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Therapy for Creatives, Part 8: Sharpening the Saw

Updated: Mar 16, 2021

The dream of most creative people is to make a living using their talents. For those that aspire to be professional visual artists, performers, designers, programmers, or makers, there seems to be an implicit belief that the commercialization of our superpowers may lead to the happiest and most satisfying life experience. While that can certainly be true, the overwhelming evidence is that plying our art for money changes the nature of our relationship to our talent.

Witness the drug-addicted or burned-out rock star, the actor who cannot stand intrusions into their personal life, the famous (fill in the blank) who has a mental break, burns out, or dies tragically; a tale as old as time. What's going on here? Is "passion burnout" limiteds to creatives who are professionally engaged? Or can it be a problem for those who follow their muse without recognition or monetary reward?

When I worked as a recording engineer/producer, I read a monthly column in a trade magazine written by a creative polymath named Stephen St. Croix. He was not only a successful musician and producer, but he also designed electronic components for the military and professional audio market. St. Croix also happened to be an excellent writer. His articles were engaging, inspiring, and informative, but one of his columns written over 20 years ago has stuck with me. Not a month goes by without it entering my mind. The column was about surfing.

Audio engineers and producers work very long hours in the recording studio. The business trains them to be available, take every job, and be the first to arrive and last to leave the studio. Add to this imperative that the job is enjoyable and rewarding, with sexy perks like hanging out with rock stars, and you have the perfect recipe for burnout. St. Croix’s column began with him describing a scenario where he was stuck solving a problem while working on a song. He wasn’t necessarily under-slept or underfed. He suddenly realized that it was taking far longer than usual—he had reached the point of diminishing returns. So he sent his rockstars and staff home and went surfing.

Surfing was St. Croix’s non-professional passion. There were no deadlines, no one to please but himself. His column's point was that he had to sharpen the saw—take a break to go play that he could return to the task refreshed and make progress in a far shorter time than if he had not cleared his head. When this column was written, the idea that an engineer would boldly step away from the studio was almost scandalous. There were great rewards in the business for those that would continually fall on their swords to keep the workflow going.

St. Croix’s thesis was simple; taking breaks from creative work is really hard but totally necessary. Creatives are rewarded by achieving a state of ‘flow’ in their work, where flow is defined as any activity in which one would ignore food, sleep, or sex to pursue. But that flow can backfire when we don’t take breaks and let our minds and bodies enjoy some time off task with an endeavor that provides 'passion flow' instead of the rigor of 'professional flow.'

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