It’s inevitable: a lifetime of creative work doesn’t come with the promise that every moment will be riveting and inspirational. You’re going to get burnt out, experience moments of drudgery and self-doubt, maybe even question what motivated you to pursue music in the first place. What can you do to get back on track?
Since human beings developed the capacity for analytical thought, we’ve grappled with the concept of meaning. Other than to survive, why do we do anything that we do? The answer: Purpose. We assign meaning to the things we do, invent a story about ourselves and our relationship to the world, and subconsciously begin to fulfill that narrative.
Creatives, perhaps more than in any other profession, rely on structure and purpose to guide their actions, as their work deals in the ideological rather than the concrete. Consider the work of a carpenter, who fulfills an observable, tangible need. They collect wood, craft a chair, and provide a place for someone to sit.
Rather than providing solutions to immediate needs like back aches from standing too long, the artist tackles the question of personal identity: Who am I? How do I relate to the world? These answers help people do more than survive, but to experience what it means to be alive. The effect that creatives have on the world is felt, not seen. How much more necessary then should it be that we constantly remind ourselves of our purpose?
Stephen Covey writes in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People about the importance of seeing the big picture. Imagine an expedition in the deep jungle. In order to get through the dense vegetation, you need a team of people hacking down vines and clearing a path. Sure, this is where the bulk of the physical labor lies, but what use is all of that hacking if the group doesn’t know which direction they’re heading? The leader of the group isn’t necessarily the strongest machete-wielding brute, but the one who climbs the tallest tree and orients their team to make the best use of their efforts.
So how does this apply to your creative pursuits?
You have to be your own leader. Climb the tree, take in the big picture, and figure out where you’re going. You have to do this consistently enough to stay on track, otherwise you’ll just spin your wheels and wear out your engine. Have a clear destination in mind and a plan to get there.
Here’s how I recently applied these principles in my own life:
I was feeling burnt out. Every project was little more than a means to pay my rent. I figured if I just did enough things every day, and if all of those things felt like work, then I would eventually claw my way out of the mundanity and scarcity of my situation. Those tasks that I laid out for myself to keep busy became less and less attractive until the idea of them became unbearable; there just weren’t enough dopamine rushes in the day to keep my tank full. I knew I needed to reconnect with my sense of purpose, discover the root of my motivation: why do anything?
Believing implicitly in Adam Smith’s concept of the “invisible hand” (in a nutshell, that everyone benefits most when people act in their own self-interest), I started there, thinking “What brings me the most gratification?”, and arrived at the following conclusion:
I’m most satisfied helping others, and facilitating joy.
Any of the things that make me sincerely happy are things that put a smile on someone’s face. When I was starting out as an artist, hearing my songs out loud on speakers for the first time felt incredible. I remembered that I wanted to help other artists achieve that same feeling.
I thought of some long term, big picture goals to turn that purpose into something I could work towards. I knew I wouldn’t be satisfied with anything that could be checked-off. I didn’t want to play the biggest stage, record the biggest artist, win a Grammy or top the charts (necessarily). I thought of something that would fulfill me perpetually, and settled on the following big-picture goal:
To create platforms to help and inspire artists.
At this point, the work felt easy. I’d oriented myself with my purpose, I had a goal and now all I had to do was think of ways to achieve it. The ideas seemed to flow more naturally, I had the resources to help artists make more art! I could start building an online community, offer the knowledge that I’ve accumulated over the years, create inspirational content (writing this blog post for example) to help inspire and motivate anyone who feels stuck in a similar position. The work began to feel alive again, and the possibilities were exciting.
I wrote everything down and made a schedule for myself, something visible and easy to reference to help me stay on track with my big-picture goals. At this stage, I paid special attention to setting specific and measurable goals. How could I measure my progress if I never knew when I had failed? I promised myself to publish one blog post weekly, to start building an online community via Discord, and to host weekly open production sessions from my studio as an opportunity for producers and artists in my community to collaborate and grow.
This has revolutionized my daily approach to the work that I’m doing. My short-term tasks don’t just spin my wheels and burn me out, but work toward achieving sustainable gratification in the fulfillment of my long-term goals
So, how can you apply this today? Here are 5 steps to take when you’re feeling burnt out or disconnected from your work:
Note: as you approach this list, write everything down and hold yourself accountable for sticking to your plan. All good thoughts amount to nothing if you don’t take any action!
Identify your purpose
What brings you the deepest satisfaction in life?
Identify your long-term goals
How will you serve this purpose? What effect will you have on humanity?
Identify your short-term goals
Use your long-term goals to brainstorm specific, measurable achievements
Make a plan to achieve them
Now that you have a goal, you have a vehicle for your creativity. Employ that massive, human, problem-solving brain of yours and make a plan.
Create a weekly schedule to reflect these goals
Treat your brain like a Kindergartener: give it a short, focused list of things to do, and do those things to the best of your ability
Now, rather than vague aspirations and lofty ideas about your potential, you have concrete goals, and a plan to achieve them. This reorienting with intention and purpose is like the creative fountain of youth, a limitless tap for motivation in a career path shrouded in doubt and uncertainty.
Does this system work for you? Have you tried something like this before or found something better? If you have thoughts about methods for staying creatively inspired and motivated, join the Parachute Recordings community on Discord and let me know what you think!
Interested in working together on your next project? I'd love to hear what you're working on, get in touch now!
Matt Villanueva is a producer and audio engineer living in Los Angeles. He spends any time outside of the studio shredding at the skatepark or kicking back with his bombshell girlfriend and heart-melting Chihuahua, Paco.