorite go-to move: I’d ask the artist how it felt for them.
That was interesting to me.
If they wanted my opinion, they could ask for it. And I could leave the congrats (or condolences) to others.
For me, it was always more interesting to hear how the artist felt about their own performance, and the more I asked, the clearer a pattern emerged.
Good artists, I realized, were often their own harshest critics.
Stepping off stage after what the fans in attendance would attest to being an great show, the good artist would always be able to tell you where they messed up: the notes they missed, the lyrics they flubbed, the queues they didn’t pick up on.
Stepping out of the booth after what everyone else in the studio heard as a solid take, the good artist could never settle. It’s wasn’t perfect, yet. One more take.
A funny truth emerged – artists and observers see the work completely differently.
Audiences could see a performance as the greatest thing on earth, and the artist would be able to pick apart the nuances.
The best artists and creators have a vision in their minds of exactly what they’re going for. Of “perfection”.
They see that vision, and then they compare it to reality – what they produced, what they performed, or what they recorded.
The artist sees that disparity between their perfect vision and reality, and they judge the work accordingly.
As listeners or fans, we’re not privy to that vision, so it’s easier to see and appreciate the achievement of creation from the outside
The artist sees their work for what it isn’t, but everyone else sees it for what it is.
Unfortunately (or, fortunately…), I’ve stopped spending as much time in the music industry, but having spent most of the last 5 years in the startup world, I see the same self-critical pattern in entrepreneurs, designers, developers, and other builders.
Just as with artists, the designer, developer, or entrepreneur can always point out the flaws in their work.
They live their lives with one foot in the future – fixated on a vision of what the product will be, where the business could be, where their team should be.
And then they see the present reality. And from their vantage point, with one foot in the future, they see the disparity between the vision and the reality. They can see what isn’t.
Just as with art, it’s always easier to see and appreciate the achievement of creation from the outside – as an outside observer, as a friend, or as a customer.
Just as with art, the creator sees his work for what it isn’t, yet. Everyone else sees it for what it is.
What’s the trick, then? Is there a way to break the habit of self-criticism?
I don’t have answers, but I have ideas, and I have the things I’m experimenting with in my own life that I’m happy to share.
For me, it’s similar to a mindset or philosophy I’ve written about before:
In the same way that I try to remind myself that there is no destination, I work to remind myself that there is no perfection.
The product is never done. The vision can never be fully accomplished.
“Songs aren’t finished, they’re abandoned.” – PJ Harvey
— dead mow cinco (@deadmau5) August 30, 2012
No matter how big we grow, no matter how much money we make, no matter how robust our product becomes – our minds will always be fixated on the next thing, and we’ll always be able to point out our flaws.
No matter how far we travel, we’ll never catch the horizon.
So, today, just as I work to remember to make peace with the journey, I work to remember to make peace with the imperfections.
I try to remember that as the creator, I’ll always have a harder time appreciating my creations for what they are.
With that in mind, when I catch myself being self-critical and pointing out my flaws or those of my product, business, or team, I can break the habit, and remember to appreciate everything that is, instead of lamenting what isn’t (yet).
Also published on Medium.