The Key to a Successful Creative Endeavor: One Man’s Theory

I have been developing a very simple theory about the key to successful creative endeavors. Before I go any further, I would like to acknowledge that “successful”, “creative”, and “endeavors” are all relative terms and mean different things to different people. This theory is general and hopefully applicable to you, regardless of how you define those terms.

There are two primary high-level factors required to achieve a successful creative endeavor: be completely true to yourself as an artist and spend time working on it. I will first compare this “formula” to two other simple formulas that are extremely difficult to actually execute, meditation and weight loss.

Basic meditation practice is a very simple concept. Make yourself comfortable, focus your attention on the breath, and don’t think about anything for an extended period of time. That’s it. If you have ever tried meditation, it was probably similar to my typical (almost daily) meditation practice.

After sitting in a comfortable position, I focus on my breathing for about three seconds, at which time I think, “Hey, there you go. I’m just focusing on my breathing and it feels really nice. Ahhh. Nice. Like Harold Budd. ‘The Pearl’ is such a nice record. Like sex. Oh, man. I could go for some sex…or maybe a sandwich. Is it strange that I’ve been eating a lot of jalapenos on my sandwiches lately? Maybe my taste buds have dulled? I wonder if it’s from smoking. But I quit nine years ago, surely my taste buds would be loving life by now. I should look that up. Where’s my phone? Oh wait. That’s right, focus on the breathing. Was I even breathing? I can’t remember the last breath I took. Ha. Every breath you take. I really like the Police. I think I’ll listen to the Police when I’m done meditating.” And on and on. It was a very simple set of instructions that was, and continues to be extremely difficult to execute without a whole lot of practice, and I mean real, intense, and focused practice.

If mediation isn’t your thing, consider weight loss. It’s an incredibly simple formula. Consume less calories than you burn on a regular basis and you will lose weight. Have you ever tried it? Do you know anyone who has ever tried it? Or better yet, do you know anyone who hasn’t? And what was the success rate? On an intellectual level, there’s no reason why anyone who can understand that sentence should be overweight, and yet we all know about the weight-related epidemic in our western culture.

This brings me back to my simple formula for a successful creative endeavor: be true to yourself and invest the time needed to work on it.

Being true to yourself as an artist means to engage in creative endeavors that are meaningful to you and move you at a very deep level. For example, if you are an artist and drawing trees, or seeing drawings of trees can bring you to tears, then drawing trees is a creative endeavor that you may consider. If painting portraits doesn’t really turn you on, then you shouldn’t paint portraits, even if you are offered a considerable amount of money to do it and/or you just so happen to be good at it. Likewise, if you’re a musician, you should make the kind of music that raises the hair on the back of your neck, gives you chills every time you hear it, or fills you with that feeling you get when you are so lost in the music that you lose time. If you have an offer to play the kind of music that doesn’t really do anything for you and the kind of music that you would never listen to on your own time, then you shouldn’t play it.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t play music for money, or make a certain kind of art for which someone is willing to pay you. I’m suggesting that if you do that, do it strictly for the money and don’t expect to reach that “next level” of success that artists hope to reach with their creative endeavors. Even if that paid gig that you don’t really love ends up paying you more money than you ever dreamed, it will still never lead you to that “feeling”. You know, the feeling that we’ve all glimpsed as creatives, when we’re in the Flow and we lose ourselves in our art. I think that feeling is the result of or an attribute of the success that we’re looking to achieve.

Additionally, being true to yourself as an artist means that you have to create for you, and not so other people will like it or like you. Like meditation, though, your mind can trick you. It doesn’t count when you secretly care what other people think while trying to convince yourself that you don’t care. Doing what you really believe in means just that, regardless of how simple or silly or stupid you think that someone else will think you are when you do it. This can be the single most challenging aspect of being true to yourself.

The second part of this theory is time. What I mean by time here is the time actually working on the creative endeavor itself; not marketing or promoting the endeavour, not posting about it on Facebook or Twitter, not daydreaming about the future of the endeavor, not complaining about why people don’t love it, or you. I’m talking about working on the art; making drafts, ripping them up, making other drafts, experimenting, practicing, doing another take, drawing another sketch, taking a walk and then looking at it again. There is absolutely no substitute for doing the thing that you really love doing…and doing it a lot. I believe that when you’re being completely true to yourself as an artist, the amount of time that you invest working on the art will correlate directly with the level of success of the art, defined however you like.

I don’t have a lot of real evidence to back up this theory except my own personal experience and my anecdotal observations. I’ve been making music for a very long time and a vast majority of the music projects that I’ve been involved with were failures, both publicly and/or personally. When I look back on them, the ones that I feel were successful and brought me a true sense of pride, were those that I worked on when I was being completely true to myself and could really care less what anyone else thought about them. I also took my time and worked very hard on them. In hindsight, the level of success of those projects was very reasonably relative to the amount of time I actually spent working on them.

In conclusion, as an artist who meditates and periodically struggles with weight, I consider the execution of this theory to be a long term, very challenging, very frustrating, life long exercise that requires discipline, hard work, focus, and a willingness to let go of fear, self doubt, and the desire to over-emulate others. But I believe that if I stay true to myself and invest the appropriate amount of time in my creative pursuits, I will achieve the success that is appropriate for each endeavor.

Does this theory make sense or am I insane?

  • John Hamm

    It does make perfect sense, but that doesn’t mean you are not insane. The two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Stay creative, my friend.

    • Jason Mundok

      Ha! I hadn’t considered that John, but you are correct. They certainly aren’t mutually exclusive.

  • David Bellard

    If you are creating art or music that is not innovative to you, or if you are not making something that you strive towards, you won’t experience the Flow and the time you spend doing it will be like a job. Might as well be driving a bus. The creative experience is about getting that intangible idea out of your head and making it appear tangible in the world. In your head the idea is perfect, but it takes time to be able to make those ideas a reality. Good blog post, J.

    • Jason Mundok

      Great quote, “might as well be driving a bus”.

      Yes, it takes an incredible amount of time. I say invest as much of it as you can, remove unnecessary things that block that time and accept that if it needs to get better, it needs more time…but it will happen. This is a very meaningful quote I recently heard from Ira Glass:

      “Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

  • Stacy Lynne Caldwell

    Right on J… i’ve read similar things from similarly crazy people who’ve ascribed to such craziness many years ago, such as the follwing personal favorite from dancer Martha Graham. It’s not just “nice” this thing we strive for… it’s important.

    “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
    ― Martha Graham

    • Jason Mundok

      I love this, Stacy. “Keep the channel open”.

      I have done a lot of great work in the past 10 years, but I have also built my own obstacles that have at times closed that channel. Sometimes my life is deceiving because I do a lot of “creative work” but I have found that I’m often doing work that supports other’s creative urges and passions. And that’s fine, but I have often ignored my own, or not fully utilized them to make that support even better.

  • Chris

    I completely relate to the pitfall of not spending enough time working on the art itself. All that time that I used to spend centralized on making art I now diffuse over a million pointless ventures like updating social media and emails and promotion, blah blah,… it feels crappy. It’s a lot like the distraction you describe in meditation — I’ll be working on something that lights up my brain and that spooky electricity will start to circle, and then BAM – I get an update on my phone that I just…have…to…check… (I should really turn the damn thing off. What an addict I’ve become!?). I really enjoyed this article. Thanks Jason

    • Jason Mundok

      Thanks for the feedback, Chris. Those distractions are killers. I know several people who come up with techniques to deal with them (like programs that prevent you from visiting social media sites during particular time ranges), but it really seems silly that we need to go to that extreme. I’m as big a “victim” as the next person…it can certainly stifle the creative process.