AI: Beating The Little Hater

Lately, I’ve been in a bit of a slump. As much as I want to, I can’t seem to make myself produce creatively the way I usually do. I’ve been letting Netflix take over my saxophone practice time, I’ve been avoiding my favorite Chicago jam sessions, I’ve been letting post ideas for MAL go by the wayside. This all can be followed back to a root cause: for some reason, I don’t feel like anything I attempt will be good enough.

This is a ridiculous way of going about things, of course. If I don’t produce, I’ll get rusty, and the things I produce won’t be good enough. But if I’m rusty, I’m afraid what I produce won’t be good enough, so I don’t produce. And on and on.

I know a lot of artistic people feel this way periodically. Maki’s AI last week really hit that home for me. A professor of mine in college shared this video clip in a class once, and it has always resonated with me during slumps like this:

What does your little hater tell you? What approaches do you take to tell it to STFU?

The ART Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Mad Art Lab community. Look for it to appear Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 3pm ET.

Ashley Hamer

Ashley Hamer (aka Smashley) is a saxophonist and writer living in Chicago, where she performs regularly with the funk band FuzZz and jazz ensemble Big Band Boom. She also does standup comedy, sort of, sometimes. Her tenor saxophone's name is Ladybird.

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  1. My hater tells me I’m an inconvenience or a distraction, or that I have nothing to say that people don’t already know. Other times it’s the feeling that I’ll be dissatisfied with my work and I’ll get nothing out of it.

    I try to see my endeavors this way: If I don’t try, I’ve already failed. If I try and don’t get the result I wanted, I succeeded in the entirely unexpected way of learning something.
    – Perfection is improvement, not “getting it right the first time.”

  2. I’ve been exactly where you are, in fact I’ve been there continuously for the last few years.
    A quick background for context: I studied classical guitar performance at a community college with an eye to getting a Bmus degree. Unfortunately I wasn’t much of a musician when I started at the college and I faced a choice: try to be a good musician or try to be a good student. I chose musician and spent too much time practicing to do well at the rest of my course work. There were other factors holding me back as well, clinical depression being the most notable. And to be fair, my study habits and lifestyle weren’t the most conducive to successful upper education and I can’t blame anyone but myself for that. Mind you, going to punk gigs at night and studying Gregorian chant during the day made for a life of splendid contrasts.
    After I gave up I spent the next decade or so playing in one original band or another. I got payed to play but never anywhere near enough to support myself. The option of quitting the day job never came close to being a reality. As the bands I was in fell apart for all the reasons that bands do, drugs, fights, ennui, artistic differences and so on, I was left with fewer and fewer options for music making. At the end I only had one band who only gigged once a year and that gig was a charity freebie.
    And yet we still rehearsed once or twice a week. I had to struggle to convince myself to do solo practice. I bought a white board calendar and would draw smilies on the days where I had done sufficient practice. The idea being to have a visual reminder of what I had, or had not, achieved so I couldn’t pretend I was working harder than I was. It didn’t really work.
    I then started a blog. The idea there being that if I published what I was doing in a public space it might motivate me more even though no one would be likely to watching. What happened was that blog soon became an exploration of just why I was spending so much time and energy doing something that by that point could only be considered a hobby.
    And then something really strange happened, I figured it out. I finally realized just what it was about making music that so appealed to me. It certainly wasn’t the attention one gets playing gigs. I almost completely lack whatever it is that makes people go “Look at me, look at me, look at ME!” Not a great character trait if one wants to be a professional performer. It wasn’t sex, despite the fact that the first band I was in was started expressly to get the singer laid. 🙂 It wasn’t the money… LOL and so on for all the standard stereotypes including creative fulfilment.
    It turned out what I crave about music making is the psychological state called flow. In sports this is often referred to as “being in the zone” and other such cliches. It’s a state where one is active physically and mentally but not exactly consciously. One of its prime characteristics is the absence of an internal narrator/critic. That little voice in your head (well, maybe not your head but the bastard certainly resides in mine) that comments on what you are doing completely interferes with flow. He never, ever shuts up while I’m awake and for a while I used to worry that he would develop some sort of autonomy and I’d have to spend the rest of my life taking lithium.
    I learned about flow from a book called the Inner Game of Music by Barry Green. Now, to be clear I’m not spruiking this book, and I’m certainly not claiming that what he says is in any way scientifically valid. All of this pre-dates my awakening as a skeptic. I did just enough research to verify that flow was indeed a valid concept in psychology and stopped there.
    I can’t imagine that this will help you any but for myself the act of making music inherently shuts up that inner critic, literally. I provides me with relief that I can’t get any other way. Unfortunately I’m no longer in a position where I have the time and energy to get practiced enough to achieve that state. So it goes, having a baby and owning a business will do that. I’m hoping that as the bub grows I’ll have a little more time to get back to it. We’ll see.
    Anyway, sorry about the ramble. I hope you find a solution quickly. As a compensation I’ve noticed that every time I’ve had a lull in my musical life when I got back to it I found that my skills improved beyond where they had been before I stopped. It was like a little reset where blowing the dust off my chops allowed me to get passed the technical plateau I’d been on.

  3. Paragraphs fixed. 🙂 This template likes to ignore hard returns, but those periods do the trick quite nicely.
    I know exactly what you mean about flow, and that is exactly why these slumps happen around the same time I have a drought of gigs. I don’t usually get that feeling when I’m practicing by myself — I’m focusing on too many things and I’m not making a connection with any other musician. Playing with a band is when that really happens.
    I’ve also experienced that technical plateau. It’s kind of like when you’re a teenager and out of nowhere you get really clumsy, clipping doorways and hitting your knees on things. It’s a confusing and frustrating period of time, but it’s all because your body is growing and your central nervous system hasn’t had time to catch up with how big your limbs have become. I like to think that this is what music is like. Ira Glass also thinks taste has something to do with these awkward periods:

  4. I’m stuck in this infinite loop now, I need to do a post, but I want to get the audio and visuals correct, so I don’t post… and on and on. I need to accept small improvements instead of trying to be perfect on my second try, I’m no Rebecca Watson after all. hehehe.

  5. Starting Sci-ənce was my first attack against the little hater in my head. I said “I’m going to put out funny, thought-provoking (ok, reaching there) content every few days on a schedule. NO MATTER HWAT.”

    Although lately I have a new little hater who tells me that this regular content isn’t good enough. Or asks when the last time I actually painted something was.

    For me it’s easy to get stuck in a “Well, work is really busy,” or “My stuff is in boxes all over the floor.” But I know that even on the week I have to move, I can write three posts and comics and go to work, and pack my things. The best defense against the little hater is to just do it and push my boundries so that I know what I’m capable of. Sure, I got no sleep last week, but damn it felt good.

  6. Smashley: Interesting link, thanks for that. When I was first starting out I was told by a grizzled musical vet that everyone has a bunch of bad compositions that they have to create before they can get to the good stuff. His advice was to get on with it and get those out of the way as fast as possible. Ira takes that notion a step further by saying that knowing that those early efforts are bad is in fact indicative of one’s ability to create better. That’s really good advice, good enough that it’s inspired me enough to dust off some of the things that I’d abandoned in a fit of self-loathing.

    The sticking point though is in the difference between purely creative acts such as composition and more physical acts like the mechanics of playing. Just because I can recognize how my performing is deficient does not mean that I can necessarily do anything about it. As an example of a physical limitation my middle and ring fingers on my right hand angle towards each other. (The m and a fingers for those who want to be classically pedantic) When I play they brush together and that can make it very hard to play some passages fluidly. I spent years bending and stretching them trying to achieve better separation without any success, it is a true physical limitation that I just have to live with.

    The last few years I’d convinced myself that I’d hit the upper limit of my physical ability to play guitar, not just in one area like above but in total. However, this AI and comments has made me realize that I don’t in fact know that to be objectively true. It could be a psychological problem stemming from self-doubt. That realization has been oddly heartening so I thank you for the inspiration. I hope you’re finding similar success in putting your little hater in its place.

    By the by, I did a half-assed pubmed search on self-doubt to see what the current science has to say about it but didn’t find anything useful. Pupmed requires it’s own form of search-fu that I’m not well versed in. One of the interesting things I noted though was that the term “self-doubt” came up more in nursing related papers than anything else. And by interesting I mean saddening in light of the recent feminist education I’ve been getting from Rebecca Watson’s posts and the people who’ve been battling the ignorant misogynists in the comments.

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