The geography of a creative life is filled with peaks, valleys, dead ends and detours. When you're building a career in the arts, there is no map. You use a compass. You don't always know where it's going to lead or how you're going to get there. It's almost guaranteed that your life won't go according to plan and you'll end up taking the scenic route. After more than 700 interviews, 2 books, and raising a round of venture funding, these are some of the most important things I've learned about creative fulfillment.
Creative Fulfillment Begins with an Audience of One.
The week my book came out, my sister called me and asked how it was going. I said, "It hasn't hit any best-seller lists or sold as many copies as I'd like." She said, "Yeah, but that's the message of the book. You don't believe what you wrote. How could you expect anyone else will?"
In the age of self-promotion, vanity metrics, and the parade of people's accomplishments, it's hard to see the value of creating for an audience of one. But, anytime I've worked on a creative project for the sole purpose of external validation, it has always let me down. You have to be excited about what you're creating, regardless of who many people it reaches—whether that's an audience of millions or an audience of one.
1. Spend Less Time Comparing and More Time Creating. If you scroll through Facebook, Instagram or even read articles on Medium, there's always someone who has sold more books, makes more money, has more fans, etc, etc. Excessive consumption doesn't just decrease your creative fulfillment. It fuels envy, comparison and anxiety.
When you stop comparing and start creating, that's when everything begins to change. So, stop reading income reports, reveling in the highlight reels of everyone's life and start creating some of your own.
2. Don't Mistake Vanity Metrics for Value. You can game every system. You can buy your way to a million followers on any social network. When you mistake vanity metrics for value, you'll end up optimizing for metrics instead of meaning. You make a long-term sacrifice for a short-term gain. As Austin Kleon says, "You want hearts, not eyeballs."
3. Seek Less Attention. Pay More Attention. In his TED Talk, Joseph Gordon Levitt noted a profound distinction between paying and seeking attention.
When we pay attention, we become absorbed in what we're doing. We experience the joy of being in flow. The creative process becomes its own reward, and we make meaningful progress. It leads to creative fulfillment. When we seek attention, we always feel deficient in some way.
4. Curiosity is Your Greatest Asset. Curiosity is my primary filter for every person I interview, every book I write, and every creative project I ship. When you're genuinely curious bout something, your work will never feel like work. Enthusiasm will infuse everything you do.
5. Be Patient. It takes tremendous patience and a long-term view to build a career in the arts. Some people succeed early. Others don't hit their stride until much later in life. There's a lot of power to having patience in a world obsessed with early achievement.
6. Control is an Illusion. We control almost nothing. Everything you fight has power over you and everything you accept doesn't. Surrender is the path to a fulfilling creative life. When you expect nothing, everything comes to you.
7. Read. The more you read, the more you'll be exposed to different ideas. Creativity is about connecting dots. But in order to connect those dots, you have to collect them first. Reading allows you to collect lots of dots.
8. Carry a Notebook. Because you'll never capitalize on your ideas without the discipline to capture them. Notebooks are fertile soil for creative ideas. They also give a fantastic opportunity to avoid sources of distraction. Don't be afraid to fill them with shitty first drafts and half baked ideas. I can barely read my handwriting, but I still use a notebook every day.
9. Design the Right Environment. It's hard to be inspired when you're a space that doesn't inspire you. Where you create will have a big impact on what you create. The 9 environments that make up our lives have a different impact on everyone. Pay attention to your output in each environment. Then make note of which ones cause you to do your best work and do it there.
10. Make Time for Your Art. Anything you say you don't have time for is not a priority. You'll never hear a professional writer say they don't have the time to write. If you want to become more creative, you have to make time for it. If all you set aside is one focused hour a day of uninterrupted creation, you'll end up building a massive body of work.
11. Unplug. We were never meant to spend so much time staring at screens. When we don't unplug, we become so connected to the world outside us and we lose touch with the world within us. Don't turn on your devices first thing in the morning or start your day on the internet. Meditate; go for a walk; watch the sunrise.
12. Travel. Travel heightens our senses. It makes the mundane extraordinary. In a place like India, crossing the street can turn into an adventure and a real-life game of Frogger. But more than that, it shifts our perspective. We see things from an angle we've never seen them before. If you travel to a country that is poor, you quickly begin to see that most of your challenges are imagined limitations.
13. Exercise. If you talk to any prolific creator, you'll notice that they have some sort of physical hobby that is often the fuel for their creative fire. As a surfer, I get all of my best ideas when I'm in the water. That's because exercise releases all sorts of feel-good chemicals and puts us into a state of flow.
14. Be Deliberate About Your Consumption Habits. The art you consume is your creative practice, as what food is to your body. If you put garbage into your body, what comes out is garbage. The same goes for your mind. Treat the information you consume like the food you eat. Resist the temptation to click on everything. If you're drowning in the sea of other people's ideas and insights, you'll have a difficult time hearing your own voice.
15. Create For Its Own Sake. It's a blessing and a curse what technology has made possible. In the age of endless self-promotion, creating for an audience of one has taken a backseat to accumulate fans, followers, and inflate vanity metrics.
The paradox, of course, is this leads to less creative fulfillment. When aspiring artists do their work from a place of need for validation, what you end up with is a clickbait, me too businesses, and a mimicry epidemic that makes it impossible to cut through the noise.
But when you follow your curiosity instead of your desire for validation, your work becomes genuine, authentic, and much more resonant. It increases the likelihood that you'll strike a chord with someone. This is easy to say and hard to. Yet, it will make you a hell of a lot happier.
16. Nobody Will Ever Care As Much As You Do About the Art You Create, the Movement You Start or the Company You Build. You will set the tone for the behavior of the people you collaborate with. Art worth-making and anything in your life worth-doing will take far longer than you expect.
17. Today, We Live in a World Where You Can Go From Idea to Execution in a Matter of Hours. But that doesn't mean you'll be successful just as quickly.
18. The Only Viable Long Term Strategy to Build an Audience For Your Art is To Be So Good They Can't Ignore You. You can't do this by taking a course and implementing a bunch of tactics. This takes years of work.
19. Seek Guidance But Don't Treat it as a Gospel. If you do, you'll become a pale imitation of your predecessors and get washed up in a sea of sameness.
20. Don't Put Your Heroes and Role Models on Pedestals. They have the same flaws as every other human. Eventually, they'll disappoint you. If they haven't, just wait. You probably haven't known them that long.
21. ABC. Always Be Creating. The greatest way to get better at your art is to make more of it. And you don't have to make everything for public consumption.
22. Don't Follow Trends. A few years go, it was a trend to start a blog. Right now, it's trendy to start a podcast.
So, everybody and their mother is starting one. If you're genuinely passionate about it, great. But make sure that headlines haven't deluded you into thinking you're passionate about something when you're not.
All trends come to an end, so aim to create something that will stand the test of time—something that will matter 10 years from now and after you're gone. As my friend, Jordan, says, "Focus on legacy, not currency."
23. How You Measure Your Life and Your Creative Work Will Have a Big Impact On Your Happiness and Creative Fulfillment. If you measure your self-esteem with vanity metrics or any metrics for that matter, as Ryan Holiday says, "It's a recipe for profound disappointment."
24. If You Want to Make a Living as an Artist, You Have to be Ok With Asking People for Money. If somebody in your audience gets offended that you're selling something, send them all of your bills for the month, and transfer your mortgage to their name. Otherwise, tell them not to let the door hit their ass when they unsubscribe.
25. Nothing That You Accomplish as an Artist Will Heal Your Wounds or Provide You With Everlasting Creative Fulfillment. As Josh Radnor said to Sam Jones, "A successful career in the arts is rigged for dissatisfaction."
26. Accept the Fact That People Will Hate Your Art and Be Ok With the Fact That It's Not For Them. When you seek artistic validation from your audience, you're less likely to get it. You decrease your sense of creative fulfillment. Your work becomes safe, manufactured and predictable.
27. The Greatest Battle You'll Have to Win as an Artist is the One Inside Your Head. Much like running a startup, you have to learn to manage your psychology.
28. The Art That You're Most Afraid to Make, the Writing You're Most Afraid to Share, and the Stories You've Been Resisting are Often the Most Emotionally Resonant. Your greatest art comes from your greatest pain. But it's also a fine line between being vulnerable and being a train wreck.
29. Nobody Gives a Shit What You're Going to Start. It's easy to talk about the things you're going to start. But, it doesn't matter if you have nothing to show for it. All that counts is what you've finished.
30. Make More Art. The more art you make, the better your art will be. The more that you'll increase the likelihood of becoming so good they can't ignore you.