How music taps into your creative gold mine

Two strange creativity chargers: Songs on repeat and movies with the sound off

A few years ago, I procrastinated on my homework by reading books on productivity.

Yeah, it was weird. (Another topic for another day.)

One of the productivity systems I noticed was David Allen’s Getting Things Done. I don’t really use the full system these days, but I remember one key point from it: “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.”

I started writing down each of the things I needed to do. Today, I use a combination of my calendar, a spreadsheet, Trello, and an accountability group, to keep track of my tasks and things I need to remember.

But more importantly is that first part: “Your mind is for having ideas…”

The brain is a connection machine. It’s why so many people that do work that’s considered creative, like music, have unusual associative relationships. For example, Nile Rodgers’s brain produces music constantly. Like many musicians, he has synaesthesia — music makes him see things. This type of cross-wiring of the mind is the gold mine of creativity.

As it turns out, the rest of us might can also cross these senses. Perhaps not to the strength and degree that a hardcore natural synaesthete might, but we can still tap into our brain’s associative relationships.

Why do Kanye West and Kid Cudi watch movies with the sound off?

This type of cross-wiring relationship is most clear to me between making music and movies. It reminds me of how Kid Cudi describes his music process in The Star:

“When we were recording, there was always sci-fi movies on in the background. We were watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A little bit of E.T., even. Apocalyptica…it’s something that Kanye did, and something I borrowed from him. I mean having a movie playing, like with no volume, we just watched it, and you actually start to look at the cinematography, and get ideas because you notice things that you never really noticed before.”

A concrete example from Kanye:

“I watched The Holy Mountain on repeat while working on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. His sensibilities drove me to make my most progressive work to that date. Simply put, Jodorowsky is a prophet of creativity. For those who know, the mere mention of his name commands respect.”

Mac Miller even made an album entitled, Watching Movies with the Sound Off.

Not only is music part of a warmup, something that primes your brain for great work. It’s also an inherent part of the process. One that will influence the thought and synthesis process. Similar to Kanye’s dimmer switches, it drowns out all the background noise in your head, and frees you up to just focus on making and expressing.

A lot of artists and creative types turn to different rituals (or drugs) to focus and spark these associations. The goal of these rituals, or these background tools, are the same: to enable artists to create with pure intention and full expression.

It’s not just the background movie or soundtrack. The physical environment also changes the ways we think. I try to change it up as much as possible. I need the stimulation. But, I’m not saying it needs to be extravagant or sublime. Roald Dahl wrote in a hut.

In a creative block? Change your music, or your environment

There’s always been an interesting relationship between music and writing. In Dr. Frank Luntz’s Words That Work:

“Great language has exactly the same properties as great music,” says Aaron Sorkin, the brilliant writer/creator of the hit television drama The West Wing. “It has rhythm, it has pitch, it has tone, it has accents.”

Eddie Huang talks about this in his an interview with Miss Info, where he talks about picking one song — whatever he felt like for the day — and putting it on repeat. Ryan Holiday and Michael Lewis do this, too. Tim Ferriss also watches TV with the sound off.

As a writer, I’m inspired by other people and conversations. But the act of writing is inherently a one person activity. Even ghostwriting means interviewing someone, then walking away with a transcript, thinking about it, and writing alone. That’s why the physical environment matters even more for writers.

Environments are a product of the media in it. TVs and speakers provide an opportunity to tweak important parts of the environment. Clothes do, too. (Kanye would make everyone wear suits in the studio.)

The brain is a connection machine. You can’t expect creativity to come pouring out on demand — you must prime the machine and warm it up.

Movies with the sound off, and soundtracks on repeat

By setting up your environment, you also enhance your writing. You enable your subconscious work its magic with associative relationships. By immersing yourself in great content while you create, you improve the likelihood you’ll produce great content. Like my friends at Tiny Hearts say, “You are what you eat.”

The Case for Working Relaxed

I’ve long considered Pharrell Williams and Kanye West two sides of the same coin. Pharrell, the zenned out, laid back, happy-go-lucky, type of artist (reminiscent of Rick Rubin in how relaxed he is). Kanye is the polar opposite — manic, outspoken, angry, upset type of artist. Some might say that there would be no Kanye without Pharrell (Yeezy has said this himself), but I don’t think that’s true.

Please keep in mind that I don’t know either of these guys personally, and that I’m just judging based on impressions from their personas.

There’s no doubt Pharrell is a pioneer. Music would not sound the same without the Neptunes and N.E.R.D. He influenced fashion with BBC and Bape. He’s done some amazing stuff. His work with Daft Punk on Get Lucky is great. I fux with the N.E.R.D albums, particularly that one track, Breakout. (So great!)

And yet in the back of my head, I feel like Kanye did so much more because he went a lot harder with what he was working with. Kanye’s journey is still fortunate, but clearly Ye had to struggle a lot more throughout. Putting in years of production work before getting signed as a rapper on Roc-A-Fella. Even then, having to fund his own first music video to get Roc-A-Fella’s support as he was about to drop College Dropout. Pharrell had two very successful groups pretty early in his career, one of Kanye’s failed (the Go Getters) while his other sorta succeeded (Konman Productions became G.O.O.D. Music). Through G.O.O.D Music, Kanye introduced John Legend, Kid Cudi, and Big Sean to the world and took Pusha T’s solo career to that next level.

Then again, Pharrell helped make those great Clipse tracks and Jay Z tracks that we love. Pharrell also went through his fair share of struggles, I’m sure — In My Mind gave us that crazzzzzy Ye x Pharrell track, Number One. (Listening to that as I write this, and it’s still so good! Maybe even better than when I first heard it.) But overall it flopped, and so did his solo artist career. Must’ve been tough.

In hindsight, I don’t think Ye is necessarily more innovative than Pharrell though. I just appreciate Kanye for his courage. Ye plays to win, to be number one. I don’t think Pharrell plays to compete, he just does it because he loves making art — music, fashion, design. Pharrell rides the wave very well. Kanye rides waves too (as he has said before, “There is no sport without the wave, so I have to wait for it. If the waves are high, then we’re gonna have a fun day. If the waves are low, then you just stay on the beach.”) but he’s not afraid going against the current. Pharrell just wants to make clothes — independently or with major backing, but Kanye only wants to make clothes on a world stage.

I respect them both immensely, but I’ve long since been a Kanye fan in my heart. I’ve long made the case for Kanye to my mom while she would like Pharrell a lot more (“He’s more humble”). I would deliberately watch Kanye’s Yeezus era interviews to rattle me up and make me angry, which made me want to work. It worked, and I was focused a lot of the time I was working, but I was also constantly dissatisfied with my own output and work ethic. Not happy with where I was at. Not being able to enjoy the process. I was able to produce more work, but I didn’t really enjoy the process of it. In hindsight, that kinda defeats the purpose.

In my mind, Pharrell is so much more digestible, so much less antagonizing, and so much more low-key. He almost feels too vanilla. I used to hate that about him, but that shouldn’t be held against Pharrell. He’s not being fake. That’s actually just who he is and how he decides to carry himself. I’ve grown to actually appreciate it a lot, because self-control is a skill and it also shows huge self control. I can relate to it, because I’m not super aggressive all the time — by default I’m probably less competitive and more relaxed, less solo and more collaborative. I like to be liked and I like making people feel at ease, but Kanye wants to challenge people.

And in writing this now, I realized Pharrell’s journey wasn’t that much easier than Kanye’s. If I were Pharrell, I probably would have felt threatened by Kanye’s meteoric rise and production work, but Pharrell loved it. (Here’s Pharrell listening to one of my favorite Kanye songs, Never Let Me Down. What a great, genuine, reaction. I want myself to react like that to friends’ successes moving forward.)

Pharrell’s journey seems like much less of a roller coaster. A lucky break getting discovered in high school by Teddy Riley and plugged into the industry. Great bands and bandmates. But I’m sure I probably just don’t know about it yet, I haven’t done the research I have with Kanye.

There’s a difference between complacency and comfort, and being relaxed. You can work super hard, venture out of your comfort zone, and still be relaxed. Still be level headed. And, when you’re relaxed, you ironically might produce better work than if you were all uptight and rigid.

I first stumbled on this idea a couple of years ago, when I read Bill Murray’s advice on relaxing yourself to get the best work done:

You have to remind yourself that you can do the very best you can when you’re very, very relaxed, no matter what it is, whatever your job is. The more relaxed you are, the better you are. That’s sort of why I got into acting. I realized the more fun I had, the better I did. I thought, well, that’s a job I could be proud of.

Raj Raghunathan, author of If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? says in an interview with The Atlantic:

There are expectations that if you achieve some given thing, you’re going to be happy. But it turns out that’s not true. And a large part of that is due to adaptation, but a large part of it also is that you see this mountain in front of you and you want to climb over it. And when you do, it turns out there are more mountains to climb.   

I’m not sure I have the energy or emotional capacity to be like Kanye all the time. I find the Pharrell (or Rick Rubin) approach more interesting, relaxed but focused and accepting facts and riding the wave when it’s there. Look, I’m not saying I’m not going to start my own waves and trying to see them take off. But I’m going to start sparks and waves, and not try to predict the forest fire or tsunami. Just do it and then on to the next one, or ride this one as it blows up. That’s it.

In my muay thai class, I was learning to kick a couple of weeks ago. I would freeze before I kicked — make sure I got my stance and sequencing properly — but the teacher said just to go through it all in one fluid motion. Don’t even think about it. Relax, and do it. And that was the key. I could feel my kicks getting stronger and hitting harder. I didn’t have to rush my kick or force it. I just had to relax.

I’m still going to work hard, just differently. In fact, I’m going to work even harder, but without any of the stress or rage. Quiet, focused, intensity, and a lot of friendliness and good vibes.

It’s easier to be angrier, but it’s more effective to be more relaxed. Which is why I’m no longer going to use caffeine.

Goals without expectations, and not forcing anything. Just being real. Relaxed. Doing more and thinking with my hands.

Rust builds quickly

Sharpen your tools every day

My folks used to make me practice piano everyday. Three songs, six times each (and eventually ten) during regular season. Then, when I was rounding exam season, I’d practice each song five times perfectly. If I played even one wrong note incorrectly, or I messed up the tempo of it, I’d have to start all over. It was really frustrating, especially as I got to more advanced songs.

Every time I protested, my parents would chide me, “You’ll appreciate this when you grow up.” (i.e., “It builds character.”)

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I hated it. But in the back of my mind, they convinced me — why else would I spend half an hour each day playing?

I remember them telling me those lessons cost $25/half hour. I don’t think they knew this, but I was determined not to let that money go to waste. Even as a kid, I loved money (errr, put nicely, I knew the value of it). But also remember, as a kid, 30 minutes would feel like 3 hours. Especially because I needed to concentrate and be there in person, I couldn’t just zone out and let the time pass.

Where most pianists have boatloads of talent I had maybe two drops of talent in me, and it took years of playing to even get to that. I feel bad for my teachers. I also feel bad for my folks in hindsight, because they had to listen to it. And I hated almost every moment of it.

Each day when I woke up, I would immediately think about the 30 minutes of piano I needed to endure before truly being able to enjoy my day. Some days I’d sneak out of it, but most days my parents would get on my case. I wasn’t really ever left home alone so I couldn’t lie about it, even if I wanted to.

One thing I could really appreciate about this rigour though, in hindsight, was that it instilled the concept of daily practice in me. Don’t get it twisted, I don’t appreciate learning piano itself. As my cousin ungraciously pointed out after one of my piano lessons, I could have easily developed this rigour while mastering a way more useful skill.

But since quitting piano, I’ve had no illusions about how hard I was working. Even if people thought I turned my work ethic up too much, I never thought it came close to the bar that daily piano practice had set.

My practice paid off, and I would ace my piano exams. That sounds easy enough, but I really wasn’t particularly good to start with. My teachers and folks got so gased after my exams they’d enter me into talent shows, but I wouldn’t even come close to winning. It was funny. There was no way in hell I was going to win one of those, but even knowing that, just throwing my hat in the ring got everyone’s hopes up.

One of my best friends told me years later that he never practiced (*gasp*). He would lie to his folks when they got back, saying he did it while they were out. And, funny enough, his teacher eventually started wondering how he managed to get worse with each week. He couldn’t even stay afloat. I laughed my ass off when he told me that part.

I don’t think I’ve gotten to that level of practice for anything in recent history. I remember one summer in college I tried learning to code by building a website, and I didn’t come close to making that shit happen. I would get home after dinner, drink an espresso, open up a w3c window, and then go on Facebook until I got bored and watched TV. I never took that shit seriously enough.

With piano, I improved painfully and slowly. I hated damn near every minute of it. But I still improved. My folks and my teachers forced me. Note by note, measure by measure, song by song, I would be able to play it by memory and near perfection. It was the daily practice that got me going. If I ever got away with avoiding piano for a couple of days, I would feel it when I got back to practice.

This is inherently true in everything:

Rust builds quickly. You have to practice every day to stay your best.

The most obvious example of this takes place if you go to the gym consistently. Then you get sick for two weeks. Once you hit the gym again, you’ve lost a huge portion of your gains. It’s fucking brutal. Your muscles feel stiffer the next morning, even though you lifted maybe 60-80% of what you usually do.

But you’ll see it everywhere. If you don’t play video games for a couple of weeks it takes a while to break back in. If you haven’t shot a basketball in weeks you’re probably gonna throw some airs.

I remember watching a J. Cole doc on HBO, where he laughs at how he just spent 40 minutes making a beat that he probably wasn’t going to do anything with. But then, he gets serious, and explains that it’s because he needs to stay sharp so that when the inspiration strikes, he’s rehearsed enough to actually express it properly.

I love that observation, and I’ve found it to be so true. These days I read, I freewrite as much as I can, and I write some focused stuff as well with the content canvas. All in all, I try to do write about 2,500 words per day.

It’s funny that half the battle with improving with time, is actually just not getting worse. If you’re a lead a team, you know that you’re not nearly half as good as you used to be with your discipline of choice (e.g., you used to be a great engineer, now you can barely remember fundamentals but you run an engineering team or you close engineering sales deals). Of course, you’ve spent the time mastering another skillset — so it makes sense. But my point still stands, which is because you didn’t practice the original skillset, you got worse chronically. Little by little, day by day.

Fortunately, rust can also be very easy to clear off. If it’s years of rust, then it’ll be a bit harder and at first it’ll seem damn near impossible. But you just have to move, no matter how unready or idiotic you feel. Move to clear the rust and practice through the pain. Throw numbers at it and you’ll naturally get better.

I’m writing a lot more every day now, but I’m still not sure whether this post will get more page views or not.

Doesn’t really matter though.

I’m pleased with it, which is more than I can say for some of my other posts (won’t tell you which ones). And in the end, that’s what matters most to me — to create something that’s better than what I made before. I have no delusions about it, I’m still very far away from my own expectations of myself. But I’m finally taking a step forward each week, rather than just trying to hang on.

Oh, and as for piano, the only thing I got out of it is probably my ability to type really really really fast. (I kill at All the Right Type!)

If you’re interested, check out another one of my favorite essays that I wrote.

Why Quantity Should be Your Priority

The Key to Higher Quality is Higher Quantity

When Kobe was developing his jumper he’d spend his offseason making 2,000 shots a day. Not taking. Making.
— Chad Ridgeway, Bleacher Report

I was recently reminded of a simple general principle to operate by, especially for those of us in the early phases of mastery or wanting to expose ourselves to high-growth opportunities:

Quantity trumps quality.

Let me elaborate: quantity should be a higher priority than quality, because it leads to higher quality. The shorter path to maximized quality is in maximized quantity, and executing on the feedback after each finished product. (Some may say that this is a less refined form of deliberate practise.)

As David Bayles and Ted Orland write in Art and Fear:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups.

All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: 50 pounds of pots rated an “A”, 40 pounds a “B”, and so on.

Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity.

It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work—and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

It’s easy to get caught up in analysis paralysis.

For example, I’d recently watched a Vice magazine clip with Kanye West, who says he would rather spend more time focusing on 14 tracks rather than spreading them across 40. But even in 2007, when the interview was conducted, West’s skills and vision for music production were already on a much higher level than the majority of people are with anything.

Lock yourself in a room doing five beats a day for three summers. That’s a different world like Cree Summer’s. I deserve to do these numbers!
— Kanye West, Spaceship

In his song Spaceship, West claims that early on in his career, he made 5 beats everyday for 3 summers. That means the majority of his learning was done through a quantitative measure.

This “quota” type is a very tangible goal that has been applied, to much success, outside the domain of music and athletics.

A young lady named Karen Cheng learned to dance in a year. Did she spend hours deciding on the perfect dance or studying the perfect models?

Nope. She simply told herself she would dance everyday. Comparing Day 1 to Day 365 is absolutely remarkable. She also filmed her progress; this opened up the opportunity to gain feedback from other dancers. As some dude named Bill Gates once said:

Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.

This isn’t the first time Karen developed a skill through structured process and quantity. While she was a project manager for Microsoft, she realized she wanted to become a designer. She details how she became a full-time designer at Exec in this post; essentially, she would rush home after work everyday to master the design skills necessary to land a design gig.

[Sidebar: Karen’s writing is dope. She’s on Medium as well.]

A young lady named Jennifer Dewalt wanted to learn how to build a website. Did she spend years looking for the perfect one to model?

Nope. She simply paid for a co-working space and took a stab at building 180 websites in 180 days. I’m under the impression that she spends the majority of her day on this initiative, and so doesn’t have another job to answer to. (Keep in mind that this option still is much more frugal than paying thousands in tuition for “hacker school” — AND leaving your job to do it — this one being an exception pointed out by a reader.)

The co-working space was a great call, as it removes a lot of distraction. In case you need more leverage, find a friend to be an accountability partner or use Stickk and punish yourself for not meeting your goals.

…if you’re just starting off or entering into that phase, you’ve gotta know it’s totally normal and the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on deadline, so every week, or every month, you know you’re going to finish one story.

You create the deadline. It’s best to have somebody who’s going to be waiting for work from you; somebody who’s expecting it from you, even if it’s not somebody who pays you, but you’re in a situation where you have to churn out the work.

It’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you’re going to catch up and close that gap, and the work that you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.

As Ira Glass so famously puts it, the best way to refine your craft is to create a huge volume of work. Not to create the most perfect piece you can, but to create many pieces of work.

Don’t get stuck trying to get it right the first time. Instead, start making one or two things everyday.
You’ll eventually figure out how to get feedback and improve (I’ve got a post coming up on that in a few days, follow me on Twitter to make sure you don’t miss it!), but the internet is a great source of advice and exposure to better work (which you can compare your own to).

If you’re writing, write 2 crappy pages per day or structure out 1-2 pitches for articles per day. If you’re designing, do one of Cheng’s tasks in sequence daily, or build a website everyday like Dewalt. If you’re picking up an instrument, practise a piece of music 12x (or 5x if you’re short on time) before putting it down for the day.

Once we have something to focus on and maximize, it’s easy to rally the resources necessary to do it. So make it easy. Name a quantity right now, and aim for it daily. Keep your eyes peeled for feedback sources. Watch yourself grow, improve, and produce higher quality work naturally.