T.S. Eliot is considered one of the best writers of our era. But what can he teach us about the creative process?
Here are the 7 lessons I took from studying him during the month of June.
You have a creative career. Let's find it.
T.S. Eliot is considered one of the best writers of our era. But what can he teach us about the creative process?
Here are the 7 lessons I took from studying him during the month of June.
The name “Pablo Picasso” has become synonymous with creativity so much so that the Spanish painter has reach an almost-mythical quality. But what factors play into the master’s genius? And what can we learn from it?
I mean you probably could have guessed that, right? Despite what you do or don’t know about the old master, you probably could have guessed the guy felt pretty solid about himself.
What you may not know is the extent to which this was the case.
Our striped-shirted Spaniard once walked into the Louvre in Paris carrying his own paintings. Imagine strolling up to the Hollywood walk of fame and saying, “Yep, I’ll just start carving my name here. Whenever you guys want to make it official, let me know.” Picasso had this much confidence in himself.
Why? Because, yes, he believed he belonged there.
(Please note — his belief came first, then the work.)
[For the video lovers…
Picasso was an artist coming of age in the early 1900s — a time when modern society would get many ideals about what it would mean to actually fundamental be an artist. This is opposed to just doing art, which is part of the human experience for everyone. Many norms, stories, and expectations would be set by how the group of artists acted during this time.
“How they acted” in this case meaning “how many people they slept with.”
Picasso had a number of mistresses, lovers, flings, and flirts. To say Picasso jumped from lover to lover throughout his lifetime would be like saying that a frog sometimes hops to get where he is going.
However, it is worth pointing out while Picasso was carving out Cubism — probably his most important contribution to the artistic scene as a whole — he spent the majority of his time with one lover — Eva Gouel. Eva was as close as Picasso would ever get to a committed relationship, as they were madly in love between the years of 1911 and 1915.
Coincidentally (or not) Picasso’s fierce affection with his live-in flame matched up with the time in which Picasso created the movement he is most known for.
Records show that Picasso was absolutely crippled by Eva’s early death by tuberculosis, and he never had a firm relationship from that point forward. And although he continued to paint, he never reached a similar break though.
So Picasso, probably one the greatest painter to hold a brush, had a deep affectionate connection during debatably his period of biggest impact.
And you are trying to do your thing alone?
Okay, we went over this briefly with Einstein and how there is no chance anyone remembers a physicist named Albert Schleppelhorf.
However, Picasso adjustment to a more memorable name was a *bit* more dramatic. Picasso’s full name is (deep breath here)
Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso
Can you imagine his mother shouting after him when he was in trouble?
However, it’s worth pointing out that Pablo Picasso was Pablo Ruiz for the first 20 or so years of his life. Whether because he was aware the Ps and the Os bracketing each name would help cement his legacy or whether it was because he dropped the Ruiz because of the strained relationship with his father, we might never know.
The name you are known by is part of your creative marketing. Aubrey Graham is Drake, Peter Hernandez became Bruno Mars, and Stefani Germanotta became Lady Gaga. And Pablo Ruiz, a common and forgettable Spanish name becomes Pablo Picasso, an alliterative and sticky label which flows off the tongue.
Don’t like your name? Change it.
When a creative person is on the edge of a breakthrough, he needs strong support in two different areas:
The two of these support systems collide in letting the creative know that a) he is loved despite his crazy ideas and b) he is not losing his mind. You already know Eva was by his side, providing the first half of the support needed for the Cubist movement. Now, for a name you might not know — George Braque.
Braque contributed just as much to the cubist movement as Picasso (if not more). The two men worked side by side, day in and day out. Braque was the technician to Picasso’s free thinking, the meticulous thinker to Picasso’s emotional feeler, the yin to his yang.
Painting, like writing, is a intensely personal activity. Execution of any idea requires an incredible amount of solitude and isolation. Unlike dance or music, there are no real quick corrections. Braque didn’t stand over Picasso’s shoulder. Instead, the two men would spend all morning painting, and then spend all evening examining each others work.
I don’t want to be unclear — without Braque, you probably don’t know Picasso’s name.
Every artist needs a muse. But they also need a logical voice who is not emotionally attached to the work.
Unfortunately, when Braque went off to fight in the first world war, he and Picasso fell out of touch and eventually, out of favor. This seems to be an ugly pattern in our master’s life, which leads me to…
Ugh, this is awkward, right?
You don’t want to think someone as brilliant and talented and sweet looking could be mean. Yet most reports lend to a picture of a man with downright disregard for other human lives. In a worst case point of view, it’s possible he derived some sort of pleasure or creative people from making others uncomfortable. Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner even used the word “sadistic.”
However, I am the type of person who looks for the best in people… even reportedly awful ones.
Even if you did know Picasso turned into a jerk, what you may not know is just how early his childish naivete was ripped from him.
At age 12 Picasso’s younger sister, Conchita, died of diphtheria. When a person contracts diphtheria, they often develop a “barking cough due to a blocked airway.” This was 1900. What does this mean? It means Conchita Ruiz actively and loudly coughed until the moment she could no longer breathe. She did this in the middle of the family home.
Can you imagine waking up in the middle of the night to hear your younger sister’s rattling coughs echo through the house? Can you imagine seeing your playmate’s clothes stained with blood? Can you imagine everyone in the home counting down the days, wondering how many more she would have?
This was not exactly an easy burden to bear.
Yes, Picasso treated people poorly. No, it is never that simple. This event was only the first item in Picasso’s collection of demons. It would later grow when a good friend Casanagus put a bullet through his head. Losing his lover Eva couldn’t have helped.
In spite of these great tragedies (or more likely because of it) Picasso found fuel for work which will never be forgotten. He also became an insufferable and hateful old man.
Was it worth it?
Probably depends on who you ask.
Okay but before you get all swept away in the baby genius thing, can we talk about what the word “prodigy” means for a minute:
“A person, especially a young one, endowed with exceptional qualities or abilities.”
This definition is misleading although typical of how we think about talented youth. That word “endowed” itself has a bit of a magical quality, as if a billion stars aligned to gift the planet with a ONE TRUE ARTIST.
Are there ingenious children? Sure. But history often skips over other supporting factors: Mozart’s dad was already a musical expert. Tiger Woods’ father had the time and information to turn the young talent into a global star, and with a whole family already entrenched in the music industry, of course Michael Jackson became a breakout hit at age six.
Likewise, Pablo’s father was already an artist himself, although reportedly a bad one, and was able to provide the tools and support the budding painter needed.
I love what choreographer Twyla Tharp says on this topic:
“Often destiny is a determined parent.”
Nevertheless, legend has it that young Picasso’s first word was “La Piz” (pencil), and that he was already drawing very good work at the age of 9, and progressed exponentially throughout his teenage years.
It’s nice when your career starts 10 years before that of your contemporaries. Often there is no substitute for time.
Okay, riddle me this one:
Pablo Picasso grows up in Málaga, Spain. He speaks almost no French. Yet, in 1900, he moves to French and instantly befriends a poet, Max Jacob.
Despite having zero connections and almost no way to communicate with anyone when he moved there, Picasso becomes close friends with both powerful friends and talented artists, including Gertrude Stein in the former category and Henri Matisse in the latter. Year after year, his web grows.
I am sure there is a logical and sound explanation for this, but here is mine:
The Law of Attraction.
When a single ideal consumes all your waking thoughts and actions, your connections and growth ascends language, social status, or other barriers. Picasso was about painting. He was also very good at it. When you remove all other pesky variable (like, say, not being able to speak to anyone), it seems almost inevitable people would flock to see a master at work.
(We actually can get a sense of what watching Picasso might have been like. This video of the master at work is mesmerizing.)
You get the sense there was almost no boundaries between life and the canvas for Picasso. From the death of his little sister Conchita to the suicide of Casagemus to the grief felt by an nation in the devastation of the Spanish Civil War, Picasso left nothing unsaid. Or rather, nothing unpainted.
Good artists can create something and explain what it means.
With great artists, no explanation is necessary.
Yes, Picasso had natural talent.
Yes, Picasso had a father who was an artist (and therefore gave the boy a head start).
Yes, Picasso was given many lucky breaks along the way.
Do you know what else he did? Painted at least 300 canvases every year. Pablo lived to 91. We can guess he started this pace somewhere around the age of 17 (likely sooner). That’s over 20,000 paintings.
I dare you to participate in your art half that many times and see how “naturally talented” you become.
This is #2 in a series: Learning Creativity from the Masters. Here is another:
Putting out his cigarette, he calmed walked to the edge of the rehab center, climbed over the six foot fence, and flagged down a taxi.
“Where to?” the driver asked.
“Airport,” an answer came.
The cab streamed through the night, a yellow bullet down a black highway toward LAX. Arriving at the terminal, the passenger pulled his head low to get out of the vehicle and walked into the airport.
He bought a one-way ticket to Seattle. It would be the last plane flight of his life.
Shuffling between the seats, the passenger spotted a familiar face — Duff McKagan, guitarist from Guns N’ Roses. He plopped down beside the colleague, apparently happy to see an acquaintance. The pair started chatting.
“All of my instincts told me something was wrong,” McKagan would say afterward.
Of course, hindsight bias is a funny thing. Did McKagan really know something was wrong? Could he really know what would happen? No one can say.
What we do know is this: Kurt Cobain said goodbye to his McKagan after they landed, grabbed another taxi, and sped off into the dark. A few days later, the Nirvana lead singer would be found dead, with a shotgun beneath his chin and blood leaking from his ear.
He was 27 years old.
Though I’d heard Cobain’s story before, this round of research hit particularly hard as I’m now closer to 30 than 20.
He was 27. A kid.
Most recently, EDM producer Avicii tragic and early death only a few days ago. Avicii was born only 14 days before me.
What is happening here?
I dove down the Internet rabbit hole, greedy for more information. The sunrise spilled across my back yard and through my office window. As I devoured more information about Cobain, other names popped into my head:
All these people were known for outstanding creativity. All of them died sooner than they should have. If they did not intentionally deliver the fatal blow themselves, than they certainly did so as a result of another form of abuse.
What is it that causes a case like this? Are there any common factors in what drives an artist to the level of self-loathing seen in so many famous stories? Is this truly a trend, or merely a case of our remembering tragedy? Can we tell why these events happen?
And if so, can we guess who might be next?
A quick note. On Twitter the other day, I said this:
Writing a big post about why creative people tend to be tortured/suicidal.
What thoughts do you have?
What questions do you want answered?
— Todd Brison (@ToddBrison) March 26, 2018
Which was answered pretty quickly with this:
I think it depends greatly on how you define creativity. And I think you’ll find this myth to not hold water if you think of creativity as creating something new. Because engineers do that all the time, and we don’t tend to think about them as suicidal. Does that make sense?
— Gal Podjarny (@galpod) March 26, 2018
Gal is right. As a matter of fact, I’d argue ALL professions need creativity. However, for the sake of this argument, it’s important to point out that we’re looking at professionals in the Arts, and NOT arts-based professionals. (see here for a definition of creativity vs. arts vs. The Arts)
Let’s start from the bottom – Why does it seem like artists always die early?
Humans are biologically hard wired to respond to tragedy. We can’t help it. So long as there are headlines which say “X Number of People Killed in _____,” we will look at them. We will read them. We will obsess over them.
Why does this happen?
I believe there are a few big reasons:
#1: We don’t want to die.
When terminal cancer patients are in the late stages of their disease, some go through a heartbreaking process called terminal agitation. This stage is crushing to both the patient and her caretakers. At this point in the deterioration, the victim knows he or she is dying, yet cannot prevent it. Many times, they’ll go through haunting symptoms such as moaning, restlessness, flailing of the arms and legs, loss of bladder control, and general anxiety.
This is often due to a psychological desperation to stay alive:
“Patients facing death may be distressed, and spiritual and emotional needs have to be addressed. This can be challenging if the patient is in the dying phase.”
For most of us, not dying is a primary goal in life. Since that’s the case, our animal brain is tuned in for ways to prevent the annoyance of death occurring too soon.
What better way to prevent death than by learn some of its causes? At least on a biological level, it makes sense that we gravitate toward stories of death. Most of us don’t want that to be our last headline.
#2: Scary stories are sticky
You heard the one about the razor blade in the apple, right?
Several years ago, a horrible story spread like wildfire — children had died or become severely injured because of razor blades, pins, or needles embedded in the candy they received at halloween. A simple bite could cause irreversible harm.
The big problem with that? It wasn’t true. Not even close.
So why is the rumor still spread today?
Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Made to Stick, sought the answer to this exact question. Why do some pieces of information — like the idea of glass-filled fruit — seem to be glued in our brain, while others — like the details of high school history class — seem to disintegrate?
According to the Heath Brothers, there are 6 elements at play here:
What’s important to note here is that all of these elements don’t necessarily have to be in play here. Even if we don’t know how credible a story is, if it is concrete, simple, and emotionally charged, we will likely remember it.
(Maybe this is why celebrities die all the time on the Internet).
In the case of our creative people, it is difficult to forget phrases like “he was found with a shotgun pointed at his chin.” Or, in the case of Jimi Hendrix: “drowned in his own vomit.” These two descriptions leave little to the imagination.
The terror of these stories spreads like wildfire, leaving us with a laundry list of legends gone too soon.
#3: Hedwig Van Restorff
Other than sharing a name with a famous owl, Van Restorff has another reason to be remembered by artists.
The PhD-holder has a cognitive bias named after her which is also referred to as the “Isolation Effect.”
Essentially, the Isolation Effect says that we will remember one different item in a list IF it is presented next to many items which look, feel, or are the same.
You can guess what that means, right? It means we remember Kurt Cobain, but are less likely to recall Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, or Stone Temple Pilots. This is true even though the latter are of the same genre.
Quite simply — fireworks draw more attention than a long, enduring flame, despite their being made of the same element. Are creatives really more emotionally volatile? Or do we just remember the bright lights?
Without giving you a source, a name, or a year, it’s likely you would remember this picture.
If not, one or two details would begin to stir as I reminded you about a certain parade in Texas, a funeral held in 1963, and a captive world watching the march of a dead president.
At the time of his assassination, John F. Kennedy did not exactly hold world-wide approval. He was hated by members of his own party. He was called “naive” and “dreadful” by many other members of Congress. His declaration to reach the moon served as cannon fodder for his opponents, who called it “a science fiction stunt.”
In 2013, JFK ranked at the very top of the polls for presidential approval rating at 90%. NINETY PERCENT. You probably couldn’t get 90% of Americans to agree on the color of the sky these days.
I feel quite comfortable in saying there is no chance Kennedy is anywhere near the top of that list without the brutal assassination, unforgettable funeral, or inescapable controversy surrounding his death.
For those in a creative profession, early death seems to be the ultimate play for immortality. It is the perfect punctuation for a life filled with turmoil and beauty and brilliance and pain.
Can you imagine Chris Farley, old and grey, waving at a camera during the Emmys broadcast? Or Amy Winehouse calmly strutting to center stage to announce the winner of Album of the Year in 2025?
The more relevant question — Would you remember them if they did?
There’s a simple explanation for why we might feel creative people are more in danger for early death or emotional trauma.
Maybe they are.
In 2017 a study revealed for the first time that people who do arts-related jobs are not one, not three, but four times more likely to commit suicide. Female artists specifically are in the most danger. According to the study and (of course) the coloring of my own opinion, here are a few reasons that might be the case:
A) Crazy Hours
I remember once hearing an interview from Mac Powell, the lead singer of a christian band called Third Day. When asked how his first child affected his sleep, he said this:
“The three-o-clock feeding is not a big deal.
It’s the 7 A.M. feeding which is killing me.”
Of all artists, musicians probably have the least control over their own schedule. A painter paints when she feels. A writer breaks into prose whenever he wants. Musicians must operate at peak performance daily for months at a time, often between the hours of 7 P.M. and 1 A.M.
This is almost the biological opposite of what most require.
B) Sex and Drugs etc.
“I’m well aware of certain things that will destroy a man like me
But with that said give me one more”
— Ed Sheeran, Eraser
It is simple for me to sit here at my comfortable desk and promise I will never do cocaine or ecstacy. But it is not thrown in my face on a regular basis.
My psychology teacher once told me of his high school friends. They all wore long hair, all smoked, all wore black, all made trouble in school, and all spent late nights listening to loud music.
Do you know what they called themselves? “Nonconformists.” Years later, he reveled in the irony:
“We all refused to conform… together.”
Creative people are not immune to the primal desire to fit in with a tribe. Their norms are simply different. Given the regularity of which artists would be exposed to substance due to their community, it’s honestly surprising more of them don’t have a habit.
C) Why don’t you understand?
Imagine if, one day, you woke up and nobody could understand you. They swear up and down you are not speaking the language you once did. Try as you might, communication can never be reached.
It’s difficult to see what nobody else sees,
to say what nobody else sees,
to feel what nobody else feels.
Couple that with the bizarre feeling of being professionally and perennially on display for the world to see, and isolation becomes inevitable.
D) Delayed Development
From Albert Einstein to Sigmund Freud to Ghandi, Harvard Psychologist Howard Garnder pointed out an interesting phenomenon. He noticed in his research that almost all who do groundbreaking work tended to be emotionally and mentally stuck in their childhood to a point.
Einstein himself called his own intellectual development “retarded,” which is why he never could quite grasp the assumptions (such as, say, the very fabric of space and time) many of us smart people understand to be true.
It is this intimate connection with childhood which might be the reason for intense tantrums, as well as broken connection with “grown ups.”
E) Fantasy (un)Fulfillment
Here’s a hypothetical question:
If you don’t have to worry about money…
if you receive all the fame you could ever dream of…
if you never have to want for a romantic partner ever again…
if you could satiate any desire with a vocal request at any moment…
What would you live for? What would you chase?
Perhaps one reason those who fulfill their biggest dreams also go through the most pain is because they were never able to answer one of life’s most daunting questions:
F) Relationship Disasters
Kurt Cobain’s Wikipedia entry about his relationship with Courtney Love is like reading a fiction novel.
Sylvia Plath’s husband was the classic misogynist, whisking her off to Ireland at one turn and dumping her mid-trip for his mistress.
Amy Winehouse and an on-again-off-again boyfriend often came to violence, being seen in streets bloody and bruised by paparazzi.
Whatever the cause, the inner turmoil in the most at-risk artists is almost always fueled by dysfunctional and often dangerous relationships. These relationships don’t necessarily come from the creative himself, but from another, equally unstable force.
G) Pressure from the machine
Just as a guess, how many people do you think make a living simply because Taylor Swift exists? Never mind the songwriters, how about the lighting for the stage? The sound system for the tour? The guy who drives the bus. The twelve other people who drive the rest of the equipment. What about the brand managers? The backup singers? The dancers?
Make no mistake – once a creative person bursts onto the scene, money is at stake. A once revered and loved passion becomes an obligation tied to the livelihood of real, breathing people. Or on too many occasions, the terribly greedy label executive.
My heart nearly burst into pieces when I read about Avicii’s death. He actually predicted he would die sooner rather than later, saying:
“Everyone knows that I have anxiety and that I have tried. I did not expect that people would try to pressure me into doing more gigs.”
H) None of the Above
What? Are we supposed artistic work just makes a person suicidal?
Maybe it’s just that emotionally charged people are more likely to enter into professions which require them to wrestle with their issues actively and publicly. This is opposed to the majority, who shove their issues in desk drawer at a cubicle for 35 years and succumbing to a quiet, but grey, existence.
Can I be truthful? I started writing this post with a list of potential names in my head — Ed Sheeran, Bo Burnham, Adele, etc. — but have come out on the other side with an entirely different perspective. Sorry to tease you.
Here’s what I believe now:
The creative most in danger is the one you will never know.
Can you imagine coming of age today? You want to cover a song on guitar and discover there are 103 people who have already done it on YouTube. You post a picture of Downtown Pittsburgh which is entirely new and unique to you, only to discover countless identical shots on the location tag.
Big-fish-small-pond syndrome now only exists to those who willingly close their eyes. We are all insignificant fish in an impossibly large ocean.
It is not a surprise some use self-violence as validation.
To the girl who feels lost, useless, hopeless. To the boy who feels like his very existence is a redundant to the human race:
Please protect yourself. Protect your mind. Protect your soul. Protect your heart. Protect your craft. Keep making your stuff.
We have a lot of art, but we still need yours.
We have a lot of voices, but we still need yours.
We have a lot of dreams, but we still need yours.
We have a lot of opinions, but we still need yours.
We have a lot of lives, but we still need yours.
Please don’t go.
In my more arrogant days I put my own contact information at the bottom of posts like these, but soon found myself impotent and terrified when some confessed their personal desire to commit suicide.
Instead, here is the suicide hotline number: 1–800–273–8255
Here are some stories of suicide survivors: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/help-yourself/attempt-survivors/
Here is another way I think I can help: I love you. You are amazing.
When I asked for feedback on this topic, I had a number of good responses on Twitter. Some of them were question which turned into sections of this post.
Others were too poignant to water down with my own language, so I’ve included them here:
We’re easily susceptible to flow states, but most of us don’t understand it. We’re connected to everything and then left disconnected and exhausted with very few systems in place for us to become steady again.
— Cassi Frasure (@MadVisionKitty) March 26, 2018
Thought: We become so wrapped up in/enamored with the ideas and dreams in our head that we cannot deal with reality.
— JR Ramsey (@JR_Ramsey) April 1, 2018
Thought: We become so wrapped up in/enamored with the ideas and dreams in our head that we cannot deal with reality.
— JR Ramsey (@JR_Ramsey) April 1, 2018
We all stood frozen as he spoke:
“Oh, I see,” he said. “You think people just get sick randomly.”
One-by-one, our college choir conductor pointed his baton at six gaping holes in his ensemble. As he jabbed it toward the gaps, he spoke:
“I know who was awake at three in the morning. I know who is eating lousy food. I know who is choosing to live in a sloppy environment. I know who has bad influences around them. I know whose mother still treats them like a baby.”
And then he said this:
“When you signed up to this group, you made a commitment to be here. That means every choice you make outside this room should set you up TO BE HERE.”
Here is what doesn’t matter in work and life: talent.
Here is what does matter: dependability, integrity, delivery.
Want your boss to give you more leeway? Do what you say you are going to do. Do it with the +1 Rule. Do it earlier than expected. Then, help other people do what they said they were going to do.
If you don’t deliver, nothing else matters. Afterwards, try these things:
Before we get too deep, a distinction:
Creativity is — solving problems, fashioning products, or defining new questions in a way that is novel.
Art is — the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination
The Arts are— the various branches of creative activity, such as painting, music, literature, and dance.
I bring that up because I thought for the longest time scientists could not be creative and engineers, programmers, and accountants were not creative people. They only served as the workhorses to execute the vision of those of us fortunate enough to dance with the Muse on a daily basis.
Although not everyone is an artist, everyone can (and should) be creative in what they do. If you are a truck driver, and you solve problems — congratulations! — you are creative.
Mastery of any domain lends itself to a level of creativity, regardless of what that domain actually is. The proper information leads to new patterns and connections and ideas. Which means you have just as much to learn about the creative process as a bricklayer.
Or in this case, a wild-eyed physician who did poorly in school.
After walking to the stage, pumping his fist, and yelling ecstatically, Chancelor Bennett gives a nervous chuckle when he gets behind the microphone.
The crowd is on edge, waiting to see what this first-time Grammy winner will say. Every musical celebrity is packed into an enormous room which, somehow, actually seems too small for the amount of collective influence. Everyone is dressed to the nines, even Chancelor, despite the grey hat perched on his head. It boasts a single number – 3.
Clearing his throat, the winner speaks:
“I want to thank God and for my mother and my father who supported me since I was young. For Kirsten. For Kinsely. For all of Chicago.”
When he says the word “Chicago,” a roar bursts out of the crowd. There is applause, as if Chicago is more than just some town, as if Chancelor is more than Best New Artist of 2017.
Chancelor Bennett won his first Grammy in 2017 for an album titled “Coloring Book.” Coloring Book was considered to be a masterpiece by most experts in his genre. It was filled with innovative ideas. Many superstars pitched in to help write each of the pieces, and the output what was some called “simply genius.”
During the final three months before the album was finished, Chancelor and nearly 20 of his friends – other musicians, family members, show promotors, etc. – lived in the studio. Typically this is an expression. For Chancelor, he meant it literally. His daughter slept next to him on the floor most nights as they sacrificed as much as they could for the music.
“There was a lot of fatigue and tension,” Chancelor said in an interview. “But the last time we played [the record] before we sent it in, we knew it was perfect.”
It was perfect. At least, the whole of the musical world thought so. On May 13, 2016, Chancelor Bennett – more commonly known as Chance the Rapper – delivered Coloring Book to Apple, and his world changed forever.
What is being overlooked in this story? Honestly, it’s a dynamic most people miss in this age of internet culture. We have been trained to look only at the viral stories – the Domino’s pizza kid who blew cheese out of his nose, the lady who put on the Chewbacca mask, the kindergartener who can rap Nicki Manaj lyrics.
Here’s the issue – Can you give me the person’s name from any of those phenomena?
You aren’t alone. Almost nobody knows who is in these seemingly random videos. They are here today and gone tomorrow, thrust out of the limelight almost as quickly as they found it.
Why then, is Chance the Rapper still selling out shows all over the world? Why has he become a massive brand who is turning down label offers left and right? Why do people know his name, even though his album does not have as many views as other “viral” stars? Why does he continue to dominate in a highly competitive field (music), in a genre which might be the most competitive of the options (hip-hop)?
It’s because Chance tapped into a secret. Before clutching a trophy in front of an audience of millions, he grabbed a microphone in front of tens. Chance had to become king of Chicago before he could be seen worldwide.
He unlocked The Law of Early Diffusion.
(This is probably undeniable rule #5 for creative people)
The Law of Early Diffusion is simply a theory of how fast new ideas take hold. Originally conceived in the 1960s, this premise has been tweaked, stretched, pulled, and updated even to this day.
A popular article is Kevin Kelly’s “1,000 true fans.” In the premise of 1,000 true fans, Kelly suggests if you were to ignore the allure of worldwide fame and set a goal to gain 1,000 true fans, your career would flourish, as they would carry you on to victory through their own social connections.
I would reduce the scale even more. If you are just getting started, 10 true fans is plenty.
There’s a problem with that, though. It is boring to sell your art to 10 people. It is sexy to sell your art to 10 MILLION people. Therefore, The Law of Early Diffusion is often ignored, momentum is never gained, a dream dies quietly, and another creative goes back to sit in a grey office surrounded by grey walls and grey desks and grey people, chained to someone else’s vision.
What if you weren’t worried about selling a massive amount of work right now? Instead, what if you focused now on making the decisions which would enable you to do exactly whatever you want the rest of your life? This includes using creativity as your dominant source of income.
This piece is not about selling 1,000 pieces of art one time and never again. It’s about slowly selling one piece and then another and another and another.
I would rather you have 15 years of boring success than 15 minutes of fame.
The Law of Early Diffusion is critical to building a career that lasts as opposed to being another flash-in-the-pan internet sensation. Think of the waves crashing onto the shore from the ocean. They don’t just pop up spontaneously. The currents build and move, aligning themselves together. Water swells in a current over and over until enough momentum is built to tip the wave. What was one thousands of individual drops of water now becomes a powerful force, crashing into the coast and dragging dirt, sand, and people with it.
“Going Viral,” is more like a freak thunderstorm. It gets a lot of attention in a moment, but is quickly forgotten.
In September 2015 I wrote my first viral post. I have no idea how it happened or who caused it. Actually, I was a little embarrassed by the post. I considered not even pressing publish and starting on another idea. As it happened, I let it go, and my career really did change trajectory. Hundreds of thousands of people saw my name for the first time.
Those people who read and enjoyed that viral post helped activate The Law of Early Diffusion for me.
Enough waxing poetic. There are two practical ways to leverage The Law of Early Diffusion. Based on the fact you read this far, I can probably guess which of the two will be more attractive to you, but I’ll list them both anyway.
Option 1 – Decide to go for a very niche market.
You will see this all the time with products and markets that are very crowded. Young companies don’t just make products for “golfers.” They’ll make them for “young female golfers in the southeast region of America.” In this instance, the law of early diffusion is manufactured. The business zeros in as far as they can go and wins an entire market. Once our imaginary company has captured an acceptable share of the young female golfers in the southeast region of America, they will be able to ride that momentum and word of mouth up the coast, expanding to Kentucky and Ohio and perhaps on up into New England.
This option requires considerable thought up front. You must know exactly where you are aiming. Businesses who manufacture The Law of Early Diffusion in this way are often quite boring to watch. They are narrow with their content and marketing because they must be. They know and follow the law.
Option 2 – Do what interests you at all times to attract your niche market.
This option is the more attractive to most creative people. Sounds great, right? All you have to do is follow your heart!
Reality is much more jarring.
When you choose option 2 in today’s era, you are now competing with everyone else in that space. I wrote one post encouraging people to live their best creative lives, not realizing I’d be jumping in the ring with the likes of James Altucher, Jeff Goins, and Srinivas Rao.
Let’s pretend you are terribly passionate about writing. What separates you from all the other writing blogs?
Most likely when you begin, the answer is “I don’t know.” That’s okay.
“I don’t know” is always an excellent place to start. But unlike option 1, where you are definite about your differentiator, an attempt to create an early audience by following your interests requires much more faith.
When I began writing online in 2015, I had no idea who I was or what I wanted to be. I just knew I wanted to write. That sounds nice now that I have over 50,000 people, but for the first year, I didn’t break 10,000. That means I operated by faith alone for at least 365 days.
If I’m completely honest, I am still operating on faith alone most days. Hope and Faith.
Still, though, I recommend people follow their interests first, and find the differentiator second. If you choose that route, you must address both the quantity and the quality of your work.
Quantity is simple: Do as much as you can as often as you can.
It could be the difference between your cooking blog and every other cooking blog is the amount of recipes. When you focus on the quantity of your work, you will have hundreds of items to refer to by the time the world even realizes what you are doing.
Quality is a little more difficult to define. After all, who gets to determine quality? The health nut might shove a hemp protein shake in your face and rave about how good it is, but if you think it tastes like dirt mixed with cement, you are probably not going to value that drink very much.
There is, however, a bullet proof formula to mastering your craft. Even if not everyone is drawn to it, you can be confident of your best work if you follow this process.
To improve quality every day: Do something to the best of your ability. Then do a little bit more.
Those are the only two steps.
Are you an average writer? Write as much as you can. Then add 100 words.
Average painter? Paint as well as you can. Then start a new canvas.
Average intelligence? Read as much as you feel like reading. Then turn the page.
Average musician? Practice as much as you can. Then do 10 more minutes worth.
Still feel average?
Repeat this process. Then do it again.
Then do it forever.
The trick to The Law of Early Diffusion is this: there is no one way to accomplish it. However, quantity and quality almost always get you there. Choose your path and stick to it.
Relentless practice of this law can lead to long term success. Refusal to acknowledge it will often lead to burn out, slow results, and consistent frustration.
Luckily, you get to make the choice.
The Lady Gaga instrumental crooned as I moved into downward dog.
41 days after a complete mental breakdown, I pulled my tailbone to the sky as the music played. There were no words, but as a not-so-closeted pop fan, I sang them in my head.
“Hello, hello baby. You called, I can’t hear a thing.”
With the rest of the class, I pushed my right leg far into the air, then placed it back. 17 bodies moved from downward dog into Warrior 1, with left legs lunging and arms overhead. My thoughts were melting away, replaced by only instructor’s voice.
“I have got no service in the club, you see see.”
Lift the right leg off the mat and lean forward into Warrior 3.
“What what what did you say, aw you’re breaking up on me.”
Pull the right leg back and spread arms into Warrior 2.
“Sorry, I cannot hear you, I’m kinda busy”
Most people probably don’t receive a significant spiritual insight from Lady Gaga lyric. I am not one of those people. Tears peeked into the corners of my eyes as we maneuvered toward tree pose.
These were the words I told my wife as my workload shuffled from medium to high to unbearable. Not that I would ever freely admit it was unbearable. No, what caused that were flu-like symptoms which resulted in my inability to move, breathe, or think.
“Are you okay?” asked a coworker.
No. I wasn’t.
Can I be honest? Part of my work overwhelm was a lack of focus. Who was I? Was I the Todd who wanted to be Tony Robbins or the Todd who wanted to be James Altucher or the Todd who wanted to be Malcolm Gladwell or the Todd who wanted to be 6?
My confusion expanded exponentially with my workload. I would do anything and everything which I thought might get me ahead.
(I still laugh about using that word — “ahead.” Ahead of whom? And where were we going?)
Instead of deciding to Quit, I just quit. 45 days, no published posts. That was the rule. Anything would be better than this nonsense. Several existential crises, many conversations with my wife, and a yoga habit later, here’s what I realized:
I am here to help people do better creative work.
That is it. That is all. You can talk to Hal Elrod for morning advice. You can read Eric Reis to learn about startups. You can pour through the work of Tim Urban to learn interesting information about the world at large.
But if you are a creative person, if you feel like you have a work of art dying to get out of you, come to me.
If you have ever struggled with the process, the motivation, or the execution of such an overwhelming calling, I’m your guy. I got you.
I will support you.
I will care for you.
I will love you.
I will advise you (if you want).
If nothing else, I will stand here, week after week, and say these words:
You are not alone.
And now, a few things I have learned after nearly 10 years of creating things for a living.
Probably nobody does this better than comedian Bo Burnham, who found success as a random kid on YouTube and now directs Netflix specials for legends like Chris Rock.
At the end of Burnham’s own 2016 special — Make Happy — the scrawny 25-year-old tells the audience:
“I could sit here and pretend like my biggest problems are Pringles cans and burritos. The truth is my biggest problem is you.
I want to please you, but I want to stay true to myself.
I want to give you the night out you deserve, but I want to say what I think and not care what you think about it.
A part of me loves you. A part of me hates you. A part of me needs you. A part of me fears you.”
Businessman will not tell the truth. Marketers will not tell the truth. Schools will not tell the truth.
Real artists will tell the truth.
Just like you, I heard the song “Despacito” approximately one billion times.
Just like you, it’s become clear to me that Spanish as a language is on the rise.
Just like you, I have seen the world realize *just* how much privilege rich, white people have gotten.
So, no, it does not surprise me Taylor Swift is going on tour with Camila Cabello.
In 1993, Howard Gardner published a book which would turn out to be one of the seminal studies on creative people. Gardner, who is responsible for the idea intelligence can take many forms, analyzed the lives of 7 important creative figures across many different domains. I’ll call them The Big Seven:
If you haven’t heard of Gardner, you most likely know the work of his colleague — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi wrote a book called “Flow,” which is mostly famous for this concept:
The two men worked together to define what they would call the “Triangle of Creativity.” Each of the points on the triangle refers to a different influence on whether or not a subject could be sufficiently called “creative:”
It’s the first category which means the most to me. Guess what they decided matters significantly when it comes to the quality of creative work?
How well an adult brought his inner child into his profession.
And NOT — how many hours the individual worked, how disciplined the individual was, how genetically lucky they were.
Many contemporaries of The Big Seven, it was theorized, never questioned the assumptions taught to their inner child. They no longer asked the persistent and unanswerable query of the toddler.
Gardner points out that Einstein specifically became famous by developing theories which stemmed from questions of his youth.
Children play. They break things. They are insatiable. Perhaps most importantly, they stand out in a world which screams at them to fit in.
Maybe that makes the biggest difference.
One time, King of Medium Benjamin P. Hardy and I met at a Sonic in Bellevue, Tennessee.
(Sonic was a mere choice of convenience, not cuisine, as Ben drinks neither coffee nor sugar. Processed foods don’t make the list either. All of this is inconsequential… except for the fact I had to skip over my cheesy tots during this particular conversation.)
After some time, he asked me this:
“I mean, how many hours do you actually spend writing? It can’t be that much, right? Most of the process for me is research and reading.”
Ben is a machine of efficiency. In my imagination he reviews research from 6–8:27 A.M., remembers enough of it to write a 2,000 word post over the next 47 minutes and 13 seconds, then publishes that post and goes out for a jog. After setting a PR for the miles (again), he probably checks casually to see that his latest writing has, indeed, received tens of thousands of claps.
I stammered out a reply, fingering the red mesh table between us.
“Yeah, I guess it’s mostly like that.”
What I didn’t mention was the 15 open tabs at any given time. I didn’t talk about the nearly illegible scribbles in a moleskine notebook acting as my Muse for the day. Ben never heard about my coffee and water breaks. Nor did I expand on chasing the dog across the living room in between sentences.
It’s not uncommon I’m working through 4–6 posts at a time. Research happens in spurts, not batches. Typically I don’t know when or where lightning will strike. Maybe my idea will come from a scientific study or maybe an obnoxious pop song.
Here’s what I know, though.
Ben and I both start with nothing.
We both come back with something.
If you are able consistently find The Altar of the Muse, does it matter which road you take?
Thanks so much for reading this. Share it with someone who needs it.
Much love as always,
— Todd B
This might help — a book I wrote called The Ultimate Guide to Infinite Ideas.
I’m giving it away for the price of an email address.