The topic Burnout has come up a lot lately, so I asked my friend, author, speaker and educator Marcin Bela to write a guest post about this topic.Make sure you follow some of his work here and you can find more links in the bottom of this article!
Marcin Bela is a Polish-American singer, pianist and composer. His music has been heard around the globe and across the spectrum of genre and style - from the Lutoslawski Hall of National Polish Radio and Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood Music Center, to the Fractal Nation Stage of Burning Man, and featured in film, television and theater.
Dr. Bela is also an author, speaker and educator, regularly partnering with the Steinway Gallery of Nashville on a variety of outreach programs, educating the public on the foundations of a rewarding musical practice and the health benefits of playing an instrument.
5 burnout prevention tips from Marcin Bela
Being good at something usually means doing it a lot. There’s demand for what you do, you become successful and thus busy. But on the other side of the equation lies the danger of burning out, loosing the joy and passion that initially fueled your engines. Over the course of my career I've been through and around may burnout implosions. In time, I got really good at seeing the signs early, correcting course, and helping people have healthy and sustainable relationships with their musical craft. Here's my 5 tips on burnout prevention:
1. Honor your body
In order to be an active professional, you have to feel good. That’s particularly true for creative work, which is so dependent on healthy serotonin and dopamine levels in your system. Get enough sleep. Eat healthy. Eat when you’re hungry (nothing good happens in the studio when your blood sugar drops beyond hope). Exercise. Meditate. Do yoga. Stay away from alcohol and drugs, even coffee (it actually sucks energy out of you in a long run). If you think your creativity depends on being buzzed or high, trust me, it doesn’t. Do the “Artist’s Way” program to connect to your creativity’s true source. Watch your posture if you sit in front of the computer a lot. Journal. Sun gaze. Take breaks and vacations - it may seem like taking time away from work, but you’re actually ADDING time in the form of fresh energy.
Remember, if you’re artistically gifted, your mission in life is extraordinary, and it will require extraordinary measures to survive this intense lifestyle. It’s a big deal to write songs, to play shows, to make records. It takes a lot out of you. If you don’t have extraordinary self-care skills, instead of enjoying your creative success you’ll spiral into misery.
2. Be present Sometimes I wonder if I can handle watching someone play scales for the 9th time today. I just want it to be done and over. But waiting on something to be done already, whether it’s a lyric, a mix, an album or a rehearsal, takes you out of the present moment.
If you’re tired, but just have to push through something, the best strategy is to stay engaged, stay present. Go back to excellence. Make this kick drum extra badass, make this last line of the second verse extra poetic and beautiful, that last outro extra epic. What if this is your big break, the hit that is about to make you a legend? When you look back on your life, what truly matters is not the accomplishment, but the experience. How did it FEEL to make that song, or to play that show? You don’t want the memory to be: “I was just waiting for it to be over...”
3. Keep it Fresh
Yes, we all need a somewhat established process, the way we do things. It’s a big part of being a pro. But creative minds are also restless and easily bored. If you find yourself stuck in a routine (“here we go, pulling up that snare drum again”), challenge yourself to change things up. Deliberately go about something a different way. Try to make a song in the Lydian mode (good luck with that, btw:). Write a verse that rhymes every fifth line. Turn off your midi keyboard and just use samples for 20 minutes. Ask the drummer to not use the kick drum. It doesn’t matter if the results “work”. You’ve pressed the reset button and yanked yourself out of the grind. You’re not bored anymore.
4. Understand the Big Picture
Let’s pause for a second and think about what music is. On some level, it’s pure math. Frequencies are numbers, intervals are ratios, rhythms are fractions. But channeled through the body, all that math connects to the heart, to the emotions, to the soul. If you create music, you take your feelings and abstract, purify them into the ethereal realm of mathematics, into the “language of God”. Even if no one ever listens to your music, the act itself is major spiritual alchemy. It changes you, it harmonizes your mind, body and spirit, it detoxifies your psyche like a mental equivalent of the liver. Everyone you interact with changes, and everyone they interact with, in an endless ripple effect. You are doing something very important, don’t take it for granted. Most people can only dream of the ability to transform energy like that.
Also, keep the word “create” on perspective. We don’t really create anything. We don't invent words, chords or drum patterns. All we really do is channel our love for what had come before us into the future. We don’t generate ideas, ideas come to us from the collective consciousness. And in order to channel efficiently, you have to be a clean pipe, free of the gunk of being “overwhelmed”, having “too much going on”. Your mind needs to be clear and sharp, or the ideas will stop coming.
5. Have boundaries and exercise trust
A lot of people these days have trouble saying “no”. But the lack of healthy boundaries is a huge factor in burning out. Why do we say "yes" when we should've said "no"? Because we don’t trust. We don’t trust that the money will show up elsewhere, we don’t trust that our friends will understand, that high standards are the only path to success. Emotionally intelligent people will thank you for your “no”, for taking care of yourself, because they trust that your “no” makes room for a “yes” they really need. They know that if you have too much on your plate and you say yes, they’ll get a half-ass, burnt out version of you and it’ll be a waste of everybody’s time.
Finally, if you really feel like you can’t do it anymore, like whatever you've been doing has run its course, exercise trust and don’t give into fear. I can’t tell you how many musical pursuits I’ve burnt out on in the past, but the end of one thing always opened the door for something else I loved and needed to do. We live long lives these days, it’s normal to have many career chapters. If you were smart and driven enough to make a living off of one creative trade, you’ll succeed at other things as well.
But preferably, don’t let yourself burn out. I don’t anymore. I see the signs early and act - change things up, slow down, pick up something else, try a different angle - and just float between various fun pursuits, always refining something, discovering something else, revisiting something I haven’t done for a while. That’s what I call freedom, that’s what I call happiness, that’s why I’m grateful for every day of being an artist.
Links to Marcin: