Take a few moments to think of your all time favorite musician. Someone who just absolutely shreds on their instrument of choice. Flea on the bass guitar for example. Slash on the guitar. Niel Pert on the drums. I could go on, but you get my point. Or your favorite author. Or painter. Or photographer. Just think of someone who is the pinnacle of their field. There is something they all have in common.
There was a point in time when they sucked.
I can assure you, when you’re favorite musician picked up their first instrument, it sounded terrible. Nobody, with the exceedingly rare exception of savants, can just pick up an instrument and play. Nobody can just pick up a brush and paint a masterpiece. Yes, some people are born with a natural tendency towards a skill. But that doesn’t negate the need for practice.
You sometimes hear people say that it takes 10,000 to become an expert at something. The actual time needed is a bit debatable, but the logic is sound. Give a budding guitar player tabs to a song, record their first attempt. Then record their 50th attempt. Compare the two. If you want to get good at something, you have to actually do the damned thing you’re trying to get good at.
There is an important factor that I don’t want to sweep under the rug. You have to be able to take criticism. You must divorce your feelings from your work. Yes, you poured every ounce of your heart and soul into something. That does not obligate a listener/reader/viewer to fall in love with the work. You have to accept that. A knife’s edge is sharpened by abrasion. An artist’s skill is sharpened by criticism.
If someone leaves you a “bad” review, thank them. They have done you a favor. They have given you insight into your work that you wouldn’t get from someone who feels compelled to only say “nice things”. I love it when people rip my work to shreds. How else am I going to know what I need to improve?
Nobody owes you adoration.
Here’s the thing: All the practice in the world doesn’t necessarily ensure “success”. Sure, you’ll get better at what you’re doing. You might even become an expert. But that doesn’t mean you’ll get any recognition for it.
Back in 1996, I saw Bob Seger live. A couple of years ago, I saw a band at an outdoor concert in a local park. Said band played Turn The Page. If I closed my eyes, I couldn’t have told you the difference between the two experiences. The band was that good.
One act has played around the world, raked in millions of dollars, and is/was a household name. Bob Seger’s work has been featured in who knows how many movies and commercials.
The other, I can’t remember the name of just a few years later. But they just as good. Just not as lucky. However, that didn’t stop them from rocking the fucking show that night. They put in the “sweat equity”, and it showed.
Don’t do what you do to get rich and famous. Do what you do because you can’t imagine doing anything else.
If you measure your worth as an artist by your bank account, you’re doing it wrong. So what if you’re not a household name? Who gives a shit if you never make the New York Times Bestseller list? Don’t get me wrong, if you can get rich and famous doing it… go for it. Just don’t let that be your motivation.
But the minute you allow the material to be your motivation, your work loses a piece of its soul. You stop taking risks and breaking norms. And norms are made to be broken.