Lately, it seems I’ve been on a mission to get as much feedback about my songs as possible — beyond sharing my work with family and friends, I’m involved in two songwriting workshops and have been getting some one-on-one coaching.
Being the inquisitive type, one question that occurred to me during this process was whether I could refine a song to the point where it would get virtually no criticism. In other words, was there such a thing as a “bulletproof song”?
Adventures in Criticism-Getting
To figure out the answer, I took one song and played it for twenty different people. Each time, I’d incorporate the suggestions I got from the listener into the song.
As it turned out, every person who heard the song, from the first listener through the twentieth, had ideas for making it better. More strikingly, a few people heard the song twice, and gave me feedback on the second listen that contradicted what they told me after the first.
Maybe, if I’d been patient enough to go through this process with a thousand people, I would have eventually ended up with a “perfect song” that would have been met with nothing but contented silence from my listeners. But I doubt it.
I Guess I’ve Learned . . .
What this exercise showed me is that the “bulletproof song” is probably a myth, and that there’s no point in trying to create one. Not only is it impossible to please all the people all the time — probably, it’s also impossible to completely please one person with my work.
This makes sense when we think about all of the factors that play into a person’s reaction to a song — things like what genre of music they like best, how much they enjoy hearing themselves talk, what they had for breakfast, and so on. These factors can change from day to day, which explains why the same person can have different, and conflicting, opinions about a song at different times.
Remembering that it’s impossible to write a criticism-proof song makes the creative process much more efficient. The less I focus on staving off every possible critique while I’m writing, the less time I’ll spend second-guessing myself, and the more progress I’ll make.
Do you find yourself trying to come up with, and address, every potential criticism somebody might make while you’re writing?
So far, I’ve shared samples of the animation, the new character designs, and the storyboards for the upcoming Steve’s Quest web series. But the crown jewel of the new artwork, in my opinion, is the backgrounds. And in this post, Dear Readers, I will be your, er, crown jeweler.
The following backgrounds are from Metro City, the gritty, futuristic metropolis in which our hero Steve’s cyberpunk novels are set.
I think Michelle, the artist, does a great job creating a sleek Blade Runner-esque landscape, but keeping it somewhat cartoonish and lighthearted, consistent with the spirit of the show:
Gain, the protagonist of Steve’s novel, surrounded by the obligatory flying cars and floating ads.
The high rise belonging to Wotan, arch-crimelord and Gain’s main nemesis.
A closeup shot of Wotan Industries.
In early December — just a month away — we’ll be unveiling our first episode. I can’t wait to see the visual final product!
In the last chapter of this epic saga on what brought me to develop Steve’s Quest, I talked about what led me to shift my focus away from impressing other people with my way of life, and toward doing something I actually liked to do.
Conveniently, my decision to do something more fulfilling came at a time when the pace of my law job had slowed. Before, during lulls like that, I hadn’t known what to do with myself, and I’d usually ended up, like any self-respecting office worker, browsing videos about dancing kittens and people falling off jetskis or roofs.
The Power of Positive PowerPointing
Now, at least, I could make better use of my time by looking at career alternatives. Seeing as how I was in Silicon Valley, the first idea that naturally came to mind was to start a company that offered some kind of best-in-class, results-driven, turn-key, workflow-automation solution, and sell it for big bucks.
So, I spent the next few weeks putting together PowerPoint presentations describing what, at least at the time, I saw as killer startup ideas.
The funniest part of these slide decks was definitely the clip art. In one slide, I wrote that starting my proposed company would be a “professional resurrection” for me. Next to that statement, I put the cover of Judas Priest singer Rob Halford’s solo album Resurrection (pictured above). Totally rockin’ album, by the way.
PowerPointing Proves Pointless
Anyway, in the midst of this frenzy of PowerPointing, the idea occurred to me: if I did build a tech company and sell it for millions, what would I do with the money?
The answer, I realized, was that I’d somehow use it to help people forge their own dream careers. No one, I thought, should have to suffer through days of online kitten-watching, or anything else they’d rather not be doing at work.
Inevitably, then, the question came up: why spend years producing turn-key workflow solutions in order to make millions I can then spend on helping people find something they love to do, when I can find more direct ways to help people do that now?
Thus began the next chapter of my lifestyle explorations, which I will call the “life or career coaching, or consulting, or workshop leading” era to express my uncertainty about what I was really up to.
This ties into the more intimate and risqué aspects of my lifestyle redesign. But more on those later!
By now, you’ve probably seen the excerpt from Episode 2 of Steve’s Quest that shows the new animation style we’re using for the series. But unless you’re into animation, you might not be aware of how much work it takes to put together even a 1-minute clip like this.
For this clip alone, the current art team of Hoyt Silva and Michelle Poust prepared 30 storyboards showing, in detail, what the characters are doing, and what part of the background appears, in each “shot.” The entire Episode 2, which is about seven minutes long, spans a whopping 117 boards.
The most impressive part of this, to me, was that Hoyt and Michelle drafted these boards based on an audio track I sent them. In other words, I didn’t record the music and sound to match the animation — they prepared the animation to match the soundtrack they got from me.
This takes precision work — particularly in a musical like this, when the animators are trying to get the characters’ mouths to move in sync with the singing.
Here are some of the boards used in putting together the Episode 2 clip, which will give you an idea of the detailed work it takes to draft them:
Late for work, Steve frantically tries to boot up his computer.
Steve’s co-worker, Tord, urges Steve to focus on his work instead of office romance.
Steve tells Tord that the party he wants to invite Sabrina to is tonight.
With Tord’s grudging consent, Steve makes a beeline for Sabrina’s cubicle.
Just think, you didn’t even have to wait for the Steve’s Quest DVD to watch behind-the-scenes bonus materials (and yes, I do plan to eventually release a DVD once the series is done). More glimpses into the inner workings at Steve’s Quest HQ are coming soon!
A mentor of mine suggested that I explain what drove me to create Steve’s Quest, because that might help people connect with the show and understand what it has to offer. And, by golly, I think I will.
Basically, as odd as it may sound, I came up with the show as part of an effort to feel comfortable talking to people about myself.
About seven years ago, I really didn’t have anything going on my life other than my career as a lawyer, and that wasn’t just because of the amount of time I spent in the office.
Granted, I can’t recall how many times I stayed up all night working on a project, or (perhaps worse) the number of times I woke up at 4 a.m. to make sure I could turn in a document I’d drafted by morning. (At 4 a.m., the coffee in the office was really stale.)
But despite this schedule, I did have a good deal of “free time” — I just used it in unfulfilling ways. Basically, outside of practicing law, my life consisted of going to the gym, playing video games, and going on uninspired dates with women.
I Needed Others to Show Me My Life Sucked
The funny thing was that, when I was by myself, my lifestyle seemed tolerable. After all, I lived in a comfortable, sunny environment, and all my basic needs were met. It was when I got asked about myself that I struggled.
When someone asked what I did with my life — whether they were talking about my career or my spare time — I’d find myself getting irritated and I’d usually try to change the subject. Somehow, talking to other people about my life revealed how dissatisfied I was with it.
Living to Impress Others = Solitary Video Gaming
Eventually, I found myself asking a strange question: “what can I do with my life that will make me feel better when I talk about myself?”
This was a sea change in my view on the ideal lifestyle. Before, consciously or not, I’d been designing my life based on a very different question: “what can I do with my life that will impress people when I talk about it?”
Naturally, this way of thinking led me to a career I thought would sound lucrative and prestigious to others, and to a secluded, risk-free life that was calculated not to offend anyone.
But that . . . was soon to change.
In the next thrilling episode of “Why I’m Doing Steve’s Quest,” I’ll talk about my various lifestyle experiments and the hilarity that ensued.
It’s been a long journey since the inception of Steve’s Quest on that fateful plane ride back from Boston I took about two years ago. We’re almost at the finish line – well, the first of many finish lines, anyway, since we’re scheduled to release Episode 1 in December 2013, and ideally to put out another episode each month after that.
Without a doubt, the biggest struggle we’ve had here at Steve’s Quest HQ has been with finding an art and animation style that works for the show.
Ladies and gentlemen, I think we’ve finally hit paydirt. If you haven’t seen the brief clip from Episode 2 of the show that we put together, I think you’ll definitely get what I mean if you check it out.
Our original approach was to do the show’s art in a classic, Hanna-Barbera style. I wanted to employ the visual gag of depicting Steve and his fellow office workers with the same art style used to draw the Superfriends, despite Steve’s lack of superpowers and fairly mundane life.
For example, this was the original poster design for the show, which was actually inspired by a Superfriends poster I own:
And this is the original NextComm, the software company where Steve works:
While I think these designs look great, the feedback I got from a number of people was that they’d seen this kind of art a few too many times before. I guess this shouldn’t come as a surprise, because lots of people have watched Hanna-Barbera cartoons.
Just a few months ago, I started working with the art team of Hoyt Silva and Michelle Poust, who came with their own ready-made vision for the look of the show. The art is a lot more stylized now – the characters’ facial features are more like geometric shapes, and contain unusual color, like Tord’s (below) solid green eyes.
The new Steve
The new Tord (Steve’s co-worker)
This gives the show a distinctive look, and one that I definitely wouldn’t have come up with on my own (I draw a mean stick figure, but that’s about it as far as my visual art sensibilities go). And it’s made the show all the more exciting for me to work on.
There are a lot more HBO First Look-style vignettes coming soon for Steve’s Quest – watch this space.
Okay, so it took us a while to work out the “look and feel” of Steve’s Quest, but I think we’ve settled on an art and animation style that is equal parts sleek, sci-fi and silly, which is exactly what I’m going for. But don’t take my word for it — check out the sample scene below!
By the way, we are all set to release Episode 1 of Steve’s Quest in December — looking forward to sharing the finished product. If you enjoy the video, I’d appreciate a “Like” on YouTube.
I don’t know about you, but I usually feel the most love and compassion toward people right after I tell them I’m irritated about something they did. Somehow, revealing that I’m annoyed at them frees up my ability to truly love them again.
I had this kind of experience recently with a friend. My friend was giving me some advice, and talking to me in a way that seemed condescending to me. I debated for a while whether I was going to tell him, and eventually I bit the bullet.
When I told him I was feeling resentful as he was talking to me, I suddenly felt a great deal of tension in my shoulders melting away, and I got back in touch with how much I cared about him. Immediately, I found myself saying how deeply I valued having him in my life.
On the other hand, if I’m annoyed at someone and I hide it, I tend to feel tight and anxious around them, and experiencing real love for them gets hard. If I tell them I love them, my voice has a deadpan or barking quality to it.
The Hose Metaphor Explained
A mentor of mine once described this kind of experience by saying that each person is like a hose. The water flowing through the hose is like the collection of all the emotions we feel — love, anger, sadness, and so on.
If we try to pretend we’re not feeling something, we basically kink up the hose and cut off the water. When we do this, we stifle all the emotions flowing through the hose — not just the one we’re trying to avoid. So, if we push our anger away, we end up pushing love away as well.
Love Can Thrive Alongside Anger
For a long time, I didn’t understand how all this works. I believed, as I think many do, that love is basically the opposite of emotions like anger and boredom, and can only exist when anger is absent.
But the truth, I think, is that love is something that naturally arises when I’m fully open to what I’m feeling, wherever it might take me — basically, when I un-kink the hose. If I’m willing to acknowledge and even show my irritation, I get access to love as well.
Sometimes admitting what’s really going on for me is easier said than done, but I think experiencing genuine love is worth the struggle.
My sense is that people who ask this question are assuming that no work is worth doing unless you know you’re likely to get paid for it. I think that assumption not only limits the joy we can get out of life, but probably, and ironically, also limits our ability to make money.
My Most Fun Work Is Unpaid
For me, the most enjoyable activities in my life take up a lot of time and energy, and don’t carry any promise of financial reward. Songwriting, for instance, involves hours of trying out and throwing away musical ideas.
Not only that, but I don’t get paid for the time I spend songwriting. Maybe (and that’s a big maybe) I’ll earn something later from the sale of a song, music downloads, or something along those lines, but I don’t get to charge anyone by the hour for messing around on my piano in search of inspiration.
All the same, if I stopped writing songs because there was no guarantee that I’d be compensated for doing it, I think my life would be much less interesting than it is right now.
We Get Paid More For Risking Getting Nothing
What’s more, it seems as if the people who make the most money — who are, increasingly, entrepreneurs — do so because they’re willing to try something others haven’t attempted, and take a higher risk of coming away from their venture with “nothing to show for it” than most of us can stomach.
So, if money happens to be our priority (not that it really is for me), it could be that we actually do ourselves a disservice by refusing to do work that doesn’t come with a guarantee of payment.
And for that matter, can we ever really know for certain how likely we are to make money doing anything, at least in the long term?
After all, even if I have a job that appears stable and safe on the surface, I can’t say for sure whether I’ll still have that job two weeks from today. There’s uncertainty surrounding everything we do for money, as hard as that might sometimes be to admit to ourselves.
That being said, I do think, on occasion, about ways I can make money doing music-related stuff, and how I can “monetize” all the other weird projects I’m involved in. But I find that my life is a lot richer when I’m willing to accept the risk of not getting paid for the activities I do, and I spend as much time as possible doing things I like enough to do for free.
If I tell myself, or someone else, that “I’m a writer,” I’m basically communicating, in the language of our culture, that writing is not only my main source of income, but also the core of the contribution I make to humanity.
The more I go around saying “I’m a writer,” the more pressure I’ll feel to produce work that can be “monetized,” and that I want people to remember me by. After all, if I’m a writer but I’m not “making a living” at it, or my work isn’t garnering attention, aren’t I, in some sense, lying to people when I tell them I’m a writer? And if I churn out writing that’s less than perfect, aren’t I tarnishing the legacy I’m going to leave to the world?
For me, being under that kind of pressure when I’m trying to write produces what’s often called “writer’s block.” Because so much is riding on the success and significance of my writing, I start obsessively second-guessing every word, and it gets hard to make progress. Thinking of myself as “a writer,” ironically, makes it hard to write.
The Benefits of Being a “Dude Who Happens to Write Stuff”
On the other hand, if I say “I’m writing a story,” I don’t communicate anything about my career or purpose in life. I simply describe something I enjoy doing, just as if I were saying “I’m going to a concert this weekend” or “I’m taking a hike tomorrow.”
If I take this perspective, the fear of being criticized, or of criticizing myself, for “screwing up at writing” disappears. Making a mistake, or doing something less than perfectly, no longer threatens my identity or sense of self-worth.
Why We Don’t Have to Force Ourselves to Play
I think this is a key reason why activities we think of as “hobbies,” like hiking and going to concerts, tend to be more relaxing and enjoyable than activities we see as “work.” When I’m hiking, the possibility that someone might put me down for being a “bad hiker” doesn’t even occur to me, and thus there’s nothing to stress about.
The result of shifting my mindset from “I’m a writer” to “I’m writing something” is that writing becomes more fun and less effortful. If my legacy, and my contribution to humanity, are no longer “on the line” each time I write, I don’t need to obsessively seek perfection, and I become able to get a lot more done.
I think we limit our creativity every time we start identifying with what we create, or with our role as a creator. Creativity flows more naturally when we think of it as a “hobby” or “pastime” that doesn’t put our value in the world at risk, even if it’s what we do with a large chunk of our time.