Let us start off with some background, to get the context right. I have always been creating things ever since I got my first computer (an Amiga 500 by the way). Or rather, this was the starting point of my digitally creative self. I quickly found myself immersed in games such as The Settlers, Civilization and the earlier Sims games, where I concluded that the crafting, building and exploration were by far the most interesting parts of the entire experience. Come battles and skirmishes, my interest quickly dropped.
Music? Hey, this is fun!
Continuing on, I soon after stumbled onto ways of creating music on my Amiga (most likely due to being inspired by the thriving demo scene in Sweden at the time). Having worked my way through a couple of “trackers”, I settled on Octamed, which was later succeeded by Jeskola Buzz. Combining the creative energy of a blossoming teenager and the profound possibilities growing in the dawn of the digital era, the results were explosive. I was cranking out new songs every day, sometimes even multiple songs during the course of a single day, basing them on both my own samples or downloaded ones from whatever proto-Internet I had access to. I was a machine! Looking back, the keyword was clearly quantity over quality, driven by cheer excitement. Also, being the era of the CD, the ultimate goal was of course to create something resembling an actual album. You know, 10-15 songs, possibly based on a common theme, burnt onto a silver disc. Fast forward, I have today a cardboard box full of my “albums” from this time in my life, most of them including cover art and all. Not the small kind of box, the big one you use when you move houses. Altogether a testament of a time of playful passion and youthful creativity. In hindsight, the rate of output was staggering, and quite frankly breathtaking!
Over the course of the next couple of years, both my taste in music and my approach to composing matured and morphed into a more sophisticated shape. As I was listening to my favourite music at the time, I started to take note of both the textures and layers used by professional artists to create the overall “sound” and the various mixing tricks to increase the “presence” of a song (words such as “compressor”, “limiter” and “EQ” carelessly wandered into my vocabulary). Being an aspiring music maker, I found myself trying to copy these “tools of the trade” in order to achieve that professional sound. The inevitable result was much better sounding music (subjectively of course), but with a much smaller amount output. Not terribly weird, I know, but worth noting as I soon get to another aspect of my creative self. Looking at where I am today, this has resulted in me excelling in starting up new songs but never actually finishing them. Instead, I tend to get hung up on details and quite quickly lose both interest and the required energy as time passes. Either my creative endurance has withered with age or my standards are approaching insuperable levels. Perhaps a combination of the two. So, to conclude, looking back at my 20 years or so of creating music more or less actively, I can clearly see how the early days of a naive and almost childishly joyful exploration of sounds was gradually replaced by an increased focus on details and a strive for perceived perfection. This, for what it is worth, has coincided with the proliferation of increasingly complex and powerful DAWs.
So, onto my second creative persona. In the early 2000, I was, as many other, struck by the power of the exploding Internet. It was a land-grab, and the possibilities were everywhere. Some were painfully obvious in hindsight, but stills, ever since the late 1990s, the abundance of opportunities offered by a sprawling Internet has given herds of starry-eyed “wantrepreneurs” fuel for fire. Even though I myself never got around to actually quit my job and focus on my own startup, I have spent countless of hours crafting ideas and projects aiming for just that. Start building it, and they will come! I did actually ship a couple of my initial projects: I hacked together an ecommerce solution which was deployed and used. I was uploading rudimentary web sites to whatever hosting providers was available (and cheap) at the time. I have, however, to the largest degree simply been too coward to actually take the required leap of faith. A cowardness with multiple aspects. One is that I have often fallen into the trap of going dark for long periods of time. Periods where I relentlessly chug through detail after detail in order to get to that perfect service or application. Where I tell myself that I have to have feature X, Y or Z in place in order to put the thing on display. If it cannot do X, Y, Z, or something in between, it is simply not worthwhile to pursue any users or customers. Cowardness coupled with the ambition for grandeur. Not a fruitful combination.
Looking back at the ideas I have pursued, and there are many, I have spent a lot of time and effort on some of them, without actually putting them to any practical use. These are some examples:
- A quite innovative ecommerce platform, offering the ability for customers to dynamically create unique wall art designs. I had grown tired of seeing the same IKEA canvases in most of the apartments in Stockholm, so I thought that it should be possible to create art that is completely unique to me as a customer and my home; my sanctuary. The solution I put together was quite nifty actually, if I may say so, which catered to both consumers and artists, where artists would be creating artwork in their favourite vector-based program, uploading them to the platform and defining what could be customizable and how. Customers would then be able to effortlessly create custom designs and order it in various printed formats. I even had proper legal entity set up as well as a relationship with a printing partner. All-in-all, I believe I spent weekends, vacations and late nights on this idea for roughly 1-1½ year.
- A superb product database. The idea was basically to intelligently and efficiently crawl ecommerce web sites and keep meticulous track of all the details for all products and any changes thereof, and offer this information to customers in various ways. Spent probably half a year to whip this into shape, but never released in. Not terribly unique idea, but I still feel that there is an untapped opportunity here, basically structuring the vast information available online and putting it to good use
- A Zillow for Sweden. Carelessly used scraped data and was ultimately told “please don’t”. Pulled the cord.
- Various gaming-related ideas, ranging from a mobile and desktop rendition of Knights together with a friend, through an HTML5 game arcade portal (with the clever domain name “thearca.de”) to a tetris/agar.io spinoff
Just mentioning a few of projects I have vested my (I would like to think) valuable time in but never really finished.
However, as of late, I feel that I approach ideas (and I still have many, which I keep track of in a sheet at Google Docs) more reluctantly. “I will never finish anyway”, “I’ll just waste my time” and so on. Trying to find as many flaws as possible in the prospect upfront instead of stumbling onto them when having spent a ton of effort. I.e. looking high and low for excuses to never start. It is of course sane to think through any future endeavour and vet its foundations, but only to a certain limit, after which it becomes an utter act of prevention.
So, now I have hopefully managed to kind of set the stage. A stage which, I believe, is not terribly unique. Over the years, I have read numerous posts and blogs online discussing this very issue, i.e. the lack of ability to finish what you start, or even start in the first place. What I hope I described above is that I come from a place where I actually completed things, but where an increased obsessiveness with details has prevented me from doing what is most important: shipping!
Now, the other day my oldest son, now 10 years old and highly creative (as his father!), proposed a competition. The background is that he has been fiddling around in Garageband for some time, and has even posted a couple of his songs online. Being a digital native, he is always eager to interact with the online multiverse and quantify his impression. I.e. the number of followers, likes, views etc. achieved. So, the competition he proposed was this: Each of us were to create a song in a given genre, from scratch, post it to Youtube and have the entry with the most views after a couple of weeks win the competition. The catch? We only had 1 hour to finalize the song. On top of this, the genre selected was Dubstep, an style of electronic music I am familiar with as a listener but not as a composer. “This will never work” I thought to myself. One hour is surely barely enough to find a basic melody for the song, let alone a fine beat! Regardless, I agreed and soon found myself in a fierce combat, both against my own son and the timer relentlessly counting downwards. Tick tock. However, to my great surprise, there was the beat. And without much effort, a suitable melody materialized itself. A variation, a bassline and I was starting to compose the structure of the song. Looking at the clock, 30 minutes to go. I added a second melody and tried out various effects. This could actually work! With 20 minutes or so to go, my son happily exclaimed that he was done! Signed, sealed, delivered. Now the pressure was on! With just a couple of minutes left, I tweaked the overall track mastering and added a few more effects, and was just about done when the buzzer sounded. I managed to complete a song, which normally would have taken me days of tinkering to finalize. Granted, it might not be as polished nor as well-thought out. But, all the crucial elements were there, even with a couple of the finer details. And most importantly, it was a complete composition!
We listened to both our songs together - my sons track is awesome by the way! - and quickly stirred together two videos using Plane9 and finally pushed them to Youtube. The resulting videos can be found here.
… and its learnings
I did a little bit of reflection when the songs had been posted and I was catching my breath. It actually felt pretty good to have finished something in a short amount of time! What I learned was somethings that I strongly believe to be generic enough to be ´valuablein many areas.
- Have a clear goal I.e. always know why you are doing something and roughly how to achieve this
- Work towards an inevitable deadline Your most valuable asset is time, learn to chunk your capabilities and output according to it. If you do not have a deadline, artificially create one. It must be something reasonably close, i.e. “two months from now” will not do. You have to be able to produce and ship a tangible outcome within the time frame of, say, a day or two, at maximum.
- Focus on getting the job done When you have concluded 1. and 2., it is up to you to ship. Close the door, put on your headphones or enter battle formation. Whatever gets your adrenaline pumping and minimizes your cognitive load. It is time to deliver, and failing is not an option
- Seek feedback as early as possible As soon as you have passed the deadline set out in 2 above, resist the urge to iterate. Whip up the result and put it on display. Deploy, upload, post. Whatever gets you attention and the feedback you desperately need (and should) crave!
- Explicitly learn The process of writing this blog post made me explicitly reflect on what I learned doing this with my son, on a deeper level. Relating to my background I have tried to explain, both to myself and you the reader, why these lessons were so rewarding. I genuinely feel that regularly putting these kind of things into writing is a good and ultimately rewarding habit, which I aim to continue henceforth
- Get inspired by younger people Tap the energy of your kids, younger colleagues or friends. Do not assume that wisdom through experience trumps the fresh and naive insights of a newcomer
Intrinsically, I believe I already knew these values, but seeing them applied in practice so vividly made a great impression, which I wanted to share. Finally, I realize that this post is quite lengthy, but I promise that I have applied all these lessons in putting these words down, in order to rid myself of any over-thinking. I did actually ship this post, did I not? :)