When you think of creative types, what do you think of?
If they are creatives and they work in the marketing industry, most people think of individuals wearing shorts, t-shirts and bouncing rubbery objects off of their walls until its lunchtime or until an idea strikes. For others, it’s a scene out of the movie Limitless, where Bradley Cooper is a wannabe writer who has a publishing contract and a literary agent, but he spends his time seeking out inspiration by doing anything (and, I do mean anything) but the hard work of putting the words on to paper or a screen. It’s not wrong to say that creatives are often given a bad rap. For the most part, their reputations are often summed up in one word: slackers.
It’s simply not true.
Recently, Jerry Seinfeld was on Howard Stern and it was one of the most fascinating pieces of content I’ve consumed in a very long time (you can listen to it here). Stern (like me) is fascinated with the mechanics of standup comedy and how Jerry puts together a set. Much in the same way that I love the Paris Review because of the way they not only interview authors but dissect their work environment and writing habits. Seinfeld is obsessive. He works on jokes like he’s sitting on the assembly line: day in and day out. Tinkering with it. Wordsmithing it. Perfecting the timing. It’s the complete opposite of doing nothing. You can’t look at authors like Stephen King and J.K. Rowling and not be impressed with their output. It takes other authors years to pull together enough words to call it a book. It’s not a question of speed (some have it, while others don’t), but it is a question of habits. I was first introduced to the concept of bringing a blue-collar work ethic to the creative space in Steven Pressfield‘s amazing book, The War Of Art. It was re-introduced to me when he updated some of the concepts for the book, Do The Work (which was a part of Seth Godin‘s The Domino Project publishing imprint). I used to believe that writing (whether it’s a book, article or blog post) is a lot easier when you know you’re not the only one suffering to find the idea and the words to match it. I’ve since changed my ways. My views were further changed during my book launch event for CTRL ALT Delete that happened at the Google office in NYC a few months back. I was fortunate enough to have a live conversation on stage with Seth Godin. Someone in the crowd asked us about our writing output and Godin stated that he doesn’t believe in writer’s block because there is no such thing as thinker’s block or talker’s block and he likes to write like he talks (you can watch the video footage of our conversation below).
What it’s really all about.
I am about 70% through an amazing book called, Daily Rituals – How Artists Work, by Mason Currey. It looks at everyone from Hemingway to Kafka and beyond. The book features writers, painters, architects and artists. Some entries are short, while others are more well-documented. Through the ages, there are three common threads that keep coming up that, to me, that demonstrate why we consider these individuals great. It also demonstrates just how absurdly wrong our perception is of the creative class.
- Hard work. There are no entries about people who wandered around the local pub scene, partied late into the night and magically were able to create great work. Some of these artists are early risers (we’re talking 4 am wake-ups), while others were able to work deep into the night (we’re talking about going to sleep at 4 am). All of them brought a rigid work ethic to what it was that they were creating and – for the most part – were somewhat obsessive with delivering something of excellence. This hard work and dedication is not about how many hours they spent on something, but every one of them spent countless hours during the day hard at work on getting the work done. It only be defined as the opposite of slacking and procrastinating. They were on a tight schedule.
- Take notes. When these people weren’t spending their working day toiling towards perfection and on a schedule, they were taking notes. Some kept notebooks on their night tables, while others would frequently be seen out and about, but off in a corner taking notes or working through a problem. I’m reminded of a story that famed author Jeffrey Gitomer once told me about his father and how he would always be writing notes on a pad of paper that he kept with him. When Jeffrey asked him what he was writing, his father would reply, "I’m doing my homework." The world’s most admired creatives do a lot of homework by taking a lot of notes when they’re not "on the job."
- They walk. Through the decades, each and every one of these creative types took time – every day – to go for a long and/or vigorous walk. Yes, they would often stop and take notes as well, but they would frequently go out for an extended period to think, ponder or spend time with family and friends. While some would walk alone, others would walk with their spouses or partners. Each and every one of them found time to do some kind of deep and intensive physical exercise, but – more often than not – it was walking. It feels like it was done as a holistic exercise. One that moved the body, mind and spirit.
So, the next time you’re not feeling creative, it may be best to stop wondering about where that next idea is going to come from and ask yourself if you have dedicated daily rituals that will let the million flowers bloom.
There’s a big difference between independent artists creating for the sake of creating something and salaried agency creatives working on a liquid soap campaign. Independent artists have urgency to pursue their talent and passion, while salaried creatives come up with ideas on command for a client they don’t really care about. When you’re an in an advertising setting as creative, it’s very easy to “slack off” when your management or agency don’t have any passion for work you are doing.
The process of designing or developing a “creative” idea is the same, for me, anyways, regardless of the nature of the output, or whether it is for my own creative endevours or the brand I am working for. Most, if not all, of my best thinking never happened in an office, of that much I know. I am, a huge proponent of serendipity, the answer or inspiration is usually never in front of me and it is usually never where I expect to find it. The simple truth that most of the best ideas I have generated come by not sitting down in front of a computer, probably looks like slacking off, at least to someone who doesn’t do this for a living and thats cool, ultimately I get judged by the end result and could care less if someone takes issue with the process….good column by the way, well said.
you say slacker like its a bad thing? Have you not seen the Richard Linklater film?
I feel like invoking the negative conception of the slacker.. to attribute that to creatives… is really just prejudice.. It’s like the prejudice of “a thinking person” where they can’t quite appreciate what “a feeling person” is up to.
I will say… that I tend to take a sketch book everywhere.. sometimes a note book… and I am somewhat obsessed with taking walks.
Oh.. and did you know the US President Nixon… said that in his experience.. all the great leaders were walkers…. I just love that he said that!
I think true creatives can find something in every project, no matter how menial or unglamorous, and every client, to get excited about. Even if it’s the opportunity to sew a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Though it is harder if you’re working for people who subvert and compromise your best work.
I’m not entirely certain I agree with the idea that creativity is borne out of repetition and ritual. I also don’t buy the idea that ALL the greats did X, Y or Z. But then again, I’m a firm believer in finding out what works for you and then letting it work for you. I tell people all the time to stop trying to follow everyone else’s formula and shoving your square peg through a round hole. But perhaps that’s the artsy-phartsy creative in me.
I can certainly attest to the concept that creativity is and will always be hard work. Yes, some fortune is involved (Eat, Pray, Love was certainly not the greatest book of our generation), but hard work and preparation builds bridges. Creativity merely conceives them.
I do believe there’s such a thing as writer’s block. I’ve known far too many brilliant minds who’ve experienced it first hand. Seth may not feel it applies to him, which is fair. But saying it doesn’t exist because it doesn’t apply to him … less than fair.
I don’t think I agree about the ‘client you don’t really care about’ I feel that’s a negative stereotype too. Sure there are projects that are meatier or more interesting than others, but even the least personally-satisfying client/project is still done for the agency for which a creative works. It’s still about delivering a product worthy of the team you work with – making the interfering/thankless/boring/conservative/whatever-descriptor client a moot point.
I think the only thing missing is the word ‘passion’, if you don’t have it you won’t be able to create and I think that’s what seth was aiming at.
A guy I used to work for about a decade ago had this great expression for what you’re suggesting here:
I think he got it out of a book written by the guy living in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and he handed the book to me and we’d all had a hearty chuckle:
“Edmonton, eh? Seems to me the The Art of Doing Nothing would be a wee bit easier than in one of the more mainstream burgs.”
But still, there’s much to take out of that. Cafes — and non-invasive people watching, by extension — good old sitting on your bum and watching the folks walking by, armed with some writing paper (to write with, no attack the passers-by), unplugged (no cheating!), and just enjoying the flow of humanity — will teach you more about local pop culture, conversational and personal space norms, the zeitgeist of the city you live in, and how the various cultures interact…supplying you with more ideas than you can shake a stick at in page turn after page turn or tablet swipe after tablet swipe.
There’s this great line in 15 MINUTES — Eddie Burns is talking to Bobby De Niro and the latter tells him:
“You’re working too hard on the problem, kid. Sometimes you gotta go away to come back.”
That’s what creative loafing, ambles around Hyde Park, flaneuring, spins around the shopping arcades of Melbourne, Australia (another sublime walking town), allows you to do.
Wicked post, Mitch, that got shared all over the show…and THANKS for the book tip. I am all over that title…
Mitch, as always well written .
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