Independent Rockstar

Insight for Independent Musicians

Imagination Vs. Reality – The Challenges of Having a Creative Brain

Creativity.  It can be both a tremendous blessing and an oppressive curse for musicians and artists of all kinds.  They say that creatives have a higher rate of depression and suicide than average because we have the capacity to constantly imagine a better reality and we tend to compare our current circumstances with our imagined ideal – which is a great recipe for pain.

On the flip side, we can derive a tremendous amount of satisfaction from our imagination.  Maybe too much some times.  The imagination can be a comfortable place to live.  In it you can be anyone you want to be.  The better your imagination, the more real it feels when you see yourself rocking out to a sold out stadium.  The more real it feels, the more certain you’ll probably feel that you’ll get there – no matter what.

The problem is that reality is full of bumps and bruises and things that don’t go as planned.  In the dream it’s so smooth.  Everything is exactly how you want it to be.  It can be a painful, frustrating and discouraging slap in the face when you’re confronted with all the challenges that pop up when you actually try to bring a dream into reality.  For that reason it can be very seductive to go back into the dream and lean into the feeling that you get when you imagine the greatest possible version of yourself.

One of the more insidious challenges of having a creative brain is that it can be tough to look at reality objectively.  I find it very easy to assess my ‘reality’ based on all the things that I have in the works in my imagination.  I often find it much more difficult to remove my imagination from the equation and look at the cold hard facts.  It’s tough to know what the next step forward should be when you don’t have an accurate picture of where you’re standing to begin with.  Sometimes the necessary step isn’t that glamorous.  Sometimes it’s downright scary.  A talented imagination can be very good at obscuring reality when it wants to avoid pain, boredom and/or fear.

What complicates things further is that us humans tend to project the way that we think and operate on the rest of the world.  We imagine other people to be more like us than they really are.  For artists, we sometimes expect others to be able to fill in the blanks and use their imagination to see the things that we have in our head.  This can be incredibly frustrating.

I remember playing a song that I had recorded with just an acoustic guitar for my band.  I was excited about the song and I expected my bandmates to share the enthusiasm.  Instead I got blank stares and they started talking about something else while the song was playing.  I couldn’t believe it!  It really didn’t sit well with me.  So much so that I resolved that night to get some equipment and learn how to record complete demos on my computer.  Months later I played a new demo of the same song for the singer in the band and, guess what – they loved it!  Of course I wanted to rub it in their face that this proved they had no imagination and that they couldn’t hear a good song if it bit them in the face, but that’s really missing the point.  The truth is that the world won’t judge you on what’s in your head.  Not now, not ever.

Other people shouldn’t be expected to hear or see what you’re imagining.  This may seem obvious to some, but I can tell you that I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time living my life in my imagination and at times expecting the rest of the world to see things that I hadn’t yet brought into reality.  And though it may be contrary to what your emotions are telling you, frustration doesn’t mean that you should push harder against the people around you.  It means that YOU need to change something.  That’s not what we usually want to hear when we’re frustrated.  It’s much easier to get hung up on how other people just don’t get it or to feel sorry for ourselves.

One step in the real world is worth infinite steps in your imagination.  – But when you compare the first step, as scary or difficult or confusing as it may be, with your perfect ultimate glorious outcome, it can be difficult to even get started – and many of us never do.  It’s only when you can set aside your ideal and take the next step that’s RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU that you actually make progress (the only thing that really matters).

So to anyone out there who’s bashing their head against the wall trying to figure this one out in their own lives, my message is this:

You can get out of the cycle of depression and frustration if you can learn to see things a little differently.

Firstly, the wold is exactly as it’s supposed to be.  Things are not supposed to be better.  We made that one up.  It can be very freeing to let go of the constant friction of imagination vs. reality.  The two forces should compliment each-other, not pull and grind and burn us out.  Reality is NOT the enemy.

The good news is that things CAN be better – and much of that is up to us restless creatives who are capable of imagining a better reality.  But that can only happen when we realize that the only thing that will ever matter to the world is what we actually DO, not what we just dream about – when we use or dreams to guide our ACTIONS, not to just provide substitute gratification.

Imagination and reality work much better together when we accept things as they are, imagine how they could be better and then take action to make them better.  It won’t always be smooth, but if you repeat that process enough times you’ll get better at it and some day I think you’ll wake up to realize that you’ve made the world a little bit better.  You’ve done some things that were pretty cool.  You’ve lived a life worth living.

It’s a nice thought, huh?  Now all we need to do is stop imagining it, figure out where we really are, and take the next step forward.


About Scott James

Musician / Blogger / Web Designer / MBTI Nerd living in Hollywood, CA
Scott James

20 Responses to “Imagination Vs. Reality – The Challenges of Having a Creative Brain”

  1. margaret McClure says:

    wow ! very true scott… on my way to my guitar lesson now ….maybe some day i will be able to play half as good as i can picture in my head…

    • Ha ha – awesome! Reminds me of a dream I had before I started playing guitar. It was so easy and I was so good! Then I woke up and actually tried to play a guitar…

  2. Mike Wood says:

    Hey Scott! You nailed it. Often, as musicians, we imagine ourselves much greater than we currently are. When we don’t reach our goal by the weekend, we get frustrated and depressed. It’s okay to dream, but there has to be some real world action to go with it to turn it into reality. Good article! Sharing it. Thanks!

  3. Matt Fearns says:

    Well done Naganooch. 3

  4. Joshua says:

    This is great, very motivational

  5. BTW – Derek Sivers makes some great points related to this topic in this video:

  6. Kim Petrarca says:

    Scott, this is excellence. You eloquently relayed that which so many of us feel and fear and struggle with, whilst potentially lighting a fire under some of our asses (hopefully). It’s scary. It’s life. But you are totally right. The End.

  7. Thanks Kim! U Rock. \m/ The End.

  8. Keith Handy says:

    I totally relate to the part about the demo. Sometimes you can strum a few chords and hear in your “mind’s ear” how those changes will sound with a full band, and none of that translates to the person sitting in front of you. And it is frustrating, because your own brain is filling in the gaps, but the other person’s brain is not! But it’s good to know that’s normal.

    • Yeah I always used to get frustrated with other people, thinking that they had no imagination! It took me a long time to realize that it’s immature to wish for other people to be more like me and that it’s more effective, considerate and mature to be sensitive to how other people think differently and have completely different strengths and weaknesses.

  9. JAMISUN says:

    Well said. Thanks for reassuring us all that we’re not crazy lol.

    • Ha ha Thanks! Yeah sometimes we all need to be reminded… – BTW – here’s a great TEDx talk from Camronn Huff that really puts things in perspective: I think that studying and understanding personality types is tremendously valuable – especially for those of us who often feel frustrated and misunderstood. It can really bring about some life changing revelations.

  10. EdenVegan says:

    EXACTLY what I needed to hear today. God bless you for your incredible insight and SHARING it (not just thinking it)! 🙂

  11. Mike Wyatt | @entelleckt says:

    Wish I could discover this post everyday. Powerful words.

  12. Nancy Nishihira says:

    This is so true… I’m definitely guilty of everything in the article.

  13. Rebecca says:

    I love this article and you are SO SPOT ON! “the only thing that will ever matter to the world is what we actually DO” is a message we all need to hear and take to heart.