How Neil Young Became the First Artist to Get Sued for Not Being Himself

Neil YoungWhat? How can you get sued for not being yourself?

Writing for Rolling Stone, music journalist Don McLeese explains:

Neil Young is the only artist in the history of modern recording to be sued for refusing to be himself. The suit, filed by Geffen Records, Young’s label for much of the Eighties, charged that he was violating his contract by recording ‘unrepresentative’ albums. In other words, Neil Young wasn’t making Neil Young music.

The problem with Geffen’s suit was that there has never been any such thing as a ‘representative’ Neil Young album. Young has made a decades-long career out of keeping his fans guessing what he’ll do next.

Even before he signed with Geffen, his ever-changing style included raw and edgy, melodic and romantic, dark and melancholic, acoustic and electric, and introspective and retrospective, with a bit of punk thrown in for good measure, all backed by whatever band he’d assembled at the time. It’s just how he worked (and still does).

This post explores how Young has managed to maintain an ongoing state of creative flow throughout his career. Even when he was creating to order for a record company, and even during the litigation that ensued.

As we’ll see, he did so by mastering the art of self-renewal, which is something we can all learn to do.

Creativity, Constrained

Young has recorded on the Reprise label throughout his 30+ year solo career, except for a period during the 1980s, known as the Geffen years. Record executive David Geffen had founded a new label and brought Young aboard.

The collaboration was contentious almost from the start. Geffen rejected Young’s country-esqe album Old Ways, insisting on something more rock ‘n’ roll. So, for the first and only time in his career, Young found himself trying to create to order. He came up with with the album Everybody’s Rockin.

Young really liked it. He thought it was exactly what Geffen wanted. But Geffen thought it was still too country. So he sued (for around $3 million), claiming that both albums were “musically uncharacteristic of Young’s previous recordings.” Young countersued for breach of contract, claiming he’d been promised artistic free rein.

With the litigation ongoing, Young hit the road, touring with a group of Nashville musicians he put together and called the International Harvesters. It required a whole new approach, he recalls, because the audiences and venues were very different from what Young was used to. Imagine this: state fairs all over the country, with Neil Young playing electric guitar alongside first-rate fiddlers and pickers with names like Rufus, Spooner, and Pig. That’s how it was. “We were having the time of our lives,” Young recalls.

After 85 concerts, the suit settled, with Geffen apologizing to Young, and Young recording two more albums on Geffen’s label. By the time the Geffen years were over, Young’s album sales were at an all time low, and he’d lost commercial relevance.

Freedom, Regained

In 1988, Young returned to Reprise. A major comeback came with the album called (what else?) Freedom, whose hit ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’ was his biggest in a decade. He recalls that the song’s main lyrics – “keep on rockin’ in the free world” – just came to him one day.

Young’s creative flow never stopped during the Geffen years, but a floodgate opened once they were over. He wrote a movie soundtrack, organized major fundraising concerts, released a slew of genre-spanning records, jammed with Phish, grunged with Sonic Youth, punked with Social Distortion, chilled with James Taylor, and did a reunion tour with CSNY featuring their reunion album, fittingly titled Looking Forward.

To this day, Young is still going strong. He recently sold out two solo performances at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall, and he’s planning a reunion tour with Buffalo Springfield, the band he co-founded in 1966 (before joining CSNY).

What this Has to Do with You

For someone whose famous lyrics include, “it’s better to burn out than to fade away,” Young has managed to do neither. How? His Rock and Roll Hall of Fame bio is dead on:

Young has consistently demonstrated the unbridled passion of an artist who understands that self-renewal is the only way to avoid burning out. For this reason, he has remained one of the most significant artists of the rock and roll era. (emphasis mine)

Self-renewal. That’s it! It’s the key to life. Literally.

By coincidence, the seminal work on this topic – Self-Renewal – was written in 1963, the same year Young made his first record? John W. Gardner writes that to be self-renewing individuals, we must maintain ourselves like a garden, with some things about ourselves being born, other things flourishing, and others dying – with the system as a whole living on.

This is exactly how Young lives and works To see how we can as well, let’s look to what he does (and doesn’t do) to maintain an ongoing state of self-renewal and the creative flow it brings:

1. He Doesn’t Use the F Word

By the F word, I mean the other one: Failure. Delving pretty deeply into Young’s history, I saw nothing suggesting that he ever perceived anything he created as a failure.

It’s as if Young doesn’t know that word. His concerts are a microcosm of his career: there’s no set list. No one (not even the band or the lighting technicians ) knows what he’s going to do. Neither does he, apparently. One song flows into the next. Working that way seems to annihilate the prospect of failure. Because it removes expectations.

Looking back on decades of working this way, Young told the BBC:

I would have a big hit record, and then I would have what some people would say … was a miserable, terrible record, and I’m going, “what a great record that was” – I really liked that because it’s going against the grain, it’s got an individual thing, and it’s not trying to be anything other than what it’s doing.

Critics and fans often don’t ‘get’ Young’s records when they first come out. They take a while to grow on people. He’s an acquired taste and so is what he does. Gardner’s words fit well here:

You learn that no matter how hard you try to please, some people in this world are not going to love you, a lesson that is at first troubling and then really quite relaxing.

Young connects with his audience in his own way. But he’s not trying to please or win approval. So the F word doesn’t even come up.

Takeaway: Ditch your metaphorical set list. Remember that your work cannot be, as Young says, anything other than what it’s doing. If what it’s doing reaches people, great. If it doesn’t, also great. Maybe it will someday.

2. He Knows Why He’s Doing It

All along, Young has been ‘doing it for himself.’ That’s how his fan base emerged and grew over time. Asked by the BBC whether he’s actually made an effort to build an audience, he replied:

I’m always interested in reaching out to anyone who wants to listen, but really, I’m doing it for myself, so [my fan base has] been a coincidence.

Young reaches out to those who want to by performing unrehearsed concerts and releasing unpolished albums. Why obsess over details, when it’s the power of sound he’s going for? He finds it through immersion in the process, not by trying to figure out what people want and endeavoring to deliver.

We might think we have to reach some semblance of success before we can work without an eye toward approval. But we would be wrong. For many creative people (see here and here), it’s precisely what fuels success in the first place.

This approach can work beautifully for entrepreneurs as well. Want to know how? Read Derek Sivers‘ book Anything You Want. In the hour it will take you to finish it, you’ll see that doing something because you love the process can serve as a brilliant business model.

Takeaway: Know why you’re doing it. Make sure it’s because you love the feel of the process. Then all you need to do is follow the last words of Elizabeth Gilbert’s famous Ted talk: “Have the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.”

3. He Gets Himself

Young has a tremendous self-understanding. He’s knows what fits with who he is and what he’s doing. He pays attention to what works and what doesn’t – for him. And he proceeds accordingly. His own words make these things clear:

I live for playing live. That’s what I do. I hate studios … where you have to go down a hall and see other people playing and you feel like … you’re a soup – you’re cream of mushroom and they’re tomato.

As long as it’s good music and I’m playing with my friends, I don’t care what genre it is. All my music comes from all music — I’m not country, I’m not rock ‘n’ roll, I’m just me, and all these things are what I like.

[M]y records aren’t that polished. I’m not going for that. I’m going for the essence of the song. I’m not a record crafter, that’s not my job. It may be someday, but it isn’t right now.

I’ve learned one thing: you don’t want to close the door on anything. I closed the door on everything and every time I’d do something new, I’d say, “this is it, I’m not doing anything else anymore … just this matters.” And then I was wrong.

Takeaway: With Young’s words as a guide, ask yourself: What do you live for? What really is it that you do? What does (and doesn’t) feel right? What is it that you’re going for? Have you closed the door on anything? What have you been wrong about?

4. He Creates His Own Groove

Young is groove personified. Groove is a musical term defined as rhythmic drive that creates a song’s momentum. Rocker-turned-neuroscientist Dan Levitin tells us that when music has good groove, it creates a sonic world where external time seems to stand still – we want to stay there, and we don’t want the song to end.

Does that remind you of anything? Groove is is analogous to creative flow, the state of intense absorption and pleasure that for many of us is the main motivation for doing creative work.

Young’s career has amounted to one massive state of good groove. He didn’t let anyone snap him out of it. Not critics, not fans, not Geffen. When Young got sued, he was on his own, without a record company. So what did he do? He assembled International Harvesters and did what he loved. Groove intact, he toured and played in what amounted to a whole new world for him. It’s hard to think of a better example of self-renewal.

Takeaway: Tend your metaphorical garden. Find your groove. Take charge of it. It’s yours, so don’t let others snap you out of it. Think of it as refuge, a teacher, and a place where you build skill.

Photo by 6tee-zeven.

Over to You:

Have you ever had your creativity constrained, by a client, an employer, or someone else (or perhaps yourself)? If so, how did affect your work? How did you deal with it?

What’s your take on the F word when it comes to creativity?

Are you able to work without an eye toward approval? If so, what advice do you have for others?

About the author: Susan Alexander is the creator of app4Mind, a “mind app” that empowers you to change how you work, play, and live. Follow her on Twitter @app4Mind

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Each episode features insights from Mark and interviews with outstanding creators – including artists, writers, performers, commercial creatives, directors, producers, entrepreneurs and other creative thought leaders.

Guests include Steven Pressfield, Scott Belsky, Jocenlyn K. Glei, Joanna Penn and Michael Bungay Stanier.

Responses to this Post


  1. In two cases that I remember, I had jobs in which the environment was originally one in which creative people were given great autonomy as long as they were highly productive and winning raves from clients. But then there was a change to managers who believed that if they micromanaged the staff and made the organization more hierarchical, they might achieve more consistent outcomes.

    It reminds me of a metaphor I once read in which the author refered to taking natural runners and making them run in painted footsteps along the track.

    In both cases part of the control mechanism also involved displacing the self-directed collaborative time with more frequent mandatory meetings with managers.

    Also in both cases, after creative staff made their pleas for the freedom to excel and were denied, I, and the other high performers left for other positions, leaving only those without options.

    • Fritzie; These kinds of constraints are imposed in so many contexts. Much has been written about why people try to control others, and the array of undesirable outcomes. I suppose it’s a continuing phenomenon because those likely to impose control aren’t likely to be open to trying out a different approach. It’s difficult, as you point out, to strike a balance when we find ourselves in constraining situations. It’s hardly surprising, as you wrote, that people break free. It’s up to us, in the end, to make sure we’re in an environment where we can do our best work. Great comment. Thanks. Susan

  2. Hi Susan,

    Thank you for a great article, packed with insight.

    As a Neil Young fan, I love the lessons you have gleaned from his career. His approach to failure seems to be the same approach all great inventors and innovators take. If you haven’t succeeded yet, you haven’t failed enough!

    I feel that way with music. I don’t wallow in self-pity because my songs haven’t been whipped up in a tornado of praise. I write more, hoping to one day create a storm of my own.

    Approval is a nice ego boost, but it’s not necessary in my book. Learn your craft, put the time in. Build self-awareness and never stop challenging yourself. When you know yourself, you know when you are comfortable, and when you are challenged.

    Devotion to the craft bypasses approval.


    • Thanks, Connor. Glad the post resonated. To me, the unique thing about Neil Young is his own apparent take on failure. I saw no evidence of him ever using the word, or even thinking it. He sees all of his work as a cohesive, interrelated body. If something isn’t well received, it still has great value to him. It forms part of the foundation for what comes next, in some way. So what comes next, whatever it is, isn’t separate. Stated a bit differently, whatever our efforts are in a particular effort, some will work and some won’t. But all of them fuel the process and what ultimately comes of it (and subsequent efforts as well). So, from a logical standpoint, no individual component of that fuel can be deemed a “failure.” What do you think of this reasoning? Susan

      • It is a very admirable way to view the learning process. I’m sure there must have been plenty of works he never finished, or let out into the world.

        I think there is too much talk of fear and failure, too much labelling, so it is refreshing that he never mentions it, and seems to see all creations as cogs in an ever-evolving machine.

        I can definitely learn a lot from this. 🙂

        • Connor: Well said. All of what we create are “cogs in an ever-evolving machine.” I agree – way too much talk these days about failure. It’s as if the word “failure” is in vogue or something, like “authenticity” and “passion” seem to be. It’s the doing that’s interesting. The actions. The facts. Not the words people happen to assign to them. There is indeed a lot to learn. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Susan

          • Exactly my feeling as well- there is so much labeling of fears and failures that sometimes I worry people get talked into the whole idea. I wish the word failure were removed from the language with nothing to replace it!

            • Fritzie:

              Yes, I agree. People are oddly drawn to all the talk of fear and failure.

              It can be useful to consider other people’s perceptions, but not when we unwittingly internalize them into our own experience. Through Neil Young, we can see that it is indeed possible to work without feeling fear or considering failure. It’s good to take a lesson.

              J.K. Rowling makes an invaluable point in her speech – that it’s up to each of us to define what failure is. I think few people take the time to do that. They cling to the vague, conventional meaning – whatever it is – thereby deferring to the thinking of others on whether what’s happened is a “failure.”

              You’re right – how great would it be if everyone just dropped the word “failure”? There’s no need to use a word whose meaning has been lost. We don’t have to include it in our thoughts and words if we decide not to.

              Thanks again,

  3. Cathy Cleary says:

    Susan, what a fascinating post! It seems to me that truly creative people are motivated essentially by the act of creating, itself. That is why the good ones, like Neil Young, keep evolving, trying new things, regardless of whether they are “successful” or not. Maybe it has to do with having or being able to develop a strong belief in oneself? It is an attitude that I aspire to, and I am working on it one day at a time…

    • Thanks, Cathy. What you write is dead on. Immersion in the process feels good. It’s what brings out our best work. It frees us from inhibiting thoughts about potential judgment, or whether “success” will result in that particular effort. Young had a unique take on failure – he wasn’t possible because of how he worked. Everything was an experiment. He did what he did for its own sake and to learn from it. Some might say that successful artists like him have the luxury of working this way, but looking closely at the facts, almost invariably we see that it’s how they worked from the start. This is certainly true of Young. You’re right about believing in oneself. It’s what mindset is all about – a big focus of my blog. Thanks for writing! Susan

  4. Self-renewal certainly is as you say “the key to life”! I have been a song writer for over a decade and would agree that the key to staying interested and to maintaining the passion is to actually BE new throughout life. I’d say it’s the fountain of youth really. But getting there isn’t as easy as changing your clothes with the fashions.

    You really hit it with the keys to achieving self-renewal. We cannot focus on failure. If you think of it, nothing is failure in the end – it’s all a process of getting to your next version of greatness. Doing what we’re doing for ourselves and not others is also huge. Some people are really good at fitting in, and that’s fine for them – they are pop music and NYT best seller novels – but getting noticed as a sheep in a flock of sheep just isn’t very likely for most of us. Just being ourselves allows us to be creative and interesting in a way that will inevitably stand out and appeal to many.

    I don’t know where I learned all these things myself, but this has been the way I’ve lived my life. I don’t give a shit what people think of me. I like what I like and that’s that. It truly does lead to success, productivity, and youthfulness.

    Thanks for this article. That was a great way to start my week!

    • Thanks for all you wrote, Peggy. All so well said. You’re right about fitting in – it happens easily for some people It’s hard to think of an example, though, of someone who fits in wherever he goes all the time. It’s a good thing to remember when we see things clicking for others, but not us. Maybe it’s just their time, and not ours – yet. What’s important is that we keep working with the kind of focus you write about. Embracing the process like this is the very thing that keeps us moving forward. It’s what keeps us from deeming any part of it a “failure” and stopping. There’s much to learn from people who think and work like you. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. You’re an awesome community member, as I’ve seen on Mark’s Daily Apple. I’m sure the creative community on this blog will welcome you as well. So be sure to c’mon back here 🙂 Susan

  5. This is a crackerjack post all the way around.

    It seems to me that this process of creating is best typified by the chorus of Cinnamon Girl

    A dreamer of pictures
    I run in the night
    You see us together,
    chasing the moonlight,
    My cinnamon girl.

    The cinnamon girl is this mysterious, powerful and intoxicating force that Young longs to connect with – she is creativity itself.

    Young, and all of us, dream in pictures and possibilities. He runs through the night – the unknown – pursuing the translucent, shimmering reflection of feminine power – the moon.

    Young’s method generally as outlined in the post is right on but more specifically this chorus captures the poetic mystery of the process.

    • Matt:

      Your thoughts so often transcend all else. What you’ve written here is a prime example.

      Cinnamon Girl. Of course. Why didn’t I think of that?

      Because I’m not you.


  6. Hi Susan! Great post with some excellent points.

    I really like the way you have used Neil Young as an example of someone who has mastered the art of self-renewal. Many other artists have done the same, notably Bob Dylan and the Beatles. In fact, Bob Dylan had a rough time in the mid ’60s when many of his own fans turned on him for ‘going electric’!

    Self-renewal really is the key to staying fresh and focused. As a marketer, I’m finding the world of marketing very exciting at the moment with the emergence of social media and web 2.0. In a previous job, I was working with a company and a team of people who were not forward thinking – they were doing the same old thing despite all the new online marketing developments. I had to re-invent myself as a digital marketer so that I could take advantage of the new trends and use them to both my own and the company’s advantage. I was criticised at first (nobody understood social media, search engine optimisation, email marketing etc) but I persevered and it paid off in the end.

    Artists like Neil Young prove that effective self-renewal is the way to keep progressing and to staying happy. And I’ll be doing my best to constantly look at how I am performing and when and where I need to renew next!

    • Thanks, Gavin. You’ve made so many good points. I see a close analogy between Dylan going electric and you going digital, and him getting booed and you being misunderstood. Might that explain why you chose a Dylan tune for the name of your site? 🙂 It takes a lot of strength to self renew. No matter how independent-minded we are, it’s never comfortable to have naysayers around. I admire what you did. t’s true, what you say about needing to keep a close watch on ourselves and what’s around us. It’s an always and ongoing process. Thanks so much for writing. Susan

  7. Wow, I never thought about my website name in that way but maybe you’re right and it’s another subconscious reason for choosing a Dylan song – because of a link between us. Maybe!

    Thanks for the encouragement and again for writing an inspirational and insightful post.

    • Thanks, Gavin. I think Dylan is your muse. And you’re a muse to others. That’s a nice flow of energy. Thank you again for all your good insight. Susan

  8. Wow, what an excellent post! It totally came at a time I needed it, too. It serves as a big reminder that it’s when I’ve written things purely for myself and my own intrinsic pleasure that seem to be my biggest “hits,” oftentimes it’s when I just need to get something off my chest!

    I recently started to realize that my creativity has been constrained in the past not by an employer or anybody else, but my own mind and what I thought others’ expectations were. I need to stop putting myself in a box and blaming it on others’ expectations. I think we all do – we’re our own toughest critics.

    Thanks for writing this!

    • Stacy:

      Thanks for writing. I’ve surely felt that same kind of self-imposed mind constraint. I think many of us have. Focusing on the expectation of others is paralyzing.

      Thankfully, there’s a fairly easy fix, and what Neil Young does provides a great example: We need view all our work as learning. We improve through our own efforts. Like everything, it will go well sometimes, and other times it won’t. When it doesn’t, it doesn’t mean we’re failing. It means we’re learning, same as we do when things go well. This way of thinking is essentially the Growth Mindset. I write a lot about it on my blog.

      Connor’s comment below might interest you (scroll way down). He wrote that we can view all of what we create as “cogs in an ever-evolving machine.” He’s referring to the power of perceiving all of our work as related. Whatever we do is predicated on what we’ve done before. So our less-strong work is part of our strong work, and vice versa. This is at odds with conventional thinking (i.e. the view that our “good” work and our “bad” work are somehow separate).

      Would love to know your thoughts on these theories.

      Great comment, Stacy. Keep on rockin’ in the free world 🙂

  9. Another artist who does not stick to one musical style is Devin Townsend. He can do meditative music and wicked metal with equal fabulousness.

    Susan – Your post makes me feel so much better about not having a single artistic form, but several. After hearing the constant advice to focus, focus, focus my blog on one thing and one thing only, even though I have varied interests, I’m going to chuck that advice and continue with the Neil Young way.

    I’m going to tack a link to your post onto this blog post as a reminder to myself and others that artists can work many angles within the course of their work:

    • Mary:

      Thank you so much for writing. I’ve not heard of Devin Townsend, so i’ll check him out.

      In deciding whether to focus on one thing or to diversify, I think the question is a very simple one: Why? There can be good reason for either. It’s up to us to decide, and whatever we chose can change over time, as we evolve. People will have their opinions for sure. Who we listen to and who we don’t is up to us as well. It’s rare, I think, that people do a lot of thinking before they give us what may be their well-meaning take on our efforts. So one way to drive ourselves crazy is to try to internalize it it all.

      Scroll down and have a look at Gavin’s comments. He points out the importance of keeping an ongoing watch on ourselves. I think he’s right. It’s an always and ongoing process.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and thank you so much for linking this post to yours.


  10. Wow! Susan you certainly started the discussion here.
    This is a topic which has been in my mind for the past few days. What does being ‘you’ really mean. I read a comment on copyblogger where Brian Clark states that “the real you is incompatible with your business goals”. I still have issues with that statement.

    We are all affected by the way others look at our work. As social creatures we need this interaction to create but when does it become stifling and when does it push us to dig deeper?
    It’s a tough one and obviously great artists like Neil are masters in digging deep and finding their creativity.

    F isn’t a bad word for me, it’s part of life. Without failure there is no success.

    This is a really interesting topic Susan and I could go on and talk about it for hours, but I think I will go and work on finding my groove 🙂

    • Have another look at Brian’s comment John – he didn’t say the “the real you is incompatible with your business goals”:

      The other issue … is all too common — the people you attracted with the “real” you are incompatible with your business goals. In other words, they like what you say, but don’t want what you’re selling. At that point you’ll need to adapt to your existing audience or start over with a new story and a different group of people.

      • Hi Mark,
        Um! The people you attract with the real ‘you’ are incompatible with your biz goals.
        I am not sure what the difference is, how do you read it?

        • OK here’s my reading – bearing in mind I can’t speak for Brian. 🙂

          Firstly, he’s not saying the people you attract with the “real” you are invariably incompatible with your business goals, just that this is one possible scenario among several.

          You could be like Neil Young and find people who love (and are willing to pay for) just about anything you turn your hand to (even if it takes them a while to catch up). But if that’s not working, you might want to consider a different approach.

          Secondly, note the quotation marks around “real”. Brian and I are both pretty sceptical about the idea of a single, authentic self. Each of us has many different selves, and we play different roles in different situations and relationships.

          Finally, Brian indicates two creative options to try IF you find you’ve attracted people who “like what you say, but don’t want what you’re selling” – either listen to them and sell them something different, or take a different angle to find people who like what you say AND want what you’re selling.

          Make sense?

          • Yes I see that way also. Nobody is monolithic, the ‘real’ you is an ever changing persona.

            I also believe that what makes the ‘real’ you are values and these don’t really change according to situations or relationships. So in this sense there is a single authentic self, your values make up who you are and if a person is changing those to fit a role, well this says a lot about that person. 😉

            There is a lot of talk about authenticity online and being the real you these days.
            It’s an interesting topic and Susan did a great job with her post on Neil Young.

            • Good point about values, I’d say our constellation of values is probably the closest we get to a ‘real’ self. Agreed Susan did a great job (and just happened to pick one of my favourite artists!).

            • You make a great point, John, about values remaining constant as other aspects of ourselves change. Certainly, we want to bring the positive aspects of ourselves into the changes we make, including the good things we value.

              One thing that’s clear is that we humans can be pretty imbalanced sometimes, in terms of what makes us who we are, including our values. This is the is essentially the theme of psychologist Martin Seligman’s new book, “Flourish.” At a recent lecture, he gave the example of one kind of imbalance he sees all the time: people who overvalue accomplishment and undervalue relationships. They ask why their unhappy, when they’ve accomplished so much, and Seligman’s answer is imbalance. He believes that assessing our values and keeping them balanced is what leads to “well being” (something greater than happiness).

              Really interesting about Seligman’s theory is that it’s new. It replaces his old one, which he openly acknowledges was simplistic and incomplete. In other words, he admits he was wrong. Which is difficult for anyone to do – and especially rare among people of Seligman’s huge stature (professor at UPenn, founder of Positive Psychology, etc.).

              It’s funny you should mention “authenticity,” because Seligman’s old theory appears in his bestseller entitled “Authentic Happiness.” He dislikes the tittle, he says, because he dislikes both words. They’re simplistic and incomplete, he says, just like his old theory.

              It’s a good read if you’re interested in this kind of thing.

              Thanks again for writing, John.


          • You speak very well for me Mark. That’s exactly what I was trying to get at (although perhaps not very clearly).

    • John:

      Was thinking more about your comment on the bike this morning. As is usual, my thoughts are clearer post-ride, so I’m revising my earlier reply:

      Yes, I agree – how our work is received is certainly something that affects us in some way. I think when we see ourselves as multidimensional and continually self renewing, it keep us from getting thrown of course by others and what they think. Neil Young shows us that.

      You wrote that F isn’t a bad word for you. I suppose it’s a matter of how we define that word for ourselves. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Looking at our work in terms of process vs outcome sheds some light.

      Two questions:
      1) When we’re in the process (i.e. the process of learning and evolving ourselves by effort, trial and error, and adaptation), is the F word really a fitting label for something that happens in the process that proves undesirable or unworkable – when we learn and iterate from it?
      2) Are those occurrences an integral part of the process, and if so, does the F word really fit them?

      It seems to me that if we keep the process going, then failure doesn’t have to be part of the picture – or our vocabulary. I think this goes way beyond semantics, because words give rise to thoughts, and thoughts guide our actions.

      This idea are fleshed out a bit more in Mary’s comment and my reply (see below).

      What do you think?


      P.S. I’ll leave it to you and Mark to explore the meaning of Brian’s wisdom.

  11. Susan – In response to your question about the ‘F’ word and creativity, one of the things I love about Neil Young is that – like Bob Dylan – he’s not gifted with a conventionally classic singing voice, but he really makes the most of it with his passionate delivery. He’s not everyone’s favourite vocalist, but he’s unmistakeable.

    • Mark:

      There is indeed so much more the equation than what someone starts out with. Neil Young and Bob Dylan are great examples of people who took whatever they had and turned it into something great (albeit unconventional) – via lyrics, sound, delivery, emotion, timing, experimentation, and a whole spectrum of things.

      I’m reminded of a funny thought that popped into my mind once, at a Cy Twombley exhibit. I wondered what his art looked like as a kid, and I imagined a parent teacher conference with the teacher saying something like, “Now, Mrs. Twombley, Cy’s a good boy and all, but he’s just not following along very well with what we’re doing here.”

      Ha. 🙂

  12. I’m REALLY bothered (in a good way) by this conversation! As an artist I go NUTS when someone tries to commission a piece of art, or as a dancer when I can’t get into the head of the choreographer, or these days when I start to write a story “for” my audience. I get completely shut down. Here’s an example:
    I sat as teacher’s helper in my daughter’s kindergarten class 12 years ago. The teacher handed out a paper with an outline of a cow to each student. One little boy at the table grabbed a purple crayon and went to town with that cow! The teacher said to him,” Stop that scribbling! What would your mother think of that? Cows aren’t purple! Now start over!” My little friend crumpled. I don’t know if he ever experimented or felt the passion of creating for the rest of the year! I wasn’t even allowed to talk to him. He just sat and cried.
    My point is this: as artists, which we ALL are in our own fields of interest, we have to stay as free as we can to stay open to the creative genius inside of us. There’s really no discussion about it. The risk is poverty and anonymity. But the payoff is immeasurable bliss!
    In other words, you don’t have to teach a child how to be a child. Why do we adults find it so hard to get back to or stay in that place?

    • That’s a very sad story. It would be nice to think that boy grew up and came across Purple Cow.

      • That was great! Thanks…got me laughing. Sorry I get so passionate and ornery! Sometimes there are no words to express passion and creativity. Just gotta be there! Have a great day.

    • Betsy:

      As for the scribbling boy, I’m always saddened to hear of incidents like that. They’re commonplace, and they happen in creative settings as well as those considered more academic, like math, science, history, foreign language, etc. – all areas where how a student is treated can determine whether he ever takes interested and pursues it.

      Being open to our own genius is crucial, as you point out. As many of us know, openness to that doesn’t just come. It takes groundedness and a perspective that enables our efforts. Creating to please can indeed be stifling. It’s a complex topic, treated brilliantly by Mark on this blog – fortunately, for all of us.

      Thanks for writing, Betsy.

    • In relation to the purple cow, I know how hard it would be to be an aid in such a classroom. A tragic aspect of this is that it may not have been about real colors of a cow at all. Some teachers believe their effectiveness depends upon control, and control depends on keeping students insecure and fearful.

      I have observed the same a few times in parent-child interactions, unfortunately.

      • Fritzie: The frightening thing is that children grow into adulthood feeling insecurity, fear, and related emotions. These things impose formidable barriers to creativity and doing good work. Clearing these barriers can take some doing, that’s for sure, but how? For my part in figuring out the answer, I endeavored (through this post) to detail specifically how one artist (Neil Young) has kept his creative flow going for 40+ years – despite setbacks. I think what what he does (and doesn’t do) are pretty instructive and followable. What do you think? Susan

        • NY’s approach of following his own heart and of self-renewal, of understanding that he doesn’t have to be the one thing people might once have expected of him, is healthy.

          When you ask whether it is followable, it is clearly followable for those who have the confidence to follow that course. For those lacking in confidence, it is more difficult. I believe that people are very much influenced by what they hear incessantly. A child who grows up with continuous signals that make him feel insecure and fearful, will bear those scars and does not come to new and sensible advice with a clean slate.

          Still there is some research to indicate that a single mentor or person who takes a continuous and constructive interest during a child’s early years can be like a lighthouse in the fog.

          • Fritzie:

            I suppose two (of many) questions are: 1) Generally, how do we go about gaining confidence? and 2) Specifically, how can someone go about building confidence when it’s been eroded in the kinds of ways we’re talking about here.

            There’s quite a lot of research and writing on point. I think the best place to start is the work of psychologist Carol Dweck. Are you familiar with it? It’s a is simple, elegant theory that’s applicable in all facets of life. I blog about it a lot. (The great news is that it’s being taught in schools now – to teachers and students.)

            Dweck’s book is called Mindset. It’s a quick, game-changing read. I think it might interest you. You can follow Dweck on Twitter @brainology.

            Let me know what you think.


            • I am familiar with that perspective, and I agree it is a basic part of the education and toolkit of people who got their teacher training at least in the last decade:)

              • Fritzie:

                It seems like pretty basic stuff, but it eludes so many, even the seemingly enlightened.

                Note that Mindset (Carol Dweck’s book) came out in 2006. It’s the common theme running through many subsequent books on related topics, e.g. The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, Drive, by Dan Pink, Bounce by Matthew Syed, and Switch by Chip and Dan Heath.

                It’s great to see the ideas spreading, you know?

                I’ve enjoyed exchanging ideas this week with you, Fritzie.


                • Oh, Susan, I didn’t mean people have read that particular book for these many years. I meant only that these ideas and cautions to teachers about how to respond most productively to children’s progress have been shared for some time, what different teacher or parent responses seem to convey about the relative importance of effort and talent and so forth…

                  • Yes, Fritzie, I realize that people theorized along these lines before. But Dweck’s work changed the landscape, for at least 4 reasons:

                    1) It validates the theories, demonstrates unequivocally that what we accomplish is determined by our beliefs about innate talent vs. effort; 2) It identifies the two opposing beliefs and gives a much-needed working vocabulary to discuss them (i.e. the fixed and growth mindsets); 3) It’s explained in an easily accessible book; and 4) It’s really caught on and spread (as we can see from the books I mentioned in my last reply).

                    Dweck’s students insisted that she write the book, because they knew her findings were too important to stay hidden in scholarly papers.

                    Phew! The world is a better place because of these things, methinks.

                    What do you think?

  13. Hey Susan,

    Excellent post. I’m loving the ‘F’ word approach, always hear this is how great innovators become great. Fail hard and fail fast.

    I almost need to learn to exexute better and faster without thinking of failure.

    Awesome stuff as usual 🙂

    • Eric:

      Great mantra: “Execute better and faster without thinking about failure.”

      That’s much of the theme of the great book Rework by Jason Fried, et al. In the first chapter, the authors talk about how failure is overrated. There’s too much talk about it , they say- too many cliches like “fail early, fail fast.” They propose this alternative: that we work in a way that’s reflective of evolution and natural selection, i.e. pay attention to what works and let that thrive (while the unworkable falls away, without a big declaration that it “failed”).

      Would love to hear how this new take on things affects your work.

      Thanks for commenting, Eric!

  14. Thanks a whole lot Susan….This post is so it,saving it…i will keep rereading it.