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The Single Biggest Thing You Can Do For Your Career: Show Up

by Hanna Brooks Olsen
money & life

showing up

Image via Flickr

Creative entrepreneurs, freelancers, and regular old people are forever searching for the secret to inspiration. Is it a flash, like lightning that strikes when you least expect it, or is it a slow burn that builds over a lifetime of paying close attention to everything around you? Are the most successful artists born inspired, or do they simply do a better job of picking up with the world is throwing down, and then turning it into something that stirs the emotions of others? And what happens when your inspiration is lost to the wind, in-hand one moment, then nowhere to be found the next?

Plenty of writers, designers, artists, filmmakers, and photographers have opined on the subject — and many have come to the same conclusion: That finding your stride, that making quality stuff, and that being successful is mostly comes down to just showing up.

In the creative sense, showing up doesn’t just mean arriving at a place — it means being prepared to put in the work, regardless of outside factors or obstacles, including your own naysaying mind. Painter Chuck Close spoke about this, when he noted that “inspiration is for amateurs…the rest of us just show up and get to work.”

Another famous proponent of showing up is Woody Allen, who more than once in his career expressed the importance of actually doing the work.

Allen is often quoted as saying that 80 percent of success is showing up, something he’s come back to in multiple interviews, though he’s also said he can’t remember the exact time he first said it. In a 1989 New York Times piece, Allen explained that “my observation was that once a person actually completed a play or a novel, he was well on his way to getting it produced or published, as opposed to a vast majority of people who tell me their ambition is to write, but who strike out on the very first level and indeed never write the play or book. In the midst of the conversation, as I’m now trying to recall, I did say that 80 percent of success is showing up.”

He clarified in an interview with Collider in 2008:

“I made the statement years ago which is often quoted that 80 percent of life is showing up. People used to always say to me that they wanted to write a play, they wanted to write a movie, they wanted to write a novel, and the couple of people that did it were 80 percent of the way to having something happen. All the other people struck out without ever getting that pack. They couldn’t do it, that’s why they don’t accomplish a thing, they don’t do the thing, so once you do it, if you actually write your film script, or write your novel, you are more than half way towards something good happening. So that I was say my biggest life lesson that has worked. All others have failed me.”

showing upJust doing the work, say many great artists, is the biggest feat. Creative Something’s Tanner Christensen expressed a similar sentiment in a piece last year:

“Even on the days you don’t feel like it, showing up can make all the difference. If you show up and start the work – even though it feels so heavy to do so – what you end up making could be all you need to keep moving, to keep creating.”

Another way to view the idea of showing up is to examine the contrary: Not showing up. Think of your creative process and your creations like a party — you can RSVP, which means you plan to go. You may even put it on your calendar. You may tell people you’re going to attend. But on the morning of, if you’re feeling tired or busy or just disinterested, you don’t attend. Which means, though you had the intention, and you even made the plans, you didn’t go. You didn’t have those conversations. You didn’t make it.

Creativity is the same way; intention is great, and inspiration is great, but if you’re not there for it, not doing the work for it, you have nothing to show but ideas and aspirations.

As Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter explains, “a great idea is not enough.” Kanter’s number one rule for inspiring positive change? Showing up.

Showing up also means supporting others in area or community. Attend the performances of others, purchase the handmade goods of people you respect, and read the books and articles by people who write the way you want to write. If you expect people to show up for you, you need to show up for them.

So make it a point to show up, whether it means physically being present at a workspace, or being mentally committed to getting something done. Take a class. Execute a project. Finish a book. Go to a talk. Sweat over your projects when you don’t feel like it.

Be there for the muse, and, eventually, it’ll be there for you.

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Hanna Brooks Olsen

Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.