Goals vs. Systems

When you make music, you probably have some sort of goal. Maybe you have a very big goal, like getting a #1 song on Billboard, or playing as headliner at Coachella. Or you can have more modest goals, like getting 100,000 streams on Spotify, or playing at a local festival. These goals can give you a nice mental picture of your ideal situation, which can be motivating. Pursuing goals is common in creative careers, because we all have people we look up to who have achieved their goals. Seeing people who have achieved their goals is inspiring, so we take inspiration from that. The good thing about goals is that they give you some kind of direction. You may know someone without any goals, who is just mindlessly wandering around in life, and that may not be what you want for yourself. So goals can give you some kind of purpose.

However, goals could also actually work against you. Goals are uncertain and take time to reach. Especially in music, when you have big goals, chances of reaching your goals are very slim, and if you do, it will likely have taken years. During those years, the awareness that you have not yet reached your goals can give you a constant pressure. That pressure can be combined with anxiety, because you may be afraid you never reach your goals. As you may have experienced, pressure and anxiety are definitely not helping you be creative. This is how goals can indirectly work against you.

There is a more healthy alternative: Systems. As Scott Adams proposed (see Recommended Resources), systems will give you better odds for good results than goals. He explains that goals require willpower, and that willpower is limited. For example, if you sit down to make music every time with the goal that you want to win a Grammy award, it requires a lot of willpower to keep going for years without (yet) winning the award. The awareness every day that you have not won that award can feel frustrating, especially if you are impatient to get results. Over time, you will associate that frustration with making music, making it harder for you to maintain it. In this case, a system would work better. For example, you can make a system of sitting down every day to make music and become slightly better at it. This requires less willpower, making it easier to maintain. And the nice thing is, because you become better every day, you actually increase the odds of winning that Grammy after all.

Another way that systems work in your favor is that they leave more room for other opportunities. As you know from the earlier topics, successful careers in music can take all sorts of forms, so it can be good to keep your options open at first. But when you focus on specific goals, you can limit your view. This can make you miss out on career opportunities that may have been far better for you. Especially in music, things almost never go as you expect them to go. Having a good system can prepare you for that.

For example, let’s say you have a system of getting better at making music every day, and your music grabs the attention of a sync agent one day who places your music in a great movie. This attracts the attention of a movie director, who hires you to make a musical score for his new movie. That movie is received very well, and reaches the Oscars, and you win the Oscar for Best Original Score. Now, you may have not won that Grammy, but you have won an Oscar. Not bad right? This would probably not have happened if your only goal was to win a Grammy.

Of course, this is an exaggerated example, but it’s okay to fantasize about these things once in a while if it makes you feel good. It also illustrates how systems can give you better odds at good results than goals. Instead of focusing on the end result, you focus on your own development, which will give you the results in the long run.

So what is a good system?

  • Firstly, it is one you can maintain. This means that you shouldn’t aim too high when making your system. For example, sitting down to make music every day may already be too much for you, which is okay. Adjust it to something you can maintain, like making music at least once a week, or creating one new musical idea per week. It doesn’t even have to be about making actual music; your system can also be to do something to improve your musical career every day.
  • What follows from this is that a good system is also adjusted to your situation. Only you know (by experience) what fits you well. So try out different systems, and see what works best for you.

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