John Mayer on Finishing Projects (even if they are awful)

John Mayer came to Berklee to talk with the music students there. One quote stood out to me:

“I can’t stress enough how important it is to write bad songs. There’s a lot of people who don’t want to finish songs because they don’t think they’re any good. Well they’re not good enough. Write it!  I want you to write me the worst songs you could possible write me because you won’t write bad songs. You’re thinking they’re bad so you don’t have to finish it. That’s what I really think it is. Well it’s all right. Well, how do you know? It’s not done!”

The quote reminds me of the unfinished game projects written in GW-BASIC that littered the diskettes of my childhood. I would start to write a new game, driven by an unrealistic vision in my head. Then after I’d made the menu and a few lines of the main loop, the initial burst of excitement would subside. The reality of the hard work necessary to make any progress and the immaturity of my skill set were insurmountable.

Rather than finish something terrible or try a smaller project, I’d accumulate these stillborn games. My embryonic ideas never got the chance to develop. And so my talents remained relatively stillborn themselves until I gained the self-discipline necessary to follow through.

In order to make something great, you usually have to make a lot of bad things first. And while everyone wants to make awesome things, few have the patience and persistence to slog through the necessity of first making the awful things.

17 thoughts on “John Mayer on Finishing Projects (even if they are awful)

  1. Thank you for your post. I feel exactly the same. Almost all my programs are half-finished. I always give them up, just like you described. I always have new idea and interests, but lack of persistence.

  2. Seth godin calls this the lizard brain. Steve pressfield calls it the resistance. Either way, its more common than you’d realise!

    • It’s interesting that multiple successful innovators have identified the same issue. Thanks for pointing out the seth godin reference.

      It’d be nice if there was an easy fix to resistance/lizard brain/fear of failure

      • There is an easy way to deal with the resistance/lizard brain/fear.

        While it’s something we’re stuck with for the rest of our lives, it’s certainly manageable.

        Seth Godin suggests doing the exact opposite when the lizard brain starts to kick in (e.g. “I might as well give up on this project because it sucks” really means to go forward with the project full force).

        Steven Pressfield suggests that we identify what it is that fuels our resistance and do the work required to “shut it up” every day.

        Ultimately it comes down to just doing the work that needs to be done. It takes some time to get used to, but it also equals success in most scenarios.

  3. You just described my exact experience with writing songs. In the end, you wind up with a bunch of half-baked, fragmented ideas that don’t fit together into a cohesive whole. Music, like programming, is meticulous, but also mysterious in the way that sudden inspiration can light a fire under you. When inspiration fails, however, we have to soldier on and get the work done, all in the name of self-improvement.

  4. It some writing circles it’s known as “The Shitty First Draft.” You get it all down on paper. Then you can go back an revise, or throw it out. But until it’s all down, you can’t do that.

  5. Hey, I read the write-up of Mayer’s visit, too – didn’t really care much for him until I read some of what was written in there, this part in particular too.

    Great post dude, short and to the point!

    • Thanks! Despite his ego and reputation, he’s a very talented songwriter and guitarist (he did some impressive things with his blues trio), and it is interesting to get his take on creation.

  6. I think this goes for almost any creative process.

    I experience the same thing while editing videos: I see my batch of shots and I think “Holy crap, what am I going to make of any of this?”

    So I go through the motions of viewing each clip, deciding how I want to approach the video, selecting a song (if necessary) and making my vision at least get a first draft. After that, I usually step back and say “Hey, what wasn’t so bad, I’m glad I went all the way through it.”

    The only reason I got to this point of my editing abilities? Practice and forcing myself to finish. I think more and more people need to learn not only how to execute, but to buckle down and take it all the way to the end.

    Thanks for an awesome post!

    • Thanks Jon! I agree it is disheartening at first when you start a new project, whatever it is. But, at the end it tends to come together and you’re glad you pushed through. Keep up the self-discipline, I know it’s always difficult to force yourself to push through and finish.

  7. I disagree.

    If you want to go by lean startup philosophy you need to embrace the “fail early” model.
    If things really are going nowhere, there’s no point in finishing that off – just leave it and do something new that you truly believe in.

    • There is something to be said for “failing early” but you also have to be careful of “failing *too* early.” If you never finish a project you might miss out on some important lessons.

  8. As a painter, I’m more familiar with that process. Some
    artists don’t know their first stuff is ‘bad’…and some viewer is sure to give them cover so that could arrest their progress. But I agree with you all…something about process is important – to invent, define, struggle through. And with writing and video and music you have real ‘pieces’ to call forth and reassemble, edit, and recycle in other ways. (With art sometimes you just turn the canvas upside down or sideways for a new start.)

    • Yeah, I write songs every now and again, and sometimes I listen to the first songs I wrote. I remember how much I struggled to write them and how great I deluded myself into believing they were at the time. Now, I look back and see them for what they really were: amateur pieces by a beginning songwriter.

      But I know I had to write and finish those terrible songs to improve as an artist. It’s almost a gift that I wasn’t sophisticated enough to recognize at first how bad they were, otherwise I might have stopped!

      Btw: I really like ‘coffee and cat’

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