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?