Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the remarkable shift in our vision that occurs when we decide to make a shift from immediate reward cycles to longterm building.
Throughout my twenties, I would often throw myself into projects with abandon, burning myself out to complete them, expecting that along with their completion would come some grandiose breakthrough if only I could nail that one project to perfection. Looking back it’s apparent how silly that strategy was, one born from the young-minded patterns of an undiagnosed autistic and ADHD former gifted kid who expected to immediately succeed at anything that was worth her doing, and therefore pushed herself to burnout on her debut projects without having any follow-up plan for them.
And to be fair, I did take those individual projects to a greater than average degree of success – my first book The New Rules of Attraction secured a publishing deal shortly after it was written, my first screenplay scored an envied “recommend” on its coverage from CAA (Creative Artists Agency), and my first EP got me taken seriously enough in the local NYC music scene to score a spot opening for Killcode at Mercury Lounge before I moved out to LA. But I didn’t have any plans for how to turn my book into the foundation for a successful coaching business, and I did nothing to capture people’s attention in the buzz that followed. I thought having a book on the shelf at Barnes & Noble alone would automatically bring the clout necessary to attract clients, but I didn’t even have a mailing list let alone a client intake process. Nor did I have any plans for more screenplays, or a way to push my only one through the giant of CAA and maybe help secure it some financing. And I was in for a rude surprise when my EP did not immediately land me a record deal after I shared it with a guy from Interscope that I met at a club one night.
As an autistic person, something I’ve learned about myself is that I learn how to do things best by seeing what “done” looks like (one parent of an autistic boy described how much easier it was encouraging him to get dressed in the morning by showing him a picture of himself fully dressed, as in “this is what the result looks like”). So too did I learn playwriting by reading plays, screenwriting by reading screenplays and watching movies, and songwriting by listening to songs and reading lyrics, and I expected that once I had created something that, “done,” looked almost exactly like the other works I’d already seen succeed, there should be no reason that mine shouldn’t also garner the same success. I completely forgot to factor in the many other elements that go into building a successful career in a given field, not least of which is hard work over time.
Shortly after I moved to LA, I decided that I needed to narrow the field of my commitments and pick one or two creative pursuits to stick to. I chose music as the outlet that would allow me to both write and perform both live and in video content, and which seemed it would most easily allow my transition into other creative fields, and I chose teaching/facilitation as the more financially accessible career that I knew I was skilled in and enjoyed doing.
What’s truly amazing is what starts to happen once you’ve committed to pursuing a field longterm and stuck with it for about five years. At that point, new challenges and means of expansion begin to show up that never could have presented themselves at the outset. Your perception begins to sharpen in ways you couldn’t have anticipated. This might sound obvious, but to someone with undiagnosed ADHD who is attracted to novelty, it’s hard to see the unique kind of novelty that can only appear after years of dedicated repetition, and how at that point it’s even more interesting than the more common novelty of flitting from project to project.
My friend Visa (@visakanv) has encouraged a trend among creatives of doing a thing one hundred times. He’s sometimes even applied this to silly, seemingly useless tasks, such as drawing one hundred owls when he realized he didn’t know how to draw one (he’s not a visual artist, so the owls didn’t have anything to do with his formal creative pursuits). The idea behind this is that your relationship to a task will change vastly between the first attempt and the one hundredth attempt, and the only way to get to know just how that will unfold is to take the journey through the hundred attempts. Rather than burn ourselves out trying to make one thing perfectly, we get to know the process intimately without attachment to outcome, allowing the outcome of mastery to unfold through repetitive attempts.
This feels extraordinarily daunting with something like songwriting, where the process of producing a song can cost me thousands of dollars. But something interesting also happened – at the point where I had exactly sixteen songs out in the ether (three 5-song EPs and one Christmas single), people started asking to collaborate with me, meaning that I could write my vocal part to the track they were producing and record it for only a couple hundred dollars. (As a singer who primarily focuses on writing her vocals, for my own purposes so long as it gets released this still very much counts to me as having completed a song.) At this point in time, nearly a decade after releasing my first EP, I have more songs in the queue for release this year than I do in the entire history of my discography. This would never have happened if I had not put in the prior decade’s worth of work.
And now that I’m at this place in my music career, with more opportunities for collaboration than I can handle at once and more songs in the queue than I have room in my release schedule, I’m seeing where the next steps in my mastery are: now, my prior goal of being able to afford studio time whenever I have a vocal I want to track doesn’t feel like enough; I also want a home studio to play around with in order to really see what I’m capable of doing when I’m not on the clock, I want to learn to engineer my own vocals, and I want to play around in more genres and learn to do more distinctive techniques with my voice. The challenges this far down the path are not the same challenges I faced at the start.
Similarly, currently approaching year four of my business (if you count my very first TRPP launch in 2018 as the start), it’s been very interesting to see how it’s just now that I’ve truly gotten the foundation of my business to a solid, scalable place, with material that I feel confident will be relevant and important for decades to come. And this kind of scope and vision is something I could have never imagined at the beginning when I was simply trying to make a course that would be good enough to be successful in its first launch.
I don’t regret spending my twenties experimenting in different fields and trying my hand at different projects, but it’s especially exciting seeing the emergent qualities of our longterm commitments, and it’s worthwhile to eschew the allure of the instant payoff and instead pick something we love and see how far it can take us.