As a teenager, Pat Metheny was a musical prodigy. Well into his sixties, he's still teaching, performing, composing, and recording. Why? He couldn't possibly have anything left to prove, could he?
Apparently not: "I am definitely well into the not-giving-a-shit zone of my career," Metheny told an interviewer. If he's collected all the brass rings—which he has by any objective measure—why's he still strapping on the guitar?
Years ago, I read a book that said to lean into the discomfort of difficult tasks. The author, whom I won't call out here, claimed to do this even as he wrote. If someone mowed their lawn, he'd open the window wider to make concentrating even more difficult. Call it the Wim Hof approach to creativity. I've thought about that advice ever since.
Writing is still a struggle. I've always looked for ways to make it more efficient. That book made me question my whole approach. Perhaps if I made every aspect of writing more challenging on purpose, I'd rebuild my feeble, inadequate writing capacity. It might suck at first, but I'd come back better, stronger, faster.
In retrospect, it's a good thing I never had the heart to conduct this experiment. Because fifteen years later, grit guy has yet to write another book. Sure, maybe he didn't feel the need to publish anything, but I suspect returning to the grind just held no appeal.
What good are muscles if you hate the sport?
Creation is intrinsically difficult. To keep doing it, you've got to get to the point that you love it. Even when it sucks, which it often will. Watching ChatGPT effortlessly spit out paragraph after paragraph of pretty much anything you can imagine—my daughter had it tell a story about Rapunzel meeting the Terminator this morning and grandma was impressed—is a reminder that writing isn't, can't be, just be about outcomes. The process matters, perhaps more than any other aspect.
Of course you keep pushing yourself. Of course you try to get better. Metheny works incredibly hard. That said, he doesn't punish himself, because that would just make him less likely to return to the work: "As far as my own thing, I am extremely critical. But not in a bad or negative way. I just do my best to try to understand what exactly is between where my work is and where I would want or hope it to be. I would say it is less about being critical and more about being realistic." Metheny takes careful notes after every performance and reviews those notes regularly. He is always looking to improve. Ultimately, though, he seems to do it all with the goal of enjoying the process:
It is a lot more fun and satisfying for me now because I am many times more effective at representing what I hope to have come out of the ax or the pen or the band than I used to be. It has been immensely rewarding to know I can get to stuff with a much higher degree of precision—that what is coming out is so much closer to what I’d hoped for.
Skill makes creation more fluid and therefore more rewarding. Today, Metheny's favorite way to spend time is "in a room for ten or twelve hours a day ... working on music in whatever form it happens to take." It's important to note, however, that he wasn't born with this attitude because nobody is. Metheny cultivated a love of process. For example, he sticks to regular routines like sitting down to compose every single morning: "It is like fishing. You gotta go to the pond. You might go and not catch anything. But if you don’t go, you definitely won’t catch anything." (It's no coincidence that another creative "lifer," David Lynch, uses the same fishing analogy.) Rather than try to be more productive, Metheny tries to make work so enjoyable that productivity takes care of itself.
If you don't enjoy sitting in that boat regardless of the weather or whether the fish are biting today, it doesn't matter whether you're the world's best caster. Over time, you'll just stop going out on the water anyway.