This story was adapted from an article by John Lim that originally appeared on Live Young and Well.
In this series of reasons, I’m going to lay out why it’s so hard for you to be creative, framed as what you may be saying to yourself or what others may be saying to you.
John Eldredge’s book ‘Wild at Heart’ explores the masculinity of man, and why men today seem afraid to embrace their true masculinity.
In it, he argues that in every man’s history, there is a moment when he asks,
Do I have what it takes?
When he looks up at his dad fly fishing with him, and he thinks,
Do I have what it takes to cast the rod?
When he looks up at his dad cheering him on at a football game, and he thinks,
Do I have what it takes to score that goal?
Do you have what it takes?
As a creative, your answer may be no.
You don’t think you’re good enough, smart enough, creative enough to create something noteworthy.
That’s true. You may not have the talent to make things happen. But you need to have the grit to keep pounding away at your craft, to make things happen.
If you’re not ready to work everyday at it, quit.
Sorry, there wasn’t a better way to say it. Quit.
This is going to be hard. There are days when you will be stuck, wondering how to get started. There are other days when you just think,
Are you seriously kidding me? Another rejection? Another no-reply?
Another publisher that’s turned me down?
I give up.
And you can. Right now. Do so, please.
I say that because being a creative is hard work. The myth of being the subject of adoring fans, of suddenly finding breakthrough success, suddenly becoming accomplished without putting in the hours of work in, isn’t real.
It happens for some people, a minority of artists, but for the rest, people have had to slog their guts to get to where they are.
Look at Brené Brown, today known as the six-time New York Times bestselling author. Before she was even known as Brené Brown, she was waiting on tables.
In Atlas of the Heart, she shared how she once did three consecutive waitressing shifts to pay her tuition fees. She ended up breaking down and crying in a corner.
There’s a backstory behind every breakthrough. If you want to start this journey, remember. It’s not for the faint of heart.
Each day when you create, it can feel like yanking a bit out of your soul, and leaving it on your creation. That’s art. You leave a bit of you in everything you make.
If you’re not ready for that, then walk away.
The hardest part for me, as a writer, is starting each morning. I look at the blank screen, and I wonder what to write. What can I write that will be as good as what I did previously? I look through previous things that I’ve written, and I think,
How was that so good?
I must have been a genius then…
But not now!
You start with a self-defeatist attitude before you’ve even started writing anything.
Telling yourself that your work is not going to be great may keep you from beginning the work.
But you never know if a work is going to be great. It may be a miss, but in the process of creation, you hone your craft.
In Roger Kneebone’s book ‘Expert’, he studied how experts became experts.
His framework found that in the early part of a craftsman’s journey, they had to learn to be okay with being bored. With doing the mundane things. Like a tailor, being content with sewing on buttons, day after day, before he eventually crafted his own suit.
That’s what this aspect of honing your craft is about. You may feel that sinking feeling.
Ah another day of writing. I’m not inspired today.
I don’t feel motivated today.
Maybe today will be a day when I write something BAD. Horrible.
It’s not waiting for inspiration to strike, and expecting your work to be a home-run all the time. It’s just doing the work. And adjusting after you do the work.
As a writer, I’ve learnt that the most important thing isn’t to have a great outline. It’s to have an ‘okay’ draft. Then after that, we can edit and re-edit until it becomes good enough.
It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be good enough.
When I was young, I remember telling my dad, "I want to write a book!"
In 2020, I wrote 5 books. Sure, only two of them were published. And it was easy for me to diss myself, saying ‘It’s only self-published anyway.’
But that’s what your loved ones can do to you. It can make you feel like it’s a shame to be a creative.
Here’s some of the things that have been said to me.
The heart of not shipping creative work is shame. You feel ashamed of yourself. You don’t just feel that your work is bad, you think that you are bad for even daring to dream of being an artist.
Here’s what I’m going to say to you.
No one may believe in you, but you have to believe in yourself.
You never know when you’re going to make it. You never know when you’ll achieve breakout success, getting onto bestseller lists, getting onto magazine covers, and being interviewed. But if you continue to be stuck in your shame, not shipping the work, you’re never going to make it.
As you can see from Duckworth’s graph above, there will be a period of plateau, where you feel that you’re not improving in your craft. Where you’re in the doldrums, doubting yourself, and wondering whether you will really, truly make it as a creative.
No one knows whether you will make it. But you make it more likely by constantly committing to your craft, shipping, making it happen.
Reframe shame as a ‘shoulder troll’.
Writing coach AJ Harper, whom I worked with under the Heroic Public Speaking Grad term, loved describing her shoulder trolls.
She said that accepting that they were there was the first step to addressing them. They would say things like,
Are you sure this is good enough?
Ah maybe this isn’t that smart.
Who do you think you are?
These shoulder trolls are meant to keep you safe, and to keep you from success. Your loved ones may end up perpetrating these shoulder trolls, making it come ‘live’.
Our job as creatives? Acknowledge they are there, and accept that any creative work, is going to be dangerous. You’re creating something out of nothing! Of course it’s scary! But you need to first believe that your work has value.
In this list of habits, I will list the general principles, together with practical actions you can take.
David Brooks once wrote,
“Great creative minds think like artists but work like accountants.”
Then there’s Mason Currey, who studied the habits of great creative minds,
There is a popular notion that artists work from inspiration—that there is some strike or bolt or bubbling up of creative mojo from who knows where… but I hope my work makes clear that waiting for inspiration to strike is a terrible, terrible plan. In fact, perhaps the single best piece of advice I can offer to anyone trying to do creative work is to ignore inspiration.
Making it a habit is about ritualising it.
For example, everyday, I wake at 6, get coffee, and start writing by 8. It’s about getting yourself in the chair, and making sure that you’re there to push out the work, no matter how you feel.
Sometimes, you may feel like drowning, but honestly… it’s not about how you feel. It’s just about doing the work.
It’s why creative work is like working out with weights, putting in the reps and raising the weights you carry, more than it is about the sudden sprint when you catch a moment of inspiration.
What’s the routine before you create? What helps you to approach the on-ramp to creating gently and successfully, rather than with a cold start?
For me, it’s
‘Deep work’ is a concept introduced by Cal Newport, where he argued that today’s society has become so engaged in shallow work that we have forgotten what it means to be deeply engaged with the work we do. As creatives, if you do not commit to deep work, you will struggle to produce anything noteworthy.
Why? Because the ability to dig deeply into concepts, to tease out ideas, interrogate ideas, and to find new ways of presenting them require a deep, uninterrupted focus. You need to have no distractions for you to engage deeply with the idea.
The idea that you can have your phone by your side, your emails popping in front of you, WhatsApp messages popping beside you, is anathema to the idea of creation.
Cal defines deep work as professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.
These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
In contrast, shallow work is non-cognitively demanding and consists logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.
Forcing yourself to face a blank wall until you’re done can help you to stimulate your creative spirit within. After all, if you’re facing a television, you’re not going to create. You’re going to be consuming what’s on TV. Being in a place of low stimulation, like in front of a blank wall can stop you from being distracted from whatever’s around you.
That’s why beyond the blank wall, other things to stop are having your phone within reach, having WIFI, having food…
You simply sit and stare, or create.
There are no other options.
I need to check up on some research.
I need to know more about this before I write about it.
Having excuses like this can stop you from the act of creating, and instead be in the act of consuming. There’s always more to know, more to find out, before you are ready to create something.
There will never be enough knowledge or insights on your hands before you make something. But you still do it anyway. That’s why I suggest that you hold off the research, and simply create what you know.
Start with a beginner’s mind, every time. You don’t have to know everything. You just need to know how to put your first act of creation together, and then adjust it after that.
Creating art can feel like a performance. After all, if you’re singing, you’ve an audience. The difference between artists and other executives is that you’re creating something for show. Executives may be doing things that are never shown to the world.
Growing in your courage to showcase your art will help to reduce your sense of perfectionism. You will be more comfortable with the idea of ‘shipping’ creative work.
How? Build your own space to share your creation.
For me, blogging has been the most useful way to remind myself that not everything has to be perfect. I use it as an onramp to get started writing, as it reminds me that I can simply write without fear of it needing to be great. After all, it’s a blog. It’s free. People are not paying to read this.
It doesn’t reduce the quality of the work I put out, but it reduces the need to be perfect, especially when you have paying clients or you’re trying to pitch for work.
Seth Godin, the world-famous marketer, still writes everyday even though he doesn’t need an audience.
Showcase your craft every day. It helps you to get into the mood of creating, whether or not you like it.
Don’t wait for inspiration. Being a creative is a job. I say this again.
Being a creative is a job.
Many have this idea of creatives being struck by inspiration, and going into flow states immediately to create something noteworthy. Having written for the past 18 years of my life, inspiration rarely comes.
It’s about sitting in front of your screen and creating, whatever you feel.
So how do you find out what to create? Store every idea that you have in a notebook. This way, you will never be short of ideas of what to do.
When you don’t feel like it, it’s just about putting in your trainers and doing it.
Being a starving artist may sound cool… but worrying about survival is not going to be the best thing for your creativity.
Finding paying clients for your work is the first step to making it as an independent creator. Today, there are things like Patreon, which allow people to support your work.
But it’s also important to reach out to businesses that would need your work. When I first started as a writer, having two regular clients who paid me $400 a month for work helped me to know that there was some security and regularity to what I was doing.
Granted, $400 may not be much, but it covered some of the bills, and allowed me to continue expanding my network of clients to work for.
Finding your first businesses will be vital. How?
It’s nice to do things for free. Who doesn’t want to be kind? But at some point, we need to acknowledge that bills need paying, children need feeding, and you need your own keep.
Asking for money may seem ‘degrading’ to the sanctity of the art you’re creating. After all, doing something for commercial reasons seems to be destroying the magic of art done for the sake of it, and not for the sake of money.
How I look at it is that if you don’t have paying patrons, they won’t respect your work. It’s free anyway.
Some people say that you won’t get anything for your art.
But if you don’t ask, you definitely will not get anything. So ask by saying: "Could I ask if there was remuneration for this?"
If you don’t get an initial first reply, keep following up. Some people forget to reply the first email, the second, and only reply when they get the third.
You may not be like that, but it happens more often than you would imagine. Following up on no replies helps you to get your foot in the door.
I have an entrepreneur friend who once looked at what I produced and said,
Creating something that centres around you is selfish. You’re not serving the customer. You’re serving yourself.
Are you sure people want this?
Creating something people want makes your craft relevant. It makes it impactful to others beyond yourself, and ensures that you will be financially sustainable as a creator. How do you create something people want?
The easiest way is to look at what people are already buying and to ask yourself,
knowing this can help you to understand where to showcase your work so that you get into the right places.
I admit. Sitting down on my chair each day, in front of the computer, and starting the type can be difficult. You can feel like someone is wrenching your gut out of you.
But still you create.
Because you have a voice that deserves to be heard.
And the first thing you need to do is to release that into the world, not letting anyone tell you that your voice doesn’t matter.