Illustration by Anouk Moulliet
Advice from Strangers explores shared challenges in the industries of new music and technology. This column is second in the series.
A recent conference of new music professionals devoted a workshop to the subject of creative growth. Participants toiled. There were groans of frustration and murmurs of revelation. Digital devices were set aside, notecards scribbled upon, thoughts shared. Forty-five minutes were dedicated to the development of strategies for relevant, positive, reflective growth. In those minutes, hearty seeds were planted that will share their yield for a long time to come.
In tech, where I’ve worked for the past decade, we are charged with innovating, iterating, and disrupting. We invent software, undermine old industries, create needs. We make new things all the time, even as we aim to better those that already exist. And yet, I wonder: is there a mismatch between this mandate and the method in which we’re growing creatively as individuals?
Skill-based learning vs. creative growth
Even though as an industry we champion the cause of innovation, as individuals, the practical day-to-day goal is to become more functionally proficient. So when we say we grow, we mean we continually build an arsenal of skills, enabling us to increase the efficiency and robustness of software, scale technological infrastructure, and support a growing business.
But most of us are in tech because we want to do cool new things, create new stuff, explore. Isn’t it important for us to grow that side of ourselves—the creative side—as well? If our ability to encourage disruption is so important, how do we open ourselves up to and equip ourselves for opportunities to do new and different rather than incrementally better and faster at the same thing? We must learn to expose ourselves to new processes of innovation and new interpretations that can bring us out of a local maximum toward a radically better solution.
The new music community offers us a model of rigorous self-examination, a thorough and ongoing exploration of the processes leading to creative innovation. The tech community favors a skills-based approach to growth. The strategies overlap, even as the applications differ. Here are the top growth strategies of 35 colleagues from the industries of new music and tech.
Accept growth as a constant
It may seem obvious, but let’s start with this: there is always something more to learn in our ever-expanding universe of experience. If we don’t acknowledge this, we ride blindly past opportunities to grow.
“The first step to my growing is accepting the fact that growth is a constant in my life,” says freelance composer Garrett Schumann. “Over the last few years, believing this has led me to invent new challenges that force me to grow as a composer and member of the new music community… I designed my dissertation to force myself out of my compositional comfort zone. It is my most ambitious vocal work to date, and the process of creating it helped strengthen my confidence in setting text and writing for voice.”
Liz Cohen, director of marketing at a crowd-funding platform for start-ups, agrees. “I am open with myself about the fact that there is tons of room for me to grow. For everyone to grow. So I listen to people around me—the people who are ‘green’ and the people who have supposedly been doing this for decades.”
Getting comfortable with growth—having the willingness to tell someone, yourself even, “there’s something important that I don’t know”—opens the door to personal development. The rest is tactics.
Physical spaces, mental spaces
“I believe in space. You need to have a space associated with learning and creating,” says Vinitha Watson, executive director of ZooLabs. (More on ZooLabs later.) She mentions a “mind palace,” and I immediately picture a richly decorated temple for my thoughts. I’m not far off: the idea is to set aside a physical place for growth—a specific room at home, a favorite cafe. Routinely associate the space with creative or learning activities, and soon that atmosphere will envelop you whenever you enter.
Another approach is to find points in your daily routine that combine well with growth tasks, like a commute or quiet moment in the morning.
“I start my day just absorbing new information, catching up on blogs across life and work,” says Orlena Yeung, a product and marketing executive. “Setting aside this time helps me warm up for the day as well.”
Create and welcome challenges
One way to stretch our creative muscles is to reach for the fringe of what we know, find the edge of what we’re comfortable with—and hover there before moving even further along.
“I seek out opportunities that will push me way outside my comfort zone,” says mezzo-soprano Megan Ihnen. “I focus on projects that make me light up. Then I always ask, ‘How can I make this happen?’ Sometimes they’re my ideas and sometimes they’re other people’s dreams and ideas. I just know that I want to see those ideas through to fruition, and I will learn whatever I need to along the way.”
“Take risks,” says technology consultant Jack Kustanowitz. “The nature of technology is that everyone is always learning, so the best way to grow is to take on projects that are just outside your comfort zone. I’m not advocating a professional poet agreeing to design a banking system, but if you are a technology expert and you have an opportunity to work in an area that is 50% stuff you’ve done before and 50% things you’ll have to learn, grab the opportunity, even if it means some late nights and unbilled time.”
Kiesha Garrison, a senior business development manager at Microsoft, creates thought challenges by looking at tough problems in her industry—and ignoring their existing solutions. “I look up the unsolvables to stimulate thinking. I want to know, ‘Why is this the issue?’ rather than the answer, so I can try to think about a new answer.”
The tricky thing about taking on new challenges is making them count. After all, time and resources are limited.
“I like to grow and learn, but struggle with translating that into things I can point to and say: ‘This is what I did,’” says Carole Snyder, a developer at Microsoft.
The key: actively digest what you learn, apply it, and share it with others.
One programmer mentioned that he writes about his findings on a blog and takes on speaking engagements to compile and process his learnings. In a similar vein, Garrett Schumann took on a blogging project that led him to listen to and report on the music of 150 of the composers and songwriters who follow him on Twitter.
I asked ZooLabs’ Watson to weigh in on the question of productive learning. ZooLabs is a start-up music accelerator that is invested in the intersection of creativity, craft, and commercial viability. Residents spend two weeks on-site in a program steeped in experiential learning. They quickly consume new material, learn its direct applications, jump back into their reality, and then come back with questions.
“If your goal is to learn a good skill, learn it, then do it,” she says. “Get away from the reading of it and actually apply what you’ve learned. It’s like cooking. You look at a recipe, you know what you want to accomplish, and you’re using someone else’s guide to do that. And then you do it! You’re in the kitchen, you go back and forth between the recipe and cooking.”
Keep in mind that learning can be productive even without producing something tangible. Simply switching contexts can be refreshing, reducing cynicism and burn-out. (Note: heavy terminology ahead. You will not be quizzed on it.)
“Two areas interesting me greatly right now are digital currency and just-intonation music,” says John Reale, director of solutions architecture at a healthcare startup. “The former has me immersed in blockchain trustless verification concepts, and the latter is exposing me to scala and microtonal sound card programming. I’m not sure how much conceptual inspiration I take from these fields back to my primary, but they certainly help [keep] me from getting burned out, so I can continue to grow in fairly traditional ways without getting sick of it.”
Learning can be a high-risk activity, sometimes without financial or otherwise tangible benefits. But choosing to take on difficult challenges—and then cementing those learnings by putting them into practice—will make them meaningful.
Ask yourself hard, meaningful, complicated questions, and do it often.
“Force yourself to constantly question how you are doing things,” says a software engineer at Google, a creative problem-solver I worked with for several years. Soprano Hillary LaBonte agrees: “Self-assessment is key to continuous progress—not only measuring where you stand in the current music industry, but against your past self as an artist. It’s important to take stock of yourself, and align to (or counter) the changes of your field with your own artistic ambitions.”
Finding the right questions is hard, and having a process for that helps. Composer Aaron Siegel suggests starting with a goal. Here’s his method:
- Think of a goal you have for the next year. (It could be writing a new type of composition, learning a coding language, implementing a new feature, or reaching a different audience.)
- Reframe the goal as a question.
- Ask yourself:
+ Is this question too easy to answer? (Hint: a good question is not easy to answer.)
+ Does it lead to other questions?
+ Do you care about the question? Does answering it matter?
+ Does it have poetry—other deeper implications or relevancies?
When you’re satisfied with your question, try keeping it in mind as you go about your day. You’ll be surprised how relevant—and informative—your experiences become.
Skill-based learning requires a forcing function
I have 27 open browser tabs. My own biggest growth challenge is finding time to sit down and learn specific things. Wandering, exploring in the world—these are my brain candy, they come naturally. But when I put skill-learning tasks on my calendar, they get…overlooked.
What to do? For each learning task, Watson suggests a project-oriented approach: define a start time, an end time, and milestones for success along the way. Completing those will give a nice little dopamine dump that’s associated with advancing.
If setting milestones doesn’t work, try collaborating on the task. Being accountable to a friend or client provides a forcing function—like a gym trainer—that keeps the pressure on until the task is done. Just ask any ensemble musician preparing for a concert.
Still, you don’t have to learn every day.
“Give yourself room to breathe,” says violinist and computer science professor Sheila Oh. “Being driven makes you want to plan—but not all learning is planned. If you schedule too much of your time, you can miss out on unplanned opportunities to grow.”
Illustration by Anouk Moulliet
Wander far afield
“I’m a firm believer that becoming the best artist means becoming the best person I can be, and that includes participating as a citizen of the world, with interests that extend outside my immediate circles,” says LaBonte.
There is indeed a special kind of critical growth that is possible when we position ourselves to experience something that differs vastly from our status quo. This experience is important because it provides new and unexpected context for old ideas, breaks down familiar ways of thinking, and helps us discover and feel empathy for new audiences. So how do we go about expanding our horizons?
“Make sure you’re talking—actually having a conversation—with a very diverse group of people,” says Garrison. “Talk to people who do not all mirror you in some way, or mirror each other.”
Composers should become “rabid consumers of multiple art forms,” says Daniel Felsenfeld, composer and co-founder of the New Music Gathering, an annual conference dedicated to the performance, production, promotion, support and creation of new concert music. “We should go to artist colonies to speak to people who do things differently, to collaborate with those people, to figure out how and why they do what they do. And of course we should listen to everything, not just for professional reasons but for personal reasons. We should know the canon inside out (which, yes, is impossible) and we should always be proudly peeking into its dark corners. And we should not be content with ‘scenes’ but should strive to expand the cast of characters with whom we do our business.”
In other words: get out there and explore all of the things. There is much to learn from being around people who do not share our values and interests, beyond the echo chambers of our niche conferences, office spaces, and artist colonies.
Learning is distracting, and that’s okay
“I’m always finding new things. My struggle is focusing and getting things done,” says Gil Reich, an engineering and product lead who is a veteran of several start-ups.
It’s not all his fault. Remember my 27 browser tabs? Watson says the elusive focal point might just be the nature of how technology is designed. You go to your phone for one thing, and end up doing something else.
It’s also the nature of learning. Curiosity leads to curiosity, and that’s exactly what it should do—and not just in the arts.
“Learning with an expansive amount of time and no goals is great,” says Watson. “It allows you to go off into space and dream, which I think is definitely necessary. It’s like floating, daydreaming. There’s some benefit to letting your mind wander through a forest of information. If that’s your goal, that’s fine.”
If that’s your goal.
“Learning is serving a function, and wandering serves a function. Wandering through information is not a bad thing, but it might be frustrating if someone has different goals,” she cautions.
*Friends: growth is a skill, to be learned and honed. Our colleagues’ strategies, be they creative or skill-based, apply across the spectrum of our growth needs, across and beyond the reach of our own industries. Go forth and pursue growth, whether it be within your community or farther afield. Ask probing questions. Take on challenges you’re not entirely comfortable with. Wander to the far reaches of your comfort zone. Enjoy.
Next week: community.