Inherent in the idea of reaching your potential – ‘doing more with yourself and your life’ is the fact that where you are right now isn’t enough, that there is more. It is the admission that you are capable of more.
But to get where we need to go, we have to examine where we are now. How have we lived so far? What are the results we enjoy or endure? What the present scorecard of our life experience? How ever we want to judge it.
Life is a 1 + 1 = 2 equation. Asides from circumstances and forces outside our control, where you are right now is as a result of your past choices – your thinking, your mindset, your reactions to events and your actions or non-action towards your goals.
To get different results, to move forward and tap into more of your power and potential, you have to think and do different things. You need to manipulate the variables of your life equation. You need an evolved disposition and a way of being. But you can’t do that if you think you already know everything.
There is an enemy that is so close to us. He is more than close, he is actually within. His favorite trick is to blind us. He makes us feel good but keeps us oblivious to opportunities for growth, for success, and to our blind spots. He promises to trip us up at every point and turn. That enemy is our ego.
There are various layers and levels at which to engage with the concept of Ego.
First, there is the concept of self, and these are esoteric waters, so bear with me if you are unfamiliar. We all experience the ‘self’. We believe we are something, that we are someone. This bundle of thoughts and emotions, this state of consciousness that resides where? Our heads? Our heart? Our gut? All over our body?
Who are we? Where’s our soul? The illusion of self is so persistent that we cling to it very strongly. We are us – a separate entity from them. The rabbit hole here goes much deeper, but my point is we usually think the sense of self is a constant real thing that almost never changes. We say things like, that is just how I am, I can’t help my temper, my procrastination, whatever traits and habits we choose to hold on to. But the self is far more malleable than we think. What we anchor as ourselves, our personality, is nothing more than a bundle of habits and patterns we have picked up. They can be unraveled. They can be changed.
The rigid sense of self especially when it is unconsciously chosen and engineered becomes a stumbling block to our progress. If we must reach our potential, if we must take up new habits, new patterns of thinking, then we must see the self as malleable, and everything as learnable. Which means that we cannot hold on too tightly to our present notions of self, we must be flexible enough to evolve, to grow and change.
Ego as we usually know and refer to it, is having an unnecessarily inflated sense of self. It is pride. It is the scared child within that seeks to protect itself, that needs to be right at all cost. It is the spoilt petulant self that wants to be the center of everything, to be acknowledged, to be validated.
It is also this ego that we must confront and bring into submission. It is the thing that flares up when we are confronted with evidence or ideas that go against everything we believe and stand for. It is that flash of anger and self-defense that spontaneously arises when we are called out or corrected. It is the response that comes to a seeming attack on our character, on our person.
To grow, you have to be able to manage this side of you. Otherwise, you will never move forward. Your ego is the sum total of the ideas and beliefs you have set up around yourself – who you are, and what you are capable of. It is ego that clings to excuses…because it is not really your fault, someone else failed you, harmed you, made you who you are. It is ego that refuses to take responsibility, that chooses the easy way out, that chooses to indulge yourself instead of doing the hard work you need to do to move forward and change your situation.
It is the ego that judges others. It looks at other people enjoying things you would like, things such as material goods, notoriety, fame, accomplishment, and lashes out saying ”…they were lucky, that person thinks they are all that, they had rich parents, they suck up to the boss, I bet if I had what they had…”. It is ego that projects and makes everyone else the enemy.
It is the ego that gets offended. How could that person say that about me? How could that person say that at all? Who are you to refer to me as this kind of person, and yourself as that? How dare you think you are special?
It is ego that must protect the self at all cost. Because the ego really believes in scarcity. Attention is scarce, resources are scarce, success is scarce. The more that person has, the less I do. It is the reason bad leaders hog all the credit and treat their followers like crap. It is ego that must inflate the self and preserve its perch above all others. It is the ego that prioritizes personal short-term gain over the long-term good of the collective.
If you must move forward, if you must live up to your potential, you must go to war against the ego every day. You have to humble yourself and build your confidence not on who you think you are, but on how you actually behave and what you accomplish. Let your sense of pride be earned and forged in the bitter trials of change, of trial and error, of actual learning and education.
Be open to receive correction. You don’t know everything. You don’t even know what you don’t know. The way you have done things has brought you this far for better or worse. But there is so much more to be and to do. To grow, you have to allow yourself to learn new things. Don’t shut down ideas just because they offend you, be willing to entertain, to calm down, to think through rationally and make a decision. It doesn’t mean listen and agree with whatever one says, it just means don’t be so quick to dismiss, at least check yourself. Be continually open to the idea that you might be wrong.
At the core of his ‘Principles’ Ray Dalio has the idea of truth as the ultimate benchmark. He is always trying to find out what is true about a situation or about life. Not what he would like to be true, not trying to confirm his assumptions or beliefs, just what is actually true, regardless of how it tastes. It is humility in the face of reality. To try, to fail, to clearly analyze failure, take instruction, make corrections and try again. It is understanding that as diverse as we are in personality, physicality and inclinations, we are also diverse in perspectives and strengths. Each of us has something to teach the other. If we will move forward and reach our potential, we have to be willing to lean on the expertise of others in search of the truth that will take us where we need to go.
To break through to your highest potential, you have to be willing to do some different, you have to be willing to be someone different. Regulate the ego, stay humble, stay open, don’t judge, don’t be offended, just keep your eyes on the prize, keep learning, keep evolving and keep moving forward.
You know you are capable of so much more. You feel the stirrings of it deep in your soul. Even though you may have shunned that voice for so long that you have given up believing you have ability to be anything greater than you are right now.
Sure, I get it. Life has been hard, it hasn’t dealt you a fair hand. There have been many obstacles, born into the wrong time, the wrong part of the city, the wrong country. Maybe you are frustrated by debt, by the lack of money, by the lack of help or support from those who were supposed to take care of you.
Or maybe things have actually been good. Maybe everything was provided for you. Maybe you went to the best schools, aced your studies and are working at the job of your dream.
But you still feel it, the nagging feeling you could do more, do something worthier, more impactful, more than just filling your pockets.
Let me assure you that you are definitely not reaching your full potential. As long as there is more to give, you are not done. Reaching your potential is a perpetual journey to the death. And it doesn’t necessarily mean go bigger every time, amassing more and advancing to bigger stages, although that can be a part of it. It can also mean going deeper, growing stronger, more connected, more aligned to the call of your heart.
You could be playing your craft at highest world stages touching millions and still miss your potential if the ache of your soul really is to create something more meaningful that resonates deeper with a select few.
Your potential is negotiation between your soul and your creator.
So why are you not reaching it. Why do you fall short of your potential so consistently? What trips you up? I thought about it and came up with so many reasons you are not where you should be, but today, we will start with just 7.
You don’t believe
You have been in your situation, accepting the status quo for so long that you don’t believe that more is possible for you. You have completely rejected the idea of your potential, that you could be more. You are seated firmly on the sidelines, convinced that living your dreams and doing the things your heart longs to do are for other people, the lucky few. It is not for you. Sure, life may have knocked you down a couple of times and kept you in your place. So what? Everyone gets knocked down. Everybody gets rejected and hurt. There is someone out there who has gone through far worse than you and made it out. It’s what you do with your obstacles that matters. You have to get back into the ring, you have to fight for yours. But first you have to start to believe again. Like Charles Xavier said to his younger self in ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’ – ‘we need you to hope again’.
2. You don’t do the work
Listen, reaching your potential is no cakewalk. It is something that you must fight for. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it. You can’t skip over the process and get to the result. You have to do the work. And that’s where a lot of people falter. They don’t work nearly as hard and as consistently as it would take to really move the needle towards their goals. It is easier to do many other things. Maybe it is games, maybe it is TV, maybe it’s Netflix, or social media or social events. You have to let those take a different position on your priority list and do the work. Doing the work, embracing the struggle has to be more fun, more interesting to you than anything else. In fact, the work has to become the reward in itself, the accomplishment just the cherry on top. Also, you could be working ‘hard’, but really you just doing busy work and avoiding the actual crucial but painful tasks that will make a difference. But that’s a topic for another day.
3. You don’t love it enough
If you loved it, like really loved it like you said you did. You would do anything for it. There would be no excuses, no retreat, no surrender. You would do what it takes, you would learn what it takes, you would pay the price. You have to decide if you really love the idea of what you are capable of. It is not a love that comes easy, it must be cultivated. You cultivate it by doing it, by investing in it, by nurturing it – with your time, with your energy, with your pain. Sure, you have the initial spark, the thing that ignites the passion and excitement to pursue your potential. But you have to fan that flame into a blazing fire. You have to love it, like really love it. But that love is nurtured by the amount of attention and work you put into it. The work feeds the love, the love feeds the work like a perpetual cycle.
4. You are too busy trying to keep up with others
Your potential has nothing to do with the next person and what they are doing. Everyone is on their own path, and everyone has to give account of themselves to themselves and their creator at the end of their lives. Comparison and keeping up with the Joneses are diseases that will cripple you, taking you off your path and unto a futile chase. You chase things you don’t really want, buy things you can’t really afford, to impress people you don’t really like and lose yourself in the process. You have to focus and stay true to you – whoever you are. And I promise you, the more you do that, the more you nurture your potential, the less desire you would have to compare yourself to another, and the more content you would be. Because your soul will be full.
5. Your ego blinds you
To reach your potential, you have to admit that what you are doing now and where you are isn’t working. You have to be open to correction. You cannot be so arrogant to assume that you know all it takes to get you where you want to go. You have to learn to be ego-less, you have to do things you don’t like to learn the things you don’t know. You have to humble yourself to take real action. In the pursuit of your potential, everyone becomes a teacher, even your enemies, even those that get on your nerves. You have to let go of this ego, this person you think you are, this self-image you have created and open yourself to so much more.
6. Your habits and addictions destroy you
You know them. The things you cling on to in order to cope. To cope with the dullness of life, or even the fact that you know deep down in your soul that you are not where you should be. It could be the obvious choices for abuse – drugs, alcohol, sex. It could be even more insidious – oversleeping, entertainment, negativity. Your habits of thought and action are slowly destroying you and you don’t even know it. Every second, minute, hour, day spent indulging those things are seconds, minutes, hours and days lost. Time that could have been invested in pursuing your potential. You have to fix it. Focus on your pursuit, do what it takes, and these things will lose their hold on you. You will have something higher to strive for.
7. You are distracted
You can’t even focus on pursuing your potential, because you are too distracted. Your attention is everywhere rather than on what matters the most to you. You wake up and the first thing you reach for is your phone and your digital drug of choice. You spend your days completely driven by the agendas of others, businesses, your boss, your family, media. And some of these things are valid and necessary, but you let them crowd out your dreams, your potential, that thing that you must do. You don’t reach your potential because you don’t focus long enough for you to attain them, and trust me, it requires a lot of focus. You have to steal time and energy for yourself. Even if it’s just one hour a day.
There are so many reasons more you don’t reach your potential, we could talk about discipline, we could talk about fear, we could talk about self-awareness and excuses, but we’ll stop here for today. Take the time every week to meditate on each of these points and consider if they apply and resolve to do something about it. You are capable of so much more, you just have to embrace it.
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As I mentioned last week, I’m going to be exploring the concept of potential this year in my blog. I’ll talk about what it is, how to understand it, how to unlock it and how to maximize it. I write to learn, I also write to teach, I write to ultimately apply it to my life. This is as much for me, as it is for you.
We all have goals and dreams, things that we strive for. And the very act of having a goal or a dream means that there is something to attain, something that you don’t have yet. It also means that you have decided that you have the potential to attain said thing. The gap between you and your goal is the gap between you and your potential.
Potential is what you are capable of doing, it is who you are capable of being. It is the potential of the seed of your soul. We are born human, with the massive capacity to learn and adapt, to create, to form, to think, to decide, to act. We are made in the image of God, of ultimate source, of the energy that drives and sustains the universe. We are each made a unique bundle of desires, aspirations, talents, inclinations, circumstances, talents, abilities, and gifts. We are too incredible to be purposeless.
Everything that exists has a potential and purpose inherent in its function. An orange seed is just a seed. But its function is to produce a tree. When the seed is planted, it germinates, it unlocks its potential, and over time, with nurturing and rain and good soil and sunshine, it grows and becomes the tree it could have always been. Potential is the capacity for reproduction, the ability to grow. Potential is pre-ordained destiny. Potential is possibility.
Embracing potential reveals hope, optimism, a clear admission that more is possible.
But to know what you are capable of, you have to understand your purpose. I mentioned earlier that humans have massive capacity to learn and adapt. You have the potential for almost anything, in the strictest sense of the world. We could do anything. We could exercise the potential to be more and more of anything. You could be the biggest baddest partier that there ever was. You could work hard to be the best most nurturing husband or wife this side of the equator. You could also learn and develop yourself to be the most incredible con artist who ever lived. You just have to decide which potential you are willing to pursue and explore.
But everything and everyone has a true potential. I could keep my iPhone off and use it as a paperweight to prevent the many papers on my desk from blowing away in the wind. That would be a violation of its true potential. With more computing power than the computers that sent the man to the moon, it was made for much more than just being a paperweight. To truly unlock your potential, you have to understand your nature and your purpose.
The potential of a product is determined by its purpose. This is true of everything…including you.
And the best place to find that out is at your source.
When purpose is not known, abuse is inevitable.
On Christmas day, my family went out for lunch as is our tradition, and we sat down in this restaurant to eat, and my brother and I kept joking to ourselves about the music that was playing. It was a lot of 90’s and early 00s RnB, at least 40-50% of it were R Kelly songs. This was just before the documentary that came out, and We reflected over the controversy surrounding the man and how difficult it has been to ‘cancel’ him because of the quality of his music, especially the uplifting stuff. This man made many iconic songs, songs that have lifted our spirits, entertained us and marked many moments of our lives.
But his potential is cut short. This extremely gifted individual refused to heal from his trauma and pain and proceeded to inflict heinous pain and abuse on many women and many people around him. The man who once sang ‘You saved me’ is now covered with utter filth. The same talent he used to bring joy to many people, he has also used to damn many. His legacy is compromised.
That is the nature of potential. It is truly able to go both ways, positive and negative. And usually it goes bad when its true purpose isn’t honored, because that energy must go somewhere, or die.
When potential is kept unfulfilled, it self-destructs.
But for the vast majority of people, we don’t go that far, we just simply don’t live up to our potential. We expect too little from ourselves, or rather we demand too little of ourselves. We do just enough. We give in to our excuses, we let fear stop us. We want to write books, but we never do, for one reason or the other. We want to start companies, but we never do because of the fear of losing our present comfort. We miss out on what is uniquely ordained for us because we are too busy looking over into our neighbour’s yard, trying to keep up with the Joneses.
Even worse, we gain some level of success and we become self-satisfied. We become impressed with ourselves and we rest on our oars. We feel like we have arrived. But as long as we still have breath in us, there is still yet much more to be done.
Potential is never what you have done. It is what you haven’t done yet. Once you have done something, it ceases to be potential.
It is okay to stop and smell the flowers. It is totally fine to congratulate yourself and take some pride in what you have accomplished. It is not acceptable to park there. You have to keep moving. Your job is to convert all your potential (possibility) into concrete reality. Exhaust the mine of your potential. Arrive at your grave empty.
You are only as good as your last at bat – Gary Vee
Don’t be that guy in your middle age still bragging about the things you did in high school, or the parties and the fun times you had in your youth. Nobody cares. What have you done lately? What have you done now? Unless you have a massive legacy like a Mandela ‘fathering’ a nation, you have no business resting. It is a new year, stretch yourself. Exhaust your potential. Stay vital to the end.
All unattributed quotes above are by the late Dr. Myles Munroe.
This book was conceived, written and designed in 7 days.
I sat down last week to blog my thoughts on how you approach end of year reviews, and how to set and achieve goals in the new year. And as I started to put my thoughts together, I remembered a friend of mine – Mpumi had asked me a few times about how I went about strategically planning my year, specifically how you organize your life around the One Thing. She had read the book by the same name, and I had written about the book earlier in the year.
Fun fact, we have an almost hour-long interview we did together a while back talking about design, branding and personal development – here.
To be honest, the question threw me off. At first, I was just going to talk specifically on how I set goals and translate that to the day-to-day actions that would get me there. Now the scope was a little bigger. Taking into consideration the concept of the One Thing, I quickly realized I had to take a few steps back to accommodate the new ideas that spring from that one question. What is the One Thing, how do you find yours, and how do you orient yourself toward it? Why have a One Thing at all?
As I wrote, I found myself meandering, getting to page 4 without even scratching the surface. For context, I usually write about 2 – 3 pages per blog post. I had two options, continue the blog route and make a 4-5-part blog series, or just write all the pieces and make it into a book.
Hmmm. I released my first book in October. Could I really write two books in one year? Why not? It was a stretch but it was certainly doable. It could at the very least be a cool flex.
So, on this whim, I asked around, ‘what people would like to read, a series or a book?’ The book won by a margin of like 3:1. So here we are.
As I wrote and thought more about what I was trying to say in this book, it became apparent that I was really trying to write about the art of living intentionally. I believe the road to fulfillment – happiness, and success starts here. To be successful, you have to be able to set a north star and move towards it consistently. But how do you define your One Thing, and how do you connect the dots backwards to your day-to-day life?
This book is an attempt to answer these questions.
This isn’t the blog I wanted to write this week. I had planned to write something about the art of end year reviews, and new year strategies. But as I drafted that blog, I found myself writing for pages and pages with no clear resolution to the ideas and themes I was trying to communicate. So here I am writing about something else.
The first time I ever blogged was in 2010. I started on wordpress.com, and in 2011 I believe, I got my own domain and moved my blog to it. I’ve written every year since then, but very sporadically, with months in between posts sometimes. I’ve never really known why I blog, just that something within me compels me to. I do sense I do it as a way to understand and express myself better. Those earlier posts were about me trying to figure out life and many of them became part of the book I published this year – The Meaning of Life and other such nonsense.
Around this time last year, I set the intention to blog every week. This came as part of a larger theme I was pursuing – executing ideas. In fact, I dubbed 2018 as the year of execution for me. And now at the end of the year, I have been mostly successful at blogging every week. Sure a few weeks I failed, but when I did, I made up for it the subsequent week.
So, what have I learned from a year of consistent blogging?
Making a decision to consistent action like blogging every week is a commitment. It says I have given my word to do this thing, and come rain or sun, I just have to do it. Many times, I sat to blog with no idea of what to write, but I just had to sit and push through it. At the expense of other things. Whether it was easy or hard. Whether I was tired or refreshed. Even when I felt I had nothing to say. Some days it felt like punishment. Some days it was a grueling process. But I said I would blog, and so I did. Week in, week out, I sat down, and I wrote.
Adjust your expectations – Start small
The original plan was actually to produce multiple pieces of content and post at least 3 times a week across multiple platforms. And for the first few weeks, I did that, making images, doing the usual Monday motivation pieces, and doing book reviews every other week. But I quickly found that that was a bit unwieldy for me. I’m not a full-time blogger, I have multiple clients and projects on my plate at any point in time, so I decided to strip down my intention to its most basic form. If I could just post an article a week for a whole year, that would be fine for me, that would create the baseline habit I need to expand down the line.
Create a system
To tackle this commitment properly, I had to build some kind of system to help me capture ideas, flesh them out and eventually post them. This system evolved over time and was abandoned at some points, but it has acted as a guiding framework in this journey. I decided to blog around a theme – ‘How to Get What You Want’ as a golden thread across most of my posts. Prior to this, I had blogged whenever the inspiration hit me. Now having to produce every week, I could not rely on inspiration, I had to create a system. Having a theme helped me to generate ideas ahead of time, and to organize my thoughts. I broke down the year into four sub-themes, and at each point, I would look over what I had been writing to see if I was still on theme and if writing according to theme was even working.
This happened somewhat accidentally for me. The mental state I need to be in to write is very different from the mental state I use to design or go about my daily business. I need time to reflect, to laze around, to think, to allow the insights to bubble up to the surface so I can write them down. I quickly realized that to write, I had to journal first, I had to get all the different thoughts in my head down so I could clear the space, calm the mind long enough to create content. So that became my ritual. The day before I posted, usually Sundays, I would spend some time reflecting and journaling, and then I would write. This ritual evolved to also become the time I used to reflect on my goals and plan the coming week. The act of blogging consistently somehow created this new powerful ritual in my life which set the stage for successes in other areas.
Trust the process
Many times, I sat down, and I had no clue about what I was going to write about. But I trust the creative process. I know I don’t have to know. I just have to start. And as I write, the thoughts begin to form and they build on each other, and before I know it, I have a whole post. It has taught me to face the blank page and the blank canvas with faith, and step into the unknown, trusting that the creative muse will be there to reward me.
Blogging as a personal development tool
The most surprising thing blogging has done for me is aid in my personal development. I view the process of personal branding as an exercise in self-creation. It allows you to think deeply about the life and impact you want to have, and then put out content or value in that direction. This process deepens your understanding of your values and ideas and allows them to sink even deeper into your heart and soul. The more I write, the more I understand. I become stronger, wiser, more articulate. The effect snowballs into positive habits in other parts of my life. It has been absolutely instrumental in my personal growth this year. They say if you really want to learn something, teach it.
Push through the slump
By mid-year, I was sure I was done. I did not have anything to write about. I had exhausted the initial list of ideas I made at the start of the year, and now I was stuck. And this persisted for a month or two. How was I going to get to the end of the year if I had no more ideas? But then they started trickling in again. Ideas birth more ideas, and then they began to multiply and flow like a torrent, and suddenly one random night, I even had my theme for next year. Creativity is a renewable resource, the more you use it, the more you have. Even when it seems to dry up, trust the process, take a step back if you need to, the well will refill itself again.
My thoughts have become deeper, and consequently, it is a little harder to write. On one level, I am a better and faster writer…I think. I am drafting this post in one sitting, in less than 45 minutes. At the same time, the ideas I’m trying to express are more complex and more intertwined, as evidenced by the blog I actually started off this week writing. Some concepts need more than just a blog post, they need a series or a mini book. Some concepts are just too big to be made too simple.
People pay attention
Even when they don’t comment or message or reply. I bump into old friends sometimes, and it invariably comes up. ‘Oh, I see your blog man, I see what you been writing, its dope, very inspirational, keep it up’. And I’m like, ‘oh’ you have been reading? I had no clue’. But people pay attention. People keep tabs. And somehow, it’s helped my business because it keeps me top of mind, they see a post and then they remember, ‘oh Oto designs too, let me actually hit him up for this or that.’
It is okay to experiment
For a brief few weeks, I started a podcast with the Anchor app, turning my blog posts into audio form. It was an interesting experience, and eventually just fell off because like I said, I have a lot to do usually. I really could have pushed it more, but I decided to return my focus to just posting an article every week. Doing audio as well would mean an extra layer of workflow and things to consider. But it is certainly something I will bring back in 2019 in full force.
As much as possible, shorten the time between idea and execution
The day I attended the Nelson Mandela lecture with Obama as the speaker, I returned quite pumped. In chatting with a friend about it later that day, I had the idea to write about the experience and blog about my thoughts. Even though I had already blogged for that week. The next morning, I had the post up. I knew that if I waited, the idea would fade, and I won’t get it done. Same thing with the post about Absa’s rebrand. The brand was launched, off a conversation again, I decided to write about it, and soon after I posted my thoughts. I don’t always succeed, but as much as possible, I try to shorten the time between idea and execution. Sometimes you have to move fast and capture lightning in a bottle.
Don’t be afraid to switch it up
Like I mentioned at the beginning, I wanted to write something else this week. But as I worked on that idea more and more, I realized it needed more time to cook. So, this morning, it hit me, just write about the other thing instead, then take the week to finish working out the other idea. Plus, this post was much easier to write.
In conclusion, I’ve never written for the sake of an audience. I don’t lust after building my numbers, although at a later stage it will be a bit more important to me. All of this has been for the sake of execution, for the sake of building consistency. This is simply the foundation. Many times, people want to push me to monetize or promote, and I say not yet. Right now, I write for me. I write because I am compelled to. I don’t know where this road will lead. Just that I must walk it. And as I take a step, the next step opens up to me. If only one person read my posts and got something from it, that is amazing in itself to me. That someone would take the time to read, in a world full of distraction, with easier to read and more entertaining options out there, or an Instagram feed to get lost in. So, if you have been reading so far, I appreciate every read, every share and every reply. One of you has shared my post every week without fail, thank you. Many of you have messaged me when I was late with a post, thank you too. Thank you for being with me on this journey so far. There is so much more to come.
Personally, I’m a lazy artist. I want the biggest bang for my buck. I want to do the absolute minimum and still make an impact. That’s why I love Jean Michel Basquiat. His work is proof that you can paint with the proficiency of a 5-year old, and still make a statement worth listening to. Also, doesn’t he look like what would emerge if Kid Cudi and The Weeknd did the fusion dance?
Basquiat was an incredibly gifted artist, cut short in his prime (he died at 27) and namechecked by rappers ever since. His work was distinctive, full of childlike youthful energy, irreverent, and seemingly nonsensical, but also revealing a profound knowledge and respect of art, its history and social commentary. In 1980s New York, an electric nexus of time and space, Basquiat emerged as an unlikely artistic force, rising as a black man, from the grimy streets, to global stardom.
He is the quintessential example of the artist who throws himself with reckless abandon into his work. Moving out of home for good as a teen, he spent most of his young adult life basically being a bum, surviving off money picked up in the streets, and immersing himself in the culture and the scene of the time, bouncing from place to place and party to party. His early creative efforts included cryptic haikus scribbled in graffiti under the moniker Samo scattered all over the city, as well as experimental live music with his band (none of them could actually play an instrument, but that was part of the appeal).
He is charming, talented with a keen air of innocence, and he befriends and eventually moves in with his sort-of-girlfriend, Suzan. At this point he had progressed from graffiti to full on painting at the insistence of another friend. Suzan worked and paid the bills, while he spent his time painting. And it is this one anecdote about his life that really earned my respect. Basquiat was too broke to afford canvasses, so he would salvage broken doors, windows, fridges, scraps of paper, tins, anything with a surface he could paint on. He didn’t wait to get proper canvases, or the right kind of paint or tools. He worked with whatever he could find.
If you really want to create, if you really want to do something. You just do it.
That is the crux of true creativity, its raw essence. The true artist doesn’t allow a lack of resources to become an insurmountable obstacle. In fact, we are drawn to such art-forms, pieces made with the scrappiest, bare essentials, because through all the limitations, and perhaps, even because of then, we can see the passion shine through, we can see the potential. We see a brave artist battling against his restrictions, turning his obstacles into stepping stones that pave his way. Basquiat has nowhere to paint, so he turns an abandoned fridge into a priceless work of art.
This same energy you have to bring to your life and to your work. If you have ambition, a burning desire to create something that resonates, that has impact, if you want to devote your life to the mastery of a skill or an artform, or a career, you start where you are, you work with what you have.
Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can
The biggest companies on the planet right now all started small. The origins of the slick phone you’re reading this on now can be found in a dinky garage decades ago with a bunch of nerds, hippies, and a couple pieces of hand-assembled circuit boards. Facebook the almost omnipresent behemoth it is now, started in a dorm room. The colossus that is Amazon started in a garage with doors as its first desks, Jeff Bezos packing books with his team to fulfil customer orders. The first Star Wars movie was produced with a shoe string budget and a lot of DIY.
Our problem too often is that we want perfection right out the gate, before we have earned it, and we want to do it with the absolute best tools. We think we need the light ring and DSLR camera before we start the youtube channel, the best mic and mixers before we start the podcast. So we don’t start.
Or we are insecure in our creative ability, and so hide behind our lack of tools. Sure, the right tools do help, but it is the artist that precedes the tools. A writer who knows what he is doing will do a lot more damage with an ordinary pen than a talentless hack with a Mont Blanc. You cannot hide your lack of skill behind expensive tools, but you can use the lack of tools as an excuse to procrastinate. You just have to begin. If you are really good, the world will respond, and better tools will present themselves to you.
Every master was once a disaster.
T Harv Eker
We all have to start from somewhere.
If you waited till everything was perfect and you had all the resources, you will be waiting forever. And even if you did get it – the perfect studio, the perfect lab, the right writing chair, you wouldn’t know what to do with it. At most, you would churn out works of stunning mediocrity. The tools don’t make the artist, the work makes the artist. The lack of tools is a gift. You get to work with the scrap, failing, prototyping, learning, crashing, rising up, drafting and tearing up, you need the grind, you need the work, because that is where you hone your skill. That is where you work around the obstacles, that is where you distil and learn the principles of your craft.
I started my design journey on dinky little Toshiba laptop (that was everything to me then by the way), a pirated copy of photoshop, and a design magazine. Now, I type this to you from a MacBook Pro. But it was all the work I designed on that first Toshiba, and then a PC, and then this sexy huge white Dell I had, that allowed me to finally get my first MacBook and then another one, and now, all the bells and whistles I need to create.
The obstacle is the way.
Creativity is just as much about limitations as it is about infinite exploration. The searching and playing around is an important part of the process. It is necessary to go far and wide in ideation. But it is the limitations – the brief, the deadline, the boundaries that really focus us and unleash the creative power to combine ideas, materials, colours to create something inventive, something remarkable.
With inventiveness and creativity, you can make the limitations you face a distinguishing feature in your work. Don’t have enough money for different colours? Limit your palette. Can’t make the special effects you really want? Hack it and let it have a DIY vibe to it. Whatever the obstacle is, use it to your advantage.
You don’t have to be fancy. You just have to begin. Even Basquiat started by painting on abandoned doors.