Do What You Like

How “Do What You Love” Is a Recipe for Disappointment and/or Exploitation

Note: This is a rough sketch of some thoughts that have been simmering in my head for years and that were catalyzed by a conversation I had this morning on a walk with SLP. I may turn this into something more substantial and cohesive at some point in the future. But since I also may not do that, I wanted to post this early version, such as it is, so I don’t lose these ideas altogether.

The expectation that you will find a career doing The Thing you truly love tends to lead in one of three directions:

  1. Exploitation by an industrial complex that knows you will work more hours, for less pay, with more personal sacrifice, if you believe you are following your true passion.
  2. Loss of love for The Thing as you realize the compromises you need to make in order to turn a passion into a career.
  3. Cognitive dissonance as you struggle to rationalize that whatever it is you’ve ended up doing is The Thing you believe you truly love to do, when it is not.

Don’t give away The Thing that you love.

Many industries, especially academic and creative fields, are structured in a way that assumes the majority of their most talented workers do truly love the thing that they do, and they’re optimized to exploit that passion. The expectation that you will always go above and beyond, first because you want to but eventually because the structure of the job forces you to, is baked in. You will work more hours than you should, demand less pay than you deserve, and sacrifice other aspects of your life, because you are told it’s what the job requires, and you believe it. But what the job really requires is you. Your talents and your passion, and you should be compensated adequately for those, both in terms of pay and time off. But that rarely happens.

Compromise can be a killer.

There are many aspects of life where compromise is necessary and good. But compromising The Thing you love in order to turn it into a career can very easily suck that love out of The Thing. Clients may have unrealistic or illogical demands. Promoters will want you to do The Thing their way instead of the way you know works best for you.

“Do what you love” ≠ “Love what you do”

This may be the most dangerous path of all. Very few of us can land a job doing The Thing we truly love. Incremental shifts over time, impulsive decisions made long ago, or unexpected changes due to the complex challenges of life, all can lead a person into a place where they’ve invested years of time and energy into something that has little or nothing to do with their true passion in life. But that investment is hard to throw away, and it’s easy to try to convince yourself that you are doing The Thing you love, whatever it is that you’re actually doing. Admitting to yourself that you have no real interest or passion for the job you do can feel like a massive personal failure, but the real failure is denying your personal truth.

Do what you like.

Find a job that gives you satisfaction and fulfillment, but that you can walk away from at the end of the day… or walk away from entirely, if you realize it doesn’t suit you. This is a job that you are willing to invest in enough to take seriously, to do good work, to make a decent living and to contribute to society. It is not a job that you are willing to let make unreasonable demands upon your time, your energy, your family or your personal well-being.

A job you like doesn’t crush your spirit during the working hours, and it leaves you with a good amount of non-working hours to pursue your true passion, hobbies, leisure activities, family time, whatever it is you most want out of life.

Why Capitalism Is Stupid: A Case Study

Note that I didn’t say bad, or evil, but stupid.

Before we go any further, let me state that I have never studied economics, and I’ve only taken one intro-level philosophy class. The topics I’m bringing up here are steeped in both, and I know I’m out of my element.

Capitalism has, as a core principle, a belief that competition drives innovation and growth, which helps a society to thrive; whether its helping society to thrive is intentional or just a consequence is debatable. And in practice capitalism is just as susceptible to corruption as communism — both fail as a result of the boundless greed of the powerful. But for the moment let’s not dwell on the big picture… let’s just look at one example of how capitalism can be… well, stupid.

I live in Minneapolis, a large city of 425,000. Along with St. Paul (pop. 310,000) it is the core of a metro area of 3.6 million. Like all large cities, Minneapolis is divided into a number of distinct communities. The community I live in is called Longfellow, and combined with neighboring Nokomis, the immediate area has a population of around 65,000 people.

Unlike many other parts of the city, Longfellow-Nokomis has always resisted the heavy encroachment of large chain businesses. Of course we have a Target, a scattering of McDonald’s and Subway locations, etc. But for the most part, the businesses here are small and local.

In fact, in an area comprising about 13 square miles, home to 15% of the entire city’s population, there is only one Caribou Coffee, and until recently, zero Starbucks (not counting the one inside the Target… which is a capitalism story for another blog post). Of course we have dozens of local independent coffee houses, but only one each of the two big chains.

And they’re right across the street from each other.

How does it benefit the citizens of the community to have a Caribou and a Starbucks within sight of each other, when the vast majority of residents of the area don’t live within walking distance of either one? Who does a decision like this really serve? How does this help society to thrive?

What we’re looking at here is not a failure of capitalism in principle, but an example of how it fails in practice, as power is consolidated in the hands of a few greedy, powerful corporations.

I’m sure this is the point where a (21st century) Republican dutifully says, “But how can a corporation be greedy? Greed is a human emotion, and corporations are businesses, not people.” Oh right, corporations are only people when it comes to exercising their right to free speech. (And political money equals speech.) I’m sure few, if any, of the individuals within these corporations are ruthlessly greedy. But they don’t need to be. The system is built on a principle whose logical consequence is that increasing profits outweighs any other considerations. That could be defined as greed.

One could argue that Caribou and Starbucks have grown to that tipping point in capitalism where they are no longer focused on competition through innovation, but on stifling competition through consolidation of power. Nothing better exemplifies to me capitalism’s absurd failure than a business opening its first location in a large, heavily populated area within feet of its rival.

Sadly, I’m sure these corporations did extensive research and determined that the best location in Longfellow-Nokomis for a major chain coffee house was right at this spot, even if there was already another one right there. And I bet both will do booming business, because… honestly? Most of us just don’t question it.

Now get in the car. I want some coffee.

#rpm12 Reflections, part one: Wherefore the challenge?

Now that I’m “done” (probably) making music for the 2012 RPM Challenge, it’s time for a few posts reflecting on the experience. First up, the prime question: why do I do this? Or, in a more Shakespearean tone, wherefore the challenge?

Last night on Tumblr, my Internet friend and a musician I greatly admire (and whom I met through my first RPM in 2008), Joshua Wentz, posted:

In Februarys past I took part in the RPM Challenge, but it isn’t for me any longer. I outgrew it, which is a shame, because there was a tipping point for that project where it could easily have become the biggest thing in music. Alas, it is not to be.

The idea that he had “outgrown” RPM stuck with me after reading that. On one hand, it stung just a bit, because here I am participating in RPM while he and several other musicians I met through RPM that year have all seemingly moved on. But on the other hand, it was a sentiment I completely understood, and have felt myself since 2010, the first time I (effectively) skipped RPM. I was so inspired and motivated by my intended album concept that year that I went ahead and recorded it in January (in two weeks), thus disqualifying it for RPM. (Then I did end up submitting an album for RPM, but it was entirely improvised and recorded in one afternoon, on February 22.)

The RPM Challenge has never really been a challenge for me; I typically complete my album in two weeks or less. Finishing in a week this year is exceptional even by my standards, but I never come down to the wire. It’s just not how I operate.

Granted, a big factor in how quickly I produce music is my style, and my approach. My music is almost entirely instrumental and fairly improvisatory, and I use MIDI a lot. I think a huge time-suck for most musicians is lyric writing and carefully crafting a perfect song structure, as well as tweaking mic setups. I have none of that in my process. Plus, it’s just me. If there were more people involved, we’d also have to negotiate schedules and the inevitable conflicts. (I am not without internal conflict, of course.)

Let’s refine the question: Why do I still participate in RPM? I don’t need the external pressure of the challenge to get an album done; I am, if anything, excessively motivated when I start making music. And each year I am less and less involved in the “community” surrounding the challenge, so the timing becomes almost irrelevant.

I guess you could say I’ve outgrown RPM too, but that’s not quite an accurate, or at least complete, description of the situation. It’s also that RPM has failed to grow with me. The challenge got a lot of publicity in late 2007, which is when I learned about it. It was featured on several prominent websites and even on NPR. But its organizers haven’t done anything with it. I guess they’re satisfied to keep it where it is. Unfortunately, “where it is” is a horribly designed Joomla! (yes there’s an exclamation point in the name *shudder*) website with a terrible interface, one that has only had minor surface updates in the 5 years I’ve been looking at it.

But an ugly, unusable website only scratches the surface of what’s disheartening to a serial RPM participant like myself. It’s that apparent lack of desire by its founders to let RPM itself grow that makes it feel so easily outgrown, which is ironic since the entire purpose of the challenge is to spur its participants into growth as musicians by successfully completing an album project.

So, if it’s not the community and the collective experience that compels me, why do I do it? Looking back on my past few RPM albums, I’ve started to notice a pattern: RPM becomes the catalyst to get me to try something new and crank out a bunch of music, which then ends up informing the musical work I do for the rest of the year. I can already feel that coming with this particular challenge.

Pocket Symphonies, built around the idea of using an iPhone as the sole instrument, has been a success, but it’s been an experiment. The music that resulted is like something out of an R&D lab. It’s a prototype. I’ve learned a lot about what does and doesn’t work when trying to make music on an iPhone (which will be the topic of a follow-up post in a few days), and I probably only would have done that with these arbitrary parameters, partly set up by the RPM Challenge and partly by my own vision for what I wanted to do.

I’ve been playing around with iPhone music apps for years, but it was only when I committed to recording an entire album using them that I forced myself to really see what they could do, and even now I feel like I’ve merely scratched the surface. But now I feel like I know how I can integrate the iPhone (and iPad) into my “regular” music-making activities in creative ways.

Beyond production techniques, this album was a chance for me to explore some musical styles I’ve been interested in working with. In particular, I’ve become increasingly interested in the chillwave style of electronic music, especially since falling in love with the theme music from Portlandia, which I have since leared is a song called “Feel It All Around” by Washed Out. I recorded a couple of tracks that I think put my own typically idiosyncratic spin on this style, and I am looking forward to pursuing more of that in the coming year.

Reflecting on all of this, I guess the RPM Challenge is, like life, what you make of it. It’s looking increasingly unlikely that the organization behind the “official” challenge is ever going to develop it into the kind of thing I once wanted it to become, but that doesn’t really matter. And whether or not I only record during the month of February, whether or not I even bother to submit the CD to RPM HQ on March 1, also doesn’t really matter. What matters is finding that source of inspiration that allows a person to channel their creative energies into something tangible. And RPM, whatever it is, still does that for me.

#rpm12 day 4: Where the line between instrument and composition is blurred

A quandary: What do you do when you’re not sure if you’re really creating music yourself, or just manipulating an interactive composition by someone else?

In the past, the only place this situation would likely have occurred is at an art installation in a museum, but what happens when that art installation is in your pocket?

I suppose in some ways the situation is akin to sampling. Or is it?

The key question all of the above leads to is this: What exactly is Bloom, the iPhone app by Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers? Besides an app, I mean.

Is it an instrument? Is it an interactive composition? Is it a piece of art?

And, after you’ve found a passable answer to each of these questions, another: If you record the output of an app like Bloom, who is the composer? Can you release it on an album? Do Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers receive composer credits?

The questions have both philosophical and practical implications. On one hand, you fall down the rabbit hole of the eternal, unanswerable question: What is art? On the other, more mundane, tangible concerns: If I put this on my album, is it copyright infringement? Or, at least, is it dishonest to take credit for the composition?

I don’t have answers to any of these questions, but I’m pondering them a lot this morning, because a portion of my music-making activities last night was devoted to the creation of a piece of music using Bloom.

To further complicate matters, consider this: Bloom consists of a simple touch interface that controls a set of predefined algorithms within the app: tones, scales, repetition and delay. Those four parameters (and probably more; I’m just going by what I perceive happening within the app as I use it) were defined by Eno and Chilvers, with some options being configurable by the user.

The user “plays” this “instrument” by tapping in different places on the screen at different times. But the app also generates tones on its own. There’s a background wash of sound that the user does not directly control, and if the app is left alone long enough, it will randomly begin “playing” notes itself.

It seems clear to me that if you just start up the app and let it go without touching the screen, you’re not really composing anything. (Or are you, John Cage?) If you start tapping the screen, you are now “playing” the “instrument.” But since so much of how the app works was defined (with plenty of built-in randomness) by the developers of the app, how much of the sound produced is really your composition, and how much is theirs?

The more you add, the more I think you are the composer. What if you overlay multiple tracks of Bloom within your DAW? That’s what I did: I ended up recording three separate passes of Bloom: one panned hard left, one panned hard right, and the other in the center. (In an interesting twist on the question at the beginning of the previous paragraph, on the center channel I didn’t actually tap the screen at all until about 20 seconds before the end of the piece.) What if you take it one step further and make Bloom merely one track in a multi-track recording featuring other instruments?

With a musical tool like Bloom, there’s no clear line to be drawn between instrument and composition, between app developer and composer and performer. And maybe that’s a good thing, philosophically. But I’m always nagged by those practical concerns: Can I really call the recording of my Bloom performance my own? It seems to me that if there’s a line anywhere, it can most clearly be drawn at the idea of layering multiple tracks of Bloom, or of using Bloom along with other instruments, because it is at that point where the resulting sound is not something that could have been created by Bloom itself.

Let’s take this all one step further: Reflecting on all of the concerns I have above, the only aspect of the discussion that troubles, rather than inspires, is legal. Am I infringing copyright if I record myself playing Bloom and put it on my album? Why is that even a question? Copyright is broken. The fact is, there are very few original ideas, especially in music. Everything is borrowed. The cognitive dissonance that arises when we try to suppress that free exchange of ideas, which is an inherent part of human expression, can be paralyzing.

Or, you can just not worry about it. I’m trying.

#rpm12 day 2: Does the world really need more music?

One of my tentative song titles for this year’s RPM album poses a question, in humorous song title parenthetical form:

(Does the World Really Need) More Music (?)

I wondered that again as I awoke this morning with Death Cab for Cutie’s “Codes and Keys” in my head. It’s the title track from an album they released last year. It’s a pretty good album. Every time I listen to it I think, “This is pretty good. I should listen to it more often.” But then I rarely do, because there’s just so much really good music being produced these days.

Do I really need to toss my little CD onto the already massive mountain of music (not the most poetic alliteration ever) being produced every year?

Well, that’s not really why we make music, is it?

I want my music to be heard. I want it to be enjoyed by others. But mostly I want it for myself. I have an urge to create that comes from a place I don’t completely understand. But yet I do it. I must do it. Because that’s what I do.

My music isn’t the expression of a troubled soul. I’m not bearing my heart with the music I create. I just have sounds in my head and I need to get them out.

But the creative drive goes deeper. It’s not the most satisfying realization, but I’ve come to learn that on some level, I just need there to be things in the world that I’ve made. In the words of Steve Jobs, I want to make a “dent in the universe.” Existence is so incomprehensibly vast, and we are such an infinitesimal part of it. But, for a few dozen of the Earth’s trips around the sun, we’re a part of it. And, what’s more, we know it.

I guess that drive to simply leave a mark before I’m a pile of dust is the driving force behind a lot of the creative impulse, at least for me.

I used to think that this creative impulse was at least partly tied to an instinct for procreation, that bringing new life into the world was what I really felt compelled to do, for simple biological reasons. But I have kids now, and while they’re great in many ways, it hasn’t lessened that urge to create art.

So, I continue to make music. I explore. I refine. I grow. And I keep trying to get it all out of my head and into the world.

This is not at all where I had intended to go with this post. I was going to just talk about the song I worked on last night, which ended up sounding a little bit like a Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross soundtrack… if all of their soundtrack tunes were 12 minutes long and ended with an extended, unaccompanied theremin solo. But that’s probably not as interesting as probing metaphysical reflection.

The short version of the daily progress report is, last night was another productive session, and I extensively employed two new apps I just discovered last night through the App Store’s often questionable “Genius” tool: Alchemy and SoundPrism. The latter gets an endorsement from Jordan Rudess, which is good enough for me.