If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, if you have been one of my coaching clients, or if you’ve been one of my students over the years, you’ll know I am a big fan of approaching our creative work as a practice.
Practice is a word that has so many useful connotations when it comes to thinking about creative work: learning-by-doing, a commitment to improvement, diligence, humility, regularity, habit, valuing process over outcome. The artist Tania Kovats also touched on this in her interview here.
There’s no mystery to practice, no muse to court, no inner child to placate. You just turn up and do the work, again and again.
I’ve been reading around creativity a lot recently, thinking I should familiarise myself with what ‘creative coaches’ actually say, write and do. Oh dear. There is a lot of magical thinking out there, lots of manifesting, and inner child work, and soothing cod-psychology. One book, by an author who is apparently one of the foremost ‘creativity coaches’ out there, was so exasperating I actually ended up burning it in my stove! It was so bad I just couldn’t bear to see it on my bookshelf.
There’s an awful lot of hogwash out there.
So when I heard about a book called “The Practice: Shipping Creative Work” my ears pricked up. I liked the straightforward sound of it. The author, Seth Godin, is known more as an entrepreneur and marketing guru than in creative circles, so this is the first time he’s come on my radar. I’m glad he has. Because there’s a no-nonsense, pragmatic and enabling approach to creativity here. It cuts through a lot of the unhelpful mythology that hangs around the work we do as artists and writers. And it resonates with other ideas I’ve been exploring, like the importance of ‘flow’.
We don’t have to believe in magic to create magic.
This, my friend, is music to my ears. And, I hope, to yours as well.
‘Shipping’ creative work
Godin emphasises the importance of not just making the work, but ‘shipping it’, getting it out there where it is tested in the real world, with real audiences, real readers, and learning from that. Making the decision to write this weekly blog post is, I realise, my own commitment to shipping creative work. I’d encourage you to think about yours.
Buckle in. Get it written. Rain or shine. Get it out there. Make those connections. Open those conversations. Keep learning. You can’t control the outcome. You can only trust the practice.
We find this hard to do because
The industrial system we all live in is outcome-based. It’s about guaranteed productivity in exchange for soul-numbing, predirected labour.
The moment we put our work in front of an audience and say ‘here, I made this’ is an incredibly vulnerable one. You have no control over how people will respond. Many creative people step away at this point, or avoid it and keep working in obscurity. Godin says that:
Lost in this obsession with outcomes is the truth that outcomes are the results of process. Good processes, repeated over time, lead to good outcomes more often than lazy processes do.
Focussing solely on outcomes forces us to make choices that are banal, short-term or selfish. It takes our focus away from the journey and encourages us to give up too early.
The practice of choosing creativity persists. It’s a commitment to a process, not simply the next outcome on the list.
Here I am, practising drawing, again. I’ll get the hang of it one day.
‘Creative’ isn’t something you are. It’s something you do.
Godin tells us to accept the reality that there is no guarantee of success, and get to work anyway.
Action creates habits, and habits are part of a practice, and practice is the single best way to get where you seek to go….the only choice we have is to begin. And the only place to begin is where we are. Simply begin.
Goals aren’t based on the end result: they are commitments to the process. That commitment is completely under your control, even if the end result can’t be. But the only way to have a commitment is to begin.
You don’t follow your passion. You act first. Passion, involvement and ‘flow’ will follow.
Godin acknowledges that resistance is real, something I’ve addressed in other posts.
Resistance pushes us to seek confidence, then undermines that confidence as a way to stop us moving forward.
But we don’t need confidence, if we can merely trust the practice and engage in the process of creation and shipping, the resistance loses much of its power.
It’s like cold water swimming. It’s hard to take the plunge at first, even though you know once you get going it will be fine and you’ll feel absolutely great afterwards. Get in there often enough and it will become easier as you get used to overcoming that initial resistance. Habit is your friend.
Remain unattached to outcomes
This is where it all starts to sound quite Zen. Godin observes just how much psychic energy we waste on worrying about things, like outcomes, that we have no control over. It’s like worrying about the weather. We have to let go of our need for reassurance that everything will turn out OK. Instead, we learn resilience.
It’s easy to see the absurdity of attachment when we’re talking about the weather. The thoughtful alternative is resilience. To be okay no matter how the weather turns out.
When we get really attached to how others will react to our work, we stop focusing on our work and begin to focus on controlling the outcome instead.
Attachment is a choice. Attachment to the outcomes pushes us to grab hold of something. Attachment is about seeking a place to hide in a world which offers us little solace.
But of course, the bad news is that there is no foundation. We’re always falling. The good news is that there’s nothing to hold onto.
As soon as we stop looking for something to grab, our attention is freed up to go back to the practice, to go back to the work.
The strongest foundation we can find is the realization that there isn’t a foundation.
The practice is something we can return to whenever we choose.
Becoming unattached doesn’t eliminate our foundation. It gives us one.
What gets so interesting about all this is that this sounds pretty much what my Buddhist teachers have told me about meditation practice. Is this coincidence? I don’t think so. But I’ll have to give that some more thought.
Don’t believe what Paul McCartney says, watch what he does
You can’t always trust what highly successful creative people say about their own process. There’s a lot of mythologising. Whether that’s a conscious choice to make what they do seem even more special, or how it really feels to them, I can’t speculate. But it does make what they do seem unachievable for the rest of us.
I was fascinated to watch the recent Peter Jackson documentary about the Beatles, ‘Get Back’. If you’ve watched it (and if you haven’t you should) you’ll have witnessed the birth of classic songs like Let it Be in fly-on-the-wall real time. Paul McCartney sits at the keyboard, endlessly noodling around that famous chord progression and vamping lines until the iconic tune and perfect lyrics coalesce as if it could never have been any other way. While the rest of the band are arguing about managers and concert venues he’s quietly working on his song in the background. He runs bits of it past the others. They chip in suggestions. You watch him discard many red herrings, false starts and bum notes as slowly it comes together. I’m pretty sure McCartney has claimed that this song came to him entire in a dream. Here is documentary evidence that this is untrue. He worked at it. He honed his skills. He came back to it again and again. He did the practice.
Godin takes issue with Bob Dylan for a similar mystical claim that a ‘ghost’ came to him and wrote his songs.
He calls out the bulls**t
Everything that matters is something we’ve chosen to do.
Everything that matters is a skill and an attitude.
Everything that matters is something we can learn.
The practice is choice plus skill plus attitude. We can learn it and we can do it again.
We don’t ship the work because we’re creative. We’re creative because we ship the work.
No ghost is needed.
Talent versus Skill
In a similar vein, Godin debunks the myth that successful creatives are more talented than anyone else. They are more skilled because they’ve worked at it. And if they have developed skill, we can too.
Talent is not the same as skill….it’s insulting to call a professional talented. She’s skilled, first and foremost. Many people have talent, but only a few care enough to show up fully, to earn their skill. Skill is rarer than talent. Skill is earned. Skill is available to anyone who cares enough.
If you put the effort into your practice, you will be rewarded with better. Better taste, better judgment and better capabilities.
Watch Paul McCartney at work in the studio. That’s skill.
Skill is earned.
Committing to a practice that makes our best better is all we can do.
Amen to that.