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Focus

Over the past sev­eral months one small word has occu­pied much of my atten­tion: focus. It’s been echo­ing in my mind, fol­low­ing my every thought, some­times with a gen­tle smile, other times with a scold­ing expres­sion. It cer­tainly is one of those lit­tle words with a big atti­tude — once it has become part of your con­scious­ness it’s impos­si­ble to ignore. And that is a good thing, a very good thing indeed.

When I think of my child­hood school days, par­tic­u­larly 5th and 6th grade (which used to be called Ori­en­tierungsstufe in Ger­many, from the word ori­en­ta­tion, as kids are eval­u­ated for future edu­ca­tion, at least that was the intent) one thing stands out in my report card: Thorsten is often absent minded, eas­ily dis­tracted and tends to dis­tract other chil­dren. My teach­ers had a dif­fi­cult time rec­on­cil­ing my over­all behav­ior with my learn­ing poten­tial, not­ing a quite pro­nounced dis­crep­ancy: I tended to be an A– stu­dent in music, arts, writ­ing and math­e­mat­ics, if I could focus long enough. How­ever, I was also diag­nosed as being hyper­ac­tive — usu­ally referred to nowa­days as ADHD (though this post will not be about any clin­i­cal condition).

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Emotional Feedback

In my last post I talked about the chal­lenges many cre­atives face in pro­mot­ing their own work, par­tic­u­larly if their core per­son­al­ity type is rather intro­verted (and I include myself in that cat­e­gory). Of all the avenues open for pro­mot­ing the Inter­net is the most acces­si­ble but also often proves to be unex­pect­edly chal­leng­ing and frus­trat­ing, even to the point of being demotivating.

I have spo­ken before about my ini­tial skep­ti­cism and even rejec­tion of the Inter­net when I first came in con­tact with it back in the 90s. Curios­ity and my innate fas­ci­na­tion with tech­nol­ogy over­came such feel­ings rather quickly, only to be greeted with a sense of uncer­tainty and unease inter­act­ing online with oth­ers in the early AOL and cha­t­room days. What was an excit­ing fron­tier of new pos­si­bil­i­ties and instant com­mu­ni­ca­tion with peo­ple from around the world every so often turned sour due to mis­un­der­stand­ings.
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The things most natural

After my last post I sat down and spent some time pon­der­ing why it is rather dif­fi­cult for me to pro­mote my own work. I’ve been on uneasy terms with “the Inter­net” ever since I first became aware of it back in ’95 as men­tioned in a prior post. No doubt the web has cre­ated a lot of great oppor­tu­ni­ties for numer­ous cre­atives. Many who once strug­gled get­ting their work in front of peo­ple are now suc­cess­fully mar­ket­ing them­selves, often accom­plish­ing quite amaz­ing feats of recog­ni­tion. These days it seems the whole world is online, open­ing numer­ous pos­si­bil­ity for find­ing one’s audi­ence. While back in the day authors needed pub­lish­ers to get their work out in the open they can now poten­tially do it all on their own. While musi­cians had to be signed to labels to sell their music they can now seem­ingly reach their lis­ten­ers directly. There are indeed many exam­ples of writ­ers and musi­cians and artists who have taken advan­tage of all those new pos­si­bil­i­ties and reached their dreams.

Human soci­ety reacts in much the same way to changes in the eco­nomic envi­ron­ment as nature in the eco­log­i­cal: the more you add on one side the more you have to remove on the other. A new species that becomes the pre­dom­i­nant inhab­i­tant of an area will dis­place a long estab­lished one. In eco­nomic terms: as new media rises old media declines. Many that once felt they were barred from oppor­tu­ni­ties are now cre­at­ing their own, in the process reduc­ing the avail­abil­ity of estab­lished oppor­tu­ni­ties. This can, and often does, neg­a­tively effect those strug­gling to take advan­tage of these new oppor­tu­ni­ties because they pre­fer the old ones.

New gen­er­a­tions are quick to say “out with old, in with the new”. Let enough time pass and the old becomes new again and the new old and the cycle restarts. Tra­di­tional pub­lish­ing is fre­quently frowned upon by those who feel that the new mod­els offer much more free­dom and oppor­tu­ni­ties. Though one impor­tant ques­tion begs answer­ing: how sus­tain­able can this “do it all your­self” approach be in the long run? While I could eas­ily dive deeply into eco­nomic terms and the rise, and fall, of big busi­ness and its under­ly­ing fun­da­men­tal needs and require­ments for cat­a­lysts I reckon it would sig­nif­i­cantly exceed any bear­able post length. The con­clu­sion though would be that each one of us has a sense of what is nat­ural for and to us.

The term nat­ural has a quite lengthy def­i­n­i­tion. In terms of this post I am using it as our very per­sonal per­cep­tion of what is right and what is wrong accord­ing to our unchange­able core char­ac­ter. If some­thing feels right it is nat­ural, if it feels wrong it’s unnat­ural. While we can expand our accep­tance of right and wrong from a ratio­nal point there is only so much stretch­ing we can ever do from an emo­tional point. We have an inher­ent nature and we can go with our against that nature. Going against it only works for so long until all sorts of psy­cho­log­i­cal effects set it.

If you’ve ever taken any form of psy­cho­log­i­cal eval­u­a­tion you are prob­a­bly famil­iar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indi­ca­tor. If not it is “a psy­cho­me­t­ric ques­tion­naire designed to mea­sure psy­cho­log­i­cal pref­er­ences in how peo­ple per­ceive the world and make deci­sions,” accord­ing to Wikipedia. There are four dichotomies: atti­tudes (favorite world), per­ceiv­ing func­tions (infor­ma­tion), judg­ing func­tions (deci­sions) and lifestyle (struc­ture). I’ve taken this test a few times, usu­ally out of curios­ity, and my type always comes out as INFP: intro­verted, intu­itive, feel­ing, per­cep­tive. In short the ide­al­ist. Those who have met me in per­son how­ever would most likely type­cast me as an ENFJ (the giver). That is because there is a cer­tain dual­ity to all of us. Under var­i­ous cir­cum­stances we can por­trait a slightly dif­fer­ent set of char­ac­ter qual­i­ties. How­ever, we can­not sus­tain those for a pro­longed period. Even­tu­ally we have to return to our core personality.

Being intro­verted means it is unnat­ural for me to inter­act with a large crowed. In fact, writ­ing this post is accom­pa­nied by feel­ing uncom­fort­able since it’s going to be pub­lished on my blog and thus be open to the world. I much more pre­fer inter­act­ing with indi­vid­u­als or a spe­cific group. When­ever I do so I feel in har­mony with my nature and are intensely focused on the task at hand and less so on my sur­round­ings. In a large group how­ever I am more focused on my sur­round­ings and I have a hard time get­ting through my task

There­fore, pro­mot­ing myself on the web to the pub­lic feels highly unnat­ural. It is not in har­mony with my nature. I can morph into an ENFJ for a period of time but like a shapeshifter in a fan­tas­tic story I even­tu­ally have to return to my nat­ural form. If for one rea­son or another I am forced to keep act­ing as an ENFJ I begin to waver. I’d rather have some­one else pro­mote me, endorse me. My nature prefers the tra­di­tional route of publisher/label for my work. Years ago when I wrote for mag­a­zines I accom­plished infi­nitely more than these days writ­ing on my blog (see archives for months long gaps).

I am all for progress. Any form of stand­still results in decline until things fall apart. But progress can only be accom­plished when con­sid­er­ing the past and poten­tial con­se­quences of a shift in approach. With a strong lean­ing towards inde­pen­dence from estab­lished busi­ness mod­els the ques­tion is where does this leave those of us who pre­fer inter­de­pen­dence? It’s a com­plex mat­ter that involves ques­tions of qual­ity vs. quan­tity, def­i­n­i­tion of qual­ity, gate­way and fil­ter func­tions once held by qual­ity keep­ers and the result­ing rise of medioc­racy. Per­haps though we’re already reach­ing a turn­ing point where the spirit of free, unapolo­getic explor­ing is once again being reigned in by an increas­ing desire for qual­ity of con­tent and crafts­man­ship. It will not end the under­ly­ing strug­gles, after all even refine­ment is a mat­ter of strug­gle, but it may just cre­ate more bal­anced oppor­tu­ni­ties as a result, oppor­tu­ni­ties that feel natural.

As always I invite you to share your very own thoughts on this matter.

Knowledge and Interdependence

Of what ben­e­fit is knowl­edge? That depends on how well one is able to apply it. We can cer­tainly know a lot of things, but that doesn’t mean we are always able, or even will­ing, to prop­erly apply that knowl­edge when called upon. We may know that eat­ing cer­tain foods can trig­ger aller­gic reac­tions but if we are not moti­vated to act upon that knowl­edge we still eat them — and suf­fer the consequences.

In order for knowl­edge to be truly valu­able it has to become part of our moti­va­tion. It has to trickle down from the brain to the heart, so to speak. Only then will we react in accor­dance with that knowledge.

I real­ized this myself once more. There are things I’ve posted in the past talk­ing about what inspires and moti­vates me to write, only to walk away and return to my writer’s block state of mind. We all tend to some­times look in all the wrong places, maybe because it seems to be eas­ier over there, or we don’t really believe what we know to be true or achiev­able. I’ve known since child­hood that the one and only thing that truly inspires me and moti­vates me to write, more pre­cisely write sto­ries, is music. I know that I learned walk­ing by music, my father turn­ing the bal­ance knob on his stereo and lit­tle me fol­low­ing “the sound of music” from one speaker to the other (they stood sev­eral feet apart). I know my mother was and still is a clas­si­cal music expert and she exposed me to the greats of old from an early child­hood on. I’ve been list­ing to them ever since I can think. And as I grew older I didn’t sim­ply buy music and let it play in the back­ground, no, I sat down, 12/13 years old, and delib­er­ately lis­tened to a whole album, mak­ing out all the nuances while all the while dream­ing, trav­el­ing off to far away fan­tas­tic lands. Van­ge­lis, Jean Michel Jarre, Kitaro, Tan­ger­ine Dream, John Williams, Jerry Gold­smith — all of them and many more have taken me on some truly fan­tas­tic journeys.

But it’s not just lis­ten­ing, it’s also very much play­ing myself. While I don’t mas­ter any par­tic­u­lar instru­ment, I can play a bit piano and flute and cer­tainly key­board, I truly enjoy play­ing with sounds and melodies (I am able to read notes though). I’ve been “com­pos­ing” for years, decades at this point in my life. And with that music came the sto­ries: the title theme to a Sci Fi epic I once wanted to write, lit­tle parts for a fan­tas­ti­cal musi­cal, pieces of music for spy thrillers. And then, one day, it took on much more con­crete forms.

In 2006 I’ve pub­lished “Infil­tra­tor — A Music­novel”. It’s a nine track album, a sound­track to an imag­i­nary futur­is­tic thriller. The music inspired the story. None of the tracks were cre­ated delib­er­ately, they were all a result of the music sim­ply com­ing to me. And as I cre­ated track after track I began see­ing a pat­tern and ulti­mately arranged it all into a story of a spe­cial agent uncov­er­ing a devi­ous threat. I cre­ated an out­line of each track’s events. And then I got curi­ous. I signed up with var­i­ous indie music sites and ser­vices pro­mot­ing the album (which I actu­ally made avail­able as a self-published CD). I got good air­play on col­lege radio and even a few local radio sta­tions, had two of my tracks included on a com­pi­la­tion CD in Asia and even made 3rd place in the dance cat­e­gory in the 14th Bill­board World Song­writ­ing Con­test a few years back. I felt truly con­nected to the one thing that inspires me the most. And then I aban­doned it.

It wasn’t because I was afraid of any­thing, the feed­back I had received was extremely pos­i­tive, I’ve had the founder of world famous Ger­man elec­tron­ica group Tan­ger­ine Dream com­mend­ing me on my bud­ding music. I received a very pos­i­tive review by a web­site ded­i­cated to sound­tracks only — quite a feat since “Infil­tra­tor” isn’t truly a sound­track. No, it cer­tainly wasn’t fear. I sim­ply felt over­whelmed, not with suc­cess, it was mod­er­ate, but with the shear amount of work involved in pro­mot­ing my music. I had joined many web­sites, includ­ing the infa­mous MySpace, made some nice con­tacts but ulti­mately felt dis­il­lu­sioned. I came up with the term “Lemon­ade Stand Syn­drome” or LSS for short. What is LSS? Imag­ine two kids sell­ing lemon­ade but doing it where no one can find them. After a while they start sell­ing it to each other. Even­tu­ally all the lemon­ade is gone and the same buck has been passed back and forth. Very dis­ap­point­ing, not to men­tion dev­as­tat­ing to their hum­ble busi­ness. On every site I joined the result was the same: we were all musi­cians look­ing for expo­sure and sim­ply becom­ing each oth­ers’ “fans” with­out ever accom­plish­ing the rea­son for join­ing in the first place — find­ing our audi­ence (aside from the pos­i­tive effect of mak­ing some friends with like minded musi­cians). More than that, all of these sites charge musi­cians to use their ser­vices, most of them being rather use­less truth be told. Thus I closed account after account until I felt like I had never made much progress.

I am cer­tainly not one to be eas­ily dis­cour­aged. But this felt dif­fer­ent. I began to think that being inde­pen­dent was not such a good idea after all. In addi­tion I’ve always been rather shy about my own work, while I can be very sup­port­ive of other people’s work, and all this self pro­mo­tion felt sim­ply odd, des­per­ate in a sense.

The rea­son I am talk­ing about this expe­ri­ence is that I know there are many cre­atives out there who share sim­i­lar feel­ings. Some­times we set out explor­ing, won­der­ing what might be around the next cor­ner, only to find our­selves in an envi­ron­ment that’s not excit­ing at all any­more and we may have to back track and find the path we were orig­i­nally on. The promise of the web is inde­pen­dence from estab­lished struc­tures, like pub­lish­ers, by seem­ingly empow­er­ing us to do it all on our own. And that’s where it gets dif­fi­cult. Because we can’t do it all on our own. The more time we spend on pro­mot­ing our­selves the less time we have to be cre­ative. There is lim­ited time each day and the more time I spend on one task the less I have to spend on another. We are, indeed, not inde­pen­dent at all, we depend on oth­ers. We need peo­ple to do the things we sim­ply don’t have the time or energy to do. We need sup­port. We even need endorse­ment. It feels great to be writ­ten about on the web but it feels even bet­ter to be men­tioned in or on a respected mag­a­zine or site or to be rec­om­mended by a favorite artist of ours.

To recap briefly and to con­nect the dots back to the begin­ning of the post, need­ing to apply knowl­edge for it to be truly valu­able, I have acquired knowl­edge not only of what I am truly pas­sion­ate about but also how one can exude a lot of time and energy on the wrong approach to share that pas­sion. Now I need to ensure I apply that knowl­edge and not repeat past errors while also apply­ing the knowl­edge that, if I want to write sto­ries I need to com­pose music first. Thus I am open to sug­ges­tions — and expe­ri­ences. How has your cre­ative pro­gres­sions been on the web? Please feel free to share your story in the com­ments or point me to your post.

This post was in part moti­vated by Diana Baur’s post titled “the sim­ple art of inter­de­pen­dence” and I highly rec­om­mend read­ing it. My wife Holly Becker also wrote some­thing sim­i­lar a few years back.

And at the very end of this post, reluc­tantly so due to the odd feel­ing asso­ci­ated, I do like to point to my music being avail­able on iTunes and Ama­zon.