The greatest work of your life doesn’t happen in one fell swoop. It’s a process of planting seeds, putting messages in bottles, being patient, persistent, committed and doing the work. It’s the work and journey of a lifetime, not a brief moment in the spotlight.
1. Stop Waiting for Permission
For so much of our lives, we’ve been conditioned to ask for permission.
In school, we had to raise our hands before we spoke.
At work, we have to ask permission to take time off
If we wanted to drive, we got a license
Permission slips are lovely for breeding conformity. But they rarely lead to meaningful work or a meaningful life.
But with creative work, we have to give ourselves permission to fail, suck, and try things that might not work. As my friend AJ says “great change is the result of incremental progress combined with brief moments of audacity.”
There’s no permission fairy holding a golden ticket to the greatest creative work of your life. You have to give yourself permission.
2. Act in Anticipation of Inspiration
Professionals don’t wait for inspiration. They act in anticipation of it. – Steven Pressfield
Inspiration is an unreliable strategy for creative work. We don’t know when or if it will emerge on any given day. Acting in anticipation of inspiration means you create on a schedule, not just when you feel motivated.
Some days my best ideas emerge the moment I sit down to write. Other days, they appear an hour later, or not at all. Because I know I’ll be back tomorrow, it doesn’t matter if I write anything great today.
Great work might result from a moment of inspiration, but it will only emerge when we act in anticipation of it.
3. Don’t Seek Validation
A couple of years ago one of my cousins told me a story about a distant relative who told her that what I was doing was a waste of my education and my life. The day my first traditionally published book came out, that distant relative left a comment on Facebook congratulating me.
I made a note to make sure I took that distant relative off the guest list for my future wedding.
But that experience made me realize just how pointless it is to seek validation from anybody. When we seek validation in any way at all, we concern ourselves with opinions of people who won’t live with the consequences of our choices. And often those same people will either move on to somebody else they can criticize or something else to criticize you about.
Don’t feed the trolls and remember these wise words from Scott Stratten. You’re not the jackass whisperer.
4. Develop Good Habits
If momentum is the lifeblood of a startup or creative endeavor, habits are the lifeblood of the person running that startup or working on a creative project. What you do today plants the seeds for who you become tomorrow.
Ask yourself whether your daily habits are leading you towards your desired outcome.
Look closely, and you’ll start to see that everything in your life is a system. In any system, when you modify the input, you change the output. You can even view how you spend your days through the lens of a system.
Your daily routine, your habits, your consumption, and your calendar are all part of a system. Your habits will impact your calendar. What you consume will impact whatever you create. Seeing it all as a system allows us to detach from outcomes, and focus on the process instead of the prize. As I’ve said before, having a system is essential to increasing your creative output. Your habits are the elbow grease of that system.
5. Master Your Craft
There’s a difference between building a creative career and producing one piece of work. A career requires a willingness to give certain things up. It’s a recognition that your cumulative output matters more than any individual piece of work combined. It’s a commitment to mastery, deep work, and deliberate practice. Sam Altman tells startup founders “your greatest competitive advantage is a long-term view.” And he defines a long-term view as ten years.
Many of the books that are on the New York Times Bestseller list ended up there, years after being published.
Michael Jackson’s Thriller is one of the best selling albums of all time. But it didn’t happen until after he had recorded multiple albums with The Jackson Five and Off the Wall.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend asked me what my goal was with writing books. I said, “to write more books.” I see creative success as an infinite game, in which the goal isn’t to win, but to keep playing, to keep getting to do the thing I love.” The gift of achieving mastery isn’t arrival or accolades. It’s getting to keep doing the thing you’ve spent years trying to master.
6. Start Before You're Ready
The most significant obstacle that stands in the way of anyone’s creative work is the belief that they’re not ready. I’ve seen it in myself, in some of the people I’ve worked with and hundreds of others who have ideas but never act on them. You have to start before you’re ready because that’s the only way you’re going to develop the necessary skills to down the greatest work of your life.
Maybe your work will suck when you start. So what. Everybody’s creative work sucks when they start. A few weeks ago I was reviewing one of my interviews from 2014. That was after almost five years of interviewing people. Back then I thought it was good. Last week it made me cringe. I missed half a dozen opportunities to ask a better question.
The only way to build the necessary feedback loops which give you an opportunity to improve is to ship.
7. Stop waiting to be Picked
There’s a strange paradox to how I became an author who a publisher was willing to bet on.
- I gave up my dream of writing a book with a publisher.
- A woman who helped authors get published told me I wasn’t ready, and she was right.
- After five years I’d never received one of those emails from an editor at a publishing house, expressing interest in my work.
In that same year, I started writing 1000 words a day and self-published two books, one of which accidentally became a Wall-Street Journal, best seller. Two years later, I did get one of those emails from an editor asking if I wanted to do a book with a publisher.
So often we wait to get picked. We think that we won’t have any credibility until we get someone else’s stamp of approval. But credibility is not something you get. It’s something you create. And the most efficient path to creating it is to choose yourself. Tina Seelig tells her young students at Stanford that “you should never miss an opportunity to be fabulous.”
With the gatekeepers no longer standing guard at their gates, but rather looking for the next great piece of work, and almost free access to tools, resources, and distribution channels, the opportunity to be fabulous is available to us in abundance, like never before. We can learn from the best, become masters of our craft, and bridge the gap between who we are today, and who we want to become tomorrow. We have to stop waiting for permission to be extraordinary.
Every simple choice that you make about how you spend your day is like a drop of paint on a canvas. With each drop, you plant the seeds for what Pamela Slims refers to as our body of work, and the masterpiece that becomes the greatest work of your life. And this is ultimately a gift to the world, even if it’s just one small part of the world. Don’t deny us of this gift and make something every day.
When I met my editor Stephanie at Penguin, she told me something about gatekeepers that I feel is sage wisdom for anyone looking to build a creative career:
People think that we’re standing guard at the publisher looking for opportunities to say no. But the truth is we’re looking for opportunities to say yes. Our job depends on finding new and exceptional creative talent.
A couple of years ago, one of my friends came to visit me at my parents during the holidays. I was lamenting about all the challenges I was facing. After my rant was over, he said: “but this is what you signed up for.” And was he right.
So now you have to ask yourself, are you ready to do the work that you signed up for? That’s how a creative career gets built. That’s how the greatest work of your life happens.