Having a career as a creative (either as a thinker or maker) is a lot like the sport of rowing.
In rowing, you sit in your boat with your back facing the direction you’re moving in and the only way to propel yourself forward is to use everything you’ve got in order to pull two long paddles through the water.
The full stroke is known as the catch and release, where in one smooth motion you “catch” the water and then “release” it to propel the boat and yourself. Rowing requires you to use almost every major muscle in your body.
It’s exhausting if you’ve never tried it.
When you first start out it’s best to diligently try balancing the boat. In your creative life it is no different: there will be a lot of things that will pull you to one side or the other and rock you side-to-side. Your family and friends, bosses or customers, bills and other responsibilities, all oppose your desire to just go in a clear, straight direction; to create.
Finding that balance between everything in and around your creative life is critical to your success. If you can’t find that balance (something you’ll have to do your entire life), you’re going to tip the boat over. It’s something both creatives and rowers share in common: the consistent need to find balance.
Now, once you have a good balance, just as in rowing, you’ll have to set a clear course.
Your course is best set by picking a point in the horizon as your chosen direction. Just a point, nothing more. No matter what happens during the course of your creative career (or when rowing), that point is where your focus must remain at all times.
Maybe your focus is to become a well-known author or painter. Perhaps your focus is to open a studio for musicians or dancers. Or maybe you simply want to have a successful career as an architect, where you can make a happy living designing and illustrating buildings and homes of the future.
If you don’t have that focus, that direction, then you are wasting your time.
Having a focus gives you clarity into how you’re doing. Without a course you have no way to tell whether what you’re doing is working or not. Without that clear focus in which to head, how can you know if you’re doing anything worthwhile?
Just as in rowing: the point you chose to head towards is the only point that should matter.
In your creative career things will often lead you astray: a promising education elsewhere, the opportunity to work with other talented people, a mistake or something in your path.
No matter what obstacles get in your way, and no matter how choppy the waves get, you have to dedicate yourself to the course. Otherwise you may end up going in circles, or not moving at all. Both can kill your career or, in the case of rowing, your energy.
When rowing, because your back is facing the direction you’re going, the only way to know whether or not you’re heading in the right direction is to do something you might not expect: focus on the things around what you can see.
Think of it like this: we can only recognize whether we’re heading in the right direction by noticing the way other things around us shift.
If something you are intently focused on (say, getting an artist studio or reaching the embankment of a lake) shifts in your vision, you know that you’re not heading in the right direction. You can adjust accordingly.
In rowing, you would set your course before you get in the boat, find your balance, then look at exactly what’s in front of you now (off in the distance some). If that point or anything near it changes, you can tell you’ve gone off course.
The real core of both rowing and your creative career will be, of course, what you actually do. Your actions. The actual movement of each row is like your ability to create and act. Movement. Each artwork you paint, each story you write, each step you physically take, become your strokes in the water, propelling you towards your goal.
If you stop rowing – if you stop writing, or drawing, or dancing, or playing that instrument – then you will certainly stop moving, both on water and in your career. You have to continuously keep rowing if you want to get anywhere. Keep moving, no matter what.
This is where I think most creative individuals fail.
They get exhausted (we all do), or lose sight of their destination. The creatives that fail to turn their passions into a career end up doing so because they stopped caring or because it just got too hard to continuously row.
The amateur rowers who never make it to the Olympics or who never win a regatta simply do so because of their own inability to meet the demands of the sport.
And here’s the thing: you are going to lose sight of where you wanted to go. You are going to burnout and get tired. You will have trouble balancing from time-to-time, and you certainly will tip the boat over at least once or twice. You will occasionally lose control of an oar, you will feel defeated by the water or the creative world.
But if you’re really going to succeed as a creative, you have to get back in the boat. You have to re-align yourself with where you want to be, and you have to row. Remember that it’s true for both rowers and creatives: the stroke is the catch and release.
Catch – the hard-pulling stroke where you put all of your energy into a work – and release – the launching of your work into the world, the oar coming up and out of the water. Then reset. Do it again. This time better, with more energy, more focused intent.
Set a course, find balance, regularly check your direction, make adjustments as necessary, and never, ever, stop rowing.