How we can’t help but get in our own way

“One should want only one thing and want it constantly. Then one is sure of getting it. But I desire everything and consequently get nothing. Each time I discover, and too late, that one thing had come to me while I was running after another…”
– André Gide

Unlimited possibility. Simultaneously the golden opportunity and greatest peril of modern society. If you can have/do/be anything at all, how do you possibly make a choice? And even if you do make a decision, how can you avoid major FOMO and know for sure that this one thing is what you really wanted after all?

It’s long been a major goal of mine to focus on and consistently release my own music. So much so that I’ve quit my job – three times – to make it my priority. But, in the two years since we launched our label and I released my first album, I’ve not publicised even a single further piece of music.

Judging your life by the standards of others

The truth is, repeatedly, job opportunities came along that I knew people would tell me I’d be foolish to pass up. On paper they ticked all the boxes of a perfect career progression. Interesting clients, more money and extra responsibility… textbook stuff. Deep down, though, I probably knew it wasn’t for me. But I went along with it anyway because I assumed that everyone would tell me it was the right thing to do.

We are social creatures and have evolved to try and fit in. And evolution is a tough opponent to fight against. When everyone we talk to speaks of their unfulfilled dreams, we feel guilty striving to realise ours. Why should we be so lucky? We’re built to crave acceptance, and often that means we’re willing to hold ourselves back to ‘be’ with others. That job we took isn’t really that bad – our colleagues are still persevering. It might even be pretty fun on occasion. Good perks, easy, comfortable. And so many of us are snared by increased responsibilities in our lives or the ‘Golden Handcuffs’.

I count myself lucky that I endured a rocky year of insane hours, strained work relationships and threats of lawsuits because it pushed me to a tipping point of wanting to make a change. I’m nowhere near out of the woods but it made me think hard about what my priorities are and start looking for ways to build my life around those.

“Often people attempt to live their lives backwards, they try to have more things or more money in order to do more of what they want so that they will be happier. The way it actually works is the reverse. You must first be who you really are then do what you need to do in order to have what you want. ”
– Margaret Young

The four obstacles

Society has us preconditioned to follow certain paths because it’s in the interest of the greater good, or it limits the unpredictability of people working to separate agendas. In ‘The Alchemist’, Paulo Coelho talks about the four obstacles we face in life that stop us from following our dreams:

“There are four obstacles.

First: we are told from childhood onward that everything we want to do is impossible.

The second obstacle: love. We know what we want to do, but are afraid of hurting those around us by abandoning everything in order to pursue our dream.

The third obstacle: fear of the defeats we will meet on the path.

The fourth obstacle: the fear of realising the dream for which we fought all our lives.”

These are broader obstacles which will take a fair amount of bravery and grit to overcome. You can’t please everyone, things won’t always go to plan, and you just have to decide to stick with it no matter what. But even if we get down to the point of actually doing the work, there are other examples of how we can get in our own way.

The importance trap

Often we imagine our procrastination stems from things like fear of failure or concerns about the opinions of others. But it can just as easily be the result of biases we build up in our own minds. The more status and importance we bestow on a particular activity, the more we start believing that we need perfect conditions in which to do it. This is something I’ve been battling with consistently this past year – going so far as to repeatedly book secluded cabins, hotel rooms and camper vans across the globe to provide the focused, uninterrupted and distraction-free periods of time I thought I needed in order to create. When it came down to it, though, the novelty of a new location was often just as much distraction as the things that hold me up at home. Really, all we need to do is make it easy to get started as the process feeds on momentum. For me, that currently involves using a Self-Control app to block access to distracting websites irreversibly for a specific length of time. Knowing I can’t just have a quick check on social media during the next 3 hours is an invaluable help to keeping me focused.

I have no doubt that there are people out there who work far harder than I and still have time to create their art in their spare time. I know it’s completely irrational to give so much weight to an activity, and a side-effect of that is that it takes so much of the fun out of it. Art of any form should be enjoyable for the artist – an opportunity for unbridled self-expression, experimentation and introspection. Years ago, when I was at my most prolific, I set myself a daily creativity challenge to write entire pieces of music in under half an hour. I kept that system up for a couple of months and, listening back, some of the musical ideas that came out of that process were as good as anything I’ve ever written. The reality is you only get better by sustained practice and, if you can stay consistent with even the smallest window of time every day, your learning and development will snowball. We think that if only we had the perfect conditions we’d be able to create our masterpiece, but really it’s by sitting down every day and making a start that we develop the motivation, energy and concentration we need.

I’m not suggesting I’m anywhere near being able to maintain that sort of habit just yet, but by getting clarity on my priorities, defining my own terms for success and identifying my purpose, I’ve been able to greatly increase my motivation to keep making progress. I’ll expand on those processes in later posts.

Whatever your discipline, we’d love to hear about your own experiences and the challenges you face in your creative process. If you have anything to share, or to suggest questions you’d like us to explore, please comment below or get in touch through the contact page.

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