I was reading the wonderful show business biography Act One, by the legendary playwright Moss Hart, when the following passage struck me:
“It is taken for granted that a cabinetmaker or a shoemaker, or a lawyer or a doctor for that matter, starting with a certain degree of talent for his profession, does, after the practice of that profession for ten or twenty years, learn how to make a good cabinet or a decent pair of shoes, or plead a case or diagnose an illness correctly.
Not so the playwright. He is quite capable after twenty years of practice of having a left shoe for a second act when a right shoe is obviously called for, and is as unable to perceive the tumor in the third act that stares him in the face as the merest beginner or even someone who has never written a line for the stage.”
Moss had his fair share of hits and misses over the years, so he was writing from experience here. And as someone who has edited dozens of books and developed a gaggle (a pride?) of CreativeLive classes, I can say that this insight does not apply to playwriting alone. It is the burden and the privilege of being a creator.
In a sense, outside the creative space, everyone has it easy. Doctors, lawyers, and shoemakers alike — every day they practice their craft, they get a bit better at what they do, pretty much across the board. Practice actually does make perfect. As a lawyer, if you learn how to argue a case on Monday, you’re probably going to be at least that good on Tuesday, and probably even better by Friday.
Creatives practice their own crafts, of course, from Photoshop to audio mixing to typography, but at the end of the day when you face a blank canvas in one form or another you’re right back at the beginning, taking every bit as big a risk as you did on your debut effort. All the accolades of the past won’t protect you from scathing reviews for your next effort. In fact, the stakes only get higher.
That’s terrifying, but it’s also what makes a creative career so exciting. There are no formulas to follow, or at least none that won’t desert you once you come to rely on them. And that’s great, because:
1.) Seniority is no obstacle. There are no longer any true gatekeepers when it comes to finding an audience for exciting work that starts a conversation. Today more than ever, opportunities to share your work and get it noticed are everywhere. If your photos, designs, or other creations have merit, they will find an audience.
2.) Failure is meaningless. Today there is more creative work to consume than ever before. Sure, that’s overwhelming, and it’s easy to feel lost, but that’s also freeing: if what you create misses the mark, nobody will notice. This is the best time in history to create lots of work and get it out there without worrying about making mistakes or taking a wrong turn. Your best work will surface and the rest will settle to the bottom of the tank.
3.) Boredom is impossible. Not only do you have a host of practical skills to hone as a creator, you also have to learn how to nurture and protect the finicky, temperamental, but endlessly rewarding instrument that is your own creative spark. Like a vintage Italian sports car or an antique violin, your muse requires careful tending, from sufficient rest to elaborate rituals, to produce your best work, and learning to care for your inner creative is a fascinating challenge that never grows stale and always reaps rewards in the long run.
4.) Fear is your friend. An artist is never comfortable. There are no laurels worth resting on. In the mind of an artist, you are only as good as your latest effort, and that means the stakes stay high. That calls for a level of attention, clarity, and presence no other line of work demands. Staying creative means keeping your edge.
5.) It’s fun. In what other pursuit does the potential to be surprised, to have your entire perspective and sense of self turned upside-down, never, ever go away? As creative artists, whether we are photographers, designers, musicians, filmmakers, or crafters, every day of our working life is a blank page, waiting for that spark, waiting for us to take our first risk of the morning. It’s a wonderful privilege and one none of us should take for granted.
Sure, easy-to-follow recipes that always deliver great work sound great in theory, but those are the kinds of professions that get replaced by iPhone apps and unmanned drones. Relish the risk and rewards of the creative life, because before long every job will be a creative job.
For more on nurturing your creative spark and staying creative in the face of intense pressure, check out Todd Henry’s CreativeLive class, Being Creative Under Pressure. And for profound advice on living a balanced and fruitful creative life, try David Nichtern’s Creativity, Spirituality, and Making a Buck.