Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Creative Sunk Cost Considerations: Improvisation and Microeconomics

In microeconomics, a sunk cost is when you invest money, time, effort, or emotion into something, and your investment can not be returned. 

For example: Let's say you bought a piano for $4,000.00 because you thought it would be a fun instrument to learn. The $4,000.00 for the keyboard would be sunk since that money will never be returned. Now, let's say after taking a few lessons, you've realized it's not as much fun as you'd anticipated. This is where sunk cost fallacy comes in. You continue to take lessons, not because you want to learn the piano, but because you've already shelled out four grand for it. Not to mention the additional money for lessons, books, piano maintenance, and the drudgery of having to practice every day. 

As you can imagine, this happens in many aspects of our lives: the relationships we form, the food we eat, and even during the creative process.

When improvising, some of our bad decisions result from what I call creative sunk cost considerations. We play specific ideas, not because the situation warrants them, but because we've invested numerous hours honing that particular idea. So in our minds, we figure, "why not?" Not doing it would be time wasted.

And this is two-fold. Ultimately, as improvisers, you want to play things that are comfortable and easy to execute. This is the only way you can control the musical situation. However, for many, these tried and tested ideas can be viewed as old creative investments, and our focus then shifts to showcasing our most recent innovative investments—even if by playing these ideas, the musical situation becomes musically compromised. 

Not succumbing to creative sunk cost fallacies is one of our biggest challenges as improvisers. Some players already know what they're going to play on each tune before they get to the gig. I used to be one of them.

The discipline and willingness not to give in to creative sunk cost fallacies are what separates the student from the professional, the artisan from the artist. In the context of creativity, it's good to think long term. It's wise not to become too emotionally invested in newer ideas practiced. The temptation to prematurely force our ideas into a musical setting becomes too much to control. While a student at Berklee, I was told to forget the things that I'd practiced, once I'd mastered them. This was difficult. In my mind, I figured Why bother if I couldn't enjoy the fruits of an immediate application? This is typical thinking regarding creative sunk cost considerations. 

Well... here's why (and this took me a long time to figure out).

In the context of improvisation, the present-day losses become the creative wins of the future.

Anyway, fruit for thought.

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