(Or: Why The Fastest Route to Doing Your Best Creative Work is to Show Up Every Day, Ship Early, and Ship Often.)
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As people who care deeply about what we do and what we create, our goal is always quality. We’re aiming to write or design or record the best work we can; always seeking to get better.
Like I said last week, as a creative person, it’s so easy to get wrapped up in the end product. You have this idea — this clever, beautiful, amazing thing you see in your mind. You want to make that, and anything less is unacceptable.
But, when you’re there, in the mire of your own work, it usually feels like anything but quality. It usually feels like crap.
As a writer, I never cease to amaze myself at my inability to find the words I am looking for. And then, when I can’t find them, I have no choice but to use the less-exciting words which have come to mind rather than those perfect ones which always seem to escape me.
It is in those moments where I have to remember that quantity leads to quality. Or, put another way, I’ve become comfortable with falling short of my own lofty expectations.
Today, the goal isn’t perfection. It’s far more simple: The goal is to show up and do the best work that I can.
Don’t believe that you must chose between creating a lot of something, or creating one thing that is a masterpiece. The former leads to the latter.
Yes, I want to be a fantastic writer. Yes, I want to write engaging, clever, and quotable works. Yes, I want my articles to be insightful and memorable. But I’ll never reach it if I quit while things seem poor. I cannot allow myself to only write when it feels inspired and en route to greatness.
If we sit around and wait for quality it won’t come.
Quality must be pursued.
In an article in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell cited psychologist Dean Simonton and brings up Simonton’s argument that quantity does, in fact, lead to quality:
The psychologist Dean Simonton argues that this fecundity is often at the heart of what distinguishes the truly gifted. The difference between Bach and his forgotten peers isn’t necessarily that he had a better ration of hits to misses. The difference is that the mediocre might have a dozen ideas, while Bach, in his lifetime, created more than a thousand full-fledged musical compositions. A genius is a genius, Simonton maintains, because he can put together such a staggering number of insights, ideas, theories, and observations, and unexpected connections that he almost inevitably ends up with something great. “Quality,” Simonton writes, is “a probabilistic function of quantity.”
In his book, Deep Work, Cal Newport also argues that along with the ability to focus, quality is a byproduct of quantity.
High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)
He then goes on to say that, “unless your talent and skills absolutely dwarf those of your competition, the deep workers among them will outproduce you.”
Moreover, the idea that quantity leads to quality is the same case Geoff Colvin makes in his book, Talent is Overrated. Stating that the world’s top performers are, for the most part, people just like you and I but who have (a) put in far more hours practicing their craft and (b) made the most of their practice time by practicing with intentionality and deep focus.
“One day at a time. It sounds so simple. It actually is simple, but it isn’t easy. It requires incredible support and fastidious structuring.” — Russell Brand
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Consider the fairytale of Goldilocks and the three bears.
Goldilocks happens upon the home of three bears while they’re out on a walk. She comes in and tastes their porridge, sits in their chairs, and sleeps in their beds.
The first bowl of porridge was too hot; the second, too cold; but the third was just right. And likewise for the chairs she sat in and the beds she napped in.
So it is in our pursuit of quality, excellence, and breakthrough…
At first we feel like intruders; imposters. Everything we put our hand to is not quite right. Too hot, too cold, to big, too small, hard, soft.
But then, after enough perseverance and focus, eventually, we create something that’s just right.
There are two types of creative goals.
The first type of goal is the goal a project that you’re building. Something you’re making. A goal of something that does not exist and that you are in process of creating.
The second is a goal related to your creative output. Your skill set, your talent, your ideas, inspiration, motivation.
The two go hand in hand. Each one needs the other.
Because, as we’ll dive in to next week, quantity leads to quality. The more you do the work and the more you learn by shipping — then, in turn, the more you will grow in your skills. And, the more you grow in your skills the more you’ll be able to reach your goals for the work you create.
Loving the Process
How much do you enjoy the journey of creativity?
What if there was no end result? What if it was just a process of day in and day out. Showing up and showing your work?
Are you content in the creative process?
Are you content with your creative process?
When I think back to the building and launching of The Focus Course, what I remember most is the whole story and all the work leading up to the launch.
It started with a few dozen podcast episodes for the Shawn Today members. Those episodes turned into chapters of a book that never got published because I changed my mind about the book and began creating an online course instead. I mapped the whole thing out on my floor with index cards. I then led a small pilot group through the course using an email list…
That whole process, that year-long creative journey, was so much fun. It was exhilarating.
The launch of the Focus Course was just a one-day event. One day.
Then, I went back to creating. I started working on the next version of the course.
Perhaps what’s most difficult is that feeling of overwhelm when you’re on the threshold of a new project and you see where you are right now and you compare it to where you hope to go, and it feels unsurmountable.
Ira Glass explains this so well. Take a few minutes to watch this video:
Remember this: start with the simplest step first.
You never outgrow that bit of advice.
No matter how advanced you are in your craft, how much experience you have, etc. You always have to start with the first step.
As a creative person, it’s so easy to get wrapped up in the end product. You have this idea — this clever, beautiful, amazing thing you see in your mind. And you want to make that. Anything less is unacceptable.
The problem, however, is that this clever, beautiful, amazing thing you see is completely unreasonable as the first version.
The first version is the baby version…
It’s small. It’s naked. It’s crying at first contact with the real world. It needs to be nursed and continually cared for and swaddled. It poops its pants whenever you’re not looking. It won’t even let you sleep through the night.
But with proper care and feeding, your baby will grow up. It will mature. And, over time, it will learn to stand on its own.
If you’re in it for the long run, be encouraged…
Starting small isn’t something you “settle” for. Rather, it’s the proper way to get going. And when you commit your time and energy to your creative goals, you will see progress.
As we’ll talk about more next week, a commitment to quality is what gives motivation to show up every day. And showing up every day — that quantity of work — is what leads to creating with quality.
P.S. I’m planning something awesome for Focus Course members that will begin next month. I’ll let you know more about that next week as well.
Creativity and business are both packed to the rafters with risk. If you’re trying to do your best creative work or if you’re building a business, then you’re going to have to take risks.
But they don’t have to be wild, all-in bets. And, you can have fun in the process.
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Risk is part of creativity
Have you ever found yourself staring down the barrel of a project, and you say:
“This might not work.”
Hopefully that’s a common phrase for you. Because when you’re not sure if something will work, that’s when you know you’re on to something.
Perhaps the idea or the project itself won’t prove to be successful, but that’s okay. Merely trying something out that may or may not prove to be great is worth the effort.
Ernest Hemingway’s advice was to “write drunk, edit sober.”
Create without inhibition. Create without fear of failure; without mind for other people’s opinions; without fear of rejection; without feeling like an impostor.
As Derek Sivers writes in his book, Anything You Want:
Business is as creative as the fine arts. You can be as unconventional, unique, and quirky as you want. A business is a reflection of the creator. Pay close attention to what excites you and what drains you. Pay close attention to when you’re being the real you and when you’re trying to impress an invisible jury.
Risk will always be a part of the creative process. Because creativity is not a science — it’s filled with objectivity that changes from within and without based on the weather.
There’s no sure fire way to make something awesome. There’s no proven formula to go viral. There’s no such thing as literal overnight success.
Get comfortable with risk. When you know that risk is just part of the game, it helps you in your fight to stay creative.
Moreover, if you can be comfortable with risk in your creative work, you will, in turn, be more comfortable with risk in your business.
That’s important because…
Risk is Part of Business
Five years ago, when I quit my job and began working for myself, I took the “leap” to writing full time.
It’s called a “leap” for a reason.
Going full-time with my writing was a risk.
I was standing at the edge of a cliff. There was a gap, and there was another cliff across from me. I had to leap from not-full-time and hope made it across to the other side.
Standing at the edge, there was no bridge that was going to come build itself. I had gone as far as I could with the time and the resources I had available to me. I could either remain there in that spot, or I could take a leap and hope to make it to the other side.
So many people get get to that same spot. That spot where they’ve gone as far as they can with the time and resources available to them. But then, once they’re there, they stop and wait.
Who knows what they’re waiting for. More time? More resources?
It’s (probably) not time or money that’s the biggest issue holding them back. I think it’s fear.
However, that’s not to say you should throw caution to the wind. When I took the leap into my full-time writing gig, I most certainly did my due diligence and was prepared financially. (Which is a topic worthy of its own book.)
You’ve got to make sure you…
Minimize Financial Risk
When I quit my job, I had:
- No kids, no debt, an emergency fund saved up, my wife had a part-time income.
- My website was already making some money ($1,000 / month).
- I also had a plan to front-load 90-days worth of income by having the membership subscription charge people quarterly instead of monthly.
The best-case scenario was obviously that I would be able to earn enough revenue to pay all our bills and keep writing full-time. Fortunately, that’s how things have turned out so far.
But the worst-case scenario really wouldn’t have been that terrible. If, after having given the writing gig my full-time attention for 90 full days without seeing any traction, I would have gone to get a part-time job somewhere and then returned to the drawing board.
Basically, if the membership model hadn’t worked out, it would have been embarrassing but not catastrophic.
Over the years, as I’ve slowly built a business around writing and publishing, I’ve continued to minimize financial risk by doing things like staying out of debt and moving at the speed of cash and saving up a business emergency fund.
But there is more at risk than just the financials themselves. You also want to make sure what it is you’re creating is actually of value to others. You want your creative endeavors to fly.
How can you do that?
Minimize the Risk of Failure
There are so many ways you can minimize the risk of your project failing. The way I know best is through consistently writing.
Writing helps you get your thoughts out onto paper. It helps you get your ideas in order. And it gives you assets you can use for your business and creative endeavors.
It’s also what you have to do first before you publish anything. Writing an article, a podcast outline, a video outline, etc. You’ve got to write if you want to publish content.
And, quite frankly, publishing content is one of the best things you can do to minimize the risk of your next big project being a flop.
By writing and publishing, you’re doing three huge things:
- Opening a feedback loop between you and your audience (the people who will buy from you, spread the word about your work, etc.).
- Giving away value and helping others.
- Establishing yourself as someone who is credible and who cares.
And so, yes, you minimize the risk of failure by showing up every day. It’s not about numbers, it’s about connections.
As Jeffery Feldman says (quoted from Austin Kleon in in Show your work!):
What you want is to follow and be followed by human beings who care about issues you care about. This thing we make together. This thing is about hearts and minds, not eyeballs.
Showing up every day, teaching what you know, and connecting with your audience by being honest is how you actually connect with folks.
Now that you’re comfortable with risk, it’s time to…
Celebrate Your Progress
When you’ve taken a risk, give yourself a high five. 🙌
Keep track of what you create, what you ship, what you sell, what you were expecting to happen, what actually happened, what worked, what didn’t work, etc.
I do this by journaling in Day One.
Celebrating progress keeps up your intrinsic motivation. It’s also an excellent way to keep track of your growth and lessons learned.
Because in a few months time, you’ll have forgotten all about that risk you just took because you’ll be on to the next one.
Which is why next week I want to share about how to set creative goals and actually make progress.
The risk part is just one big step. But then, after you’ve taken that initial leap — the first big risky move — what comes next is all the hard work of iteration.
Setting creative goals is also critical because you’ve got 100 ideas for inspiration. You need a goal so you know what to focus your time and energy on. Without creative goals, you’re like a wave in the ocean, being tossed to and fro with the wind.
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This was part five in a series of articles I’ve been writing about creativity and entrepreneurship lessons learned after five years as a full-time self-employed writer. You can find the previous four articles here:
Consider the components to a creative business (or any business, really), and here’s what you get:
Who, What, Why, How, and How Much.
- Who is your (ideal) customer or client.
- What is the product or service you’re creating or providing.
- How is a combination of your resources as well as your business plan (as in: how are you going to do the work, and how are you going to connect your product with your customer).
- How Much relates to the value you’re providing to your customer as well as the price you’re charging them.
- Why relates to the motivation, vision, and values of the work you do.
Two sidebars before we get started:
- This doesn’t just have to relate to indie entrepreneurs and start-up CEOs. It can relate to in-house designers, freelance developers, and more. Say you work for a design firm or a recording studio. Your “who” is your boss — your company. Your “How Much” is your salary.
- I used to think you had to start with why. But as I’ve been reading through Cal Newport’s book, I’m realizing that most of us start with what. In fact, Newport argues that you starting with why is actually bad advice. In short, it’s in the process of doing the work that we get much-needed experience and clarity about the sort of work we want to keep on doing, and in that process we are able to build up the relationships and resources we need in order to do the work that matters most to us.
That said, let’s break down the Who, What, Why, and How Much a bit more. I’m going to use The Focus Course as my example.
Who: My ideal customer for the Focus Course is someone who is eager to learn, do their best creative work, and has energy to move the needle forward in their life. Though I created the course so just about anyone can work through the 40 days of assignments, the person I most have in mind is someone who already has an internal drive to make changes in their life.
What: A self-guided, 40-day course that gives you insight and clarity into your values, goals, stress points, and distractions and then gives you an action plan for doing something about it all.
How: I built the course itself by writing every day, working with a pilot group to test and review the contents, and then working with a designer and developer to create the website that hosts the content.
How much: The price of the Focus Course is $249; the value, though it varies from person to person, is (I hope) much, much more than that.
Why: I’m someone who is naturally spontaneous, distracted, and seems to always have more ideas than time. In my early 20s I realized that I needed to get a grip on how I spent my time and energy or else I’d never make meaningful progress on the things that were most important to me. The ideas and tactics of The Focus Course are things that I myself have used and taught for more than a decade and I wanted to create a fun and even better way way to clearly teach these things to others.
Here’s a sketch I made (don’t laugh) to show how these elements interrelate with one another to form the components of a sustainable business.
As you can see in the chart above, when your product and your customer connect, then value is created and exchanged. It’s at this intersection that your business model exists. You have something of value to offer, and others are willing to pay for it.
Additionally, if your product or service is something that aligns with your own personal values and goals, then when you sell to your customer you’re also giving expression to your vision.
There is immense satisfaction in providing something of value to someone else in such a manner that also sustains the ongoing providing of more value. Consider the converse: when our work and actions don’t align with our vision and values, it can be a huge drain on our morale and motivation.
This is what a sustainable business model is all about: doing work you’re proud of, providing value to others, and having a means to continue doing that work. It’s what Walt Disney meant when he famously said, “We don’t make movies so we can make money; we make money so we can make more movies.”
The money serves a two-fold purpose. For one, it gives some measure of validation to our work because money is a neutral indicator of value. If nobody (as in, literally not one person) is willing to pay for what it is you’re offering, then it’s probably not valuable enough (at least not yet). When that’s the case, simply go back to the drawing board to find a different expression of your creative idea or find a different market (or maybe both).
For his book, So Good They Can’t ignore You, Cal Newport interviewed successful entrepreneur, Derek Sivers. Newport asked Sivers about what it was that led to his entrepreneurial success. Derek replied that he has a principle about money that overrides his other rules: ”Do what people are willing to pay for,” he said. “Money is a neutral indicator of value. By aiming to make money, you’re aiming to be valuable.”
Secondly, money allows us to buy food, pay the bills, and acquire the tools and resources we need in order to keep making art and doing work.
The whole goal of Walt Disney’s movie making business model was to sustain their creative outlet of animating and producing films. It wasn’t about the money for money’s sake — it was about doing work they loved and enriching the lives of their audience. And by selling their work they could keep on making more movies.
For most makers, it’s not about the money. It’s about the creative work. There is (most days) joy in the journey and satisfaction in being part of a creative community. And there is the dream of adding value and enriching other people’s lives.
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Again, from So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Newport writes that “people who feel like their careers truly matter are more satisfied with their working lives, and they’re also more resistant to the strain of hard work.”
While there are many dynamics which contribute to the feeling of a career that matters, one of them is the realization that the work you do is valuable to others. As Sivers said, by aiming to make money, you’re aiming to be valuable.
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On celebrating progress and why the recognition of making meaningful progress on a regular basis is also critical to the feeling that your career matters.
If you’re waiting for finances before moving forward with an idea, the real issue may be Fear, Not Money.
Balancing the margins between cost, price, and value is an art. How do you increase value to the customer without dramatically increasing your cost nor decreasing your price?
Scott Belsky wrote an article a while back about how to find your Work Sweet Spot.
Your Work Sweet Spot is where you will have the greatest job fulfillment and satisfaction as well where you will give the greatest contribution to the field and provide the most value.
This sweet spot is found at the intersection of (1) your natural interests and preferences, (2) your skills and expertise, and (3) your opportunity stream.
Over the years, I have met many creative leaders and entrepreneurs that have made an impact in their respective industries. No surprise, they love what they do. But when I ask probing questions about their career paths, it becomes clear that their good fortunes were not predestined. Aside from lots of hard work, great creative careers are powered by an intersection of three factors: Genuine Interest, Skills, and Opportunity.
The same thinking applies to successful creative projects. The magic happens when you find the sweet spot where your genuine interests, skills, and opportunity intersect.
Your interest and preferences are the things you are naturally drawn toward. How are you wired, what fascinates you, what do you daydream about?
Your skills are the things you’re talented at. For some it’s math, for others it’s art, or project planning, or counseling, or playing sports.
Ned Herrmann, author of The Creative Brain, and the man behind the Whole Brain model writes that: “To prefer something is to be drawn to it, to have a taste for it. Competency has to o with acquired knowledge and professional experience.”
Herrmann also writes that “true mastery in a specific domain can only be achieved in those areas that converge with our preferences.”
But mastery alone is not enough to have successful impact in that area. Now, of course, not everyone wants to have successful impact. But if you do, then you need opportunities to contribute to something bigger.
Which is why I want to unpack a bit more about what Scott Belsky calls the Opportunity Stream:
The third factor that plays into every successful career is opportunity. Unfortunately, this is often where we get stuck, discounting the potential opportunities that surround us as inadequate. There is no such thing as equal access to opportunity. Old boy networks and nepotism run rampant in all industries. And most opportunities are entirely circumstantial. As such, you must simply define “opportunity” as an action or experience that brings you a step closer to your genuine interest. Opportunity is less about leaps forward and more about the slow advance. Most folks I meet recall their greatest opportunities as chance conversations. This is why personal introductions, conferences, and other networking efforts really pay off. Just surrounding yourself with more activity will inherently increase your “opportunity stream” – the chance happenings that lead to actions and experiences relevant to your genuine interests.
What does opportunity look like?
Belsky defines opportunity as an action or experience that brings you a step closer to your genuine interest.
As Belsky also says, these opportunities are usually slow advances. They are the little things that, in the moment, may seem inconsequential, but in hindsight prove to have been kairos moments.
Benjamin Franklin said that, “Human felicity is produced not as much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen as by little advantages that occur every day.”
Here are a few examples of actions or experiences that can bring you a step closer to your genuine interest, and ideas for how to find and create more actions and experiences.
Build and Foster Relationships: By far and away, the best “stream” for opportunity is with the people you know. They say if you’re out of sight you’re out of mind; and the opposite is true as well.
Do you know what your most important relationships are right now? What are you doing to foster genuine relationships with people who are in the same area you are interested in?
Meet New People:Go to conferences. Go to local meet-ups. Introduce yourself to someone. Send encouraging emails to people that also offer a nugget of value to that person. And repeat. Keep fostering, maintaining, and building relationships.
As I wrote a while back when I attended my first Macworld conference:
I’m not here as a journalist with the goal of covering this Apple-centric event so much as I am here to meet the Mac nerds I am privileged to work alongside all year long.
A handshake and a “nice to meet you” is worth so much more than an @reply. A conversation over a cup of coffee is better than two dozen emails.
Encourage the People You Already Know: In his book, The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor says that social support is our single greatest asset when it comes to success in “nearly every domain of our lives, including marriage, health, friendship, community involvement, creativity, and in particular, our jobs, careers, and business,” and that random acts of kindness (such as encouraging others) are one of the most significant ways we can boost social support and, in turn, increase our own happiness.
When we have a community of people we can count on — spouses, family, friends, colleagues — we multiply our emotional, intellectual, and physical resources. We bounce back from setbacks faster, accomplish more, and feel a greater sense of purpose. Furthermore, the effect on our happiness, and therefore on our ability to profit from the Happiness Advantage, is both immediate and long-lasting.
Achor has conducted many studies and tests at different companies where employees were tasked with writing a 2-minute email to someone in their social support network (a friend or family member) as the first thing before they began their work day. They did this every day for 21 days, the result was a noticeable increase in employee happiness which, in turn, increased productivity, creativity, resiliency, confidence, learning skills, energy, and motivation.
And in an article entitled “Pay It Forward“, Karen McGrane wrote:
Not everything in our professional lives is a transaction, scrutinized and evaluated against how much it costs us, how much someone should pay. Not every teaching relationship must be formalized—a mentoring opportunity, a coach, an internship. Not every investment of time has to be “worth it.” Sometimes you just have a brief conversation with someone because—why not? You never know what will come of it.
Practice and Improving at Your Skill: They say opportunity finds you working. And while there is (obviously) a lot of value in the opportunity stream itself, you also need to be prepared. And so, yes, do something every day that will bring you a step closer to your genuine interest. But also do something every day that will help you improve your skills, competency, or knowledge in that area.
Show Up Every Day: Another way to increase your stream of opportunity is to do your best creative work every day and share it with others. If your genuine interest is technology, then what is one thing you can do every day that will increase the activity happening around that topic for you?
Create Opportunities for Others: Become awesome at word of mouth marketing for the people, products, and services you find great value in.
For example: I often get emails from readers who are wanting to build a website and are in need of a designer / developer. They ask me if I have a recommendation, and naturally I tell them about the people I know and have worked with in the past.
Don’t shy back from introducing people to one another, or from introducing your friends and social network to great products or services.
* * *
Again, as Belsky wrote, simply surrounding yourself with more activity will inherently increase your Opportunity Stream. Get around other people; go to more events; encourage people more frequently; provide value to others.
When I wrote about building better defaults, this is exactly the sort of application I had in mind.
What is one action or experience you can do today that will move you one step closer to your genuine interest?
Yesterday I wrote about how easy it is to over-think and over-edit the things I write about and link to on the site. This is also something Ben and I talked about in the latter half of last week’s episode of The B&B Podcast.
It’s a topic spanning much more than just link blogging. I think it goes so far as to encompasses leadership, creativity, and entrepreneurialism as a whole. The concept is to find the balance between think and feel. On one hand you have logic and reason, and on the other hand you have passion and zeal.
There is a way to do things where, if you find something you’re passionate about, you jump right in. And then analyze and gauge each step along the way.
But what if we flipped that approach from time to time?
When you find something you’re passionate or excited about, then think about it for a long time. Make boundaries. And then? Go for it. Let passion and zeal drive us through each step as we keep within our pre-determined boundaries.
The idea is that sometimes, instead of working with restraint inside of passion, try to put passion inside of restraint.
Last week Austin Kleon posted an article titled, “How to Steal Like an Artist (An 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me)”. There are things you read where you learn something new, and there are the things you read which shed a new light on what you already know and believe in. For me Austin’s article is the latter. And it is one of the best things I have read all week.
However, keeping with the Wil Shipley analogy of farming vs. mining, a better title for Austin’s article would be something along the lines of “How to Be a Farmer.” Because Austin primarily discusses getting off your butt, ignoring your doubts and insecurities, and doing the work you love to do.
As I was reading it I was getting all sorts of little lightbulbs and connections going off in my mind. Here are a few of those items:
One of my Shawn Today episodes called “Aren’t we all just 8th graders” on the topic that many of us feel like we’re just faking it and that’s okay because we’re all just folk.
Wil Shipley’s article on Farming vs. Mining and the difficulty of plowing a plot of land and slowly developing a strong and profitable foundation rather than trying to make a quick buck and then moving on to the next thing before what you made falls apart.
Merlin Mann and John Gruber’s SXSW session: “HOWTO: 149 Surprising Ways to Turbocharge Your Blog With Credibility!”
John Gruber’s corresponding article to the above SXSW session: “Obsession Times Voice“
You see, there are those who look at a building a website (or a software program, or a business, or fill in the blank) as a way to make money. The project is simply a means to an end, and that end goal is bucketloads of money.
And then there are those who look at building something because they want to do what they love. And for them money is a tool. Instead of money being the end goal, money becomes the means to a goal — and that goal is doing things they love and creating something they’re proud of.