I spent Thanksgiving week at the house I grew up in, which is something I took for granted and something I hadn’t expected to be grateful for. I found myself up too late with insomnia, lying in a single bed with all the lights off, listening to Led Zeppelin IV way too loud on headphones, “The Battle of Evermore” and “Stairway to Heaven” crashing over me like waves, as if I’d been QuantumLeaped back to the early 1980s.
How often does a 52-year-old man get to relive being 13 or 14 years old so vividly?
Lying in the dark with music blasting has always left me feeling both expansive and maudlin. This was no exception. I thought about all of the things I wanted to do as a teenager, and I compared it to how many of them I accomplished, and how many I still want to accomplish. That’s not generally a healthy mental exercise even in the best of times, but it feels like the past couple of weeks have been particularly harsh for anyone who feels like they’re under-performing.
For one thing: Teenage Engineering released a new sampler and sequencer called the EP-133 KO II, kind of a fully plussed-up version of one of their Pocket Operators, enhanced and fitted into an even more adding machine-like body. It’s wonderfully designed at every level, from the buttons to the display to the packaging. More than anything the company’s released in years, it instantly triggers that visceral feeling of I want that!
In the case of the KO II, I don’t want that, but it’s acting as a reminder of all of the musical equipment I’ve bought with the best of intentions, but never quite learned how to use effectively.
It’s also the week that Procreate Dreams was released, a new animation app for the iPad by the developers of Procreate. It seems like a wonderful app, and I bought it immediately. It’s only $20, and I would’ve bought it just to give Procreate more money for all the use I’ve gotten out of it over the years. Animator Aaron Blaise has done a promo video and streamed a QA + drawing session demoing the app (in an extended ad for online drawing courses), and it’s neat to see the process.
The problem is that for someone who aspired to be an animator since seeing the credits for a Pink Panther movie at a very young age, an app like Dreams is as discouraging as it is inspiring. It’s absolutely fantastic that this will make 2D animation accessible to tons more people. But it’s also yet another blank page. Like Procreate’s blank page, or Garage Band’s New Song for that matter, it’s a reminder that hey, you never did practice and get good at this like you always said you were going to.
That struck me as the biggest difference between present-day me and early-1980s me: whether seeing cool stuff and empowering new tools leaves me feeling energized and inspired, or melancholy. It feels like I’ve been in something of a discouraging stretch lately, as ideas fizzle out or get stalled, and I indulge in the very bad habit of comparing myself to other people.
I’ve still got the voice, on occasion, telling me “you’re worthless, and you never have and never will accomplish anything of merit,” but it’s getting easier to shut it down. Both as I get older, and especially as I get better at detangling my identity and sense of self-worth from my job. I’ve been fortunate to work on so many cool projects that the self-criticism seems comically hollow and self-indulgent now.
However, it’s morphed into something no less self-indulgent, but harder to reject immediately. That voice saying, “everything you do is adequate at best. You were supposed to be making great things, but nothing you do is exceptional or indispensable. You’re doomed to be forever middling.” To that voice, I have to respond, “Well okay, maybe you have a point there.”
But then also: so what?
I remain diametrically opposed to NaNoWriMo for scheduling the challenge during one of the busiest months of the year, but I do agree with the core premise: finishing something that’s average is much more valuable than holding onto an idea that’s going to be amazing.
There’s such a glut of content out there that it might seem like “make more stuff” is a shallow call for indiscriminate feel-good encouragement, rewarding people for being lazy, opportunistic, or refusing to challenge themselves to make exceptional things. And if that argument seems familiar, it’s because that’s the first and laziest argument we use to absolve ourselves of the risk of putting anything out there.
If the explosion of “AI”-generated “art” has shown us anything, it’s that there will always be people eager to make the most profit with the least amount of effort. Nothing we do is likely to change that. In much the same way, there will always be people critical of your work, no matter how much you try to make it immune from criticism. And there will always be people dismissive of your work, no matter how much you try to make it relevant.
The lesson from all of these: stay in your lane, and stop pretending that you have control over the things that you don’t. You have so little control over how your work is perceived that it’s foolish to be that concerned about it. Popularity and profitability are all determined by other people, but quality or artistic merit are determined by you. Which means you’re your own worst critic.
And you’re the hardest to fool. You’ll know if you did the best work you could, or were lazy. You’ll know why you made the concessions you did. You’ll know whether you’re genuinely happy with the results, or if you think they’re “good enough.” (Of course, it’s still possible you just have bad taste, but that’s not really something you can control by agonizing over it, either).
By this measure, then, the true value of finishing things isn’t necessarily so that we can share them with other people and “complete the loop.” I’ve long felt like that was the purpose of art, but now I’m starting to believe that that’s just a valuable part of the process. The purpose — if it can be said to have one — is to move it from your imagination into the real world, to give you a base on which to build something even better.
So I’m starting to better appreciate the value of completion over perfection. And giving myself a little bit of grace for my own mediocrity. I’m much more forgiving over something that’s mid than I am for something that’s perpetually unfinished.