I asked this question on WhatsApp the other day, and I got back a few interesting answers from friends. Most people said something along the lines of they would sacrifice time, or energy to get what they want. To be honest, the first thing that popped into my head when I asked the question was…myself.
…I know right. I’ll explain just now, but let’s talk about desire and sacrifice for a bit.
So, this whole year, I’ve generally been writing on the theme of how to get what you want. The idea has been to share the concepts and lessons I’ve picked up from reading too much and thinking too much, so you don’t have to.
When I think about ‘what you want’, I think about the general drive to be successful and to acquire things. We all want to grow and achieve and climb. It is hardwired into our nature as human beings. We are driven by dissatisfaction and desire. And there are great things to want that are part of the human experience – success, education, money, relationships, family, safety, stability, etc.
But should you always get what you want though?
Desire is a tricky thing. How many times have we desired a thing, eventually gotten it and then realized we wanted the wrong thing. We strive for it, get it and tragically realize that we were worse off. Sometimes not getting what you want is the better outcome. Sometimes for what you avoid in not getting it, sometimes for the person you become or the perspective you gain from not getting it.
It might seem the better strategy, to want things, and to focus on achieving them while being completely open to the universe bringing things of the highest good to you. Things that you may not be able to imagine right now.
What you want is a reflection of what you value, and what you value is a reflection of who you are and what you believe. And you are probably not that great, so you can’t want properly.
But let’s assume your desire is valid and noble. What are you willing to sacrifice what to get what you want? That is the question that tests the strength of your desire and willingness to do whatever it takes.
For every move upwards and onwards, two things usually happen in tandem. We must gain something – a new skill, a new perspective, a new connection, a deepening sense of mastery, whatever. We must also lose something to move up, something that is keeping us anchored to this level – a habit, a perspective, an emotional kneejerk reaction, an unresolved fear, trauma, a grudge, a fear, etc.
The gaining we sometimes find easy enough. It is the sacrifice that gets hard.
To move to the next level, and to get what you want, you have to cut away things that don’t serve you anymore. And that is the crux of sacrifice – giving up something you value, something you are attached to, to gain something of greater value or good.
Sacrifice is the release of attachment. There is the call to sacrifice when there is a need for a change in the status quo. And when this need arises, it is a sure sign that there is something, someone, a situation, a behaviour, a habit, a belief pattern, a mental model that does not serve you anymore. This thing that you are so attached to, this thing that may have brought you here, is also the reason you are stuck. It should not be there anymore. You must identify it and you must sacrifice it.
And it is painful. Sacrifice is violent, and bloody and fatal. Sacrifice means death.
But sacrifice is powerful. It is an explosive release of power, and as an archetypal idea, it is the idea of submitting something of great value to the highest ideal.
But sacrifice must be done with skill. A half-hearted sacrifice is no better than no sacrifice at all. That is why in the bible, Abel sacrificed correctly, and Cain didn’t.
If you will sacrifice, you must come correct. The higher the value of the thing you sacrifice, the more power you release.
And what greater thing to sacrifice than the self.
The self is our biggest source of agency and our biggest stumbling block. It is the self that holds desire and strives towards them. It is also the self that holds on to patterns and habits and behaviours that keep us trapped and stagnant.
And so, to sacrifice something of greatest value we must go within. You go looking for the chaos dragon, for the shadow, the sacrificial lamb. You do deep self-introspection to realise that if you want something, if you are to achieve it and hold it, you must give up something of yourself. You must let go of an attachment.
It could be as innocuous as hitting the snooze button or as life threatening as shooting up drugs. It could be a relationship or interaction that does add some value to you while crippling you in fundamental ways. Many times, it is precisely the thing we don’t want to address.
Brian Tracy in an article about life-long learning makes the following claim.
The weakest key skill sets the height of your results and the height of your income. You can be excellent in a variety of areas, but the one essential area where you are the weakest, determines how far and how fast you move upward and onward.
Your breakthrough, your potential for explosive growth is precisely in the place you have refused to look. It is the place you have allowed yourself to be the weakest. That is the place your sacrifice is. The thing we refuse to address is where the key to what we desire is hidden.
And so there we must go, we must descend into the depths. Sometimes to the very foundation of our thoughts and emotions. Sometimes the thing we must sacrifice is ourselves, the things we have built our identity on, the perception we hold of the world, the perception we hold of ourselves, the self-doubt, the fear, the comfort, the limiting beliefs, the grudge, the hate.
To get better, we must become better, and that means continual perpetual skilful self-sacrifice.
I have been thinking about this idea for a while, and some time last year, I shared it as a tweet. After it gained a bit of traction, I knew at some point down the line, I would want to unpack my thoughts properly on the concept in a blog post.
So, here it is.
As creatives, we know all about the craft. To be a creative worth your salt, you must know your stuff. We get that. So, we practice, we work, we do what we do best, which is the craft. And that is most times, the most pleasurable part of our lives, working on and honing the craft.
And that part is important. It is the price of entry. The craft gives us a seat at the table. The craft is the soul of the whole creative ordeal. It is the muse we pay homage to every time we create. The craft is our raison d’être.
But on the other side there is commerce. Because everything exists in context. We live in economic systems that we have to contend and deal with. We have to make a living, we have to take care of families, and we have to fund our art.
For some reason, over time, we have absorbed the romantic idea of the starving artist as the prevailing creative archetype. We are comfortable with the person who loves their craft so much, they devote themselves completely to it to the detriment of their material needs. They focus exclusively on the craft and as such, they are unable to succeed in the real world of commerce. We nod knowingly and sadly at stories like that of Van Gogh who died penniless.
So, it becomes a two-option choice between starving for your art or giving up on your art and embracing something more ‘respectable’ to earn a living. Is there a way to reconcile this dichotomy? Is there a way to respect commerce and thrive as an artist?
A quick glance around would suggest that it is at least possible.
In every field of human productivity, there is a wide distribution of gains. You can find people at opposite extremes of the spectrum. There are peasant plumbers and there are multi-millionaire plumbing company owners. Some musicians play small taverns and cafes, others play stadiums.
Same with actors, same with comedians, same with visual artists. One tailor makes clothes in the back of her house for her community, the other one makes clothes that adorn super models on the biggest runways of the world.
In the same way, there are many creatives over the ages who were actually very successful. There are many artists even today, who dominate their fields and reap disproportionate rewards.
How do they do it? How do they win? How does Jay Z win, how did Andy Warhol win? How did Michael Jackson win? How did Da Vinci win? How did George Lucas win?
In his Book, Real Artists Don’t Starve, Jeff Goins shares the story of the startling discovery of Michelangelo’s true net worth by Professor Rab Hatfield – an amount in excess of $47 million dollars in present day value. This goes against the perhaps popular perception that renaissance artists were of meager means simply beholden to their benefactors. Apparently, this wasn’t the case, they were forces in their own right.
With razor sharp instincts, Andy Warhol rose from obscurity and poverty to become the most successful and highly paid commercial illustrator in New York in the 50s and eventually a celebrity and icon synonymous with the Pop art movement in the 60s. Constantly blurring the line between art and commerce, Warhol once remarked that “making money is art and working is art, and good business is the best art.”
Sean Carter aka Jay Z has built a $800 million-dollar strong empire spanning entertainment, fashion and hospitality by systematically parlaying his art and creativity and business smarts from one height to another and one endeavor to another.
Scott Adams made a fortune off drawing Dilbert Cartoons. Zaha Hadid left more than £70 million from her illustrious career in design and architecture. George Lucas created not one but two wildly successful film franchises, amassing a $5,4 billion-dollar net worth along the way.
I could list example after example of creatives coining it. And sure, these are the outliers, the absolute best of the best, but what principles may we glean from studying these phenomena? What makes some artists win at that level while others struggle to make it.
What separates Cassper Nyovest from the struggling rapper recording in his bedroom studio right now?
If you work your craft because you enjoy it and engage with it for the sheer spiritual pleasure of it, then by all means do that. There are few things of greater value than the soul nourishment that comes from creative endeavor.
But if you want to succeed commercially in your craft, if you want to be able to live off your art, and build a legacy, you absolutely must understand the business of your craft.
So how do we bridge the gap between art and commerce? How do we break the myth of the starving artist?
There are some principles I can think of as a starting point:
Learn about business
Business is really not that hard. In its simplest form, it is about finding a need and fulfilling it. The nature of the need and the nature of the solution is what will determine how much value you create and how much you get paid. Understanding in even the most rudimentary ways how businesses work will help you structure what you do in such a way that you are better positioned to succeed. The more you learn, the more sophisticated you get, and the more you can do.
If you want to win, you have to start to wrap your head around business. This is an underrated aspect of being a successful craftsperson. It teaches you to understand your worth, defend that worth, target those who value that worth and provide immense value to them.
It teaches you to learn your audience, to have empathy for them, to get a sense of what they want, what they are interested in, and what they respond to.
Learn the business of your craft
Every craft has its own business environment. As a designer, there are many ways to play in the market. From print design to UX, from working in agencies or corporations, to freelancing and building companies, there are numerous ways to be a part of the value chain, and each one comes with its own possibilities. The more I understand the business environment, the more strategic I can be and the better I do.
Put the business of your craft under such scrutiny. Where is the money? Who makes the most of it in your field? Who are the rockstars? Who plays at that level? Who pays at that level? What are their needs? Should you focus on consumers directly, or should you interface with companies? What are the different niches in your craft? Could you focus on just one aspect? Can you combine your craft with another? Do future changes in your field open up new opportunities to be seized?
There are a million and one ways to look at your craft differently and come out ahead.
Rewrite the rules if need be
Sometimes, If you really know what you are doing and you have paid attention to the business of your craft, you can actually change the terms of the game.
In 1979, George Lucas invested $20 million of his own money to finance the production of his sequel, The Empire Strikes Backand used this investment as leverage to finesse a deal previously unheard of in Hollywood, participating in up to 77% of the profits of the film and owning almost all the rights to merchandising.
Jay Z already in the full swing of his career, used his appointment as president of Dej Jam as an opportunity to regain ownership of his music masters, eventually starting Roc Nation and in 2008 signing a record-breaking $150 million dollar 10-year touring deal with Live Nation. In 2017, his new deal was worth $200 million dollars.
The more you understand about business, the more creative you can be, and the more you can rake in the rewards.
Which brings us to the fourth principle.
Bring your craft to business
Creative work comes with unique advantages because they speak to real and archetypal needs of human beings. As artists we are afflicted with a unique perspective on the world which fuels our creativity. It is such creativity that can breed innovation even in business.
Is there a way your knowledge of drama and storytelling can help you revamp sales as we know it, and help you move product in a way that feels almost effortless? Is there a way your skills in design and problem-solving can help you develop new hit products or new ways of servicing customers?
There are many ways creative skills can become an asset in the business arena. It just takes a little imagination.
If we are to succeed not just in our art or our craft, but also in the economy and our lives as a whole, we must not only know the craft, we must also understand the commercial context in which our craft exists.
And as we grow in this knowledge, we have the chance of getting what we want. We have a better chance of living the life we choose, funding the art we really want to make and having a real impact we know we can.
(Or, how to think about strategy)
Trying to get things done and pursuing a long-term goal can be daunting. You are aiming at an eventuality that is still quite far off. You have a sense of where you are going but don’t know quite know how to get there.
You see the mountain top, the main goal you are trying to accomplish, but you are still far off. You have started by doing it badly, but that’s just step one of hundreds of steps to get there.
Is there a way of thinking, a way of acting, that allows the actions we take to build on each other, to gain momentum, and build into a giant snowball racing furiously to our destination?
I think there is, and it’s a combination of strategic thinking and aiming for the domino effect.
Usually people’s efforts are haphazard, they are busy tied up doing a thousand and one things, but none of it is proactive, they are simply reacting to their environment. They end up expending energy in numerous directions, and achieving relatively little, running and running but staying in the same place.
But imagine if you could reduce or at least hone your efforts so they all work together to provide better results faster, building on each other to move you to the new place you desire.
That is the idea of strategy. Of achieving superior results with the same level of activity but just better directed. This is essentialism, this is the one thing, this is make less, work more.
Good strategy takes a look at the facts as they are. What are you really trying to achieve, what are the real problems in your way, what can you tackle and solve, in what order do you tackle them and what cohesive set of actions will you take to get there?
The domino effect is illustrated in the book ‘The One Thing’. Gary talks about lining up your dominoes. Each domino is an action or a mini goal. You place your goals in the right order, knowing what the one thing that would make everything else easier or move you closer towards your goal. You line that one thing up so that doing it will knock down the next thing that would make everything easier or move you closer to your goal. And so on and so forth.
Overtime, domino hits domino, and you build momentum with the energy growing and transferring with each action and toppled target.
For this to work, you need to have a sense of the interconnectedness of things between where you are now and where you are going. And you have to respect the order in which you are doing them. If you tackle the wrong domino, you will have wasted effort and need to double back to fix it.
It is like the designer or client that so eager to jump into the aesthetic design of a product without tackling the domino of strategy – who is it for, what do they need, why should they care. Or the fitness chaser running around in the gym without sorting out her nutrition first. Or worse still, a builder crafting the most gorgeous building without setting a proper foundation first.
You must strive to tackle your dominoes in the right order. In that way, each step you take would improve your odds of success.
When you let your moves stack on each other, each action creates a result that becomes the seed of the next action. So, with my business for instance, taking the time out to clarify a service offering – brand, design, digital – makes it easier for me to communicate and sell services. Taking time to define work processes for each service, makes it easier for me to work and replicate the process with clients. The design process includes me making mockups and prepping the products to look a certain way, which makes it easier down the line to showcase work done on the website, which then act as case studies and feed into content, which then feeds to sales and more work and growth for the company.
In that way, each move is made to make the subsequent moves easier, and the results of each move serve as the beginning of the next move.
To accomplish this, you have to be able to hold a vision of a desired result or situation, and then hazard a guess, a hypothesis of the possible ways forward, and then track a path that will lead you eventually to said goal.
Making your moves stack on each other can be weird territory. When you start, you don’t know anything, you are exploring options and looking for something that resonates, that grips your attention. And then you find it, and you keep working on it, you start to garner some recognition, some attention. Your moves start to give you a position that you can leverage to the next thing.
Sometimes it is easy enough, you can track your path fairly clearly, you have a good enough idea of what is needed, and the conditions are stable. Sometimes it is much harder than that, because the fog is thick, and conditions are constantly changing. You may not be able to identify all the dominoes, but you can work to increase your odds of success.
This is where you have to be woke to what you are trying to achieve and look for opportunities to move closer to that. Sometimes, you need to side step and tackle things obliquely. Sometimes it might even mean slowing down on the thing that has gotten you here, so that you can invest in the thing that will take you there.
But keep this idea in mind, hold a long-term view of your vision, connect the dots backwards and let each action become a stepping stone, and each lesson another arrow in your quiver, your moves will build and propel you to your destiny.
Sometimes, the hardest thing to do is start.
Especially when you are trying to chase the dream, do something you have never done before, create something new. There is that initial feeling of ‘ugh, I don’t even know where to begin?’
Coupled with the weight of expectation, the desire for perfection or the right working conditions, it is very easy to never start. But there is a simple antidote to this problem of inertia.
Start by doing it badly.
The creative process works in exactly this way. The first strokes on the canvas, the first words on the page, the initial snippets of code…are always rough drafts. They are never perfect. But they are where we begin. It is very seldom that I am hit with a flash of inspiration and I’m able to sit down and crank the whole thing out in one sitting. It does happen, every once in a blue moon, but that’s usually not the case. And for something like that to happen, I am usually already in a primed state. I have been writing or creating for extended periods of time and I am in complete flow.
Instead, it is really just the act of just sitting in front of the blank screen, the empty canvas and feeling a bit intimidated. All you have to work with is the urge, the spark, the vague idea, the nebulous potential of what you want to create. And that is where you must start, somehow to make all of that concrete.
My blog posts begin as drafts in my notebook app. Just a few lines, or paragraphs if I’m lucky, outlining the core of what I want to say. It is rough, riddled with errors and sometimes incomplete and slightly incoherent. But it captures the core idea. It gives me something to work with. Instead of the blank page, now I have some words, I have some ideas, I have the pieces. Imperfect pieces sure, but nonetheless, something to work with, something to shape and manipulate, to cut out from or to add to. It is still a long way until it is finally done, but at least with the drafts, the process has begun.
If you want to get what you want, you must be able to get important things done. And to get important things done, you have to be able to start.
But ‘what if you fail?’ That is one great fear that can keep us from starting. It’s not just the pressure of perfection now, it is the fear of failure. Let go of that fear. You are definitely going to make mistakes. You are definitely going to fail first. Of course, you will, you don’t know what you are doing. You are not very good at this yet. But you are moving, you are not standing still. You are transforming your potential into actual reality. Your first steps are not great, but they offer learning opportunities that move you forward.
Allow yourself the luxury of doing things badly the first few times. You don’t have to be perfect. If you fail, it won’t be a train smash. Just start. There will plenty of time down the road to correct, refine and make it great.
Now, when you begin a project or a journey towards a goal, you start off with an ideal in mind, a mental picture of what you want to achieve. Let’s call it your ‘star’. As you move towards it, it also moves. Your initial vision or goal was based on your perception before you started. But, as you do things, you learn, you get feedback. Your actions create results, and in turn, they teach you, they change you. As you act and move, your vision evolves. Your star moves as you move towards it.
And I find that interesting. As you grow, your vision grows with you. You never know where this path will ultimately take you. So even your goal can be imperfect. You can have a target right now and hold an idea of where you are going, but you can’t really say for sure that you will end up there. You start off trying to make a couple home computers for the electronics store on the corner and then decades later, end up with one of the biggest brands in the world (Apple). Taking hold of a vision and following your star will lead you down some interesting roads and bring you to unimaginable destinations.
I personally have been chasing this dream of being a designer and building a studio for a while now. Fresh out of university years ago, I read Computer Arts Magazines a lot and decided I was going to have a design studio like the ones I saw in there. And into that dream was woven other ideas and things I want to do all revolving around being creative, making art, exploring ideas and creating interventions that provoke thought and instigate action.
From being a freelancer to working on teams, that dream has evolved over time to cover branding, and strategy and products and business. These things are revealed to me over time, only as I walk the path. The vision gets deeper, more layered, more defined, the same ultimately, but different at particular points in the journey.
And as I think back, I can trace my path through construction and architecture, to performance, to being drawn in by the conceptual and the digital, to loving graphic design and pursuing that and over time combining all these other ideas and interests into my present pursuit of branding, design and entrepreneurship.
The vision is a bit different now, but I would not have gotten to this point without following my star, even as I morphed and changed, my star has morphed and changed and moved.
So, it’s okay to start badly. With little skill and bad aim. Because, what is the alternative? Stand still? Do nothing? The time passes anyway. And if you are standing still, you are really moving backwards. That is not something you can afford.
So, think about the things you know you need to start. Whatever that might be – a new habit, a project, a business, a relationship, whatever endeavor. Start it. Start it badly. It is okay to suck at first but start.
However imperfectly, take that first step. Follow your star.
I’ve been watching a lot of Jordan Peterson videos over the past two weeks and this post was inspired by a video by the same name of one of his lectures. It is worth a watch.
Just over a year ago, I wrote a piece called ‘How to get important things done’ in which I gleaned and presented lessons and principles from relaunching my business site.
I had been previously frustrated by the fact that I always had these interesting ideas but never had the time or focus or discipline to work on them until they were finished and ready to ship. Eventually, I was able to break the cycle by working on and launching my business site in the midst of the general chaos of life and work. I have already reworked the design and content of said site, and there is a whole new version with new additions in the works.
That’s something I find interesting, as I learn more and understand more, the website has to shift and evolve over time to reflect that. So just after one iteration is done and published, the next one begins. But that is life, some things never finish, you just keep tinkering and making it better.
Over the past year, I have grown better at getting things done, in addition to the aforementioned iterations to the business site, I have revamped my personal brand and website, and that only took about a month compared to the 6 months it took me to do the business site. I have also built a framework on which hang multiple personal projects that I am working on, and so far, I seem to be making progress on most of them.
In this post, I share 3 principles and ideas I keep in mind as I try to push these projects and get them done while juggling work projects, life and relationships.
This is a rehash of an idea I spoke about in the previous post. If you want to get things done, you have to commit, and you have to sacrifice something else usually, to allow you to commit. There is no creative wall, there is no mental block, there is nothing standing between you and the work. You just have to set aside the time and sit down and do the work. That is the nature of getting things done, embracing the grind. If you just have one project you are trying to get done, all you have to do is focus, put in the hours and get it done. If you have multiple projects like me, this is more like a lifestyle, you are almost always working on something. Like getting and staying healthy, the idea is not just about bursts of activity and action. It is a commitment to a daily or weekly practice of putting bum to seat and slugging through the work.
You cannot fall asleep at the wheel, you have to stay awake to your goals and what you are trying to accomplish. A lot of things happen, a lot of things vie for our attention. We have work to do, families to feed, careers to attend to, people to take care of. There is always something. And it is easy, incredibly easy to drift. All it takes is a week or two of relentless pressure and distraction and you can be cast adrift for months.
So, you have to stay awake. If our projects are a priority we must remind ourselves of them continually. That is why I created a device to help me remember and stay focused. I retrofitted my year diary to become a reminder of the value I provide, my ultimate aims and the main projects I am concerned with for the year. Thinking about things in the context of 12 months allows me to carve out each part of year accordingly and know if I am on track or not. It is long enough to allow me to put in proper work, but also short enough so I can actually close and end projects quickly.
Death by a thousand strokes
Some of the things you want to accomplish are big projects. They are not the sort of thing you can knock out in an afternoon. You need time. Especially as a creative. We require huge swatches of time, blocks of time to really dig in, focus and create. Time to get bored. Time to think. Time to research and to absorb. Time to create. Many times, you can only get these pockets of uninterrupted time in 30-minute increments, sometimes we are able to block out whole days. But whatever you have, make the best of each opportunity.
I have open projects all the time. I could steal 30 mins in-between client work to read over a portion of my book and make edits. I could repurpose the hour break I’m taking watching a show to also collect visual reference material for another project. The idea is that these projects are not usually tackled in one fell swoop from start to finish, but are approached bite by bite, piece by piece, brick by brick. This frees us up to not to be too anxious, but to take our time, working and revising, working and revising, learning, making false starts and starting again. In this way, our masterpiece emerges by a thousand strokes made over time.
Getting important things done when they are not directly tied to your job or anchored in societal norms and expectations can be almost impossible. There is just generally a lot that gets in the way, and that is how too many of us die with our song unsung. The unique creative thing you were meant to contribute to the rich tapestry of life, for better or worse.
But crack the code, and be able to conceive a project, and see it to the end, for yourself, to your ends, not because someone told you so. That ability is extremely powerful and important in navigating an uncertain future and becoming antifragile. It shows initiative, it shows power. And even though you will inadvertently fail time and time again, if you stay the course and stay focused, eventually you will win, you will get what you want.