"Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.” - Dale Carnegie
One of the best parts of giving a piano performance is interacting with the audience afterwards. It’s a moment of genuine connection with others, a chance to hear how they have connected the experience of your music to their lives. Sure, you hear a lot of odd things… I never quite know how to respond when someone tells me about the neighbor’s son who plays the saxophone. (In my head I always respond, “What do you want me to do about that?”) Ultimately, though, you come to appreciate people communicating a connection in the way they know how.
In those glowing moments after a show, you hear some sad things, too. People will relate how a deceased loved one used to play the piano, or would have loved the show if they could only be here. One of saddest things you hear is, “I wish I’d never stopped playing the piano.” The defeat in the voice always gets me, because I know firsthand how much joy and release playing the piano can bring to a person. I know what they’ve missed out on, and it’s substantial. It’s worth mourning that loss. I take a minute to be sad with them, and then I cheer them on: “It’s never too late to start again!” Easier said than done, of course. Here's some collected thoughts on getting over your fear of starting again, no matter what form your creativity may take.
Here’s an example from my own experience. I've had a website for 15 years, but I was terrible about keeping it updated. Each day that passed without an update made it exponentially more difficult for me to write a new post. The time between updates became a breeding ground for doubt, fear, and guilt. Instead of actually working on writing, these thoughts cropped up instead:
As the weeks and months passed, the fear of action became so strong that I started making excuses for giving up:
Let that go on long enough, and thoughts like this one take root:
"We’re only given a spark of madness. We mustn’t lose it." - Robin Williams
Now, before we move on, let’s be clear: Sometimes it’s okay to put things down and move on. Interests change. Passions shift. What got you excited at 13 might not rev your engines at 31. If you’re at peace with it, there’s nothing here to fix. It’s also childish to argue with the practical considerations that drive us to choose between our passions and responsibilities. Bills must be paid, food must be gathered, college must be saved for, and roofs must be repaired. But like Robin Williams said, “We’re only given a spark of madness. We mustn’t lose it.”
Something is irretrievably lost when we choose making money over making our music, and so we end up in a kind of no-man’s-land between action and inaction, caring too much to give up on the idea but not enough to actually do anything about it. This fallow field between action and inaction is a breeding ground for fear, doubt, and self-loathing, and its steward has a name – Creative Inertia, the mortal enemy of all creative people. He is strong, but he can be conquered, or at least managed, if you can muster the will to “go out and get busy."
The word “inertia” comes from the Latin word, iners, which means “idle” or “sluggish.” In physics, inertia is a measure of an object’s resistance to changes in velocity. In other words, an object, given its druthers, will indefinitely preserve its present state of rest or constant state of velocity until acted on by an external force.
The problem is that unlike the baseball in space, the amount of force it takes to “get busy” increases exponentially the longer you let your creativity sit still.
Imagine yourself kneeling on the floor of a comfy room. Sunlight drizzles in from large windows, and a lazy ceiling fan coaxes the air over your skin. You’ve done hot yoga, you’ve hydrated, and you’ve eaten your Wheaties. You kneel in that position for five minutes and stand up like a champ.
Now imagine you kneel in that same position all day. The sun goes down, and moonlight casts stark shadows through the windowpanes. You go to stand up, and what happens? Your legs are asleep, you have to grab onto something to steady yourself, your joints are tight and don’t want to bend, you groan audibly and, worst of all, you feel terribly, completely old.
It’s the same action in both cases. All that is different is the amount of time you stayed still. This is how Creative Inertia works.
One of the reasons I chafed against piano lessons as a kid was because my teacher insisted that I practice my exercises a little bit each day. At the time, I couldn’t see the point – Forget technique, I thought, I want to learn the “Bumble Boogie”!
What I didn’t understand at the time was that daily practice doesn’t just build technique, it builds momentum. Momentum is what enables you to persevere through the crumbly bits of life – day job, children, school, taxes, etc. – and continue to create. Momentum is what helps you prioritize putting an hour into your novel instead of vegging out in front the TV, what convinces you to do the exercise tape at 9:30 PM even though you’re exhausted, what pushes you to write that blog post even though you’re terrified it’ll be awful. Whether you’re learning or an instrument, writing a book, getting in shape, or tackling a recipe book, momentum is what you lose when you stop creating, and the longer you go with making things, the more energy it takes to get you moving again.
It’s something I wrestle with a lot, and by no means have I solved the riddle. I do, however, have a list of five things I try to do when I find myself creatively immobilized.
1. Forgive yourself.
You can’t solve a problem with the same mind that created it. The mind that made the choices, compromises, concessions, and mistakes that brought you to this point cannot help you take the next step. You’ve got to get a new mindset, and the first step in getting a new mindset is forgiving yourself for the old one. Dwelling on lost returns isn’t going to get you anywhere. Forgive yourself. Accept yourself. Right now, as you are and where you are. And then resolve to do better.
2. Imagine success.
At this point, you’re probably expecting me to suggest you set a specific goal, and that is indeed important. But you can’t set a goal until you honestly assess which goal will make you feel sufficiently successful. Will you only feel successful if you’re playing a Chopin recital at Carnegie Hall, or will you be content to blaze through “Maple Leaf Rag” like a boss? On the surface, these goals are similar – “I want to get better at playing the piano” – but they require drastically different degrees of effort to achieve. That doesn’t make one better or more worthy than the other; what’s important here is how it will make you feel about yourself.
Imagining success is about more than setting goals. It’s about actively and vividly imagining yourself feeling successful – looking in the mental mirror and seeing every crack and crevice of that success so clearly that you’re able to believe it’s possible – and then working backwards from there. It may sound corny, but you need to see it before can you be it.
3. Shatter it into tiny pieces.
Once you’ve settled on a goal and vividly imagined yourself having achieved it, it’s time to break that goal into small, achievable pieces. It helps to start small.
No matter your goal, you can effectively “practice each hand separately” by looking at what you want to achieve and breaking it down into small, distinct tasks, and then checking them off as you make progress.
Remember that person who comes up to me after a concert and says, “I wish I’d never stopped playing”? Let’s say that person is you, and you believe me when I tell you that it’s never too late to start again. Your first instinct might be: “I need to find a piano teacher and take lessons again!” But if you’re like most people, you won’t take that next step. Why? Is it because you is fundamentally flawed as a human being and can’t will yourself to do the things you’re interested in?
No. It’s because what you think is a simple task is actually very complex. If you live in a relatively populated area, there are likely hundreds of piano teachers within a reachable radius, each with their own approach, preferences, beliefs, and strengths. How do you choose the right one? And even when you do find a teacher, lessons are a significant commitment of time and money. If you haven’t had time to even touch a piano in twenty years, what makes you think you’re going to magically have the time, money, and motivation to do it now?
Dream big but start small. Let’s say you are okay eschewing Carnegie Hall, and instead really want to learn to play “Maple Leaf Rag.” You makes a list, and it looks like this:
Is this list wrong? No – these are, ostensibly, the steps you will take, winning included, but the chunks are so big, you will have a much harder time staying with it.
A much better starting point would be something far smaller and far simpler: “Find a piano and noodle around on it for 20 minutes.” This is specific, small, and achievable. Go to a friend’s house, go to a piano store, visit a college campus, dust off the key cover of the upright in the basement, whatever. Just find a piano and press the keys. Challenge yourself to delight in what you remember instead of lamenting what you’ve lost. Just the simple act of forcing yourself to sit at a piano will help you begin to imagine success, even if all you can remember is Every Good Boy Does Fine.
Make a list of all of the small tasks you can think of that will contribute to your larger goal. Ask a friend to help you. Make a spreadsheet. And don’t be afraid to make the to-dos comically simple. Something as simple as, “Take the crap off the top of the piano and dust the piano and keys off” is worth putting on that list. The most helpful part of a checklist isn’t the list itself; it’s the empty box you get to check off at the end. I struggled so much with taking action in college that there were days that I would add, “Take a shower” or, “Check my e-mail” to my day’s to-do list. I needed to put these items on my list for the sole purpose of being able to check them off. Then I could look at the list and go, “Hey! One down! I can do this!” Knowing I’d already started tackling items on the list made it easier to take on the things that required more effort or persistence.
Remember, what we’re trying to build here is momentum, and momentum comes from motion. You don’t need to make progress at first so much as you need to get in motion, and having small steps you can take without investing a huge amount of time and effort is critical to building up to your eventual awesomeness.
4. Tell somebody.