Before we talk about turning average creative work to extraordinary, a little confession:
I have spent the majority of my creative life feeling unworthy.
Not jealous, strangely enough. I think my parents beat jealousy out of me a long time ago, God bless them. Instead, I have spent my worse moments wondering why my writing didn’t feel as cheeky as John Green’s, my pictures didn’t look as sharp as Minnow Park’s, my videos didn’t feel as cinematic as Casey Neistat’s. They weren’t up to snuff.
I had the number 1 post in the world on CNBC – still felt unworthy.
I made thousands of dollars worth of book sales in one week with no publisher or marketing team – still felt unworthy.
I watched my work spread to millions of people online – still felt unworthy.
These days, I’ve gotten a little bit better at this. I haven’t found a full solution, just a partial one, a mantra that keeps me going when the darkness swarms my dendrites:
Your extraordinary work won’t look exactly like anyone else’s
By its very definition, extraordinary work has an element or rhythm or feeling which is novel by nature. It is new and unique. It might not “feel right” because it is YOURS.
And you will always be tempted to sell your work short.
Even if it’s extraordinary.
Set Your Self Apart with Details
Do you want to know what the difference is between Neil Gaiman and Neil Nobody-Writer?
It’s not the plots, although his are good. It’s not some revolutionary new concept, although his are unique.
It’s 100,000 little decisions made throughout the course of the book— the nouns, the verbs, the metaphors, the turns of phrase, the voice of a character. These details receive relentless care.
Was the shirt violet, indigo, or purple?
Did the magic hammer sizzle with lightning or did it crackle?
Is Jesse walking down the street or strutting? Maybe he slunk!
Unique details are the mark of an attentive craftsman. Does Gaiman or any other writer sit down and spill out all of these great details in one go? Of course not. Instead, they understand…
Never End With a First Draft
This is really hard to do, especially in the break-neck speed we have created for our culture.
Here’s what happens — There is an epic release when a creative project is first finished. A sigh of relief spills out through the lungs and floods the body. Dopamine pumps through your brain and fills you with the same sort of giddy joy that hits you when you see those little red notifications pop up on your phones.
As you give yourself a well-earned break over the next couple of days, you feel yourself deflate a little bit. The glow of completion is fading.
Then, your mind and gut get hit with a one-two punch:
1 — You run into the arrival fallacy.
The arrival fallacy, as described by Harvard lecturer Tal Ben-Shahar, is the mistaken belief that reaching a goal you find valuable can lead to sustainable happiness.
Finishing that project doesn’t make you happy because of course nothing can MAKE you continuously happy. Your realization of this (whether conscious or subconscious) sinks you into a slump.
That’s when it gets worse.
2 — You realize you aren’t even close to finished.
You’ve only finished a first draft.
Whatever you create in your first attempt is only the first step in a long process — no matter how talented, experienced or credentialed you are
Great creative work is an iterative process, a pendulum of heedless creating and ruthless cutting. Go back over each layer of what you have made – is it cliché? Could you have used a more subtle approach on page three? Does this need to be the point in the presentation where you make a bold statement?
Good ideas happen in the first draft. Great ideas come from molding those initial thoughts.
Do more of it
Over his lifetime, Hollywood legend Jimmy Stewart is credited for 100 movies.
We don’t know how many movies he was not credited for, having moved to the city of lights at least a full year and a half before his first billing. What are not mentioned are the dozens of plays he appeared in before that. Also not mentioned are the number of stage productions he appeared in as a student. We don’t know how many songs he sang in high school glee club, or choir.
“But Todd, if I just sit around making stuff all the time, the quality of everything I do will go down!”
Scott Young, an author who has been featured in a Ted Talk and the New York Times, gives a remarkable answer to the quality/quantity debate in his post: How to Be Prolific.
The higher the “quality” threshold you set for yourself before you’ll make something, the less stuff you’ll make. Interestingly, this may not actually increase quality, since the predicted quality of an idea and how it looks when you start working on it are only somewhat correlated.(Emphasis added)
In other words – you may have one standard of quality. The people who see your work have another. There is merit in allowing your audience to elevate your best work.
(PS — That doesn’t mean your quantity has to take place in the open. Believe it or not, you are allowed to NOT post something online for the critics to see.)
Position yourself better as an artist
In my life, I’ve been fortunate enough to rub shoulders with some fairly successful people. Tom Kuegler and I have had long conversations over the phone. Benjamin Hardy, PhD once sat down with me and another friend at a Sonic Drive Thru. Anthony Moore sent me an early copy of his new book. Tiffany Sun wrote the foreword to The Unstoppable Creative. I’ve eaten oysters with the sixth employee of a food delivery service which blew up in the U.K. and went public, making him a millionaire overnight. Dave Schools and I chat about his daughter. One woman I do video work for is a rock star speaker who motivates people across the world.
Do you want to know a common thread between all these people?
They are all normal.
Every time I speak with any of the people listed above, I am surprised. Not a single human on that list above wears a cape or glows from radioactivity or has adamantium coursing through his bones.
Instead, they do a lot of work (see the last point), and they position themselves very well.
Go review the bios listed under the people I tagged above —you can immediately see they are authors, world travelers, and validated through well-respected publications. Immediately, your brain places them on a pedestal.
“But good art speaks for itself!”
Yes. It does. But do you want people to remember who made it?
Know what your point is.
I’ll never forget something Coach Tony said. I don’t remember the source, but it was something like this:
“I wrote the piece. Then I took several minutes to figure out what the headline should be. After I had decided on the headline, I went back to re-write the article. Probably 50% of it was new content I’d written to match the new headline.”
(Do you see echos of that first draft — final draft thing??)
Another one, from the best book I’ve read so far this year from an instructional standpoint. Joel Schwartzburg’s quick read, Get to the Point says this:
“[Not having a point] is a flaw that contributes directly to nervousness, rambling, and, ultimately epic failure.”
What is the point of your music?
What is the point of your essay?
What is the point of your painting?
When you think about a point, imagine a yellow, sharp pencil. The shaft of lead, the wood surrounding it, and the eraser are all important features of the pencil.
But the point is what leaves a mark on the page.
Remove the garbage
How can you sharpen your point?
To answer that question, I need to tell you about the flowers in our backyard which returned from the dead.
If you looked in the mud-colored pot last week, you would have seen only dirt and mosquitoes. Now — life. Pink and purple pansies are poking through the soil.
Why are the flowers now where there were none before?
We didn’t put Miracle Gro in the pot.
We didn’t water the flowers more.
We didn’t hope they would grow.
Instead, we took a hatchet to the ugly, invasive mimosa tree which had been taking up most of the sunlight. We removed what robbed the flowers of what they needed.
The flowers grew after that.
Much love as always <3