I have recently been reading a book by Daniel Pink entitled DRiVE. The book deals with levels of human motivation. One of Pink’s assertions is that intrinsic motivation is longer lasting and produces higher quality than extrinsic. He even quotes one Harvard study of painters. The researchers had the painters paint two paintings, one commissioned and one that was just whatever they wanted. The study found that experts rated the non-commissioned paintings higher in every case.
In one portion of the book Pink focuses on the PhD study of play that was conducted by Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikzentmihalyi observed painters and found that when the painters were truly in what he called “flow” (a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990)) they seemed to be so gripped in the moment of their work as to almost be in a trance. For them, “time passed quickly and self-consciousness dissolved” (Pink, 2009, p.111). The connection between the painters experience and that of musicians who get lost in their work is virtually identical. So when a spouse complains that speaking to their musician in these moments of “flow” , makes it seems as if they are not even there, like the musician is completely oblivious and they are talking to the wall. The answer is bluntly that it seems like they are not there because to the musician in a moment of flow well... they aren’t.
In flow, the creative is 100% in the moment. It is when you get lost in the creating and become one with it in a sense. You don’t have to think, or process, it just well…flows. These are the musician’s mountain top, the reason why we do what we do. The musician loses all sense of self and time in the creating and most importantly the reward is immediate. It is when you know you nailed the part, wrote the greatest line, or sang the perfect note. This however is not the norm for musicians, it is the exception.
The other side of flow is the chase for mastery. Musicians and other creatives have always had to deal with having a bi-polar reputation. The greatest song one day gives way to the realization of how far you have still to go the next. How much you need to improve and the reality of this being a forever journey hits. For the person in relationship with the musician this seems imbalanced, neurotic, and just plain hard to deal with. However this is the natural way of chasing mastery. As Pink says, “You and I each might reach flow tomorrow morning- but neither of us will achieve mastery overnight.” This is not a negative; ultimately the pursuit of mastery is the best positive. It is akin to the cliché, it is the journey not the destination.
Mastery is a state of mind. Flow is pure joy in the moment, Mastery is pain over time, it hurts, but both are vital to the process and the very essence of being creative. So for the spouse, girlfriend, kids, parents or friends of the musician, the swings in mood and ever-changing self opinion that your musician experiences, does not indicate a mental illness. For the musician this is normal. The swing from mountain top to valley in the musician’s journey is the process. I believe it was James Taylor who said of songwriting, “it is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration” but it is the 10% that makes the rest of it worth it.