J.D. Moyer

sci-fi writer, beat maker, self-experimenter

Month: June 2014

Radical Responsibility and the Creative Process

I'm starting a new company called "BoozeSnap."

I’m starting a new company called “BoozeSnap.”

Yesterday morning I showed up at my writing desk not quite ready to work. I was in a foul mood, a little tired and lazy, and feeling distracted. Not just feeling distracted but actively looking for distractions (which, on the internet, are not hard to find).

After an hour or two of wasting time and wallowing in my bad mood, I figured out (for the eleven-hundredth time) that I had nobody to blame for my mental state but myself. I could have said no thank you to the 18-year-old Lagavulin my friend brought back from Scotland and poured freely at the D&D game. I could have attended one decadent social event instead of two. I could have eaten better, exercised more, and gone to bed earlier.

Radical Responsibility is a form of self-empowerment. To me the phrase means looking for solutions and possibilities instead of excuses, and never passing the buck. It means being ready, brave, and confident. It means exercising my free will (and rejecting fate, powerlessness, and inertia).

Of course, having an ideal and living an ideal are not the same. But the point of having an ideal is to stop pounding your head against the wall before you hurt yourself.

So … I acknowledged to myself and my family that I was in a terrible head-space (I had kind of been taking it out on them up to that point). I sat down and meditated for five minutes. I turned off the wifi on my laptop, opened my working document, reviewed my notes, started writing, and kept writing until I had met my daily quota.

Immediately my mood lifted. I read the work and felt excited by it. 27 days in a row working on my current novel (“don’t break the chain” in full effect). There’s no better reminder that emotions don’t have to control you than pushing through and doing the work anyway.

But There’s a Better Way …

Ideally, I shouldn’t have to expend so much willpower to get rolling. I wasn’t ready but I could have been ready. Artists can choose to be ready physically by being reasonably rested and fed (but not overfed — less is usually more when it comes to food and creative productivity). We can be ready emotionally by not getting entangled in other people’s drama (Polish saying: “not my circus, not my monkeys”), by avoiding disputes and the need to always be right. We can be ready with an abundance of ideas by paying attention to the subconscious mind, by meditating, and by consuming brilliant work by artists we admire. If depression is holding us back we can do something about it. If we don’t have enough time or a fancy working space we can fit in bits of work here and there; we can create a distraction-free zone in some little nook.

We could make an excuse for not being ready, but do we want to? Why not just be ready when it’s time to work?

The Perfect Excuse Guy

When I was in my early twenties I had a shitty temp job at a warehouse packing boxes. I also had a few techno and house tracks signed and published (one with a major label) and I was working on music about twenty hours a week. There was a guy at the warehouse, probably in his thirties, who was interested in electronic music and frequently asked me questions about how to get into it. I told him my story: I had saved up money to buy a keyboard, figured out how to plug it into my computer, taught myself MIDI sequencing, sent demos to labels, and so forth.

Anything I told this guy, he had a perfect answer for why he couldn’t do it himself. A keyboard was too expensive (I had saved over a year before buying mine). He didn’t have time because of his job (I was currently working the same job and producing music nights and weekends). I would try to explain to him how he could get around the obstacles he was setting up for himself, but he always had an answer ready. I would give up trying to convince him, but then he would start asking me about music production again. He clearly wanted to get into it himself. He wanted me to talk him into it! I tried, but the excuse part of his mind always won out, and finally I just refused to talk about making beats with that guy.

A different guy from the warehouse was a DJ. He heard I was producing tracks and asked if he could come over and check out my home studio. I said yes and we had a great production session — we exchanged quite a bit of knowledge in just a few hours. It didn’t turn into an official collaboration, but it left me wondering why the first guy never asked to check out my studio and see what it was all about (I had done the same thing with Josh Davis aka DJ Shadow a few years earlier when we both worked at Steve’s Pizza in Davis, California — Josh showed me his four-track + turntables recording setup which was an eye-opener for me at the time in terms of ways to make music).

I want to be the opposite of the Perfect Excuse Guy. I want to be able to produce and create even when I have shitty tools, no time, not enough money, no great ideas, inadequate skills, and a lack of natural genius. Because I just jump in and start. And then keep going. And then get better. And then keep going. That’s the guy I want to be, forever, no matter the field or the game.

So what’s your story? Are you ready to be radically responsible for your own mental state and creative output?

How Meat-Eaters Should Relate to Vegans

Some reasonably happy looking cows.

Some reasonably happy looking cows.

As regular readers know I’m a fan of Steve Pavlina’s blog. I disagree with him on many points, but he’s an ethical, purpose-driven human being with a clear writing style, and I find many of his posts to be thought-provoking.

His most recent series of posts was inspired by the nationwide discussion of misogyny triggered by the Isla Vista shootings and the shooter’s insane manifesto. Steve wrote about how this triggered feelings for him in regards to what he calls “meat culture” (not just eating meat, but the cruelty to animals involved in factory farming processes). To Steve, misogynistic attitudes towards women are little different than the attitudes that enable us to mistreat animals. To Steve, it’s all objectification. He loves and respects women, but he also loves and respects animals, and he can’t reconcile how some people can so fiercely advocate for women’s rights yet ignore animal rights. His tweets sums it up:

My first reaction was to disagree. Because of our bigger brains and highly developed neocortex, human beings have a different degree of conscious awareness than animals; we have a wider emotional spectrum and a greater capacity for suffering. Killing (or raping or enslaving) a person is not the same as killing a sardine.

But then I immediately thought of exceptions to my own argument. Having worked with Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins, I don’t believe humans are significantly more conscious-aware than cetaceans. Yes, we have a greater capacity for abstract reasoning, but I doubt we have a wider emotional range or greater emotional sensitivity (perhaps less; dolphins are highly empathetic and altruistic). I don’t think dolphins or whales should be eaten, hunted, or kept in captivity for the purpose of entertaining us. Cetaceans are “people with fins” and should have legal rights within human societies.

Human brain on the left, dolphin brain on the right.

Human brain on the left, dolphin brain on the right.

Cows and pigs are also sensitive mammals who are capable of suffering, and should be not be mistreated. Fish — I’m not really sure how much they think or feel — but the fact remains that we should treat all ocean life and marine habitats with respect if we want to survive as a species.

With this is mind, I decided to reexamine my own ethical stance toward meat-eating. It’s something I’ve considered before, but maybe it was time to revisit the topic. I watched the video in Steve’s “meat culture” post (linked above) and found the images disturbing (even though it’s not the first time I’ve seen videos like that). Maybe it was time for my own thinking and behavior to evolve?

Like most thoughtful meat-eaters, I justify/rationalize meat-eating in the following ways:

  1. Meat-eating is traditional; there are no completely vegan traditional cultural cuisines.
  2. We are evolutionarily adapted to be omnivorous.
  3. Raising animals for food is not necessarily more environmentally destructive than mass-produced crops like corn, soy, and wheat (especially in cases where integrated polyculture is used).

These reasons still make sense to me. At the same time, reducing cruelty towards animals also makes sense. I don’t want to be part of the cruelty inflicted on animals by factory farming. I also don’t want to be part of the cruelty inflicted by animals by mass farming (millions of animals lose their natural habitats because of corn, soy, and wheat farming).

On the other hand, I’m a human being who needs to eat. I take up space in this world. Even if I eat only fruit and nuts, some animal is going to die (orchards destroy natural habitats too). There is no way to be ethically pure. Everything is on a spectrum.

So how should I relate to vegans? Especially to vegans who are critical of meat-eaters for ethical reasons?

From a place of shared compassion.

Vegans are right to be concerned with animal welfare. We should all be concerned with treating our fellow creatures humanely. If human progress exists at all, it takes the form of expanding the circle of empathy.

Even if you think vegans are misguided (in terms of their ethical stance and/or the supposed health benefits of veganism), you should still support and embrace their impulse to be kind and respectful towards other animals, and do the same yourself. Why wouldn’t you want to do this?

Meat-eaters can look to traditional cultures for an alternative to the callous disconnection that factory farming encourages. Tread lightly. Respect the animal. Eat the entire animal and don’t waste anything. Don’t eat more than you need to to thrive. Respect and protect the animal’s natural habitat and ecosystem.

At the moment, I buy cage-free eggs, pastured/grass-fed meats, and organic dairy products. Some of these foods come from small farms, others no doubt come from large factory farms. You can’t always trust the label on the package either; some terms mean nothing (like “natural”) and in other cases there is outright false labeling and fraud. Unless you visit the farm or raise the animal in your own backyard, you can’t be sure how it was treated.

Ideally I’d like to raise my own chickens (it’s legal to raise chickens in Oakland, and many of my friends and neighbors do so). I even briefly considered acquiring a goat, milking it, and trying to make cheese. Then I read an article along the lines of “The 49 Things You Need To Do To Keep Your Goats Healthy” and thought better of it. There’s something to be said for division of labor and efficiency — I’ll be buying my goat cheese at the store and leaving the goat care to the goat care experts.

Here are the concrete, non-labor intensive things that meat-eaters can do to reduce cruelty towards animals, conserve natural habitats, and ultimately protect the human food supply:

So that’s where I stand at the moment. I intend to continue to strive towards a diet and lifestyle that is both enjoyable but also has a low ecological impact and a minimum amount of cruelty towards animals. My own ideal is not veganism, but rather decentralized, distributed food production, reduced use of fossil fuels and artificial fertilizer, more intelligent and efficient land use (all forms of polyculture), and a worldview that values all forms of life.

As I’ve written before, the “diet wars” are largely a battle of straw men. For example, paleo diet advocates and vegans, both being concerned about what they eat and where their food comes from, have more in common with each other than they do with mainstream culture that embraces packaged Frankenfoods and deplorable, wasteful, cruel farming practices.

I’ll leave you with this video from Steven Pinker re: the expanding circle of empathy. What are you own thoughts? Please share below, but remember to be respectful of people who don’t share your exact beliefs. Your own beliefs might change over time!

Motivation Force Multipliers (3 Ways to Sustain and Expand Energy)

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How can we leverage any sparks of “natural” motivation we might have (our interests, passions, and desires) into steady and dependable motivation that does not fluctuate with our mood? How do we keep working when external rewards are few and far between (for example anybody who is starting out in a new career)?

I spent a few hours last week getting an error fixed for a particular Loöq Records music release on a particular website. The correction involved a number of emails, comparing spreadsheets, auditing code in our database software, rescheduling promotional activities for the release, and so on.

Fixing the error had nothing to do with my love of music production (my original “passion” that led to co-founding a record label). It was just work that had to be done. I didn’t mind doing the work, and then I started to wonder why I didn’t mind doing it. What elements were “bridging the gap” between my love of making beats and this laborious administrative fix that was taking up my time?

“Passion” is never enough to create and sustain a career or an organization. There are always boring bits; there are always difficult bits. You will never accomplish much if you rely only on your “natural” motivation (the things that interest you and excite you).

It’s a no-brainer to organize your career (or careers) around the facets of existence that you find most compelling. But how do you transform this “natural interest” into the kind of day in, day out drive and energy that propels you forward, regardless of external rewards (or lack thereof) and internal mood?

First, if you’re not feeling motivated, it’s important to determine if the problem is external or internal.

If there’s no flow …

If you are really having trouble getting motivated in a particular life area, it might be time to reevaluate. Maybe you should be doing something else instead. There is no merit in grinding away year after year if you are not experiencing any significant external rewards (money, prestige, appreciation) or internal rewards (pleasure, excitement, satisfaction, sense of meaning, enjoyable anticipation of external rewards) from the work.

It’s important to carefully consider major decisions about life areas (jobs, relationships, artistic goals) when you are depressed or discouraged. If possible, fix your brain chemistry first, then make the decision. This is easier said than done, as a heinous job (for example) might be the cause of depression or anxiety. If you’re not sure, ask your family and friends for advice. If they all say your job sucks, your job probably sucks. Some problems really are external (like abusive partners, or dangerous working conditions, or lack of demand for your product or service), and have nothing to do with your mental state or attitude.

For me, this happened with DJing. I had a good run, but at a certain point the “grind” aspects outweighed the rewards. So I stopped.

But if the problem is in your head …

On the other hand, if you basically enjoy the work (or life area), and nothing is obviously messed up about your situation, but still need a motivation “pick-me-up,” consider these three approaches:

1) Serve others

I often ask myself “Who am I serving?” when I work on something. When I work on Loöq Records, I serve the both the artists and music fans. It’s not charity work, but I do remember what a huge deal it was to release my first record on a label, and I try to create good experiences for artists on our label (with good communication, fair royalty rates, and sharing ownership of the process/artistic control).

Bottom line: I feel more motivated when my work is connected to a community, and when I’m empowering others as well as myself.

2) Go for greatness/highest possible quality

Quality doesn’t guarantee success, but releasing sloppy work pretty much dooms a project to failure. If nothing else, going for “great” allows you to feel proud of your work. Before I release or deliver a final version of something, I try to ask “is this the best I can do?” Usually the answer is no, and I’m back to tweaking, editing, or even starting from scratch.

This doesn’t apply to drafts and sketches. Sometimes it’s good to get something rough out there to your trusted inner circle. How else are you going to know if it’s worth pursuing further? Not every idea has to reach completion.

It’s not a good feeling to get feedback or a review that points out an issue that you were already aware of (especially of a “finished” product or release). Why didn’t you fix it? Avoiding that feeling can be a good source of motivation. You probably already know what needs to be fixed and improved, so do it!

Bottom line: pushing up the quality bar almost always increases my desire to work on something.

3) Challenge yourself/blast through your self-imposed limits

Do you ever catch yourself saying “I’m not …” (creative, musical, organized, good at math, etc.)?

How hard have you tried to achieve that result or state of being? What evidence do you have that you truly “can’t” do that?

I’m not saying everyone can be good at everything — obviously not. But it’s easy to underestimate yourself, and it’s easy to be lazy.

If you want to progress, create a simple, smart daily program for yourself and stick to it. If you are serious, commit to that program for five years.

If you don’t have any results after five years, then maybe your efforts are better spent elsewhere. But with any less of a commitment, saying “I can’t …” or “I’m not …” is just self-defeating talk.

Challenge yourself. Make a 5-year commitment to become the kind of person you want to be, and work towards that daily.

Bottom line: it’s tremendously energizing to become something that you weren’t, to do something that you once could not do, to shed the skin of your old self and assume a new form.

What are your own techniques to refocus your energy and increase motivation?

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