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.