Fun: The Backdoor to Better Work

2016 Reading Challenge

2016 Reading Challenge
Jessica has read 15 books toward her goal of 30 books.

I can't believe I'm already halfway through my reading goal for the year! 30 felt like a very ambitious number based on the average amount of books I've read over the past several years. Once college started, I limited myself to books that I felt were directly functional/helpful in my life in some way...books that I "should" read. But the more I limited myself to what I "should" read, the more I struggled to read as much as I felt I should. But there was a big shift over the past couple of years for me, and now I'm reading more than ever.

This issue with "should" wasn't just present in my reading. It was everywhere. My housework. My practicing. My writing. My studio management. My eating. My exercise. I felt that every spare moment should be spent doing what "should" be done. However I was doing it had to be the "right" or "good" or "efficient" way. I was exhausted all of the time, and I was becoming more and more resentful of everything that needed to get done, while also resenting anyone who was getting in the way of getting things done (including myself). Meanwhile, I watched my partner Andy letting himself have fun while also being extremely prolific. It became more and more obvious that my approach was neither effective nor necessary.

Julia Cameron says you have to satisfy the inner child so you can get work done. Similarly, Jung said, "What you resist, persists." Brené Brown's research found that Wholehearted people prioritized playtime in their lives. Thanks to writers like these and the help of my wonderful therapist and coach, I've been working through the fears that had me dragging along under the whip of responsibility while resisting my playful, childish side.

When I'm resisting fun (which means I'm not really working, either), it often takes the form of mindlessly alternating between social media apps. My well of joy is running dry, and my inner child is refusing to let me work until I go play and refill it with something that's legitimately satisfying playtime...not just another game of Candy Crush. Once I stop resisting that need, I not only have a great time, but I can get work done afterwards with much better energy. I still have to deal with things that should get done, but I'm no longer too exhausted to deal with them. 

One of the best parts of more playtime? There's a new sparkle in my creations. When my notes, words, and rhythms emerge from a place of "Why not? It's fun and I like it!" instead of "I should do it this way because...," the work feels more like me and I enjoy it more. 

I've been using this approach more in lessons, too. When students find their own sense of fun and joy in self-guided projects that seem like a diversion from the path or approach I'm envisioning, the student almost always comes back to things they "should" be doing on their own later because the "shoulds" help them achieve the things that brings them joy. They still have "shoulds" to do in their assignments that they don't really consider fun, but when they have some joy and self-directed goals mixed in, they actually do more of the "shoulds." 

I would previously have labeled this "fun-first" approach "procrastinating," but I realize now that it's completely necessary. It's not just a backdoor approach to productivity. It makes me a more complete, less anxious, healthier, more joyful human being.

What are your experiences with playtime and productivity?


This week, I started sharing snippets of my work in the practice room on Instagram. Follow me to get sneak peeks at what I'm working on.

Books: The Artist's Way


I recently posted that I’m working through The Artist’s Way with a group of artists from various mediums. For those who aren’t familiar with it, the book helps people remove blocks to their creativity. Blocks can prevent someone from doing creative work or they can prevent an already prolific artist from making art that connects to their most genuine self. I use the tools in the book to get help with both kinds.

The Artist's Way
By Julia Cameron

Author Julia Cameron summarizes the concept:

“In order to work freely on a project, an artist must be at least functionally free of resentment (anger) and resistance (fear). What do we mean by that? We mean that any buried barriers must be aired before the work can proceed. The same holds true for any buried payoffs to not working. Blocks are seldom mysterious. They are, instead, recognizable artistic defenses against what is perceived (rightly or wrongly) as a hostile environment.”

My goals for this reading

  • Compose more.
  • Play more, as in the childhood idea of play. 

My favorite things to do

  • Morning Pages, which are the three pages of stream-of-consciousness brain drivel you dump into a journal every morning. I’ve been doing these things for almost 10 years now, and they’re more consistent than most things in my life. They help me translate my worries, anger, jealousy, and frustration into do-able, manageable actions. When I don't do them, it's hard to hear through the jabber to the more important and enjoyable things I could be doing that day. 
  • Reading the week's chapter and doing the assigned tasks every week. The tasks in particular are super helpful, plus I have a genuine love for anything that involves reading and writing. I also love organization, goal-setting, and time-management stuff, so those things always get a big jolt of action when I work through the tasks. I’m also fascinated by the “why” of behavior, and the tasks help me answer that question about myself. I’ll never tire of self-analyzation. Thankfully, there’s plenty of “so now what?” exercises to help me develop a new behavior once I get to the bottom of an old one.

Things that are challenging

  • The weekly Artist Date, which is playtime with your inner child. I don’t think I went on a single one the first time I did the book. I didn’t do much better the second and third reading, either. Historically, I haven't been very good at playtime. As a kid, I dreaded recess, PE, role play, etc. I get a little better at incorporating more Artist Dates each time, but they’re still a struggle. You’d think the thing that’s supposed to be the most fun would be the easiest to include, but, for various reasons, it hasn't been. 

My biggest revelations so far

  • I’ve made a lot of progress since my first reading of the book in grad school almost 10 years ago. Tasks that were really difficult before are much easier now. I’ve incorporated a lot of activities into my life to the point that I'm finding I've already done some tasks before knowing they were assigned for the week. Also, Cameron’s regular encouragement is now more like a pleasant reminder than a life-changing revelation.
  • There’s almost always an irrational, imperfect something-or-other in someone else’s art that seems to attract me to it. This is freeing me to not only be illogical sometimes, but to not freak out when something’s not perfect. 
  • I can like or want stuff without always having to analyze or critique or defend it. Sometimes I don’t like a piece of art despite it having all of the “right” elements. This reminds me that people will have a gut reaction to my art no matter how “right” or “good” it is. Some will like it. Some won’t. It’s not always about perfection. Sometimes it's about imperfection.
  • I can and should be willing to be childlike and make mistakes and look silly at any age. It is the only way I can get better at things that I’m not very good at. This is one of the roots of my issues with play and fun.
  • I want to write a lot more. As soon that thought peeked through, there were a bajillion memories that flooded in and made me realize, “Of course I want to write!” But it hadn’t really occurred to me that it was something I needed to unblock until this time through the book. I'm not ready to say, "I want to be a writer," but I know I want the process to be a bigger part of my life.

Concrete things I’ve done since starting the book

  • I’m writing a lot more. 
  • I identified wasteful spending of time and money and cut back on both. 
  • I’ve spent some of that previously mis-spent money on inexpensive luxuries that are good for my body and my soul.
  • I’m taking care of my body more.
  • I’ve unearthed projects that went dormant.
  • I’ve thought of new projects.
  • Most importantly, I’ve taken steps to get those old and new projects moving. Calls have been made. Emails sent. Practice time increased. Compositions are emerging. Gigs scheduled. 
  • Singing or playing or composing involves more smiling and dancing and laughing lately. 
  • Mistakes are less embarrassing and paralyzing.
  • My partner and I have learned new ways to separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of our time and resources, both together and apart. We’re getting more done, spending more time together, and having more fun.

As I re-read all of that, it seems like a ridiculous amount of good stuff that can come out of one book in such a short time, but it’s all true. This is why I’m doing it for the 4th time.

If you’re curious, check out what people have highlighted from the book through Kindle.

Have you read The Artist’s Way? What did you think? Leave some thoughts in the comments.

composing is scary.

The thought of writing my own music is generally terrifying to my inner perfectionist. ("This is ridiculous. How can you possibly want to do this? There are so many people who are already awesome at it." she says. "Why waste your time? You might seriously suck. Don't embarrass yourself.") I've always had such high respect for the great composers and songwriters that I completely avoided any attempts at composing until three years ago when I wrote my first song. I haven't started another one until this week. (More on the details of it next time.)

Several years ago, I reluctantly delved into improvising (composing on the spot) in a fusion band. I desperately wanted to get better at improv, but I was paralyzed with fear. During rehearsal, the guys would signal that it was my turn for a solo. I'd do my best to avoid it. "I don't need a solo. No, really, you take one. I'm good. Seriously. I'll just play what's written here." Meanwhile, my inner voice is screeching, "DEAR GOD, PLEASE DON'T MAKE ME TAKE A SOLO!" Those poor guys were so patient with me. They were encouraging and kind, and even more importantly, they insisted on me taking solos. I started learning that the only way to shut up that nagging inner perfectionist was to actually do whatever it is she swears I can't or shouldn't do. Little by little, solos got easier. Enjoyable, even. I even found myself looking forward to them. My perfectionist voice was getting more and more faint. Did I play and sing sour notes sometimes? You bet. But I started learning to let those sour notes become part of the composition rather than trying to act like they didn't happen. On my best days, they just redirect the line and shape rather than being a smudge on the canvas. 

After starting to do some improv, I decided to try my hand at arranging. Performing tunes that you've arranged is a grand tradition in the jazz world. I love this practice because the artist can share their musical taste with the audience. It's fun to know you like the same things as someone else. I've discovered several musicians just because they covered a tune that I loved. My favorite instances are, without fail, tunes that are pulled from outside the jazz genre. The flip-side of paying homage to my favorite tunes and musicians through arranging was that somewhere in my subconscious, it felt safer to try out musical ideas without having to take full responsibility for the whole tune. Don't like the melody? Blame the composer. Don't like the words? Blame the lyricist. I can handle taking flack for the rest. This is obviously not a viable idea since the arranger's choices can totally ruin a perfectly awesome melody or lyric, but it made me feel better and at least got me started. Just like the improv experience, it got easier as I did it. I don't have many arrangements under my belt, but I'm finding it less intimidating with each tune. As I finish each one, there's somehow less pressure on the next one to be o-mazing. 

So now I'm trying this composing thing again, hoping to make originals a bigger part of my setlists. I'm getting used to that fact that the perfectionist will start mocking me every time I try something new. "Wasn't the arranging adventure enough for you? You should just sing the amazing music that's already out there! You're going to get worse at everything else if you waste time on this!" A knowing smile spreads across my face. She's wrong. And she's starting to know it, too. Yes, it's scary, but we're gonna do it anyway.

Patterns and Shapes

I just spent the last 30 minutes having my mind sufficiently blown by Vi Hart on the topic of 12-tone music, thanks to Boing Boing and my friend Alan. I think it's safe to say that 12-tone music isn't everyone's favorite stuff, although I was one of the oddballs in school who loved studying and performing it. Thankfully, Ms. Hart has made it accessible using laser bats, nursery rhymes, wit, and humor, and for good measure, she throws in some ideas about copyright and the meaning of life. (It's super-fun, but probably not for kids.) It's the best 30 minutes I've spent on YouTube in a long time. Maybe ever. Don't skip a minute. The last segment won't make sense without the rest, and the last part was pure joy for me. 

Related to Stravinsky and the human brain's obsession with finding patterns, you should check out this Radiolab segment. You could skip to 7:33, but the beginning will help it make more sense: