Time can coldly divide people into two sets: those who manage to pursue their dreams, and those who eventually give up on them. But it's still notable how many people will—despite the known challenges of a creative path—graduate college with a “back pocket” idea of a creative lifestyle ahead. They expect to someday turn a creative pursuit into “a real thing”, a life more in line with their values and often markedly different from the corporate rat race they are presently tolerating.
Many of them will nevertheless have successful corporate career paths. They will find enough autonomy and purpose to dutifully make their way up the ladder while watching the occasional friend break away and “actually do it”, that is, actually “take the plunge” into a riskier path of being an entrepreneur, musician, artist, filmmaker, actor, writer, or creative professional of some kind.
The rest of us are left with the mild anxiety of confronting the question about the whens, hows and whys around beginning our own journey. The Why matters. The purpose and clarity of a path give sufficient drive to last a lifetime, whether it is to rid the world of disease, help underprivileged kids, or make things in which everyday people (or connoisseurs) can find delight and comfort. But more on the Why later. The other two questions—How and When—are deeply intertwined, and responding to them often means juggling difficult inner monologues about expectations, reality and superstitions. Beyond life's own circumstances, there are the stories we tell ourselves about why we haven't started, and what we identify with the most. Here are some common ideas worth negotiating with yourself.
People don’t get exactly what you’re doing, and that's ok. Smart people, of course, will have some idea but they can't understand its most granular, essential detail and reason for being in the world: because that's your idea. So their feedback will be generalist, and through the lens of their experience. But most people are not all people, and certainly not all conversations are the same. Your job is to be cultivating the relationships and conditions for the rare exchanges that matter to your work, the spaces that will produce insight that you can think about and consider deeply. The rest you can happily ignore.
It's easy to care too much about being judged. This is a novice concern, it shows up early on in the journey. Of course, people do care both about you and about quality of work that comes from you. But you're finding your way—this is creative work, not starting a dry cleaning business—and many of the anchors(the things to which you tie your business model) start out as feelings and intuitions—hypotheses to be tested—and not “results” with conventional metrics. So take your time, invest in the ideas, tools and techniques to iterate, to get it right. And know that the gods are always on the side of effort and courage.
Quality is important, even as “great artists ship.” Is your baseline for quality good enough? Are your processes solid, grounded, unambiguous ? How about the work itself? If it's true that “we don't rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training”, then can you deliver a good baseline of quality consistently in everything you put out into the world? Does your work scale?
Learning is in doing. There’s only so much information you can pick up from business leaders, motivational speakers, distilled “aha moments”, or how-to books. Biographies are helpful, but eventually the material tends to be too specific, too contextual, and as nutritious as comfort food—you know how they did it, and it's great to know that they did it, but it's not really a recipe for you. If you agree with that last sentence, it's a good idea to already be out there doing. The field is your place to learn further, testing out a notion, taking notes, squeezing the insight from every step taken, and obliquely working on the material of your own narrative, your legacy.
Trust you’ll get smarter, develop more clarity and pivot. You're very likely to dramatically improve on your position in the market within the first year. Which means you have to start somewhere and complete that first year of putting things out there, getting feedback and iterating. Not from talking about ideas but from making and doing things. Be nice to yourself and realize there’s no way around this, except to stay prudent, clear and attentive to what needs changing, and show courage when it's time to make the changes.
Being ready means acknowledging you’ll never be ready. “Ready” is a function of doing, rather than feeling. It's common to have the mistaken notion that if you build it, they will come. Except it doesn’t work that way. However it is almost always certain that if you start now, you’re about 50% more likely to succeed than if you didn’t start at all. Those are much better odds.
But back to the “why”—the purpose—of your creative endeavor, perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle for taking action. It's easy for a corporate job to leave you exhausted, at the end of the day, or the week, with barely enough time to recover over the weekend before it's time to do it again. It's entirely reasonable for those "weekly goals" of clocking in 1 or 2 hours of creative work get washed away with the exhaustion, self-doubt or even self-pity until you realize that years have passed and you have little to show for it. It's easy to say that you need clarity, and state it's importance. But it's also a very real circumstance that clarity of purpose, especially in modern life, is hard won. A “connected life” brings with it an overwhelm of information, and the distraction of noise and opinion about what to do with your time, or be in your role. It takes patience and effort to sift through the material, looking for the nuggets in the stream. That's why it's important to set up the right conditions to arrive at clarity on a consistent basis.
Moving toward making your dream a reality, toward success on your own terms, requires self-care: a method for replenishing energy and motivation, for being connected spiritually and psychologically to your best self. And much of self-care is rooted in spending time with the person you can trust the most: yourself. Self-care is about being comfortable with slowing down, being at a speed you can listen to—and process—your thoughts. Finding ways to extricate yourself from toxic relationships or workplace situations is equally important, it reduces the stress that you'll have to manage in the long term. One great measure for the people or job in your life could be to consider not only what they give you, but also what they take from you.
For a creative professional, a good balance between work and life often means getting clear. One has to be clear about responsibilities, which activities fall into which categories, and how to manage them in the course of the day. It is something that comes with practice. It doesn’t happen overnight, but like developing any other muscle, self-care requires developing the simple habits and routines that keep your mind and body healthy, so that you can arrive ready to play, and opt for better decision-making than you have in the past. Over time, if you are paying enough attention, a pattern begins to emerge, and it dawns on you almost suddenly one day. A fog has lifted, you’re looking up the steep slope of the mountain, a little terrified. But you stand confident, you can clearly see the path that will lead to a summit. That alone is enough impetus to start climbing.
PHOTO: Bird Market in Porto. Portugal.