For years I surrendered my career to the mercy of the Muse.
I hoped she would grace me with her presence (while I played hours of video games). I longed for the next big idea (while I willingly said “yes” to everyone but myself). I prayed for a cool post idea (while I seethed with jealousy over people more established than I was).
All the while, She was there, watching from afar. She waited for me to ask her to the dance.
But I wanted a fling; she wanted a marriage.
Here’s the thing about marriage: it’s work. Whenever you disregard your creative talent, the Muse withdraws. Whenever you take a day off, She wonders where you went. Whenever you don’t give her time, She will settle for someone who is willing to listen. Someone who shows up every day, someone who does the work.
This post is not about becoming a robot. It’s about paying as little attention as possible to the things which don’t really matter to you in order to zero in on the ones that do.
Here are four ways to fail as an artist:
1. Have a lack of routine
For the record, here are some things you DON’T need to have in your routine:
- Green smoothies
Here is the one thing you DO need to have:
- Uninterrupted time
It doesn’t have to be 3 hours. It doesn’t have to start at 5 A.M. Actually, it may be better off to start with a 10 minute session.
But in a world full off “URGENT(!)” messages, push notifications, calls, emails, and other distractions as every turn, your creative time has to be sacred.
Nobody else is going to give you more time.
Finding it is up to you.
Warning: In order to find a chunk of uninterrupted time, you will have to say no. Read this for a guide on doing just that.
2. Have an undefined creative process
Not to be dramatic, but creative triggers changed my life.
Imagine a cup of coffee. Feel your fingers wrapped around the stoneware as the warmth spreads to your fingers and up your arms. Inhale the aroma.
Can you see the scene? Are you there? Do you, perhaps, want a cup of coffee right now?
No part of the brain operates in isolation. It is a vast network with billions of pathways tying a particular song to your first girlfriend, the scent of cookies to your mom’s dessert, and the feel of gravel to your playground days.
These pairings don’t have to be random.
Next time you create, try something for me — listen to this soundtrack. At first, it will be awkward and intrusive. This is normal. Your brain is trying to process the new information (songs you haven’t heard) while simultaneously operating at high level creative thinking. It’s quite a chore.
Over time, though, the music will melt into the magic. Once the first few notes start to play, not only will you enjoy it, you will want to start creating.
You can create you own creative triggers, of course, but here’s the trick — once you start, do not vary them at all. Putting your iPod on shuffle might not work. How will your brain know what to do? But if you hear the first notes of Mozart’s 5th every time you make art for a week, the brain knows — “ah, it’s time to dream.”
3. Pay attention to less important things
“The grass isn’t greener on the other side. It’s green where you water it.”
There is a temptation, with all the noise in the world, to chase the notifications, to reply to every message, to keep up with every new app.
This is not the priority of the artist.
Try this fun activity:
Next time you see an URGENT(!) email come through, do not respond. Instead, close the email window and go back to what you were doing. Allow the user to wait a few moments, maybe even a few hours, before hearing back from you.
Now wait a few more moments.
Did the world explode?
If the answer is “no,” you might want to consider making email windows a full time policy. Only respond during certain hours in the day.
Your universe is directly shaped by what you attend to. Obsession with email leads to more email. Hours on Twitter leads to more tweets. Messages lead to more messages.
I know, you’ve got to keep up with your community, but before you do, consider this:
The prefix “re” literally means “again,” or “back.”
So every time you re-spond, re-ply, re-act, it is impossible to move forward.
Create first — do everything else second. Do not confuse the order.
4. Stay around shiny people
Nothing on the planet sucks away creative energy faster than a shiny person.
A shiny person is first and foremost a manipulator. They look good on paper, but inside, they are miserable, jealous, angry, time-stealing rats.
They will steal your time and not think twice. They will demand your energy and toy with it. They will milk you for every drop of good will you have and chastise you if you lose patience.
If you aren’t sure whether or not you know one, here are some key markers:
They use guilt to get you to do something
As a creative person, you likely fall victim to empathy on a daily basis. You have the ability to feel how other people feel, and that’s much of how you express yourself.
Shiny people take advantage of this.
It starts innocently: you do a favor for someone who needs it. That favor immediately becomes the expectation. “Will you do this” is replaced by “When you do this,” and “Thanks” turns into “Same time next week?”
They insult themselves to get your pity
Any person who is fishing for compliments is a manipulator. Period.
“Thanks for helping me, I’m so stupid.”
“Gosh, you’re so good to take the time to do this for me. I talked with Ed first, but he is in such a bad mood today. I heard he’s having some trouble at home.”
If they are talking to you about someone else, you can bet they are talking to someone else about you.
They don’t get better
“I can save them!” you’ll think.
Manipulative people will never get better. They will pout. They will apologize. They will course correct (only when it benefits them).
They will not get better.
Shiny people have no place in your life. The sooner you remove them, the happier you will be.