Working on Two Tracks
When we complete a work of art or commerce and expose it to judgment in the real world, three things can happen:
1. Everybody loves it.
2. Everybody hates it.
3. Nobody notices that it even exists.
All three responses present you and me—the artist or entrepreneur—with serious emotional challenges, and all three drive deep into the most profound questions of life and work.
It will not surprise you, I suspect, when I say that in my opinion all three responses are impostors. None is real, and none should be taken to heart by a professional.
When we work in any field that combines art and commerce, we’re working on two tracks. (I picture them as railroad tracks running side-by-side.)
Track #1, the Muse Track, represents our work in its most authentic, true-to-itself and true-to-our-own-heart expression.
Track #2, the Commercial Track, represents the response our work gets in the marketplace. In other words, points 1-2-3 above.
Track #2 counts for putting bread on the table and getting our kids through college.
Track #1 equates to our artistic soul.
The problem with Track #2 is that it also represents the siren song of riches and fame (or at least applause and recognition in the real world).
Did you see the post I did a few weeks ago called “Paul’s All Is Lost Moment?” My friend Paul had just finished writing a TV pilot. It was the first time he had really completed a project from FADE IN to THE END. He turned it in to a friend who is a serious producer and who was anxious to see it. Almost immediately Paul’s spirits went over a cliff.
He became depressed, anxious, irritable. He couldn’t sleep. He stopped working. He was waiting breathlessly to hear his producer friend’s response.
In other words, Paul let himself get sucked over onto Track #2, the Commercial Track.
Hollywood (or any big-buzz field like music, publishing, games, software) is a Rorschach test for the heart. Can you keep your focus where it should be? Can you find your real self and stand up for it? The dream of success/glamour/megabucks is like “dark matter.” It exerts a gravitational pull that’s so strong it can haul even the best us down into a black hole.
What’s the antidote?
The antidote is remaining grounded on Track #1. There’s nothing wrong with success. I have no beef with cashing a check or getting a parking place with your name on it. But both will kill you if you confuse Track #1 with Track #2.
While Paul was pacing his living room, wondering if he could really kill himself by leaping out a second-story window, the real truth of his situation was this:
He had completed his first serious full-length piece of work.
He had shipped.
He had delivered.
His creative momentum was high.
The Muse was with him.
On Track #1, Paul was rolling!
But on Track #2 he was getting eaten alive (or, more exactly, he was eating himself alive.)
My advice to Paul was to start another project instamatically. In fact Paul was already working on Project #2. But he had stopped. “Get back on that sucker!” I told him.
Why is this so important?
Because getting back to work grounds us on Track #1. We pick up where the Muse left off and we keep rolling.
On the other hand, when we finish a project and stop working while we wait on pins and needles to learn the world’s response to it, we have planted our butts squarely on Track #2. Track #2 means evaluating our work (and defining our artistic selves) by the opinions of others. Nothing good ever came from that. Even success can be bad. In fact success can be worse than failure. How many actors have won Oscars in Year X, only to vanish into rehab in Year X+1?
Van Gogh was a Track #2 failure his entire life. And yet: how was he doing on Track #1? True, a century ahead of his time, but still smokin’ hot. If only he could have realized it! If only we could all realize it.
The ideal position for an artist of authenticity is when Tracks #1 and #2 coincide—when he is working his real stuff, and that stuff is finding a home in the wider world.
When an artist’s voice is true enough to his own heart and authentic enough to his own vision, Track #1 pulls Track #2 to it. Bruce Springsteen. Bob Dylan. Hunter S. Thompson.
I don’t knock Track #2, the Commercial Track. Real art can be commercial too. And I don’t overvalue Track #1, the Muse Track. If our stuff is navel-centered and obscure, it doesn’t deserve to find a wide audience.
But we lose our way when we overvalue Track #2 at the expense of Track #1. “Sunflowers” was just as great in 1889, when Van Gogh couldn’t give it away, as it was in 1987 when it sold for $39.9 million.
Whatever Track #2 fate awaits my friend Paul’s pilot, the bottom line truth is this: he knocked it out of the park on Track #1.
More on this subject next week.