The Necessity of Trial and Error

I took this photo about 15 times before I captured the right moment with the right settings

My approach to trying new things or learning new disciplines is and has always been to jump right in and do it. From teaching myself how to play guitar as a kid to becoming a vegetarian to engineering complex big data systems for clients, I always just go for it and figure it out along the way. I like to think this is a good trait – though it’s incredibly detrimental to putting together Ikea furniture.

But of all the things I’ve done in my life and all the passions I’ve pursued, I think I can say that the one that has involved the most trial and error – and the most facepalm moments – is photography and videography. I don’t mean point-and-shoot photography or taking photos on my iPhone. I mean switching your DSLR to manual mode and manual focus and going to work taking photos and shooting video.

The other complication to this is that I’m a perfectionist, so my idea of error includes a shot slightly out of focus or a little overexposed. But when you’ve never taken a class or had professional training in a discipline (and sometimes even if you have), the learning process involves trial and error. And the key word there is error. Error is an essential element of that equation. If you ever find something you do perfectly the first time, then you’re probably not going to enjoy doing it for very long because there’s no challenge, there’s no personal art to it, there’s no chance to hone your craft.

The chemist and author Orlando A. Battista once wrote, “An error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.” I would expand on that to say that a number of errors don’t equal failure as long as you keep at it to get them right. This is really the nature of producing anything – of creativity, of craft. The people who get really good at a skill or an art often had people tell them (maybe for years) that they were no good at what they were doing or that the product of their work was crap. But if you can sift out the constructive criticism from the noise, then going through that actually provides a pretty accelerated learning curve.

In addition to continuing to overcome errors in the process of creating, another essential element is getting work done. My friend Alan talks about how good work that is finished is, by nature, better than “perfect” work that was never completed. Because we all know there’s really no such thing as perfect anyway. The illustrator and cartoonist Jake Parker hits the nail on the head in a video about this. He makes this point: “The world wants, and it needs, people who finish things.” So, go do the thing you want to. Get it wrong, mess it up. But do it. Because just in doing it, you’re exponentially closer to doing it right than people who are afraid to try it in the first place.

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Hard Work Isn’t Enough

Screen capture from Showdown Visual reel

Don’t get me wrong, hard work gets you places. And hard work has been a big factor in helping me achieve my goals thus far. But, especially for those of us in a creative industry, hard work isn’t enough. Persuasive communication, in whatever form, needs to be felt – which means it needs to be inspired.

It’s all too easy to fall into routine, to do things the way you’ve been doing them because it’s easier, it’s safe. But that’s boring. To be inspired, you have to seek inspiration. And you know it when it hits you.

Last night, a friend directed me to the website of a young videographer whose reel alone blows a lot of top-dollar production companies’ reels out of the water. It’s work like this that inspires me to push beyond just good and instead achieve best.

Visit his site to see more.

Music That Moves Me: Anthony Ruptak

This is part two of  a series of posts called Music That Moves Me. In each post, I will feature one local Denver band and say a bit about them.

Anthony Ruptak

Anthony Ruptak sings with an urgency and passion that demands no less than your full attention. Some people sing from the heart, but Anthony sings from his soul – which, as the lyrics in one of his songs mention, is an old soul for such a young man.

If you’ve never heard him sing before, you’re in for a treat. At a house party my band The Belle Jar played recently, Anthony played a short impromptu set between bands. There were a number of talented Denver musicians, songwriters and such in the audience standing around drinking beer and chatting. Once Anthony started playing, by the end of the first line that he sang, everyone had stopped talking and all eyes were on him. After he finished the first song, one of the other musicians standing next to me leaned over and said what everyone was thinking: “Whoa, this guy is good.”

Anthony has a unique voice with impressive range, and he strums his acoustic with an unorthodox (pick-free) technique that punctuates his songs with a distinctive percussive effect. I don’t usually like to compare artists, but I can’t help but mention that his voice and melodies remind me of the best of Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie) meets the best of Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes)…with a little bit of Aaron Weiss (MeWithoutYou) thrown in. Comparisons aside, you should give him a listen and hear for yourself.

Anthony just released a new album C’est La Vie that offers a taste of all the great music that is to come from this emerging artist. Stream or buy the album here.

To fill out the songs and add a new dimension to their live shows, Anthony has teamed up with some very talented musicians including Anthony Carroll on drums, Jeb Draper on guitar and Julie Schmidt on cello and stand-up  bass. Jeb is also a filmmaker who contributed his artful eye and production skills to this video:

See Anthony perform with his band tonight at  The Walnut Room.

Related post
Music That Moves Me: Strange Americans

Try and Fail and Try Again

If you’re a person who lives a life worth living, then you take risks. You work your butt off and you hone your game, and when a long shot presents itself – you take it. But you don’t always make it. Because it wouldn’t be a long shot if you did.

But here’s the deal. If you do it right, people respect that. They respect your hard work and your creativity. And sometimes, that opens a door to the place where you are supposed to be instead. Because it takes failing to succeed. Just look at the false starts and failures of Abraham Lincoln or R.H. Macy or Michael Jordan.

A guy once told me on the topic of asking girls out, “Every no you get is one no closer to a yes.” While that may not be statistically verifiable, it makes a good point: you have to keep trying.

I believe I’m one of those people who lives a life worth living. I will fail sometimes. I will succeed sometimes. But I’ll keep taking risks. Because where’s the excitement in putting everything on the line for something better if you already know what outcome will be?

What They Are Meant For

Now I know why I’ve been avoiding reading novels for the past few years: because they inspire my creativity in ways I can’t control.

Lately, I’ve felt much more comfortable reading nonfiction, which inspires my analytical tendencies and critical thinking. Those are two things that even 19-year-old undergraduates can deal with.

But creativity is another beast entirely. Being creative is mind, heart, body, soul. It’s risky. It’s scary. And there’s a chance that what you create may be no good, or at least not good enough. But being creative – whatever form that takes – offers an exhilaration and sense of satisfaction in my soul that logic never could.

So, tonight I will again reach for Pam Houston’s latest novel Contents May Have Shifted instead of reading yet another business book or war memoir. Because I want to be inspired. Because the way she uses words helps me remember how much I love them, not just for what they say but for how they can dance across the page with grace or come crashing down on me like waves, rhythmic and powerful. She helps me remember that this is what words are meant for. And then I start to believe that I can create something that just might be good enough.

A Song to Sing

I know so many kids who sing songs. Not established songs but just ones they make up as they’re going about their day. They are silly and cute songs. They get sung once in a carefree moment of expression. The kids aren’t worried about writing them down, remembering the “lyrics” or about ever singing the same song again, for that matter.

And I wonder – why, as adults, do we stop singing? I mainly mean that as a rhetorical question because I know all the answers: We’re self-conscious. We’re “mature.” We think we have more important things to do. But I think the actuality is that we’ve forgotten how to really live. A child lives in the moment, is carefree even with a troubled world around her. And she feels free to express herself. A child has a song to sing. Just because you’re an important grown-up, please don’t forget that you do too.