The Struggle Against ObsessionBy
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
The cursor sits there, flashing impatiently, daring me to fill the page with words that mean something. I have a vague concept in my head, but it shifts when I try to see it more clearly.
I start writing and get a few lines down, then backspace to delete them. They weren’t quite right. I repeat this process a few more times. Nine, to be exact.
I drum my fingers against the desk again, frustrated. I’m tempted to move on to another topic, or to stop trying for the day. This is what I do. I write. So why is it such a struggle today?
Because I’m obsessing over it. I’m so focused on finding the best way to start the article and the most logical way to lay it out and the ideal story to include that I’m not making any progress. I’m getting in my way and preventing myself from accomplishing the task at hand. It’s frustrating. Moreover, it’s difficult to overcome.
But it’s not impossible to overcome. I just have to stop obsessing on getting it right the first time and let the thoughts flow. I can go back and rewrite it later, as long as I have something to work with. If I keep obsessing, I won’t have anything to rewrite.
The cursor still flashes.
I sigh and slowly start typing the thoughts floating in my head, praying something coherent forms.
I don’t delete this time.
The Creative’s Struggle
I can confidently state that I’m not the only person who has experienced writer’s block. I think that, at some point in their life, every person has struggled to find the right words.
Nor is this struggle—this obsession with perfection that prevents progress—unique to writing.
I’ve seen it in musicians.
Yes, in the more obvious instances, with songwriting. The songwriter languishes, much as I do, over how to best express the thoughts in his head, and he struggles with fitting the words into a melody. He has notebooks full of nearly complete songs, each abandoned in a moment of frustration and shelved for a later date. Over the years, he has completed a few songs, but most wait, unfinished.
I’ve seen it in other ways, too.
I hear musicians talk about their recording process. They work hard for years, saving up money from gigs to pay for THE BEST studio, producer, and audio engineer. They spend a small fortune—enough to buy a house, in some places—on the recording process, and then they sell their music for $10 a CD, or $.99 per song. If their recording costs were $50,000, they’ll need to sell 5000 CDs to break even on recording alone. It’s not an impossible number of sales, but it is a big goal.
Now, their music sounds wonderful… but I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if they hadn’t obsessed so much over the quality of the recording and had released music over those years, instead of waiting. Would more-frequent releases have kept their fans interested? Would creating a recording budget based on the size of their fan base and anticipated sales have turned out better for them than setting the budget according to their dreams? Would investing less in the process up front result in bigger returns on each investment, allowing them to work their way up the quality chain over time? I’m not suggesting that they record it on their phone in the garage to save a few bucks. But… surely there is a better way.
Another artist recently told me that his next album has been years in the making. He’s not so obsessed with which studio does the recording as he is with how the songs sound. He’s been performing these songs for a few years, and he’s been in the recording process for over a year… but he’s can’t quite get the songs to sound the way he wants them to. So, every few weeks, he heads back to the studio to tweak one song or another. Most people—non-musicians, at least—probably won’t be able to tell the difference between the versions, but he refuses to release it until it’s perfect.
I can’t fault him for wanting to put out a quality product. It’s his right, after all. The music is his, and the music reflects his talent, commitment, and professionalism. But… at some point, it doesn’t make sense to keep going back… does it? At some point, you have to accept the recordings as exceptional instead of truly perfect. Right?
It’s not just recording that musicians obsess about.
I’ve seen artists hold up projects for months by focusing on minor graphic design details that are, when it comes down to it, entirely preferential and won’t be noticed by the majority of the population.
I’ve seen artists who are so focused on not letting an opportunity pass them by that they become overzealous. They flood inboxes with every song they’ve ever written, instead of submitting just their best material, or they reach out to their contacts too frequently to follow up on submissions or openings. Their “just checking in” messages start driving away managers, publishers, and booking agents before the artist even gets a fair shot. Doors lock shut before they were even opened.
I’ve seen artists so tuned in to their web stats that they can accurately spout off their follower counts off the top of their head. They know their ideal posting time per platform, and they make sure that they have content ready to release at those times. Google Analytics is always running in an open window on their laptop, ready to be refreshed; it’s like a stock ticker. They spend days fine-tuning their keywords, trying to bump their website ranking up a notch. All this effort means they’re pretty connected to their fans (as much as you can be, through social media), but that’s hours a day that they aren’t spending writing, recording, or performing. In other words, that’s hours a day that they aren’t spending as a musician.
On The Plus Side…
If I can say one thing about these talented, driven musicians, it’s this: they care about their career, about their craft, about their music. Caring is a good thing; I’d much rather have a musician who cares immensely than one who couldn’t care less (and those do exist, but that’s a separate article).
And what they care about—releasing complete songs and quality recordings, creating products that visually represents their quality music, pursuing opportunities to advance their career, optimizing their web presence, and connecting with fans—is inherently good.
The problem lies, then, with how much these artists care. It’s to the point of obsession. They are so focused on perfection, in one form or another, that it grinds everything down to a standstill. If left unaddressed, the obsession starts to hurt them, to choke the life out of their career.
And that’s the last thing they want.
Getting Past Obsession
If you’re in this camp, this group of obsessive musicians, you might be wondering how you can break free from that struggle.
First, it helps to remember that you’re human, which means perfection isn’t attainable. (That might take some of the pressure off your shoulders.) Stop trying to live up to some unattainable inhuman standard, and simply focus on being the best you possible—flaws and all. Your flaws are just as much a part of who you are as your strengths.
You know that catch in your voice when you sing the last verse of the sad song on your album? Stop trying to get a flawless take without it. Keep it in there. Your voice catches because you get emotional, and that emotion is something fans can connect with. (Side note: If I have to choose between a technically flawless but emotionless performance and a heartfelt rendition with a few catches in the singer’s voice or minor errors, heartfelt wins. Hands down. Every time.)
Second, remember that art—including music—is subjective. Not everyone will love what you do, and you’ll always be able to find someone, somewhere who has an opinion on how you could have done something differently to improve. Know that this isn’t true for just you. It’s true for all artists.
Third, keep the big picture in mind. If you find yourself obsessing over the pantone color and opacity of the drop shadow on your album liner, or whether or not you need a skosh more reverb on that one track, or why your cousin’s neighbor’s ex-boyfriend stopped following you on Twitstabook, take a step back. Ask how this piece that you’re struggling with fits into the grand scheme of things. What is the long-term effect that this has on your career? Are there better uses of your time? Does it really need attention, or is it actually good enough to let go of?
I don’t want you to stop caring about your career, about your craft, about your music. I love that about you.
But, I don’t want your career to suffer. At all. Especially not because you spent so much time, resources, and energy caring too much about things that, in the end, didn’t make as big a difference as you thought they would.
I want you to find balance. Keep caring, but don’t let it hurt you. Keep striving to improve, but know that perfection is unattainable. Set those crazy high goals, but throw in realistic, attainable steps to help you get there. Pay attention to the details, but don’t forget the big picture.
So, I wrote this article.
And if I can stop obsessing enough to finish this article—flaws and all—you can stop obsessing, too.