work

The inevitable impact of doing a lot of creative work

“You aren’t going to change the world with your ideas.”

But why not at least try? What have we got to lose?

Often I encounter people who have ideas but never do more than sit and think about them. They tell me, “I have this great idea,” but when I ask how it’s going a month later, I’m told the idea fizzled out. “What’s the point?” is a typical reason. Others include not knowing where to start, the fear of failure, or uncertainty in general.

Whatever the creative goal – be it writing a book, starting a business, opening a shop, becoming a prolific painter, you name it – your job is to do the work. No matter what. Even if you don’t know where to start. Even if you’re afraid the end result will be failure.

Really the worst case scenario is you do fail. Your book doesn’t get published. Your business closes its doors. Your paintings don’t hang in a gallery.

But even failure is a victory for creativity, in a lot of ways.

Failing helps us learn (even when we’re not consciously aware of it). More importantly, I think failure allows us to create a lot of varied work, work that may not fulfill our goals or help us reach our vision, but work that can ultimately inspire or motivate others. It’s through any work we do that we do, in-fact, change the world; arguably for the better.

It’s impossible to know what will be a success, but you can improve the odds of encountering it by producing a lot of work.

For years I’ve been writing here on Creative Something. For many, many years people ignored what I wrote. Countless posts have gone onto the graveyard that is the Internet archive, never to be read again. But after writing for so long I’m beginning to learn that people are reading these posts.

Sometimes it’s a few thousand people, other times it’s only a handful.

What I’ve learned is that the handful are motivated enough from what I write to go on and do something with what they’ve read. They act on it, they teach it to others, and while I may not so the fruit of their labors, I know I’ve made an impact in at least one or two or a dozen people’s lives. And that impact inevitably grows. My intents may have failed, but the impact of my efforts have led to a very large and worthwhile reward.

Even failure in producing creative work can be promising.

No, you don’t have to set out to improve the world or change lives, but by merely doing creative work (a lot of it) you undoubtedly will. If your work doesn’t make you a lot of money, give you a reputation, or propel you into the place you want to be, it can, at the very least, inspire or motivate others. But you have to do the work to get even there.

Don’t wait, start today, right now.

Related:

Yes! Your creativity is what the world needs

Creating isn’t easy, try not to forget

What about after you’re a success?



When should you call it quits?

I’ve been working on a new project for months now. If you’re a regular reader of Creative Something you’ve heard me complain about it before.

I’m at the point where I don’t know whether I’m wasting my time or if I should keep pressing on towards the finish line; and I think this is a question all of us end up asking ourselves at one point or another.

“Should I scrap this and start something new, or keep going?”

For any creative this moment of questioning is a common occurrence. At some point in the process of working on a long-term project we have to step back and ask ourselves if it’s worth it to keep going along the path we have been taking.

It’s easy to see why we start questioning what we’re working on. As we go, we often encounter other, possibly more-fulfilling routes (or projects) that we could easily diverge onto. We send little previews of our incomplete work out to peers, friends, and mentors, in hopes of receiving positive feedback or helpful criticism.

Sometimes we get words of encouragement, to press on, to see where the road takes us, and that’s enough to keep us motivated at least for a little while. Other times we get unexpected responses, or no response at all, and wind up wondering, more than ever, if we should call it quits.

When should we quit a project that takes up so much of our time?

The sage wisdom is to keep going. To do the work not for what it will result in, but because the process is part of what we enjoy. A painter who doesn’t enjoy painting isn’t much of a painter anyway, is she?

Recently the famed writer Steven Pressfield had an email conversation with a budding writer who had spent the better part of the past two years getting up three hours early every single day to write a 200,000+ word novel.

The writer was considering quitting the project, as no publication houses had shown any interest in publishing the novel and all of the feedback had jumped from positive to less-than-so.

Steven came back with the following advice, which I find immensely motivating in my own situation and hope you’ll find inspirational as well (particularly for those who have been toiling away at something for a set amount of time). Here’s Steven:

  1. Make every effort to break the habit of listening to other people’s opinion of your work. Not one person in a hundred is qualified to give feedback to [you], including me. You will drive yourself crazy listening to people’s comments…Break that habit.
  2. Make every effort to learn to evaluate your work yourself. If you can, find ONE PERSON you trust for feedback. A friend, your wife, whatever. If you have to pay them to read your stuff, pay them. Frankly, I doubt you will find anyone. The skill is just too rare. You have to learn to do it yourself.
  3. Put this project aside for a while. Move on to something fresh. Meanwhile keep getting it out there to…anyone you can. Just don’t listen to their feedback.
  4. After a minimum of three months, read your novel again with fresh eyes. Evaluate it yourself. Make decisions from there.

While the advice Steven gives here is specifically for writers, I think it rings true for any creative worker; artist, dancer, musician, student, entrepreneur, and so on.

It just doesn’t get more powerful than this. Don’t listen to anyone’s feedback, do the work for yourself. This becomes increasingly harder if you began a project in hopes of making a lot of money or becoming famous, in which case you’re better off dropping the project right now.

On the other hand, if you started the project (or career path) because you actually enjoy parts of it, keep going, but distance yourself for a brief time in order to gain perspective. On that note: there are always things you won’t enjoy about what you do, the key is whether or not you can look back at the end of some work and feel good even about the rough parts.

Head on over to Steven Pressfield’s website to read the whole email exchange in context.

Photo by Jessica Cross.



Letting creative solutions find you

tumblr_mzgstlDSEv1qz7sw8o1_500.jpg

The more time you have to think on something, the more solutions and ideas will make themselves known.

That phrase is actually pretty appropriate, because ideas and answers aren’t the types of things that simply come from nowhere.

No, insights – especially in the case of creative thinking – are already there, inside your brain. But there are a slew of factors that keep us from uncovering those solutions. Sometimes the things that keep us from seeing a creative solution come from a place of fear, though often our inability to think creatively or see the answers in front of us is a direct result of misplaced attention.

Recently Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin discussed this topic on their amazing podcast Back to Work. They explored how where we place our attention impacts literally how we think, not only what we think. They also walked through a problem many of us unknowingly face: we aren’t always consciously aware of where our attention is going at any given moment. A result of this unconscious attention is we end up feeling agitated or anxious without ever fully understanding why.

From that anxiety and wandering attention comes the inability to be creative; our brains are preoccupied with other things to solve problems or generate smart ideas.

A result of all this misplaced attention, anxiety, and unconscious habits? We wind up asking the wrong questions and looking in the wrong places for creative insights. Our intentions might be good – i.e. sitting in front of a blank sheet of paper trying to brainstorm – but if we’re unable to consciously frame our problem or project in a context that allows ideas to make themselves known, we’re doomed.

This act of figuring out where our attention is and where it should be is referred to as Untangling the Present, a buddhist practice. Dan Benjamin explains for us:

As anyone who has solved a complex problem knows, the trick to finding its solution lies in how you frame the issue: identifying the problem and sorting out the pattern of factors related to it….What this boils down to is, when faced with a problem, knowing which questions are helpful to ask about it, and which questions aren’t.

How do we know this is true? From a research and evidence perspective, we don’t. But looking at the logistics of how we, as human beings, think, all signs point to this being the case.

For example: assuming you’re a fairly healthy adult, you have some 100 billion (that’s 100,000,000,000) neurons in your brain. Each neuron is firing and connecting with the hundreds of billions of others at any given time in order to create memories and concepts, experiences, ideas, and understandings of things like taste, sounds, sights, and so on.

Knowing this fact alone, it feels pretty safe to say there’s an overwhelming amount of information tucked up and away in our brains.

But we can’t just access that information by will I’d guess that most of the information in our brains we don’t even know we have. We can’t sit down and think: I need to remember what happened on June 3, ten years ago.

No, the brain doesn’t work like that. It instead works through relationships and linked concepts. For example, when you smell something that you smelled ten years ago, a whole bunch of feelings come rushing back to you instantly. Those areas of the brain associated with that smell have become active.

So when we’re trying to be creative it’s not about attempting to will new ideas out of your brain (that just leads to more frustration, as you probably already have experienced before). You have to instead think about where your attention is, then use your attention proactively bring about possible solutions through the brain’s natural association process (though adding a little imagination in the process is a nice trick too).

There’s so much inspiration and knowledge tucked away in your brain! If you want to be creative all you need to do is step back, relax, and focus your attention on the positive things that may lead to ideas.

I like to think of it this way: you can look at a plank of wood and see it as a solid object. It’s a plank of wood. But if you take the time and energy to get up close and play with the plank, you start to learn more about it. You discover the microscopic crevices and how they form tiny valleys and mountain ranges within the wood. You can feel the texture and how individual splinters flow one way or the other. By looking up close, the color of the plank is no longer simply brown, but maybe there’s some white and blacks in there, possibly yellows, a hint of red perhaps, a dash of blue.

Within each of those details, if you’re paying attention, you can learn a lot more about the plank: what type of wood it is, is it somewhat soft or extremely sturdy, perhaps a symptom of having been a tree in a climate where it rains often? Look closer at the splinters, which way are they facing and does that tell you anything about which way the plank “is facing” or was cut?

A plank of wood is certainly just a plank of wood, but it’s also texture and detail, splinters and divots. It’s a whole bunch of things are easily overlooked.

This ability to be mindful of our attention, to adjust where we’re looking and how we’re looking, that’s where creativity begins to stem from. It’s through that mindful attention that we give our brains a whole lot more to work with than simply “a plank of wood.”

This is all an example of looking at any creative problem, of course.

But it’s not easy. It takes practice, and figuring out what works for you. It’s not enough to simply pay attention, we have to invest time to check our attention, calibrate, and then (and this last part is extremely important) ruminate. Time plays a critical part to all of this, of course. Not only for being mindful of ourselves, but for allowing our brains to make the necessary connections to places where ideas may be hiding.

Being given time to ruminate and explore, to ask the questions nobody asked on the forefront, that’s when our brains can do their natural job of associating the vast library of information held within them.

In conclusion, while someone may look at a project and think: “This is what it is, and this is what it can do,” it’s the creative individual who gets up close, takes their time, and thinks: “This is what it is, but what about the details? What if we changed the environment? Where did this come from? What am I focusing on here and what else could I be focusing on?”

Today, try to pay more attention to where your attention is. Then adjust it and see what happens. Ask questions as you adjust, give yourself time to ruminate, and you’ll find that ideas start to appear.



Three reasons why “they” don’t like to work

tumblr_mtk6g7Vs1w1qz7sw8o1_500.png

“Work” has a bad reputation, when it shouldn’t.

Whenever I tell my friends or family that I worked over the weekend the response is typically that of apologizing, of stating: “I’m sorry.”

This weekend, for example, I had to spend a few hours updating the creative apps I’ve created for iOS devices. I ended up missing a birthday party as a result of having to do the work, and when I gave my excuse the response I got back was along the lines of: “That’s terrible that you have to work!”

But why?

For me, work is something I immensely enjoy. It’s rewarding, challenging, and provides me with a sense of purpose. No, I don’t work every weekend and I do have hobbies and other things I really enjoy, but work, for me, is something very few activities can match in terms of how rewarding it can be.

This mentality of work as a negative thing needs to change if we’re going to be successful creatives. Work isn’t bad when it’s balanced healthily with non-work life. We need to change how we view “work,” particularly in the creative field.

This isn’t a rant about how we should never spend our weekends playing video games, going camping, or watching an entire season of an popular TV show (I’ve done that more than I’d like to admit). What is this article about then? It’s a reminder that work isn’t something to dread, to fear, to apologize for.

Work, instead, should be viewed as a rewarding experience, time well spent, something you can proudly admit to spending a weekend doing.

Consider the fact that work is something you can uniquely offer to the world. It’s something that can influence people, impact your life, and give you purpose when you need it most. How can something so empowering be viewed as so negative?

Without good work to be done, many of us would waste away from boredom, or a senseless set of direction in life.

Why is it that work gets such a bad reputation then?

There are a few reasons, and they are reasons that each of us needs to address personally. I call these: Reasons Why They Dislike the Work. The reasons many people end up disliking the work their doing are as follows:

1. The work is boring.

Work that isn’t challenging for your skill-set, or that requires little stretching outside of your comfort zone, is work that is going to always seem like a chore.

Nobody wants to do boring work. From filling out Excel sheets to writing up invoices, work that doesn’t challenge you to strive for betterment is going to always seem to simply get in your way. This type of work has to be done though, more often than not.

But even the boring work can be stretched into more challenging work.

By setting hard-to-hit goals around objectives, attempting to learn new skills (like keyboard shortcuts, better and more efficient ways to reach the end-goal, etc.), and even turning the work into a type of game, can all make it much more enjoyable and worthwhile.

2. The work is too challenging.

On the other end of the spectrum is work that is too challenging.

This is the type of work where you don’t have any idea what to do with it. It keeps you up at night even after spending countless days working on it. You know there’s a way to get this type of work done, but you just can’t seem to get moving.

For overly-challenging work you may find yourself often procrastinating, waiting until somebody forces you to do the bare minimum or take the work off of your plate for you.

When it comes to this type of work, the solutions commonly involve finding a mentor, digging your heels-in to learn how to do the work on your own (thanks to the power of the Internet), or even passing it off to someone more experienced.

The benefit of overly-challenging work like this is, of course, that you can always learn from the experience. It’s a matter of mindset at this point, as long as you seek help.

3. The work just isn’t important.

Ah yes, the most daunting of all reasons for disliking work: uselessness.

When you find yourself feeling as though there’s something else you should be doings, something well-worth while, it’s important to do two things: first, take a step back and figure out whether or not what it is you’re supposed to be doing is actually important (filing taxes doesn’t seem very important when you’re doing it, for example, but here in the United States it’s actually extremely vital to your well-being).

The second thing you need to do is remind yourself of the end-goal. Your end-goal.

Filing for a business license isn’t everyone’s idea of fun work, for example, but for a freelance artist who is trying to take her business to the next level, it’s a really critical step to getting things done. The meaningless work that gets you a step closer to the work that matters.

If the work is important enough to where it impacts your long-term-goal(s), then it’s worth reminding yourself that it’s important to do now, even when you aren’t feeling like it.

Long story short: I love working. Particularly when it comes to the work I’ve always dreamed of doing.

Work is a way for me to ensure that I’m using my time wisely: by challenging myself, I’m growing personally and professionally.By doing work that has long-term returns, I have a clear direction in how I spend my days and time. And by working on things that allows me to learn from others who know better than I do, my abilities and skills reach out infinitely.

As you should be able to tell: work isn’t bad! It doesn’t have to be, anyway.

Work is a way to grow, to influence those around you and who love what you do. Whenever anybody tells me: “I’m sorry you had to work over the weekend,” I just laugh now and say: “I’m sorry you didn’t have anything important enough to enjoy working on.”

So what about you: do you have anything that’s important and challenging enough that you would spend your time doing it, rather than watching the TV or laying around?