Over the past several years, I have learned to see everything I do creatively, whether we’re talking about podcasting, painting, writing, even taking photographs, as practice — with one caveat. It’s intentional practice. It’s purposeful practice. It’s practice with oversight.
Malcolm Gladwell is a terrific writer and also produces one of my favorite podcasts, Revisionist History. In his book Outliers, he popularized the idea of the 10,000 hour rule, which most people incorrectly interpret to mean that simply practicing something for 10,000 hours will make you an expert. But as Mies van der Rohe pointed out in his famous dictum, “God is in the details,” and in the case of the 10,000 hour rule, there is one detail that often goes overlooked and that is that practice must be deliberate — repetition alone isn’t enough. In the words of Vince Lombardi, “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” We first must learn how to practice.
Building on the last issue of Create & Release, I think that perfect practice — and we can replace perfect here with purposeful or intentional if that’s a bit more relatable — has to start with why because the why provides clarity around the motivation. You may not know what your why is, and frankly I don’t think you need to know what it is definitively in order to get started, but you should have at least reflected on it. To look at it another way, of all the things you could be spending your time doing, why put any effort into painting or writing or whatever form your creative expression happens to take — your “thing,” as it were? Often, the why emerges as a result of the doing — and it’s important to note that the why is unique to you and there really are no wrong answers. Maybe your why is to make money to support yourself, or maybe it’s to document the world around you, or maybe making and sharing your photos or paintings or short stories just brings you joy. Maybe it’s connection to others through social media or a local club or group. Whatever it is, reflecting on the question is worth the effort for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it allows you to establish milestones to help gauge how you’re doing.
It’s worth noting that the language around this is very important. I’ve intentionally used the term milestone here rather than goal, because I think milestone implies progression. It implies that there’s more to follow, whereas the word goal is typically used to define an end point. Using milestone (or better still, target) gives us a bit of wiggle room for improvisation. The word milestone is also important because it allows you to reflect on and value the process and acknowledge the work already done that’s not based solely on releasing or selling. Deciding what the milestones are — and more importantly, why they are milestones — will help sustain you when things out of your control pop up, which will happen.
Here’s something else to think about: be honest about the why. If you say your why is to do something for the joy of it, that’s okay. In fact, it’s terrific. There’s nothing wrong with being an engaged amateur. But then don’t get upset when you aren’t able to hit some arbitrary monetary milestone or target. I think too many creatives want to be seen as purists and say it’s for the love of the process when in reality the purpose is to make money. On the other hand, if that is part of your purpose, that’s fine. Just be honest with yourself and/or your audience about it up front because that honesty will drive or at least inform your strategy — and, as Adrianne said the other day when we were talking about all of this, the why is something you can come back to when you’re feeling unmoored.
The milestones also allow us to gauge how well we’re doing and retool either the process or the why or maybe both, which is something that I struggle with. I have a tendency to keep refining my why to the point that I don’t allow it to inform an actual strategy — which often leaves me stuck in an analysis/paralysis loop. On one hand it’s great because I can keep playing out a variety of “what if” scenarios without any risk or consequence. The problem is, when I’m stuck here, I don’t actually get anything done. Adrianne calls it my “dreaming phase.”
Last year, knowing all of these things about how I tend to get in the way of my own practice and how I create in fits and starts, I decided to try something different. I gave myself an assignment: to paint 53 paintings by my 53rd birthday, which at the time, was about six or so weeks away. I didn’t think about things like monetization, or how the work would find an audience, or even what the work was “about” conceptually. Instead, I treated it as a task. Every morning, I went into the studio, put on my apron, and got to work. And each afternoon, I took off the apron, turned out the lights, and let go of the work for the day. Also, instead of working on one painting at a time, which is historically what I’d done, I worked on multiple paintings at once. This was a revelation because rather than getting stuck working on a single piece, if an idea or concept didn’t work on one, I had multiple other pieces where it could — and most of the time did — work, which was a complete game changer. The block that I often stumbled over had been removed and the entire project was broken up into more manageable and iterative “chunks” that yielded concrete daily progress, which served as fuel to keep showing up. I also didn’t allow myself to worry about what would happen to the work after it was completed — the monetization and audience piece that so often paralyzes me. My why was simply to get the work done and to do it in a way that aesthetically still felt like me. This new method of working (the how) also allowed me the freedom of improvisation that I mentioned earlier, while still keeping me moving forward toward the next target.
On the afternoon of my 53rd birthday, I put the final brush strokes on painting number 54. “Fifty three and one to grow on,” Adrianne said. In terms of making art, I had been more productive over the previous six or so weeks than I was over the past decade. I finished 2020 with more than 60 new paintings done, all from changing my why — changing how I practiced. Getting out of my own way helped too.
Thinking about how you practice and being honest about your why can have a dramatic effect on both the quality and the quantity of the work you make. Coming up with an iterative, milestone-based process can also allow your why to be validated along the way and to morph and evolve as needed, versus a goal-based approach that is often perceived as either succeed or fail. Like one of my college design professors told us again and again, “just do the work.”
Does any of this resonate with you? If so, how?
Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below or, if you prefer, click here to email me directly.
I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen Gladiator. It’s one of those movies that I will never get tired of. If you’ve ever wanted to channel your inner Russell Crowe and perform his famous speech to the emperor on the floor of the Roman Colosseum, soon you may get your chance. The Italian government has been seeking proposals from engineers for the construction of a new floor that reportedly will be “light, reversible and sustainable.” According to Culture Minister Dario Franceschini, “You will be able to walk on it and go to the center of the Colosseum, seeing it in the same way as visitors used to up to the end of the nineteenth century.” Read more on NPR.
I’ve been listening to Radiolab for years, but somehow I missed an episode from 2013 on which host Jad Abrumad introduces his co-host Robert Krulwich to the music of a band called Dawn of Midi, whose music is a fascinating mash up of jazz, improvisation, electronica, and North and West African rhythms. It’s incredibly hypnotic and has quickly found a spot in my workday background music rotation.
If you’re an artist or creative in your thirties, forties, or even fifties (raises hand) and still don’t feel like you’ve “made it” and are perhaps wondering whether or not you ever will, relax because you’re in very talented company. A recent article on Dazed looks at several artists whose second acts were much more interesting and successful than their first. For example, Japanese printmaker Katsushika Hokusai didn’t paint his iconic image “The Great Wave” until he was 70. Phyllida Barlow, who was virtually unknown for most of her artistic career, was the breakout star of the 2017 Venice Biennale when she was 74 and now her work is in the Tate Modern.