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.
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.
When you absolutely must get things done.
As I’ve mentioned many times before, two books I read in 2016 really changed my approach to life, and my work. They represent two concepts that work together to provide a powerful one – two punch combo that supercharges your ability to get things done.
The first book was “The One Thing” which I have written about. The One Thing offers the idea that only one thing really matters above all. On the macro level, there is the One thing you choose to make your life all about. In the day to day, there is the One Thing you could do that would make other things easier or unnecessary. It’s all about defining your vision and lining up your dominoes and whacking away at the first one until it falls and topples the next one with topples the next one and so on.
The second book is Deep Work by Cal Newport.
Deep work is the ability to focus on a hard task, to really concentrate for a long enough period of time. According to Newport, it is a skill that is becoming increasingly rare in a world filled with easy to access distraction. It is also a skill that is becoming incredibly important and useful in a networked world that needs you to learn skills quickly to thrive, and that allows you to affect millions with just your phone. We are too distracted at our work or at our businesses to give the right amount of effort and focus on the key tasks or projects that would make a definite difference. Doubly so for creatives or knowledge workers who need to expend considerable mental effort to produce good work.
There is a feature of the iPhone (and most other phones I would imagine, I’m hopelessly lost to the Apple hype train) that is irrefutably the best feature of the phone. It is not the above average camera (Samsung kicks its ass in my opinion), it’s not the design and how sleek it looks, it’s not the fact that it makes me look cool when I whip it out. It is the airplane mode function. With a swipe and a tap, I can turn the device from a portal to the infinite distraction machine that is the internet into a shiny paperweight.
Deep Work is the reason my phone is on airplane mode at least 50% of the time. This book is the reason I am many times unreachable, much to the chagrin of my friends and clients (I am so sorry guys but let me explain). It is also the reason I have been able to work on my business and my brand consistently over the past 18 months. It is the reason my design work has gotten stronger, the reason I’m learning faster and the reason my general productivity (the ability to get things done) has doubled or maybe even tripled.
It is also the reason I am less stressed and haven’t tried to hug a kitchen knife.
You see, regardless of how urgent and pressing everything feels, ultimately only a few things really matter. Out of the 100 or so different things you do or get asked to do today, probably none of them actually move you forward in any meaningful way towards a better life or better experience in 5 years. But if we know where we want to go, we can focus on the things that matter and move intentionally towards our BHAGs.
When you combine those two ideas, you are able to focus on what is most important and devote the kind of time and attention that it deserves. It is doing Deep Work on your One Thing.
In the midst of life’s noise, you can take the time to figure out what you want, count the cost, define the key activities and line up the dominoes. Now is the time to cultivate empty space, to block out some time that you can pay attention to the things that really matter. To learn the new skill, to work on the new business idea, to make some art, or simply to give back or build relationships. This is the time for Deep Work.
If I get anything done, and get it done well, or even quickly, my first step is always to switch the phone off. None of that ‘I’ll just put it face down’, that doesn’t work. Psychically I’m still attached, I’m still wondering about who’s trying to get in touch with me. It has to be off, and then finally I feel shut off from the world enough to allow my ideas and creative energy to bubble up to the surface.
Give it a try. If it’s too hard, put your phone in the drawer or the laundry basket or wherever. Just practice being cut off from your phone. See what that does for what you are working on.
When last did you give your full attention to a task? It feels very tempting to multitask. The pleasure of scrolling through our Instagram feeds, or losing hours of time to YouTube is very compelling and addictive. But if you are to get things done, if you are to move steadily to that BHAG, its very useful to learn how to switch off.
Even if it is just to think. From the moment we wake up, notice how we are mentally highjacked by our feeds. My first impulse when I wake up is to check my messages. First Whatsapp, then the Inbox, then Twitter (never Instagram until I’m mentally ready for that kind of mental and emotional assault). And just like that, my day can get highjacked by the needs and demands for others. Live like this enough days in a row and soon you are swept up in a fog of distraction, mediocrity and dissatisfaction. We all need space to think, to connect with ourselves, to heal, to spend some time in reflection or in the quiet pursuit of an interest or a craft.
The ability to go deep, both in your craft, in work and in your life will produce many benefits. It is a required resource in the marathon of pursuing your BHAG and cultivating a happy life. If you can isolate your main thing, and steadily devote time to it, you will stop feeling listless and more focused. And as you get better at it, that momentum of actually doing things will propel you to do some incredible things.
Photo by Cris DiNoto on Unsplash
The thing about being creative types, philosophers and bohemians in a largely capitalistic world is that we are continually faced with the tension of expressing our art, our soul, our spiritual gift to the world while somehow finding a way to survive. Monetization (making money from our art) or subsidization (having someone else donate) becomes necessary at some point.
True, not everything needs to be monetized and we live in a real world of people and interaction on multiple layers – physical, emotional, and spiritual. Not everything can or should be reduced down to currency. However, if you are looking to monetize your passion, this as an incredibly useful way to look at it.
You have to attach something to the art – a product, a service or an experience.
I learnt this principle from Gary Vaynerchuk, watching one of his gazillion videos. He is talking to this young man who is riffing off about the things he wants to do, the heart behind his brand, and how much he wants to impact people and so on. To do this, he needs to find money to execute. In response, Gary asks if there is something tangible attached to it. If he wants funding, is there an object that can be invested in?
Having feel-good ideas are fun and wonderful. Talking about them and sharing them can be very enriching and fulfilling.
But if you are in business, especially if you are a mission-led business seeking to change the world, or an NGO tackling much needed social work on behalf of humanity, you must respect this principle. You have to clearly understand what your idea is – your goal, your purpose, your mission. And this idea must become tangible as product, service or experience.
You cannot ignore the laws of the market place, unless you plan to loot or steal the money. Think about the places your purpose and people’s desires/needs intersect, and play in that space. Connect your work to value in people’s lives.
As nice as it is to exist in our little creative bubbles indulging in artistic revelry, if we will succeed as artists or creatives, we must relax our romantic ideas of a utterly free rein creative life and link our art (the essence of our creativity and passion) to a tangible thing. Your art, your brand needs a vessel. Put your thing into a container that can be invested in or purchased.
Think about music. Musicians make music, and sell the recordings and merchandise (product), or sell skills (service) or shows (experience). There are multiple ways of creating tangible things that express your idea. Attaching your art to an object allows you to share the art. Now your audience can take with them a tangible piece or object that will bring them back to the heart of your art every time they interact with it in any way.
And that’s win-win all round.
There is only one success. To be able to spend your life in your own way.
– Christopher Morley
We are surrounded by success porn. From Facebook to Snapchat, the digital sphere is littered with quote cards spouting off generic success platitudes and motivation. You know the ones, the images of the suave guy in the impeccable suit and nice watch. Or the flawlessly shot Instagram gym model showing off her perfect abs and toned body.
I like to look at it as what I call ‘priming’. When I sit to design, one of the first things I do is to pull up my favourite sites and browse for inspiration. I spend time looking at beautiful things. It primes and stimulates my mind to think in the same vein as my inspiration and helps me know what my benchmark of quality should be.
That’s what success porn does, or should do. It is a burst of inspiration, a certain smug satisfaction, a ‘hell yeah! high five! let’s get it’ sort of moment. And it’s good. Sometimes you need that spark, that reminder.
The main problem with success porn is that you can get that hit of self righteous dopamine so many times that you begin to feel satisfied without actually doing any work.
It is easy to brainstorm, and research and learn. It makes us feel good, like we are taking actual steps. And granted, it is a first step in the process of getting what you want. But consuming content, no matter how good, whether it be Gary V or Tai Lopez or Grant Cardone or whoever your guru is, is not the same as doing the work.
The path to success is the steady consistent grind, the work, the fears, the tears. It is not as sexy as success porn, but it is the thing that actually produces results. And there are a lot of things unique to your circumstance that you would have to navigate with your own wits and common sense as well as all the tips and knowledge you have gained from your blogs, podcasts and videos.
The second subtler problem with success porn is the narrative that success looks a certain way. Success for millenials in general falls in the same boxes – a great job, a great startup, lots of money, gadgets, travel to exotic places, self care, romantic love and baecations. All of which are absolutely wonderful pleasures.
But the thing with life is…it is life. It is varied, it is complex and it is nuanced. Success has to be something you define for yourself. You don’t need to subscribe to an idea of success. You just have to find what you like, what you believe, what fulfills you and be committed in the pursuit of that. That is what success is.
“Be ruthless about protecting writing days, i.e., do not cave in to endless requests to have ‘essential’ and ‘long overdue’ meetings on those days.”
– J.K. Rowling
I believe there is nothing more important than being creative (after food, shelter, etc.), and being creative for you. There are ideas placed in you that need to be birth, because doing so will give you experiences and gifts you could not otherwise comprehend, and they will touch the world in ways you could never imagine.
But the business of life can be very distracting. In between all the chores, the jobs, the social obligations and the daily hum of life, it is incredibly easy to lose yourself and your true desires. You hum along doing things and then you wake up with decades later wondering where all that time went and beating yourself up for actually accomplishing very little of your true goals.
I’ve had many creative ideas over the years – podcasts, books, clothing lines, stores, events, blogs, and magazines. It’s a long list I know, but not a lot of them have come to fruition. I hated that I would kick off the year with all these ideas and projects I wanted to get done, and then six months in I would be completely lost in the sauce, entirely busy working on clients or friend’s latest schemes, chasing down opportunities to make a buck. I was so consumed with everything else that I never pushed my projects forward enough.
To be honest, I did not understand what it took to get things done. But after multiple dead ends you start to learn a thing or two. For the past 10 months, I have been working consistently on my creative projects and pushing them towards completion. I know this is a long road, and its still early days, but I thought I’d articulate the mindset and tools that are enabling me to finally actually do the work I have in my heart to do.
- Stay awake
It is so easy to fall asleep behind the wheel of life. Urgent and pressing issues can crowd the truly important to the dark recesses of your mind to be randomly stumbled upon one day. You have to stay awake. And by that I mean you have to always be focused on your actual personal creative goals. It has to be a priority and something that is on your mind daily. Never lose sight of it. Write it somewhere you can see it, and engage with it every day.
- Think long term
Rome was not built in a day, and neither will your project. You have to be in it for the long haul. If you are trying to build a creative life that sustains your soul and your pocket, understand that it is going to take a while. Make peace with that.
- Focus on the process
If you are going to get any worthwhile creative work done, you have to respect the process. This is going to mean working on your projects daily or at least weekly. You are going to need to take consistent action over a long period of time – creating, learning, tweaking, editing, fixing, scrapping, restarting, etc. It’s a process; learn to enjoy it.
- Be realistic
There is nothing like ambitious timelines to excite you then ultimately defeat you in the creative journey. Be realistic with the amount of time you think it will take to get your project done, and then add more time to it. Things always take much longer than you’d expect.
- Protect your creative time and space
You absolutely must block off a portion of time for you to work on your things. That means phones off, Internet off, put on headphones, close the door. Deep creative work demands nothing less than your full attention and energy. That means being inaccessible sometimes and turning a blind eye to the other thousand things vying for your attention.
- Just make
As creatives we tend to be both very egotistical and fragile. We have high hopes and standards for our work. We wonder if people will like it, we fear being judged. It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks about the work. Right now, your job is to make! Focus on that.
Everything I have just said can be summed up in one word – Commit. To get your personal work done, you must commit to getting it done. That means making a firm decision to get it done no matter how hard or tough the road may be. It means discipline. It means giving up excuses and doing whatever needs to be done.