A Manifesto for a Happy Creative Life
Ideas are easy, but being able to execute on them is hard—really, really hard. That’s why so many people end up talking about creative work, but never get anywhere. The only way you improve your craft is by practicing it. When you see someone good, doing what they do, this act might appear easy. This is because the person you’re watching has developed muscle memory and intuition. These skills can’t be achieved through talk, good intentions, or “passion.” You only develop such abilities when you’re actively working, with the tools in your hands.
People often confuse doodling with practice. Good practice isn’t solely about doing what you want, or what feels good. To improve, you need to force yourself to do work that’s challenging, and perhaps beyond your current capabilities. I’d compare the act of mastering a craft to embarking upon a big climb: you need to pick a mark, and then struggle to get past the obstacles you encounter. Most times, this process will be easier than you expected at the outset, because the challenge will be broken into small pieces. It’s in persisting, and slowly moving a few feet at a time, that you eventually reach a new peak. Many will stop at this point and be happy with their achievement. However, those driven to create are typically quick to choose another mark, and repeat the process.
The first creative thing you make is going to stink (even if you believe that what you’ve made is great); there’s no way around this. The second one will be bad too, and probably the third. However, after a few dozen—or perhaps few thousand—tries, you might hit upon something good. No one can say when you’ll achieve a breakthrough and start to make work worth talking about. When you’re young, this sort of uncertainty about what you’re doing can seem confining—like you’re being held back from doing what you’re destined to. When you get older, you’ll long for all the time you once had to experiment and learn. Cherish every moment you get, because you don’t come back. Avoid speeding through this journey, and take the time to experience everything—even the slow seeming parts.
If I had to pick one word to describe those of us in the First World, I’d choose “spoiled.” We want what’s ours and we want what’s theirs. We want to be paid top dollar for the work we do, while buying goods made by others paid hardly anything. On top of all of that, we want to have purpose, find our passion, and love our jobs—and we want everyone else to know how great everything is for us. This cultural attitude problem means that few will succeed in producing good creative work—because their egos overpower their interest in simply doing the work. If you can minimize your expectations, you’ll find yourself more equipped for the long road ahead. (And along the way, you’ll experience small victories, which you couldn’t have come by, any other way.)
Work Late at Night
Throughout your day, there are phone calls, emails, discussions, and other distractions. These interrupt your concentration, leaving you less able to achieve the kind of “flow” in which you’re utterly focused on the task at hand. So, you need to seek out times at which these distractions aren’t as overwhelming. There are stretches early in the morning, late in the evening, and on weekends, when demands for your attention quiet down. It’s at these times that you can put your full attention into what you’re doing, and cover more ground than you could otherwise. Even better yet, these sessions can help you achieve a kind of meditative calmness that will reinvigorate you as little else can. These are my very favorite times.
Listen to Music
Part of achieving the meditative state I mention above, involves two other ingredients: music and espresso. Although these elements might not work for you, it’s this combination of making, listening, and consuming caffeine that allow me to “vibrate.” (This probably sounds weird, but I’m a weird guy.) In all seriousness, I love how music puts me into a kind of groove. Similarly, caffeine heightens my ability to live in the moment. You can draw energy from these sorts of stimuli, and in doing so put more of yours into what you’re working on.
Grow Your Vocabulary
Of course, there’s more to music than a means of achieving focus. Music also helps you grow into a more diverse, interesting, and nuanced maker/communicator. By exposing yourself to others’ work, you expand your vocabulary—and when I say vocabulary, I don’t mean purely verbal. Accessing the wealth of beauty, experience, and wonder in the world lends you access to a broader set of visual, cultural, and emotional, understandings. It’s through this kind of observation and experience that you achieve empathy—and this better enables you to make work that moves people. So listen to all kinds of music, read all kinds of books, watch all kinds of films, talk to all kinds of people, and travel to all kinds of places. And if you are lucky enough to be able to have kids, do so. Every one of these experiences will expand who you are—as well as the possibilities for what you might create.
There are so many creative people doing wonderful work that it’s easy to become envious. Personally, I find difficulty in resisting this emotion; there’s something about making that results in me wanting to make everything. (Probably not the healthiest compulsion.) I have to work at reminding myself that I’m not competing in a race. There’s plenty of room for all of us to find joy in partaking in creative activities and making things. And that’s the one big change that I’ve experienced with age: I’ve learned gratitude. I’m so happy to wake up in the morning and know that my whole day will be spent making something. I’m so thankful that others pay me, so I can continue to do the work I enjoy. And I’m even more grateful that I live at a time, in which so many of us can pursue our interests. We’re very lucky, and someday might not be so. I appreciate every day I get.
Postscript: An Invitation
On a related note, Eric Shelkie and I are working on something new that will help creative people share their work and build an audience for what they do. It’s called Artivus, and no project has ever excited me as much as this one. We’ll be inviting a handful of users to test-drive an early version of this system in about a month’s time. If you’d like to apply for access, visit the site and let us know how to reach you when the service is ready to try out. (We’ll post progress updates on the Artivus Facebook page.) Update: We held off on Artivus, in order to work on Officehours.
Want more? Check out the full list of articles, learn about this blog, or grab a book. Here’s what I’m doing now, and what I don’t do. I hold free weekly office hours. Alternatively, you can hire me for more involved engagements, via smashLAB.