How To Be An Extremely Productive Creative Cover

How To Be An Extremely Productive Creative

The difference between hitting the golf ball at its center or one millimeter below is the difference between the rough and the green.

When we tell artists all they need to succeed is to create daily, we’re telling them to omit that difference. This is a disastrous disservice. It’s close to, but not quite the truth and, as such, potentially more dangerous than a blatant lie.

We all know quantity begets quality. Picasso created 50,000 pieces, Stephen King wrote some 80 books, and Jimi Hendrix recorded close to 200 songs despite dying at age 27. An immense body of work can’t guarantee you’ll be a great artist or a rich artist or even a famous artist. But if you’re a professional artist, at least you’ll maximize your chances. The math checks out.

But it takes more than just creating daily. That part is important, but when I look back on two years of weekly newsletters sent without fail, I see not one habit, but a conjunction of three, all of which support one another.

1. Have Deadlines, No Matter How Irrational They Are

Death is what gives life meaning. Deadlines are what gives art meaning.

Why can you deliver freelance work on time, but not consistently ship your own? Deadlines. Why do you pay your phone bill but not order the mic you need to launch your podcast? Deadlines. Why do you show up for your doctor’s appointment, but not your daily writing time? Deadlines.

Deadlines awaken our inner panic monster, which is why they work. If we can’t get that monster to wake up, bad things happen. Tim Urban explains:

“If you want to be a self-starter, something in the arts, something entrepreneurial, there’s no deadlines on those things at first. Because nothing’s happening at first. Not until you’ve gone out and done the hard work to get some momentum. If the procrastinator’s only mechanism of doing these hard things is the panic monster, that’s a problem, because in all of these non-deadline situations the panic monster doesn’t show up. So the effects of procrastination they’re not contained, they just extend outward forever.”

While you’re wondering how to resolve this issue, how to crack the code, the pros simply take the mechanism that works from one arena to the other. They create their own deadlines, no matter how irrational or ridiculous they are.

The most arbitrary deadline in my life is also the most important one: every weekend, I must send out Nik’s Newsletter. Come hell or high water, by Sunday night at 11:59 PM, I must press ‘Send.’ I’ve had deadlines long before anyone considered me a serious writer, which is why now, people do.

The way to transfer your ability to deliver on time from work that pays the bills to work that, hopefully, one day will is to transfer the idea of deadlines.

2. Create Daily, No Matter How Little You Produce

In front of a deadline-backdrop, daily creation makes a lot more sense. You don’t just have to write, you have to publish. You don’t just have to record, you have to release. The professional knows that once she schedules the exhibit, she’ll pick up the brush. The amateur tries to sync his art with inspiration. The pro knows that inspiration will sync with him once he sits down in his chair.

And while pressure gets you going, habits keep you going. They allow you to dance with the deadlines. Suddenly, the question is not if you can deliver, but how much. To prevent this question from becoming yet another problem, pros don’t try to answer it in advance.

They’ll settle for “I started,” not “I finished.”

According to Stanford researcher BJ Fogg, whether a behavior happens or not depends on the product of motivation and ability you have when something triggers that behavior. As a result, James Clear says,

“We do not rise to the level of our goals, we fall to the level of our systems.”

To disproportionately tweak the equation in favor of your ability, James suggests the two-minute rule:

“Anyone can meditate for one minute, read one page, or put one item of clothing away. This is a powerful strategy because once you’ve started doing the right thing, it is much easier to continue doing it. A new habit should not feel like a challenge. The actions that follow can be challenging, but the first two minutes should be easy. What you want is a “gateway habit” that naturally leads you down a more productive path.”

Focusing on one sentence a day, one brush stroke a day, one chord a day is the ultimate antidote to overwhelm. There’s no time to worry about the height of the mountain when you’re looking at the ground to take your next step.

Starting slow and letting the momentum build naturally lies right between being unproductive, demotivated, and unhappy and being too excited, taking on too much, and quitting. The mundane, boring, easy alternative always works, but because it is, few people choose it over and over again until it compounds.

Outside of deadlines, finishing is not just the wrong goal, it’s actually counterproductive. Hemingway always ended in the middle of a sentence:

“I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it. I always worked until I had something done, and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day.”

Creativity is not a shelf that’s empty as soon as you take off all the books. It’s a river to which you can walk at any time, grab a cup, and scoop out some water. It’s just easier to access it at a random point in the middle than to find the source. Innovation is never a singular event. Great ideas might be the gold in the river, but they too are the result of a long, methodical, meandering process. That process is always running, so you can tap into it whenever.

You know what else Hemingway said? He said start small.

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

3. Forgive Yourself, No Matter How Often You Fail

You’re an artist. As such, everything you do is productive. Everything you do is productive. There is no “this is useful” and “this is a waste of time.” There is only your life. Every word you write, every picture you paint, every song you sing is a result of everything that’s in it. It all matters. Everything matters.

Every minute you’re awake counts. Every minute you sleep counts. Every minute you spend watching a movie, lying sick in bed, thinking about friendship, eating pasta, and staring desperately at a blank screen — counts.

So be kind to yourself. Be kind to yourself.

You’re not a creator first and a friend, a mother, a husband, or a Netflix addict second. You’re everything. All at once, all the time. Like Brianna Wiest says:

“Everything is creative. You are creating cells and thoughts as you read this. You are creating Co2 as you exhale. When you’re spending time with someone you love, you are creating your relationship. Every time you work, you are creating money, you are creating skill. You are always creating.”

As humans, we’re born to survive. That used to simply mean ‘create more humans.’ Today, for you, it means ‘create art.’ But it always means creation.

That’s why everything matters. Because everything is art. Everything is art. A kind gesture. A passionate kiss. A beautiful smile. All this is art and it goes way beyond writing, painting, and music. We only suffer if we don’t create.

Pros know this. So when they’re not creating, they forgive themselves for not creating. They don’t dwell on their failures because they want pain to be a part of the process, not an excuse to prolong inaction. They want their pain to mean something. Pros look in the mirror and they don’t hate what they see.

They have compassion for themselves, no matter how many times they have to fall before they can fly.

You won’t write every day. You won’t meet all your deadlines. But regret won’t change that. Regret won’t help you create today. It’ll only turn pain into suffering. Regret is holding on to the past that’s trying to pass. Why don’t you let it pass? Only forgiveness can eliminate this friction.

There are many things in life that are outside our control. Creativity isn’t one of them. In fact, it’s one of the few things that is 100% up to us. But in order to exercise its power, we must take complete ownership of that fact.

Then, with careful timing, low expectations, and lots of forgiveness, we can start expressing our true self. It’s a little bit like golf: Ultimately, success is found by adjusting the last millimeters. But it starts with one bold hit, one true sentence, one confident stroke of a brush.

Your ocean of art, your river of creativity — they will flow from a single drop.

All These Flaws You See In Yourself Aren't Real Cover

All These Flaws You See In Yourself Aren’t Real

Right in the first Harry Potter book, J.K. Rowling introduces one of the most fascinating items in the entire wizarding world: The Mirror of Erised.

Erised is just ‘desire’ spelled backwards, which hints at what the mirror does: it shows you what you most desperately wish for in life. An Olympian might see themselves taking the gold, a steel mill worker might see a lavish lifestyle, and an orphan, like Harry, might see his parents.

We all have a mirror like that. A mirror in our head, teasing us with our desires. There’s nothing wrong with a little daydreaming, but when Dumbledore sees Harry gazing at the object, again and again, he tells him:

“It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”

Besides this oasis of wishful thinking, however, there’s a second mirror, tucked away in the depths of our mind. A mirror that’s much less kind, downright dangerous. It shows us everything that’s wrong with us.

I guess we could call it The Mirror of Swalf.

A 19th-Century Meme

Do you know where the word “okay” comes from? What may be the most universal, neutral affirmation in not just the English language, but cultures all around the world, actually started as a joke. A 19th-century meme, if you will.

Intellectuals in the 1830s intentionally misspelled two-word phrases, then abbreviated them to speak in code with other insiders. “KY” stood for “know yuse,” while “OW” was “oll wright.” The trend eventually faded, but one little quip unexpectedly made it from fad to phrase: “OK” or “oll korrect.”

US president Martin van Buren branded himself as “OK” — Old Kinderhook — during his 1840 campaign, hoping the phrase would rub off on his age and birthplace. OK clubs formed all over the country and if you were in, you were not just supporting van Buren, suddenly, you were OK. The telegraph later spread “OK” far and wide, using it to quickly confirm the receipt of messages, while the Old Kinderhook lost the election. But the phrase was a clear winner.

Because for some reason, we’re trying to get into the club to this day.

The World’s Most Sophisticated Pacifier

James Blunt isn’t just a great singer, he’s also a master of the Twitter troll:

“If you thought 2016 was bad — I’m releasing an album in 2017.”

He joins a long line of people believing 2016 was the worst year ever. There’s no evidence to this claim but it shows that perception at large has shifted.

Templates for fulfilling your desires have never been in short supply online, but while these stories make our goals sound attainable, we’re usually content with reading rather than living them. It’s soothing to learn “How I Got 2.3 Million App Downloads And Made $72,000.” It weirdly makes the goal feel less necessary. It shows us we’re okay. Even if we’re not a brilliant developer.

But, nowadays, our desire for comfort is a lot less subtle. Instead of hiding it behind lofty goals, we demand it outright. Screw my dreams, just tell me the world will keep turning. Tell me I’ll be OK. The tone on the web is a lot darker. We’re less driven by what we want, but by what we think needs fixing.

We need constant reminders that it’s okay to start small, it’s okay to be alone, it’s okay to not struggle. We ask why the internet makes us miserable, why our friends want to kill themselves and why our work isn’t good enough. We need someone to tell us it’s okay to quit Google, it’s okay to not want a promotion, it’s okay to not be an entrepreneur and, oh, by the way, laziness doesn’t exist.

All of these have merit. They’re understandable cravings and legit questions. But when the “it’s OK” lullaby so strongly dominates our global conversation, that says a lot about the state of humanity at large: it’s not OK. We’re turning the internet into a highly sophisticated pacifier for adults. Something for us to suck on to compensate for all the skills we never learned, but should have.

Skills like self-compassion, confidence, empathy, optimism, non-judgment, kindness, detachment, and resilience. Reasons are manifold, ranging from bad parenting to modern education to internet culture to omnipresent technology, but regardless of the causes, we must now deal with their effects.

We turn to our inner mirror and all we see are flaws. We see a version of ourselves that’s bloodied, battered, and close to being beaten. A version full of wounds, cuts, and scars. A human that’s incomplete. The mirror has poisoned our self-image and the cracks it shows us are destroying our sense of self.

James Blunt’s most popular song of 2017 wasn’t one from his new album. It was a standalone feature called “OK.” The music video shows him opting to delete his memories in a futuristic world. “It’s gonna be okay,” he sings.

I guess that 19th-century joke is now on us.

Scratching Until It Bleeds

In one of his many bestsellers, Linchpin, Seth Godin says there are two ways of dealing with anxiety. The first is to seek reassurance.

“This approach says that if you’re worried about something, indulge the worry by asking people to prove that everything is going to be okay. Check in constantly, measure and repeat. “Is everything okay?” Reward the anxiety with reassurance and positive feedback. Of course, this just leads to more anxiety, because everyone likes reassurance and positive feedback.”

This is exactly what we’re doing when we turn to the internet to comfort us as we face our many flaws. But this behavior only creates a never-ending cycle.

“Reassure me about one issue and you can bet I’ll find something else to worry about. Reassurance doesn’t address the issue of anxiety; in fact, it exacerbates it. You have an itch and you scratch it. The itch is a bother, the scratch feels good, and so you repeat it forever, until you are bleeding.”

In contrast to fear, which targets a real and specific threat, Seth says, anxiety is always about something vague that lies in the future. Anxiety has no purpose. It’s a “fear about fear” and, thus, a fear that means nothing.

What Seth is really saying is that these two mirrors in our heads are one and the same. Looking into it is always about reassurance. Reassurance that our dreams can come true and reassurance that we’ll be okay if they don’t. But, at the end of the day, it’s just a mirror. What you see in it isn’t real. Whether it’s the goals we haven’t achieved or the shortcomings we’re scared will hurt us, none of them even exist. Like the anxiety we feel from looking at it, the image we hold of ourselves in our heads isn’t there. It’s just a reflection.

So even though our focus might have shifted, the root problem has always been the same. The cracks are in the mirror. Not us. That’s why Dumbledore issued another grave warning to young Harry seeking so much reassurance:

“This mirror gives us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away in front of it, even gone mad.”

Hey Seth. Whatever your other way of dealing with anxiety, it better work.


Bad Fathers Don’t Exist

In one of his last interviews before he died by suicide, late Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington gave us a heartfelt account of what it’s like inside the mind of someone who’s struggled with lifelong depression:

“I don’t say nice things to myself. There’s another Chester in there that wants to take me down. If I’m not actively getting out of myself, being with other people, being a dad, being a husband, being a bandmate, being a friend, helping someone out, like, if I’m out of myself, I’m great. If I’m inside all the time, I’m horrible. But it’s the moment where it’s, like, realizing I drive myself nuts, actually thinking that all these are real problems. All the stuff that’s going on in here is actually…just…I’m doing this to myself. Regardless of whatever that thing is.”

If you’re worried about being a bad father, that doesn’t make you a bad father, it just makes you worried. Bad fathers don’t exist. Only people who worry too much, who can’t deal with some experiences, experiences they forever live in their head and who, one day, might hit, yell at, or abandon their child as a result. That’s not a character flaw. It’s a chain of actions gone horribly wrong.

Reality consists of subjects and verbs. We’re the ones who supply all the adjectives. All of them. And we only do it to make reality feel more permanent. If you had a bad parenting experience, you might now point to the “bad father” memory whenever you make a detrimental decision. Drank too much? Bad father. Got fired? Bad father. Screwed up a relationship? Bad father.

The truth is, as much as that experience sucked and I don’t wish it to anyone, it’s not reality any longer. It’s in the past. When you drag it with you to the present, you’re twisting reality. You look in the mirror and see another wound that’s not there. Sadly, for some people, like Chester, these experiences compound to the point where they can no longer tell reality from reflection.

I can only imagine how hard it must be to even realize when that happens, but when it does and you do, please, go and ask for help. As much as you can get.

Meanwhile, Chester has left us with an incredible gift.

The Truth

Among Dumbledore’s many wise aphorisms, one of his most popular seems to contradict everything we’ve said:

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

This must be one of the most misunderstood quotes of all time, because Dumbledore isn’t suggesting that everything you imagine is real. Instead, he’s trying to tell Harry what both Chester and Seth have also alluded to:

The truth about ourselves is what we choose to believe.

Dumbledore shared this advice with Harry at a time when the latter could literally choose between life and death. Sometimes, the consequences of the words we choose when talking to ourselves in our heads are just as severe. That’s why this statement is as powerful as it is dangerous. We all get confused at times. We all blur the line. And we all spend too much time staring at that goddamn mirror. The ways we deal with this, however, are different.

For Chester, it meant happiness lay outside himself. If you run out of kind words for yourself, try to stop talking. Seek not to the stars, but to the ground beneath your feet. Look to reality. Look around. There’s no club to get into and there never was. You were always OK. Humanity is one big community and you’ve been a member from day one. Sometimes, focusing on that is all you need to change the conversation in your head.

For Seth, it means sitting with anxiety. Don’t run. Say hi. Welcome to reality.

“The more you sit, the worse it gets. Without water, the fire rages. Then, an interesting thing happens. It burns itself out. The anxiety can’t sustain itself forever, especially when morning comes and your house hasn’t been invaded, when the speech is over and you haven’t been laughed at, when the review is complete and you haven’t been fired. Reality is the best reassurance of all.”

Which one of these works for you at what time depends, but they both require our presence in the real world. Whenever the reality inside your head starts to look scary, it’s usually the one outside that can provide the answers. Maybe, you have to sit with it. Maybe, you have to forget it for a while. Until you can look in the mirror again and see yourself as you actually are: a human being.

Not flawed. Not incomplete. Human. With the ability to choose whatever belief you need. Even the best article can only help you so much in doing that.

Then again, I remember an OK wizard who once said:

“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic.”

 — Albus Dumbledore

Goals vs Themes Cover

You Don’t Need a Goal, You Need a Theme

If you’re not happy with where you are in life, it’s tempting to think you’ve simply set the wrong goals. Maybe they were too big or too small. Maybe they weren’t specific enough or you shared them too early. Maybe they weren’t all that meaningful, so it was easy to lose focus.

But goals were never the reason you didn’t “make it” this year. Goals don’t help you create long-term happiness, let alone sustain it. They never have, and they never will.

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