How Do You Eat an Elephant?

a toy elephant

a toy elephant

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There’s a famous African proverb that asks the question: how do you eat an elephant? Since this is a blog devoted to music and not obscure African cookery, the question is obviously a metaphor.

In this case, we’re asking how do you tackle a creative project that seems far too enormous for the likes of little ol’ you to ever complete?

Lemme tell you, I’ve been there. Many times. And in these uncertain days, I want to acknowledge that, for us artistic types, working up the guts to undertake a large-scale creative project can be enough to make us want to crawl back under the blanket and wait for the death of the universe. Anything to avoid figuring out how we’re going to get that whole pachyderm inside our tummies.

Seriously though, it’s an unavoidable truth that anxiety and creativity go hand-in-hand, and every artist of any stripe you’ve ever met or admired from afar has absolutely at some point in their career thought to themselves: “I can’t do this.”

But they could and did, and so can you.

So how do you eat an elephant? The answer: One bite at a time.

But first, why are you eating this particular elephant?

If there was one thing I didn’t get asked enough in my early career whenever I embarked on some hare-brained creative shenanigan, it would be: “why?”

Considering this question would have saved me a lot of angst and time. So, why this particular elephant? Are you eating this elephant because you want to, because you have to, or because you feel like you should eat it?

  • “Wanting” to eat it suggests it nourishes a desire in you, a feeling that you’ll be a more complete artist and therefore a more complete human being if you do. Eating an elephant is no small task, so if you “want” to eat it, I would ask yourself how badly you “want” to eat it, and if the answer is “not that much actually,” then perhaps spend your energy elsewhere for the time being.
  • “Having” to eat an elephant is a totally different meal plan. Sometimes you just “have” to do a big project. Perhaps it’s for your final assessment, or you need the money. In these cases, you have to keep your eyes on the prize first and foremost; the reward you’ll get in the end for completion. The other thing to do is look for elements of the project that validate whatever personal value got you involved in this whole artistic caper in the first place. The whole thing might not be a picnic, but maybe every now and then you’ll get a tasty, nourishing bite.
  • “Should”… I hate the word should. Artist have been “should-ing” their careers to death since there were artists. “Should” implies comparison and therefore judgement. “I should make an album because thats what musicians do,” or “I should perform more because my guitarist pal Jimmy performs every night,” or (worst of all in my opinion) “I should do this because someone told me if I don’t then my career will go nowhere.”

Nope. Never undertake a huge project because you “should” do it. Do it because you want to, or you have to, or some combination of those two. Everyone’s path is different, and that is especially true for artists.

Here’s a video I made with Soundfly to address just that, that we all have something creative to offer the world and to trust that there’s value in our creative endeavors.

Whats the big picture?

Once you’ve answered that question of “why,” you need to be clear about the “what” of your ambitious musical project, so it can begin with a reasonably clear idea of what the finished product might be. I use the word “might” very deliberately because chances are the finished product will end up being only peripherally related to whatever you cooked up in your head on day one. And that is perfectly fine.

You just need a goal to work towards.

This might mean you have a clear idea of the artists you want to emulate, or the sound world you want to explore, or what the album or stage show or song or whatever you’re making is “about.” You need something to bounce against as you go to keep yourself heading in the right direction. And what do you need to keep heading in the right direction? A map of course!

Map it backwards.

Once you have an idea of what it is you’re heading towards, make a conceptual map of the steps you need to take to get there. The chances are high that at some point you’re going to reach a step where you say to yourself: “hmm… I’ve never done that before and have no idea what’s involved.”

That is fine. In fact it’s so fine, it’s normal, and part of the fun of tackling an ambitious project. You’re going to learn “how” to do new things. Don’t let uncertainty about how a particular part of a project is going to happen stop you from taking that first step, because this is what I’ve learned over the years of undertaking big projects, you will figure it out by the time you get there.

You’ll happen to mention your problem to the right person who’ll help you solve it, or you’ll upskill along the way to the point where you can tackle it yourself, or even better, by the time you get there, it’ll turn out its not a problem at all. Focus on what you do know. Not what you don’t.

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Your first bite… And the next… And the next…

So now you’re ready to make your first mark on the page, or lay down your first beat, or kick off your first jam session… the first bite right?

Ha! Wrong, you’ve already made your first bites! You’ve laid the foundation for your motivation for the project by asking “why,” you have an idea of what you’re heading towards with the “what” and an idea of “how” to get there with the map. If you’ve done your homework, by the time you kick off your first day of actual creation you’re already several courses into your elephant-eating banquet.

Having said that, no matter how humungous or humble your project is, your first act of creation is always going to feel strange. So strange that it’s not too unusual for people to never take their second.

The way around this is to create a routine around your creative practice. To put it another way: you show up to work, and you do so to a routine. It could be every day first thing in the morning, or twice a week after dinner, or all day every second weekend, whatever works for you. But it needs to be scheduled the same way that you show up to work for your employer when you’re supposed to.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “How to Beat Imposter Syndrome and Comparisonitis for Good!”

Do your best (results may vary).

During the full-on COVID times when I was frantically consuming social media like 97% of the planet, I came across a meme that totally changed my perspective on work: Do your best every day, and (this is the important part) your best will be different every day.

Some days you’ll sit down to work and you will smash it out of the park before lunch, and get up from your desk feeling like you just cured cancer. Other days you’ll feel like you’re a creative fraud and barely be able to muster a rhyming couplet. But please I beg you — show up to work and do your best.

You know why? Because even if you feel like you’ve accomplished hardly anything, you will have accomplished something. Your project will be ever so slightly closer to completion for your work.

When you’re 90% done, you’re halfway there.

It is almost certain that once you can see the finish line, you’ll want to stop. I don’t know why. We all feel it. And unfortunately lots of people succumb to that feeling. It’s so close, whats the harm in taking a break? All you gotta do is a half-day of small edits, figure out an ending, or any number of little tiny dots and crosses around the place and the darn thing would be done but you stop work and then it never, ever gets finished.

When you stop work so close to the finish line your brain confuses that with being actually finished. It took so much energy and motivation to start working in the first place your body doesn’t want to go through all that all over again, and so it is orders of magnitude more difficult to restart work than it would have been had you just kept going.

So when you’re super close, just keep eating, one bite at a time. Focus as much on the last bite as you did on the first, and I swear, one day you’ll look down at your plate and it’ll be empty.

It’s the best feeling in the world.

Don’t stop here!

Continue learning with hundreds of lessons on songwriting, mixing, recording and production, composing, beat making, and more on Soundfly, with in-depth artist-led courses by Com TruiseJlinKieferRyan Lott, and the widely-acclaimed Kimbra: Vocal Creativity, Arranging, and Production.

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