The Climb: An Artist's Guide to Finding One's Path

Michael Huang is a Seattle-based b-boy (breakdancer), community organizer, and entrepreneur. 

This is his response to the bonus questions posed in An Artist's Guide: The Art of Starting Over


These prompts have touched on a concept that has been heavy on my mind from both a personal and professional development standpoint: the mountain

The concept is a common professional platitude, also known as the airplane concept or the proverbial north star. The idea is simple: if you're attempting to climb a mountain and can see the peak, every step and inch of the way becomes pegged to that point as you put your head down and pace yourself towards the top. On the flip side, if you do not know where your peak is (i.e. your ultimate goal) then you begin to count those steps as each becomes more difficult and less rewarding. With no north star, you may make progress while still being lost.

With no north star, you may make progress while still being lost.

The reason why I've been exploring this question for myself is this dichotomy between goal-driven action and action for action's sake. Look at the most prolific artists, leaders, and creators of the past and you'll see a common and unrelenting sense of direction. Bruce Lee wrote “My Definite Chief Aim,” a beautifully penned personal note which eloquently states in surgical specificity what he intends to achieve in his life. He was in his early 20's when he wrote this and went on to direct and produce over 5 films and much more before his untimely death only a few years later. I believe his decisive and absolute understanding of what his goals were at the time we're imperative to his ability to channel his energy and focus.

This has not been an easy question to answer for myself. What if what we think is our ultimate goal turns out to be not? What if it's the opposite? Is this a rational fear? Or is the idea of the path itself valuable enough just for showing us how wrong we are about ourselves? What if the peak we define simply hides a higher one behind it? What if a rabid pack of wolves awaits you on your direct path, do you veer laterally? 

We must be prepared to reconcile the dirty work, the mundane, the uninspiring moments against something more than just our own sense of resilience.

At the end of it all, I believe that whatever we set out to do, we must be prepared to reconcile the dirty work, the mundane, the uninspiring moments against something more than just our own sense of resilience. I think its valuable to think through where our conviction lies in reference to our own potential - and what, beyond our own finite abilities and life, can we do that will be lasting and important past our own selfish desires. Even if that path ends with no tangible conclusion, it may answer some deep questions about your own life, what motivates you, what you're left wanting. 

An Artist's Guide: The Art of Starting Over

It's officially mid-summer here in Los Angeles - the end of July - and like clockwork this season always brings me back to the visions I had at the beginning of the year. While reflecting back on the last six months of good and bad choices I'm also thrusted forward to December, anticipating the end of the year and praying with clenched fists that I'll have something worthy to show for it. 

It's a good time to re-up on the self-promises I may have forgotten: the album that stalled, writing regimen that wained (*this blog included, sorry*), the workout habit that somehow faded away...all in the whirlwind of what we call 'life shit.'

While stuck in the thick of reflection I came across the following words from GFDA:

It reminded me that restarting is inevitable, that everyday is day one, and sometimes life forces you to adapt. Evolution, however - now that is a conscious choice. 

With the intention of growing and not repeating the same mistakes, I ask myself the following: 

  1. What am I grateful for?
  2. What am I avoiding?
  3. What small step can I take, today?

I remember back when I was first starting out in music and Myspace was my only gateway. When Myspace began to fade out, I started recording cover songs on YouTube (when you could get away with webcam video quality and crap audio). When I got bored of the covers, I started uploading originals to Soundcloud. A year later we released on iTunes and Spotify. I tried it independently. I tried it with a small label. I tried it with an agent, two managers, and a handful of producers. And I'm still trying. The distribution platforms and processes have consistently changed from year to year, but my hustle is the same. And it's because of this experience of cyclical upstarts and downshifts in my career that I can say:

You've been here before. You did it then. You'll do it again.


Bonus Questions

A: What are you checking in on? What's changed since you began? Are you where you thought you'd be? Why or why not?

BWhat does it mean to start over? Is it just a change of heart? A change of perspective? Or just part of the territory. How does it feel to start over? 

CWhat's causing you to start over? What inspires you to start over? Is there a project that you've scrapped for something else? Is there a relationship you've had to abandon to build anew? How are you dealing?

Leave a comment or email your response here.

Thumbnail Image via Tony Webster

An Artist's Guide: Taking It Personally

I've barely begun to process the tragedy that occurred this weekend. Mostly because I'm still facing the guilt of inwardly looking away as I scrolled through the headlines. Another shooting. Another mass killing. Another cry for help. Another hashtag #prayforOrlando.  I didn't want to hear any more.


But this wasn't just another act of senseless gun violence. It was a targeted assault on the LGBTQ community. It was an attack on freedom of identity and expression and love. It was the manifestation of all the darkness and fear and ugliness that we breathe in every day on U.S. soil but try to sweep under the rug. Our world is ill. Our souls need healing. This was not just another shooting. This was not just another political event. They are not just the lives of 'others.' Our future peace demands that we take this personally, no matter how hard it is to face.


What that means could be different for every person. But for me, it means standing for love and equal rights for all safe expressions of gender and sexuality. It means having difficult discussions with my family and friends about transphobic and anti-gay sentiments that we now realize are simply anti-human. Same goes for anti-Muslim comments and hate speech of any kind. It means #fuckDonaldTrump. It means not giving in to fear. It means calling out the ugly in myself and being aware of my privilege. It means celebrating diversity and the history of LGBTQ people whose identities were erased. It means I care, even when I don't want to because it's exhausting.


And then, I pray.

An Artist's Guide to Post-Corporate Life

It's been three weeks since I took the leap from my corporate job and I'm still adjusting to this new freeform lifestyle.

Whether you work out of a home studio or write every day at a coffeeshop, you'll likely relate to this at some part of your journey.

I'm learning these little things about myself that make a big difference to my daily vibe and productivity. Things like:

>>> I have to get out of the house every morning before noon. Even if I wake up early to begin work/writing/recording from home, this is essential to preventing cabin fever and depression in the later hours when I should be getting my second wind.

>>> A little bit of yoga and/or meditation first thing in the morning is a priority.

>>> Schedule early meetings and calls to build momentum.

>>> I actually enjoy cooking my own food fresh now and completing these embarrassing meal prep rituals for the week. I shredded my first organic carrot last night. I own a garlic press now. It's wild if you knew how empty my fridge was before. I no longer have the same excuses, so I make the time which is in turn making me healthier and maybe even more creative.

>>> Time management is something I am way more aware of now, especially when people run late. I have to set all the boundaries for myself which is a tall order. There's no on/off switch when you are hustling as a creative entrepreneur.

>>> I have to give myself a lot of pep talks with the lack of feedback that comes from a 9-to-5 office environment. I'm allowing myself room to grow through it and realizing how much of my identity is still wrapped up in external things. But in the end so many signs are showing me I made the right decision.

I reached out to a few friends of Still Mind and they had a few more notes:

"I will add "take breaks often!" to the list. At first I thought it was a sign of weakness but I've learned it keeps me overall more productive over the course of the day. I have also noticed my endurance has increased over time so the frequency and length of breaks are totally fluid." - Erin Yvonne Stewart Meadows 

"I found a book, DAILY RITUALS (I listened to the audio book since I take a lot of road trips) and I found it to be both inspiring and affirming. There are so many variations: people who are creative at night, those who need to drink tons of coffee or lots of liquor or BOTH. Of course, this book is about the creative processes of historical composers, authors, inventors, etc. It's so insightful!! Check it out if you haven't already. I'm still trying to figure out what works for me!" - Lisa Murray
 

It's Time To Remove The Band-Aid: An Artist's Guide to Endings

I have a really hard time quitting things, which makes it even harder to start. Just thinking about the pain of an ending is enough to deter me from beginning in the first place. Unfortunately, it turns out that most things, good and bad, come to an end. You just can’t avoid it.

If I’ve learned anything from the past several years in music, it's that sometimes you have to give up to let go. Whether it's finishing a song or splitting up a band or walking away from a deal, when you know a chapter is closing, you just know. Don't hold on, drag it out, or try to keep the door pried open. Make a move while you still have a good mind about things. Before it gets painful to the point it blinds you. Trust your intuition when it’s time to remove the band-aid. 

I only recently discovered the gravity of the band-aid analogy this month when I made a few difficult endings. Here’s the thing about bandaids:

 Patrick Fore

Patrick Fore

  1. Band-aids are temporary. Notice and accept the fact that people, jobs, and other experiences come into our lives to serve a specific purpose. When that purpose has been fulfilled its time to move on. Let those things go, so you can receive your next gift and they can be of service to someone else. 
  2. Most importantly, the universal purpose of a band-aid is to heal. We've all got issues we are consciously and/or subconsciously working to resolve. There are patterns that continue to show up in our lives and teach us. Taking the time to step back and be aware of how current situations are helping us reconcile the past makes it clearer to see when it’s time to move forward. It doesn’t make it easy, but it helps. I had to recognize that fear was the reason I kept a job that no longer suited me. I had to acknowledge that I was burned by a few business interactions and that my next partnership was about learning to trust again more than anything else. That didn't mean it was meant to last forever. I let it go. My goals had shifted, and I needed to make a change to be intentional about my future. 

It's one of the most difficult things I've ever had to do. But the more comfortable I get with the uncomfortable task of closing doors, the easier it becomes for me to open new ones.  

An Artist's Guide to Creating Sacred Space

Know thyself, know thy space. In your home. In your relationships. In yourself. This process is sometimes overlooked in the hurry to create more art and do more work, but it really is an essential tool for any lifestyle. 

I look at external spaces as direct conversations with the internal. An environment that reflects my ideal vibe on the inside lets me create more freely. 

This is me seeing inspiration as the muse and the muse is a guest to be welcomed in as warmly as a lover. I light the proverbial fireplace for her. Intentionally setting the tone in my space sends a private message to the body and mind that says, “relax, this is where the magic happens."

How do you create sacred space in your studio/workspace/home? My loft often serves as all three. Here’s a list of small things that have added up for me:

  1. White Walls . I used to spend a lot of time figuring out what I wanted on my walls, where to hang it, how it would read to people visiting, and how long I wanted to see it on a daily basis. All of that unnecessary noise faded when I decided to leave my walls blank. My mantra since then has been “clear head, clear walls.” Leaves more room for imagination. And functions well for last minute photo shoots.
  2. Mood Lighting. Investing in a wi-fi connected lighting system felt like a nerd luxury at one time, but now after a year’s worth of use it's one of the most important pieces in my home and studio. With the geofencing feature my lights turn on before I open the front door, and I can set the theme from my phone with a tap of the app. When I sit down to work on a song I usually wash the room in bluish purple hues, but my theme for reading/more domestic duties is reds and creams. 
  3. The Kettle. As a singer I’ve criminally underestimated the health benefits of hot water. After my friends at the Chopra Center sent me some of their organic ginger tea, I realized I was doing it wrong and finally bought an old school water kettle. It’s a bath for the senses when you think about it: the high pitched whistle when the water hits a boiling point, the steam on my face as I’m pouring it to brew, and of course that herbal taste and smell. It’s all simple preparation for a working session that makes a difference.
  4. Smoke + Oil. Small spaces can easily be compromised by the wrong scent, but the ritual of lighting incense not only neutralizes the air but also adds a calming routine to my day. My default is original Nag Champa. For the bathroom I use eucalyptus oil (an essential by NOW Foods) to open the sinuses while I shower.
  5. Wireless Sound. Bluetooth speakers are pretty standard these days, but I underestimated the power of having one that is reliable, portable, and sounds great all the time. I use a Bose Soundlink, which lets me seamlessly pass a song from my headphones to the room as I walk in the door. It's uncomplicated and it's worth it.

Bonus: There’s a very strong book with a fluffy title out there that has really changed the way I view my space and my things. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I intend to post a follow-up focused on the rules in this bestseller. I also look forward to highlighting other artists and their unique ways of creating sacred space. If you have any ideas, please email them here


4 Essential Lessons from 2015

1. Build a tribe. When you know who you are and where you want to go, the people in your circle should reflect that. When you don't have a place to fit in, it takes intention to build a community where you do.

I was effectively on my own at the beginning of the year. Having let go of the team I had spent the last 3 years working with, it was both a sigh of relief and a point of pressure.

Instead of feeding my insecurities, I focused on the creative scene I wanted to live in and paid attention to the people around me who were already there. It went beyond just working on tracks or hopping on a lineup. More like three-hour coffee talks and agenda-free vibe sessions at my home studio. Those same one-on-ones led to other opportunities to connect, from after-hours warehouse parties to mini-tours in other cities and states.

Everywhere I went, I made a point to be interested in others and be genuine with my artist story, my growth process, and my vision for Still Mind. Putting myself out there attracted people of like-mind who were able to contribute to my cause, because without even trying I was adding to theirs.

2. Be generous. With your ideas, with your truth, and with your expressions of gratitude. Doors will begin to unlock. If I wasn't vocal about my vision and my process with the people who were open to me, StillMind.co as you see it wouldn't exist. After months of planting seed after seed and talking ideas through in LA with my friend and creative director Brett, it all came together on a flight home from Tokyo. At first it took a lot of vulnerability to say, "Here's something I'm working through. I'm not sure yet of all the pieces. What do you think?" But because I had a tribe of people I could trust, I was able to take that step.

3. Live patience. If persistence (aka hustle) is one side of the coin, then patience is the other. When putting together the video for the song "Relapse" I knew we'd be up against a lot of constraints - budget, resources, and time of course being a huge one. But the priority was the creative. By establishing quality as the main hustle, we had no choice but to make patience just as much a part of the plan as everything else. Personally, I had to embody patience.

With a handpicked team of talent and crew devoting time, shoot days had to be pushed back to accommodate other jobs (months). Concept had to be reworked and re-framed based on a few essential meetings (days). Many collaborators came right when we needed them like Sophia Stoller, the choreographer behind all of the key body movements in the video. A friend from college I hadn't seen in years, she appeared in my feed on a day I felt we had stalled. And she was perfect. It would not have been the same had we compromised earlier, or skipped any part of the process before. 

When it was all said and done, a video we initially brainstormed in April was released in December. And it was worth every minute.

4. Every day is day one. 2015 was all about forming the right habits - all of the rituals that could help me sustain as a human being first, and then as an artist. The one game-changing mental shift in all of this was to see each day as a new beginning. Maybe I skipped a day of meditation, but it didn't matter because I could pick it back up the next. Instead of beating myself up over the song I didn't finish yesterday, I could start fresh on a new writing session today. I broke my goals down into micro-achievements I could rack up to boost myself up with. If I could just lay the yoga mat out, that was worth something - and made it easier to get down to the practice for that day.

Now that the cycle of the Shift EP is winding down, this is a motto I have to repeat to beat the limits of perfectionism on my next project.

Forget about New Year's resolutions. Every day is a new chance to set an intention, re-commit to yourself, and take another step in the right direction.

 Photo via Diane Jong.

Photo via Diane Jong.