Quick Update: What’s Next for Eternal Suffering Society


working all the time

Hello all,

First off, if you’re reading this – thanks a lot. I appreciate how often people have asked me about this blog and my plans for it, since we’ve gone through a rather-lengthy quiet period.

Here’s the long and short of it:

1. I’m going to be updating this blog again. It provides an outlet I think I need, and often forces me to be a better person just by osmosis. Hence, updates. I will attempt to do at least one every few weeks, since they take me some time to do, but will aim for more. Thanks for sticking around.

2. Remember that email course I did? Well, I’m turning it into a book (now with less dramatic writing!). Once I’m done editing, the book will be available via this website with expanded content (and possibly via Amazon/Kindle as well, if I can make it work). It will be cheap, probably a buck or so. If you missed out on the first series of emails, look for it here.

3. I want to expand on the content here, with some interviews, possibly videos, and maybe a shirt in the future. If you’ve got an idea for a design, send it my way.

That’s it. Again, thanks for reading. Now, get to work.

d

Cone of Silence: Dealing With Criticism

Igor Stravinsky - Dealing With Criticism - www.eternalsufferingsociety.com

Igor Stravinsky. Oft-criticized in his day.

I’d like to propose a new rule of thumb, which we could title the Criticism Corollary: the more stuff you make, the more criticism you will receive.

This says absolutely nothing about the quality of the stuff you make. It doesn’t matter if every single thing you create is better than last or a huge step backward. That stuff doesn’t matter. All that matters is that the more you create, the more criticism you receive.

Let’s say you’re an artist, and you’ve just put on a new show. Some segment of your fans is going to really dig it. Another segment of your fans is going to dislike it because, say, it’s too different from your previous work – whatever they connected with before just isn’t there now. Another segment of your audience, no matter how different your new work is, will point to the similarities with your earlier work and decide that you haven’t evolved enough. Some segment of your fans is going to have moved on from you altogether and be really into jazz, now.

Every time you produce a new piece these segments of your audience will divide and expand. New fans will move into each subgroup as new work is produced. As a function of this, no matter what you put out – no matter how awesome it is – the volume of criticism you receive will increase.

This is all well and good, and in any case it’s inevitable. But if you’re an artist, then more than likely you’re a fairly sensitive person. I’d wager that even artists who pride themselves on going against public opinion are still secretly pretty concerned with what people think. Artists are fairly narcissistic in general.

And so there is a perverse incentive here – if you care about what people think it is actually easier on you to stop working. After all, more work means more criticism, which means more people who think you’re full of shit, stupid, pretentious, or whatever.

The further you push against people’s expectations – either good or bad – the more criticism you’ll receive.

I want to be clear, this doesn’t mean that criticism is inaccurate or unwarranted. Criticism is an integral and vital part of culture. Criticism makes art better and makes artists better. I’m just saying that there isn’t much you can do to avoid it.

Handling criticism, then, is very important if your goal is to produce work you care about. How do you avoid subconsciously dreading each new release if you know there’s a lot of negativity waiting on the other side?

The common advice is to just “not read it.” As someone who compulsively googles themself, I’m not sure I could manage that. Everyone is curious what people think of them, and as an artist especially I am curious how people react to the stuff I make. In any case, in an age where anyone can tweet at an artist to let them know that their new move sucks giant balls, you’d have to be pretty reclusive to avoid all criticism.

I’m not sure that shutting out all outside opinion is a good way to go about making better art, anyway.

For me, there’s only one thing that I’ve found to have any effect on how I perceive criticism, and it involves shifting my mindset towards the entire process, destroying an old idea and putting a new one in its place.

First off, we have to disconnect ourselves from the idea that the amount of criticism a work of art receives has any relationship to its worth.

The famous example is the Rite of Spring, at the debut of which the audience literally lost its shit and started rioting. This, during a piece scored by Stravinsky and choreographed by Diaghilev, towering figures widely identified as two of the most influential artists of the 20th century.*

Clearly, great works are sometimes criticized. Likewise, horrible things are often praised or successful – I’m sure you can think of a few dozen examples offhand.

It’s clear, then, that the amount of criticism a work receives doesn’t necessarily reflect its quality. Either good or bad, criticism has to be taken with a grain of salt.

The second part of this process involves how we think about ourselves in seeking out criticism of our work. Instead of feeling like an artist, think of yourself as a scientist.

We already know that your work isn’t made good nor bad by the criticism it receives; so what, exactly, does drive criticism? Are people startled by a change in style, is the work too different from what they’re familiar with? Did you use a new recording technique that some love, but most hate? Why is that? Did the artwork turn people off? Does the artwork have a penis on it? Could that have been it?

The key here is to break your work down into it’s component pieces and see which pieces had the effect you wanted, and which didn’t.

To use an example from my recent past:

I recently put out an experimental digital release that aimed to use long, nearly abstract song structures and binaural beats to elicit trances and out of body experiences. The goal was to use music to create a real, physical change in someone – long distance mind-control.

I put out the album and didn’t expect much of a response. It was, after all, an experiment. To my surprise, it got a lot of response – and a lot of criticism.

At first, I have to admit that I was a bit hurt and defensive. It is this way whenever you work on something. I, in particular, tend to vastly overestimate the weight of any criticism I receive, and diminish the value of any praise. In this world view, everyone who likes your album is an idiot (including you), and everyone who hates it is a genius. This tends to be my default view of the universe.

It was very upsetting, and the experience drove me to write this post. If I choose to ignore criticism of the stuff I do – or, inversely, completely agree with every insult someone hurls my way – I’ll never get any better, or make cooler stuff, or fix my mistakes. There needs to be a healthy middle ground.

And so, as stated above, I came to the conclusion that the amount of criticism a work receives doesn’t necessarily reflect its quality. The record is neither good nor bad because more or less people criticize it. That took a lot of the emotional intensity out of the equation, and let me think about things objectively.

After that, I decided to break my work into its component pieces and see which pieces had the effect I wanted, and which didn’t.

For example, I didn’t care if people complained that the record was too long, too formless, hard to listen to, etc. After all, that was the point: the songs were deliberately made in such a way that casual listening would be impossible.

There were other bits of criticism that were fair, however. One song in particular was so long that it bordered on antagonism and probably should’ve been cut. People complained that some of my writing, especially in the description of the album, was pretentious, and I can see how it came off that way. Even more importantly, I’m not sure I would release that record today under the name that I did; the styles of this and my previous release were so drastically different that I think it created inaccurate expectations in some, no matter how often I tried to play that down.

Seeking out and really interacting with people’s opinions and criticisms of the things I do means that I can spot problems and make changes where I think they’re needed. It’s a difficult thing, trying to connect with other human beings, and if you never read a word of criticism you’ll never know that you’ve been successful.

Likewise, I feel completely comfortable in dismissing criticism that missed the point or had nothing to do with the goals of the piece. Those people just weren’t the target audience for the work, expecting something different from what they got, and that’s too bad. As stand-up comedian Marc Maron has related a few times, this is the process of feeling compassion for people who don’t like your stuff. We weren’t a good fit; that’s not anyone’s fault.

Criticism is everywhere, and it’s only getting more intense. If you’re going to try and make a life in which you create things and put them out into the world, you will need a plan for dealing with criticism. Otherwise, you risk two different, but equally distasteful fates: one in which you let everyone’s critiques lower your confidence so much that you stop the work altogether, and another in which you retreat infinitely into yourself, never growing and maturing as a creative person.

Trust me, take the middle route. It’s a lot less stressful.

*Yes, I am aware of the historical ambiguities in calling this a “riot.” For a fascinating take on the subject, look up Modris Ekstein’s “Rites of Spring”.

A Fight To The Death

Soundtrack for writing this post: Hammock – Sinking Inside Yourself

Let me make a guess about you:

You think of yourself as creative. There’s something in you, somewhere, that needs expression. You don’t really know what, or why it is; it’s just down there, somehow, and it’s always been.

It gives you quirks. Ticks. Oddities. It changed your life, somehow. You could’ve been somewhere else, but you’ve ended up here.

That something needles you in the middle of the night, sometimes, or in the shower, or in the car. It was you to make something.

A song, a novel, a poem, a painting, a company, a sculpture. Something. It needs you to take it – take the thing inside you, the thing that’s deep, deep down – and recreate it in the physical world.

It needs creation. And you know you could do it, and that it would matter. If you could pull it off, who knows what could happen? Would other people read it, see it, hear it? What would they think?

And you want to. You do. You have the gnaw in you. The urge.

But the first day, you don’t sit down. You don’t start. Something comes up; it’s a one-time thing. You’ll start tomorrow.

But you don’t start tomorrow. And you don’t start the next day. Maybe on the fourth day, you get something down…but then a week goes by. And then a month.

And you want to. That’s the thing. You want to sit down. You want to start.

But when you think about it, it’s like your body won’t follow your commands. I’m going to go get started right now, you think, and your body stands there, unmoved. It isn’t impressed.

This is resistance.

Resistance is the great truth of art, the one real thing.

No matter what you want to do, something will fight you. And it will fight you every step of the way, forever.

It will stop you from trying. It will protect you. It’s on your side. Save the energy, save the effort. Save the embarrassment. Save the humiliation.

It will save you until you are dead, and then it will bury you.

There is nothing on the other side of resistance. It is nothing. Sameness.

There isn’t one way to defeat it. There aren’t “5 Easy Steps” or “7 Quick Tips.” There aren’t any blog posts or books or seminars. There aren’t any heroes.

Nowhere to hide.

All there is, is this:

When you wake up in the morning, sit in front of your work and fight yourself as if your life depended on it.

Because it does.

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Thanks! – d

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How To Make Yourself Write When You Don’t Want To Write

Big projects are the result of small increments of time, wisely managed. Photo credit: www.jessleecuizon.com

I just sent the final installment of the 10-week email series on Breaking Out of A Rut and using habits to change your life, and that’s made me think about writing.

I have struggled, long and hard, with two conflicting desires.

On the one hand, there is my desire to write, to create. This is a powerful desire within myself; I’ve always wanted to be an author, to influence people, to express myself.

On the other hand, there is an equally powerful desire, just as deeply-rooted. And that desire is to not write at all.

I think most people have a similar battle going on within themselves: a battle between their ideal selves and their pragmatic selves.

The ideal self says, “We must do all we can to actualize our most powerful dreams and desires. We must strive to be the best person we can: the most successful, the most influential.”

The pragmatic self says, “All that bullshit is a waste of time. Writing/working/creating takes energy, and we need to preserve energy in case we run out of food. Now, lay down and shut up.”

In any case, that’s what happens with me. It happens with everything: music, going to work, even hanging out with friends. Some part of me just wants to lay on the couch for eternity, and that part is very persuasive.

So. If we do actually want to do these things – create, write, influence others – how do we overcome our pragmatic selves? How do we convince ourselves to do the work?

I can tell you that, for me, willing myself to do it doesn’t help. Neither does visualization, or motivational speeches, or any of the other million things that authors and people with systems to sell will tell you to try.

The only thing that works is this:

1. Schedule a time to write, before anything else.
2. Write during that time.

That’s it.

I schedule a time: early morning, before work. I write in here on Wednesdays; I write other stuff on Mondays. I write for about 2 hours, then I move on to other things.

Do I always write for the entire 2 hours? No, but I usually do, because that’s my writing time.

Do I finish everything? No. Is everything great? No.

But I produce far more than most people, and I do it consistently. Every day gets a little better, the process a little easier.

It isn’t up for debate. Nothing else is grabbing my attention. Nothing else is competing for my focus.

Monday, Wednesday. 6:30 to 8:30. Writing time.

If there’s something you want to do, but can’t seem to get your pragmatic self to join in, try setting a schedule. Start early.

You’ll be amazed at what you turn out.

P.S. If you’re interested in taking the course, I’ll have the whole thing automated soon. In the meantime, you can sign up to be alerted when I have everything set. Thanks!

The Ghost Of Mark Twain: Why Smart People Fail, And What To Do About It

Smart people aren’t so smart, after all.

I think about Mark Twain a lot.

Twain, of course, is one of America’s most beloved writers. He gave a voice to the culture of the American South, and in doing revolutionized world literature. He was extremely prolific, waking up every morning to write in a special room he had constructed just for that purpose (in fact, much of my own writing routine, and thoughts about how to write regularly, are based on notes from Twain’s autobiography). The works he produced made him one of the world’s most beloved figures.

And yet, in other parts of his life – specifically in business – Twain was a crashing failure. Though Twain’s income from his books made him something like a millionaire in today’s dollars, he spent much of his adult life broke and in debt.

Twain was highly motivated by financial success and security, and was constantly seeking ways to invest his writing income so that he would never need to work (or write) again. He tried to publish his own works so that he would have greater control; his publishing company fell apart. As part of his publishing venture, he invested in a new kind of typesetter that promised to revolutionize the industry; the machine was never built. He invested in a watch company run by ex-patent medicine salesmen; well, you get the idea. By his mid-50’s, Twain was in almost $150,000 worth of debt to over 100 creditors. He filed for bankruptcy.

Many of the novels we have from Twain were written in dire straits, quick-fixes to get him out of debt. He never stopped trying to beat the system – somehow, being a brilliant author wasn’t enough.

Why Smart People Fail: The Inner Argument From Authority

The argument from authority is an inductive argument that goes like this:

Guy X believes Y. Guy X is really smart. Therefore, Y is probably true.

We’re wired to be susceptible to this argument. It seems logical to us that, if someone is very intelligent, their opinions on most subjects are more likely to be accurate, even regarding subjects outside their realm of expertise.

The problem is that there is no evidence that this is true. Just because you’re a math genius doesn’t mean you’re a business genius; these are fundamentally different skills. In fact, it seems that high levels of skill in one area typically decrease your chances of being skilled in another area – after all, if you’re busy becoming a math genius, you’re probably not out there learning to sell and talking to customers.

We don’t only do this with other people, either: we constantly think we are better at things than we are. Humans are truly poor at gauging our own levels of expertise. Often, we have an internal version of the Argument From Authority: “Well, I’m smarter than that guy, so I should be able to do what he does just as well, if not better.”

I worry constantly that I am committing this error. I have become quite driven, as I grow older, to gain some kind of financial security. In the pursuit of this goal I have started several companies and ventures, all of which have either fallen short or failed outright.

Now, part of this is the learning process. From each failure, I have learned something valuable, zeroed in on some aspect of business, or sales, or my own personality that needed work. In this way, each failure moves me closer to my goal, since I’m improving my overall skill level and thus, my chances of success.

It only means that I’m getting closer, however. It doesn’t mean that I will ever actually achieve success.

I’m sure Twain learned from his failures as well – it’s hard not to – but it didn’t help him.

The self-help exhortations to “never give up!” and “just stick with it!” are so consistent in our society that it’s often hard to admit the obvious: some people are never successful, and would have been far better off if they had given up a long time ago.

Smart Bets: Overcoming The Fear of Failure

The fear that I am dumping a lot of time and effort into something that will never pay off is very real to me. After all, that’s time I could have been writing music, or spending time with my fiancee, or working out, or sleeping. How can I tell what activities will increase my overall happiness throughout the course of my life, and which are dead ends?

You can’t, really. No one knows how everything will turn out, and in the end, all we can do is guess. What we can do, however, is make smart bets.

The process is simple:

1. Associate a specific action with your overall goal (I want to make more money; I’m going to design websites for money).

2. Find a way to pursue that action in such a way that it does not disrupt what already works in your life (I already have a job that provides income, so it would be silly to quit that job in the uncertain pursuit of more income. Therefore, I need to find a way to design websites for money in my free time. I do this early mornings and weekends.)

3. In that process, learn all you can, and relentlessly seek to improve your skill. Give it your best.

4. Pursue your new action for a year.

5. At the end of the year, review the results:

    If you had overwhelming success, great! Clearly you should adopt this action full-time.
    If you had minor success, great! Weigh the cost and benefits of increasing the amount of time you dedicate to this action.
    If you had no success, move on to something else.

Now, will there be some actions that seem like total failures, but if you would just hang on for a little while longer, would explode into huge successes? Maybe. But as a heuristic (more on heuristics here), following these steps will save you far more effort, waste, and worry than it will cost you. Moreover, having a system outside your self relieves you of the pressure and tension of constantly worrying: Am I making the right decision?

This is the year I’m really dedicating to work on my side business. It will either work or it won’t; if it doesn’t, I can give up in good conscience. I don’t have a high bar for success, however, so I feel fairly confident that it will work out.

After all, I’m pretty smart.

If you liked this post, consider signing up for my email list. I’m running a 10-week course on breaking free of creative, entrepreneurial, and personal ruts. It’s a great community of creative, smart people looking to improve their lives. It’s totally free, too. Thanks!

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