Advice for No One

With my kids, I struggle when we talk about their futures. I want to tell them: Do what you love, work really hard and everything will be alright. It’s a great line, but it’s USDA prime horse crap.

My first business – The Kentucky Gazette – failed in the 1990s. And no amount of hard work could save it. I slept under my desk many nights, and I did a good deal of award-winning journalism. There is more to it than hard work, intelligence and talent.

The person who put it best, in my mind, is Doug Martsch, the founder of the band Built to Spill. He is one of my guitar heros and has an independent streak a mile long (which he somehow maintains while his band signed to Warner Bros. records).

I probably will forward this interview to my daughters someday. But it’s far too nice outside today, and they are both in good places with their lives and their work.

So perhaps I’ll disrupt your day instead. (I actually take great comfort from Doug’s words.)

— Christopher Schwarz

These excerpts are from SPIN magazine, an article written by Rachel Brodsky and posted April 14, 2015.

RB: Ira Glass has a quote where he essentially says that every creative person does terrible work in the beginning. Everybody who’s ever wanted to make art is terrible at first. But as long as you create a “volume of work” — even if it continues to be terrible — it will get better. That’s kind of reassuring.

DM: Well, I’m going to go one further and say that it doesn’t get better. You will not get to a point where you write good things. I’m saying that even now, 99 percent of what I write is really stupid, and it didn’t get any better.

What keeps you going with it then?

I can’t do anything else; there is nothing else I can do. I don’t know how to do anything else, and I still like it. Mostly what I’m talking about is the lyrics. The music part of it, it doesn’t come easy for me, but it’s more subjective, so you can get away with more. Whereas the lyrics, lyrics are subjective. But if they’re bad, they can really turn a person off to what’s happening in the whole. If the lyrics are bad, it’s impossible to listen.

Got any career advice for younger indie-rock bands?

I don’t at all. I can tell you about my circumstances, but they’re not going to apply. I just feel like people have something in them that they want to just do, and they’ll do it no matter what anyone says. Or if they need to be advised, maybe it’s not for them.

Yeah, the music industry is pretty much the antithesis of practical.

Yeah, exactly. So the thing I always say is that I’ve been really lucky. That’s my secret, that I got lucky. I’m not saying that there aren’t other things involved, but I wouldn’t be where I was if I hadn’t lived in Seattle at a certain time, met certain people. The people that I started a band with, I just happened to hook up with some people who were a little older than me who put out records themselves. That was a big deal back in those days. For me to work with them was amazing, and that made my whole life.

I wouldn’t say, like, put out your own record, because that might not do it. I wouldn’t say tour a bunch, because that might not do it either. The other thing I say is don’t have any expectations. If you want to do it, just do it. But if you want to make it big, you’re on your own. I have no idea how to make it big. No one knows the secret to that. I mean, I can tell you how to book time in a studio, but that’s neither here nor there.

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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21 Responses to Advice for No One

  1. snwoodwork says:

    Great advice & one of my favorite bands.

  2. ja says:

    Good stuff. I thought that blog title the other day might have been a Built To Spill lyric reference. Saw them play with the Meat Puppets some years back. Crazy good show. But more on topic, the notion of making a lot of crap is definitely being taught in the design world. For every project, lots of iterations, in a short amount of time, is the prevailing strategy to get to a better final result. There are strategies and tools for maximizing the efficiency of this process, but like Doug said, it’s very different depending on the industry/circumstance/etc.

    • Ryan Stadt says:

      Thanks for posting this. I also find his words comforting, and I needed to read them this week.

  3. mike says:

    I guess I was lucky. No one ever told me “follow your dreams.” At some point in high school I asked my dad (a union pipefitter) for career advice. He said “how the ‘f’ should I know. I am ‘just a welder’* and you are in honors classes, go buy a paper and see what jobs are out there”

    So I bought a sunday Chicago Tribune (which was non-union!) and saw 10 pages of job classifieds for accountants. So I majored in accounting and became a CPA. Actually, I applied to 3 universities and indicated a different major at each. Accounting at one, Journalism at another and Pharmacology at the third. The accounting school offered the best financial deal so here I am.

    My first internship was for a family office, which is code for “we have so much money we need 50 people just to pay our bills, file taxes and watch the market.”

    This was a world my blue collar did not know existed! (Michael Jordan’s business office was in the same building, which is the closest I have come to celebrity).

    “Why did you major in accounting?” the family office matriarch (i.e rich dude’s wife) asked one day, “that is so boring.” I explained that if I made money in my 20s and 30s, I could pursue “philosophy and stuff like that” in midddle age.

    At 40 things are working out ok. I still push pencils by day, but my office life is below 40 hours at this point (55 if you count the commute). I have plenty of work life balance now, but flew 1,000,000 miles by age 35. So there is a 15 year blur and I missed some milestones in my kids’ early lives. That said, they are 14 and 11 now and I feel my presence is more valuable now than then.

    So I will give my kids similar advice, I think.

    *my dad was a brilliant guy, but had bad experiences with catholic education that made him decide that school was not where he wanted to be. So his advice has not quite as flip as it might sound. It was very deliberate.

    Apologies for breaking one of your rules, Chris. I know, if I feel the need to write more than 20 words I should get my own blog 🙂

  4. Michael says:

    Don’t worry Chris. You are doing it well: your writing, your publishing, your woodworking and your teaching. The “work really hard” might be a bit overrated-Americans have an ant farm mentality that has supplanted working smart. Besides if you really love what you do, is it work? Keep up the good “work.”

  5. Tim says:

    In the construction finishing trades we call them inferior decorators not interior decorators. More of the same old $#33+.

  6. Jars Family says:

    So good! We love built to spill!!! I’ve listened to Douge sense the beginning and his music is still on constant rotation in our house. But for the record J Mascis is definitely the best guitar dude!

  7. johncashman73 says:

    I can remember lots of good advice I got in my early adulthood. I followed precious little of it. Maybe I’ll do better the next time around.

    I’ll add something I wrote on another of your posts a few days ago. “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness; that is life.”

  8. Kansas John says:

    I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this band. They are fantastic.

  9. Eric from Dayton says:

    if you start a business make sure it has customers that appreciate your passion.
    Without the customer support it will probably fail.

  10. Kara says:

    “I can’t do anything else” and luck. I’m fairly certain most of the well-known writers I’ve interviewed have said the same. There’s a lot of truth here. Thanks for sharing.

  11. That is some nasty grain!

  12. JP says:

    Most of life boils down to luck…being in the right place at the right time. Apply what talent you have (none, little, a lot), surround yourself with people who can do the job you’re not capable of accomplishing, and enjoy the ride as best you can.
    Do what you love and the money will follow. And if the money does not come your way…we’ll, wtf?!
    Live by actor/comedian Bill Murray’s motto:
    “…it doesn’t matter…”.

  13. Paul Z says:

    Thanks, Chris.

  14. Edward Hopkins says:

    I just read a piece in Granta about Ursula LeGuin. Her advice to a young writer was something to the effect of: I can’t tell you how to be a author. Don’t try to be one. Work on being a writer instead.

  15. J.C. aka BLZeebub says:

    Great advice. LOL But seriously, we lend advice when it’s practical. Kind of like giving the thumbs up to a guy/gal using a brace and bit about to drill holes into a chair seat. Yep, the angle looks spot on. Then they crank and immediately achieve feedback from the material. The rest is joy and pain.

  16. nbreidinger says:

    There’s a Jack London quote that discusses the power of “I Like” being one of the most powerful forces. He goes on to say that it underpins all philosophy and is the force behind all human motives. Often it flies in the face of another’s meticulously crafted philosophy that applies to others. He says philosophies are merely a way for one person to describe their “I Like”. This interview reminded me of that.

  17. A. Rinum says:

    I wasn’t really given much advice when I was young, except be good and be kind and work hard. These things don’t help in real life.

  18. Brian says:

    Chemistry teacher here- The advice that I usually give to students is: Find something you like to do. Find something you can do, and find something that you can make a living at. If you like to do it, you are more likely to work hard at it and to succeed at it than if you hate it and don’t work hard at it for that reason. The last bit sometimes comes into conflict with the first, but there should be some kind of workable compromise.

  19. Chuck N says:

    This is an endless debate in which people tend to favor the extremes. The middle-ground is represented by the axiom “Luck favors the prepared.”

  20. Nick Marmalejo says:

    “If you can quit, then quit. If you can’t quit, then you’re a writer.” R.A. Salvatore on advice to aspiring writers.

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