Create Something You’ll Never Show Anyone Else
A simple technique to unclog creative constipation
So making songs now that I know aren’t going to be heard by anybody else, it is an interesting thing. Because I think you have to do that now as an artist. I really do.
— Donald Glover, Grantland interview
You might feel your work has gotten less creative over the past few months (or years). You might feel discouraged. Perhaps money turned a fun hobby into a chore.
Maybe you’re completely creatively blocked, or haven’t felt inspired in a while. Or maybe you’re just bored.
If any of this happens to you, I want to suggest a simple exercise:
Every week, set aside a few good hours to create something just for yourself.
By good hours, I mean do it first thing if you’re a morning person. If you’re a night owl, do it at night.
For me, the magic moments and connections happen when I’m just writing in a journal (usually by pen), or when I’m reading a book I’d selected out of curiosity.
I realize that this might sound like a waste of time. Why would you want to produce something that no one will use?
Here’s why it’s valuable:
When you’re creating for someone else — a client, a huge group of users, or for critics — your success is determined externally. And as management wiz Peter Drucker says, “Wherever there is success, there has to be failure.”
When you’re creating something just for yourself, you neutralize any possibility of failure.
And what seemed so difficult becomes easy again.
Donald Glover, well-known for his TV work and his music, talks about how he makes things that he never intends to show the public.
Similarly, so does musician Hudson Mohawke: “When myself and Lunice did the TNGHT project, it was not even intended for release.”
Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote in a journal to refine his way of thinking. After he died, someone published his entries. Aurelius unintentionally produced what is now known as Meditations, a classic text in stoic philosophy.
Art’s objective is different for everyone. Maybe you want to express yourself fully and honestly. Maybe you just want to have fun doing it. Maybe art is exorcism, or catharsis, for you.
With this exercise, you don’t need even a process-oriented goal at all. (That’s why doodling is so fun. You never force yourself… It just is.)
In this exercise, secrecy is the only success. Publicity is failure.
Create something that’s never meant to be shared. No critics will see it. No acquaintances. No, not even your best friends will see it.
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Best of all, this private exercise — if you do it enough — will rekindle your curiosity and passion. It might even remind you of when, and why, you fell in love with your hobby or your art.
Blank canvases are intimidating. So here are some ideas as starting points:
- If you like business, come up with ten interesting, fun, stupid, or unrealistic ideas that might or might not have hyper-growth potential. (There was a time when Wikipedia sounded stupid.)
- If you like design, create an ad for your favorite company that you will never pitch. Or draw a building that defies gravity.
- If you’re a journalist, freewrite 1,500 words without the end in mind. (Do it now!)
- If you’re a copywriter, come up with slogans for a dream client that you will never pitch.
- If you’re an artist, sketch your favorite animal with your non-dominant hand.
Nobody likes to fail. The privacy gives you a silo to make mistakes in. Because if you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not innovating or trying hard enough. Paul Graham writes:
No one wants to look like a fool. But it’s very useful to be able to. If most of your ideas aren’t stupid, you’re probably being too conservative. You’re not bracketing the problem.
You create a space for you to have fun, mess up, explore, and make mistakes. Just like the good ol’ days.
We think of art as successful if it sells for a million dollars, or if everyone knows about it. Again, I’m not denying the validity or importance of that goal.
However, it’s equally important to retain your creative stamina and passion for what you do. If you no longer have fun doing it, it’s going to feel like work.
And ironically, perhaps it’s only by creating art strictly for yourself, that you’ll achieve your goals for external success as well.
But enough of that.
Clear your head.
Create something that you’ll never show anyone else.
I’ve reflected some of that in my music because, to be honest, it was my mentality to some degree — when I committed to a career in rap, I wasn’t taking a vow of poverty. I saw it as another hustle, one that happened to coincide with my natural talents and the culture I loved. I was an eager hustler and a reluctant artist. But the irony of it is that to make the hustle work, really work, over the long term, you have to be a true artist, too.
— Jay Z, Decoded, 130
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Herbert Lui works with businesses to tell compelling stories at his marketing agency, Wonder Shuttle. He was previously a staff writer for Lifehacker, and his work has appeared in TIME, The Huffington Post, and Fast Company. He writes a newsletter that explores media, information, and marketing.