How would you define a successful creative career?
There are two important elements: creative freedom and financial stability.
So let’s define success as having the ability to do creative work we’re proud of and to keep doing that work.
Now, there is no recipe for this stuff. It’s different for each person and changes with all sorts of factors like skills, passion, and even geographic location. It important to define creative success in such a way that it doesn’t require a particular location, vocation, or paycheck.
However, there is more to it than creative freedom and financial stability. Something else is also critical to our long-term journey of doing our best creative work.
We need a healthy inner work life.
Our emotional and motivated state is just as important (if not more important) as our finances, tools, work environment, and overall creative freedom.
Teresa Amabile is a professor at Harvard Business School. In 2012 she gave an excellent talk at the 99U conference. In that talk she shares about how our inner work life is what lays the foundation for being our most productive and our most creative.
When our emotional and motivated state — our inner work life — is strong and positive then we are most likely to be at our best in terms of creativity and productivity.
What drives our inner work life? Well, a lot of things. But one of the most important is making progress on meaningful work.
When we see that we are making progress — even small victories — then it strengthens our emotional and motivated state. We are happier and more motivated at work. And therfore, we are more likely to be productive and creative.
Consider the inverse. When we feel like cogs in a machine then we see our time as being spent just doing meaningless busy work and not contributing to anything worthwhile. And so we slowly lose our desire to be productive and efficient. We don’t care about coming up with creative solutions or fresh ideas. We just do what’s required of us in order to get our paycheck so we can go home to our television.
This is one reason why having an annual review for yourself (and your team / company) can be so beneficial. It reminds everyone of the goals accomplished and the projects completed. It shows that the oftentimes mundane and difficult work we do every day is actually adding up to something of value.
Coming back to Teresa Amabile, she calls this the Progress Principle. In short, making progress on meaningful work is critical to being happy, motivated, productive, and creative in our work.
And so, if progress is so important, why do we seem to celebrate only the big victories and only once or twice per year?
One of the greatest ways to recognince our progress is to celebrate all victories — big and small. And one of the best ways to celebrate and chronicle the small victories is with our own daily journal.
We often forget about our small wins after a few days or weeks. Or they quickly get buried under our never ending to-do lists. Or, if we don’t recognize and celebrate them, then they stop being “small wins” and start just being “what we should be doing anyway”.
By cataloging and celebrating our small wins each day then we can be reminded that we are making meaningful progress. And, in truth, it’s the small wins which all add up to actually complete the big projects and big goals. As Benjamin Franklin said, it’s little strokes that fell great oaks. And so, to celebrate a big victory is actually to celebrate the summation of a thousand small victories.
At the root of most bad writing, Stephen King says you’ll find fear. It’s fear — or timidity — that holds a writer back from doing her best creative work.
Ray Bradbury admitted this outright: “I did what most writers do at their beginnings: emulated my elders, imitated my peers, thus turning away from any possibility of discovering truths beneath my skin and behind my eyes.”
You’ll also find fear at the root of most non-writing. Shame, doubt, worry, second-guessing, and all their cousins stand guard against us when we sit down to deal with the blank page.
As someone who writes for a living, I can tell you this: anything that keeps me from writing is public enemy number one. And the one thing that most keeps me from writing is fear.
Fear works against me more than my lack of time, focus, ideas, and talent combined. Time, focus, ideas, talent — these are all quantifiable. But fear? Fear is completely irrational. You can’t argue with it, you can’t tell it to go away, you can’t schedule around it, and you can’t bribe it or distract it.
But you know what else about fear? It’s universal.
We all feel afraid and timid when facing that blank page. Look around at some of your favorite writers and creators. They are more than talented and hard working. They are brave. They’ve found a way to keep writing in the midst of their fear.
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To pull the curtain back just a little, oftentimes the thing which most keeps me from writing is a fear of putting my own narcissism out on display for all to see. So often my first draft is little more than my own self-centered view of the world — a world where I sit at the center. This is not the world I am trying to build up, but when writing, how can any of us write about anything else but what we know and what we have heard? We write about what we know and what we feel. We write from our own soul and our own heart and we share what we’ve seen through our own eyes and what we’ve heard through our own ears. We write from the inside out.
Here is how I deal with my own fear, doubt, worry. When writing that first draft, it’s allowed to be as horrible and ugly and awkward and egocentric as it needs to be.
This first draft is the personal draft. It’s the crappy draft. Nothing is off limits. I can write whatever I want and say it however I want. Everything is fair game so long as it keeps the cursor moving.
When the first draft is done, then the work of editing begins. It’s time to edit not just for flow and grammar and clarity, but edit for the reader. It is time to take this story that was once built with the author at the center and to instead put the reader at the center.
When you are writing, write however you must. Don’t let fear or timidity keep you from being honest and exciting. And when you are editing, improve your words so they serve the reader. Write for yourself, but edit for your reader.
There are many books, speeches, articles, sermons, quotes, and conversations which have shaped us over the years into the people we are.
We retain a limited amount information when learning something new, and our recollection and interpretation of that information gets foggier over time.
The best way to keep important information fresh and accurate is to review it regularly.
Idea: The Core Curriculum
And so, why not put together a small notebook that contains highlights and summaries from the books, speeches, articles, sermons, teachings, and other things which have most shaped us? Our own Core Curriculum.
Have it cover the most important areas of life, such as:
- Personal growth
- Spiritual foundations
- Relationships (spouse, kids, friends, peers)
- Vocational wisdom
- Living with focus and diligence
- Financial health and wisdom
- Creative inspiration
Then, once a year or so, go through the notebook. Read your summaries and highlights to stay familiar with the things that have shaped you.
Just the act of making your Core Curriculum notebook will in and of itself be an excellent way to re-learn the material. And reviewing it once a year will help keep your mind and emotions and actions on track with the values and vision you already carry.
A.K.A. The Commonplace Book
This idea isn’t entirely new. Commonplace books have been around for hundreds of years:
Commonplace books (or commonplaces) were a way to compile knowledge, usually by writing information into books. Such books were essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: medical recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Commonplaces were used by readers, writers, students, and scholars as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts they had learned. Each commonplace book was unique to its creator’s particular interests.
Today, we all have Internet Communication Devices in our pockets. The need for building our own index of important facts isn’t quite so necessary because we can search for anything using just our phones.
But what is important is remembering foundational principles for how to live life and to live it well. Our values, ideals, thoughts, emotions, and habits are bombarded every day in so many different ways. Movies, commercials, TV shows, social media, and so much more tell us how we ought to live and what we should believe. Which is why our Core Curriculum notebook should be comprised of things that speak truth to who we are, who we want to be, and what we want to do.
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Over the past few weeks, I’ve been building the outline of my own Core Curriculum. And I’ll be working on it for the rest of the year, no doubt. My goal is that when completed, it will take about one month for me to read through it. It’ll be something to do each January as a 31-day study guide of sorts that reminds me and inspires in the topics of spirituality, living a disciplined and productive life, marriage, fathering, creativity, work, and relationships.
As longtime readers of this site will remember, the Sweet Mac Setup interview series used to be hosted here. That was before The Sweet Setup launched a little over a year ago and took over the interviews.
The very first Sweet Mac Setup interview was with Mark Jardine on May 31, 2009.
In the fall of 2010, I “rebooted” the interview series and added in a new question:
“How does this setup help you do your best creative work?”
I wanted the interview questions to draw out more than just information about the hardware and software people were using. As a reader, I wanted to know how people’s tools were empowering them to be more creative than if they didn’t have those tools.
There were 28 Sweet Setup Interviews that asked the question about doing creative work. This morning I read through each of those interviews again. Here I want to share some of the answers from the interviews:
I like focus — simple software that doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles helps me find that focus. I like things that do very little, very well. I try to cut out distractions — Tweetdeck or Tweetie, iChat or Skype, these things distract me.
Notational Velocity is the perfect writing app. All it does is write text, and it stores everything in text files, and you can find them instantly. You don’t need to file, and you don’t need to look for things.
For me the tech I use should actually make my life easier to manage, not get in the way of the process. I am not a super geek by any stretch of the imagination, I just learn the tools I need to know to accomplish what I want to.
I love to look at the big picture whether I work at home or on-the-go, which is why I keep lots of resources available at a quick glance and why I use MacJournal. It’s the only Mac word processor I can find which lets me draft in rich text, but copy to the clipboard as the perfectly formatted, plain HTML that most CMSes want. Lots of my peers pen in HTML or Markdown, but I don’t like to look at code or URLs when I write. To me, code is code, and prose is prose. I want to draft, re-read, and continue drafting a piece as the reader will see it, watching for things like the visual flow of text and too many concurrent links that can weigh a paragraph down.
The combination of lots of display space and powerful hardware that can (most of the time) keep up with me make it easy to dig into the current endeavor. When I can comfortably view 4-6 source code files on the iMac and have my browser open on the second display, it requires me to do a lot less remembering. I don’t have to switch away from the current buffer to look up the correct parameter order for such-and-such function, I can just open it right next to where I’m working and see both side-by-side.
I liken my working style to the way my children play with toys: they don’t put away each toy as they finish playing with it (as much as I wish they would), so we have a great big cleanup party each evening where everything is organized and stowed in its right place. When I’m ready to wrap up the current day’s work, I’ll spend at least 3-4 minutes closing a dozen Safari windows, Firefox Downloads windows, Evernote notes and such. I like that I have the canvas and the horsepower to work that way without it getting bogged down or looking cluttered.
I trust it. When you’ve got a trusted system in place, your mind stops bugging you about “we ought to be doing [X]” and lets you focus its resources on the task at hand. I know that OmniFocus and the Printable CEO forms will capture anything important so that I won’t miss it. With that off my mind, I can get down to writing.
It’s a pretty time-consuming this writing novels, running two blogs while having a full-time job for a design agency business. It means I have to do things whenever and wherever I can. My setup is designed – well, it’s evolved, more accurately – to allow me to do that. It’s all about the sync.
With DropBox, Simplenote and an iPhone 4, I can access everything I need at all times. I can edit files on my work PC at lunch and know they’ll be there when I get home. I can approve comments, make notes or catch up on some reading on my phone while I’m waiting for the bus. And again, when I get home, my Mac is up-to-date.
Novel number one was written on no less than six different computers – a combination of desktop PCs, laptops and my iMac — in even more locations, using goodness knows how many USB drives for transferring and backing up.
Novel two will be written on just my future-iPad and my iMac. That says it all, really.
I’ve tried my best to surround myself with tools that help me get the job done faster. I take notes in Notational Velocity, which is connected with SimpleNote, so that I never have to save, rename, or move the files again. I keep inspiration logged in Yojimbo and Littlesnapper, both of which sync across my computers. And I try my best to master hot keys to save time and effort.
Creativity is all about reducing the distance from inspiration to retention. I might not be able to react to a moment of inspiration right away, but if I can capture it properly (via screenshot, dragging into Yojimbo, or typing the idea out) I can come back to it when I’m ready.
I believe that a setup should facilitate an efficient workflow. I’ve noticed most of my Mac-using friends utilize a one-machine setup and it meets their needs — especially when the choice is laptop while on-the-go with a Cinema Display parked at home. However, I’ve found that investing in a multi-machine setup meets the needs of my family as well as my differing job descriptions and their requirements. With cloud-based apps and syncing technology, multi-machine setups are now easy to keep cohesive and consistent day-to-day.
My main job is to find and sift through endless streams and piles of information, so being able to have 2 or 3 windows open at the same time, large enough to see a bunch of data, is why I love the big iMac so much. At Business Insider, I had a second 24-inch screen open to TweetDeck all day, but I don’t really like multi-screen setups. I’m really big on symmetry. During baseball season, sometimes I’ll prop up my iPad next to me to keep the Cubs game on, because the iOS version of MLB’s stream is better than the Flash-based web version.
Maintaining a desktop workstation with a broad range of functionality and a portable setup with a synchronized subset of tho se apps and scripts lets me work when and where I can be most productive. My creativity tends to wane the longer I sit at the desk, so being able to pick up and go somewhere (anywhere) else is often useful in finding my muse.
Part of the reason I love the Apple Bluetooth keyboards and Magic Trackpad is consistency between those work environments. My keys are always in the same place, my gestures match between machines and the overall feel is very similar between my desktop keyboards and the Air. That removes a lot of friction when switching modes and lets me concentrate on just producing.
I’m not sure my current physical setup does much for me creatively, to be honest. It’s mainly the software, and in that sense I benefit from the work other people did. Other people figured out what’s needed in a good video editor before I ever started shooting video. Other people figured out how to capture raw photo data and how to get the most from it. Other people solved a lot of technical problems for me before I even knew I had them. Because of those engineers, obstacles get out of my way and let me just concentrate on getting things done.
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Reading through the above answers, as well as all the others, I noticed a bit of a trend.
- People have specific creative goals they are trying to accomplish (write, code, photograph, edit movies, etc.), and they’ve found a combination of hardware and software that helps them facilitate those goals.
- There’s a level of comfort and frictionlessness that comes with hardware that’s the right combination of powerful and portable to do the job.
- There’s something freeing about having a clean and thoughtfully put together work space.
This is a topic I want to explore more. In fact, I plan to on today’s episode of The Weekly Briefly which I’ll be recording in a bit.
Technology often gets a bad rap as being “anti-creativity” because of issues such as the distractions of push notifications, our social network addiction, our tendency to pull out our iPhones any time we have a free moment, our overloaded inboxes, etc.
However, the ways in which technology has empowered us to do our best creative work far outnumber the ways it distracts us.
“Perpetual devotion to what a man calls his business, is only to be sustained by perpetual neglect of many other things.” — Robert Louis Stevenson
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Like many of you, no doubt, I spent some time thinking about personal goals and ideas for this upcoming year. The new year is always a good time to reflect, take stock of where we are, and make sure we’re still on course for where we want to be.
In a few months I will begin my 5th year of working from home and working for myself (thanks in no small part to you, dear readers). One of the most empowering lessons I have learned over these past 4 years has been regarding my own limitations. Not merely my limitations of time, but also of energy.
In any given day I have 2 maybe 3 hours of good writing time in me. A couple hours of reading. Hopefully an hour or two of researching, thinking, or decision making. And maybe an hour of admin and other busywork.
If I push my day to include more than that, I often find myself not making much progress. There is a point when the responsible and productive thing for me to do is leave my office and stop working altogether.
The workaholic in me wants to squeeze in a few more tasks. I have friends who can crank out hours upon hours of productive, creative work. Alas, I’m not one of those types. And so I’m trying to let myself quit while I’m ahead and go upstairs to be with my family, or go run errands, or just lie down and stare at the ceiling while I listen to what is going on in my imagination.
Although I have a regular work schedule, I take time to go for long walks on the beach so that I can listen to what is going on inside my head. If my work isn’t going well, I lie down in the middle of a workday and gaze at the ceiling while I listen and visualize what goes on in my imagination.
I’m an advocate of productivity as much as the next guy with a blog, but over my years of working from home, I feel that too much focus on productivity is to miss the forest for the trees.
Being productive is not what’s ultimately important. I want to do my best creative work and I want to have thriving relationships.
Time management, GTD, focus, diligence — these can help keep me on track. But they are not the end goal in and of themselves. I want to focus first on creativity. What do I need to do my best creative work?
Have I written today? Have I daydreamed? Have I been contemplative? Have I had an inspiring and encouraging conversation? Have I helped somebody? These acts are far more important than the progress I make against my to-do list.
When you work for yourself, there is an oceanic undercurrent that pulls you into the details of your job. The thousand responsibilities of administration and communication and infrastructure. These are important, to be sure, because without them your business would cease to be. But (at least in my case) these are the support structures at best. The foundation of my business is not the ancillary administration; it is the muse.
In The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, there’s this great line: “Order and simplification are the first steps toward the mastery of a subject…”
Mann’s line carries the same truth as the quote by Robert Louis Stevenson which is at the beginning of this article. Our devotion to a subject can only be sustained by the neglect of many others. Finding something we want to do is the easy part. Now we must decide what we will neglect — we must simplify where we spend our energy.
In this new year, as our thoughts are on what we can do and what we want to do, perhaps we should first think about what we will not do. What tasks and pursuits will we give up or entrust to others?
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“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.” — Henry Thoreau