Don’t Phone it In Anymore

The most frustrating part modern day teaching is seeing five or six hands shoot up automatically.

“I don’t get it,” is the usual complaint.

“What don’t you get?”

“The whole thing. I don’t understand.”

“Did you read it?”

“No…”

“Well, once you’ve read it. Think about it. Come up with some options, and if you’re still struggling with the problem after some time, try to brainstorm with someone else.”

“You’re supposed to be a teacher.”

“I am.”

“Well, then do your job and teach me.”

“Teaching you doesn’t mean giving the answers.”

This is followed by a sigh, or groan, and a verbal complaint usually not worth repeating. Our “give it to me now” society suggests that no one should struggle with anything. After all, if something doesn’t come easily, it’s not worth it.

I argue the opposite. The harder you work on something, the more value it obtains.

As I stand in front of my microphone, I’m currently shaking. Contrary to popular knowledge, I don’t really care for my voice acting. I don’t like my voice. I don’t feel I do nearly as good a job as I should and that has been in part because of the praise I’ve been given.r3

What? Praise has made you a worse voice actor? Yes. In this case it has. There’s been times where I was rushed and I ended up “phoning in my performance”, and people praised me for it. Once you get praised for doing something that’s takes no effort bad things happen. You begin to assume one of two things: A. You’re a genius or B. You don’t need to try. Praise has never made better work. Praise has inspired more work, but it has never created objectively BETTER work. That’s all up to you, not your fans.

And of course, the real danger is that people will eventually tire of complimenting for producing middling work. You’ll see people pass you and get bitter that they are more popular than you are. While certainly luck is involved in popular art, only skill keeps you popular.  As the saying goes, “When people do well, they tend to party. When people do poorly, they tend to ponder.” Sometimes in that pondering we can turn to identifying what the issues are.

Here’s the issue: Stop phoning it in.

Certainly there are days when you get that voice, that story, that dance step, that poem, that song, that painting at a breathtakingly fast pace. You’re in “the flow.” Here’s what you do when that happens. Put it away. Maybe for up to a month. When you come back your art with fresh eyes, something magical occurs. You start to see all the cracks and blemishes and structural flaws that were originally lost during the brilliance of your creativity. Because the more you challenge your initial art, the better an artist you become. Rosabeth Moss Kanter once declared, “[the] creative process involves that old saying: It’s 90% perspiration and only 10% inspiration.” If you’re a fast writer, wonderful… as a first draft.  Now spend the ninety percent of your time you focused on telling people on social media how much of a genius you are working your next drafts. Okay, maybe eighty percent. You are still, after all, a genius!

So, as I struggle with my voice and wait for the rain to stop pelting outside, it’s a good reminder- struggle is good for the soul of an artist. Take time to read the script. Make notes character plot twists. Rewrite your scripts. Explore different paint brushes. Consider modifying your favourite dance moves. Confront your style. Challenge your “final” drafts. Push to the next level. And above all- stop phoning it in.

At the end of a school semester, I sometimes create “Ward Awards” where I present individual certificate of achievements- some tongue in cheek- to students to let them know I have learned a little bit about their joys and struggles in my English class. Some graduating students told me that they’ve framed their award for the wall of their bedroom. When I asked them why, their answers are startlingly similar: “Because your class is hard. I had to really work in it.”

Self improvement as artists, as human beings should really be our goal. We need to stop looking outwards for approval and inwards to become better today than we were yesterday.

And we only do that, when we’re no longer willing to phone it in.

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