What could be more discouraging to a writer, painter, ballet dancer, actor, or composer who is striving to survive and wishes to excel in their craft than to realize that she’s not nearly as successful as she would like and may never be more successful than she has been in the past? This post looks at the situation of a writer. But the ideas and approaches are just as useful for people in other arts.
Andrea, a friend—“Andy”–seemed to reach her peak when she had two short stories published in prestigious literary journals at twenty-four and a novel that sold moderately well at twenty-eight. She didn’t think then it would be her peak, but assumed it was a preview of other successes soon to come. But they haven’t come and she’s been wondering what’s wrong with her.
She’s frustrated and anxious because she knows—she can feel—that she has potentials in her that are waiting to be expressed. But there she is, at a standstill at the age of thirty-three She asks herself privately what she won’t ask in public: “Is this as good as I’ll ever be, experiencing only those three successes?”
But she is not beaten. She hasn’t quit writing as she’s seen so many other once-hopeful writers do. She’ll try to find out what’s wrong and correct the problems she identifies. She’s already on the path to solving the problem by admitting she’s found herself on a performance plateau—in a performance rut.
She realizes that what she needs now are new ideas, new approaches. Being an intelligent woman, she begins problem-solving by trying to understand the problem. She’s a believer in cause-and-effect and starts with the effect: she’s stuck in the mud. She is not giving up trying to improve and achieve greater success as many writers would in her position. But she is not as successful as she would like to be.
She noodles the problem and takes a frank look at herself. She asks:
Do I have the skills I’ll need to be the writer I want to be? If not, what specific skills should I develop and refine, and how can I acquire them? In each art there is a finite number of basic skills that the person MUST possess if they are to excel.
Do I have sufficient knowledge of my art–making it, sustaining it, and marketing it? Over the long run, superior achievement depends on superior knowledge.
Do I have enough talent, that recognizable flair that underlies a good creatives’ life and their every quality work?
Am I working hard enough? If you study successful people in the arts you will almost always find that they were prodigious workers from the beginning of their careers to the end. Or am I working too hard and burning out (not getting enough sleep and relaxation)?
What are the main goals I’m trying to reach? Are they the right goals and are they difficult as goals are supposed to be, or are they too difficult for me? Goals should be “moderately” difficult–not too easy and not impossibly hard. What exactly are my goals? Andy decides her main goal is not necessarily to “excel” and it is not to be “successful,” but to write as well as she’s able. She feels that if she does that, success will follow. A basic question she asks is: am I pursuing goals at all or am I feeling nervous and drifting?
Am I powerfully motivated to succeed as an artist? Or have I lost my zest? If so, how can I get it back?
Am I able to focus my attention on my work like a narrow beam of bright light or do I have too many irons in the fire? What can I eliminate?
Am I one of the 15% action-oriented, decisive creatives who make up their mind, take the initiative, and make things happen, or one of the other 85% who delay, postpone, and wait for things to happen?
How confident an artist am I, ranging from “not very confident” to ‘”exceptionally confident?” These are the indicators of success in the arts: a desire to succeed, skill, resilience, and confidence. Artists fail more because they lack confidence than because they lack skill.
Am I getting specific, helpful, and honest feedback regularly? Have I made arrangements to do that?
When I meet setbacks and disappointments, am I discouraged, or do I persevere? Do I sink my teeth into my objectives and never let go?
Do I know how to overcome creative obstacles–am I good at analyzing problem and impediments in my way and finding solutions?
Everyone needs encouragement, particularly when their career is dead in the water. Andy asks, whom will I turn to when I need encouragement?
Answering those questions helps Andy dig out of creative ruts she finds herself in from time to time. First thing, she sits down and compares her successful works with her current work and decides they are different. The earlier work was simpler and more heart-felt and sincere. She realizes that she has fallen into a trap of “showing off”–of trying to impress readers with what a good writer she is and how brilliant she is rather than in telling a story in a simple, direct, “Here’s my work, take it or leave it” style.
Andy decides that a big problem usually in recent years has been poor motivation and a lack of confidence because she is so discouraged. She feels that she hasn’t lost her talent and that she is still a good writer and realizes that one or more successes will increase her confidence immensely. Also, she’s not good at concentrating on work. She wastes a lot of time, including moping. She remembers reading a post I wrote about “programming” to increase productivity. She liked it and plans to re-read it and take steps to become a more efficient writer.
Andy feels that if her concentration improves and she absorbs herself in her work, she will become more excited about it, her motivation will climb, and she will complete more works. Her mother is Andy’s biggest supporter in times of disappointment and discouragement. Her mother inspires her. Andy plans to talk to her more often.
She also plans to read biographies and autobiographies of writers living and dead who will inspire her.
She is aware that one reason she hasn’t had successes recently is that she doesn’t submit enough of her work to magazines and publishers. She has become afraid of failure. Overcoming her fear and submitting more will increase her chances of being published, so she will do that too.
Thinking carefully about the answers to these 13 questions sets Andy on a path out of her rut and on to future successes. Perhaps these questions can be useful to you as well.
Creatives do exceptionally well what others find difficult, and that is the definition of a talent. Talent is the distinguishing quality of creatives, usually talent in one field. Although a creative can be very talented in more than one area, as many bloggers are, as Vincent van Gogh, a wonderfully expressive writer of letters as well as painter was, the creative’s talent in one area dominates. My seven year old grandson is a much better painter than I am because he is gifted in art, and I certainly am not. (It doesn’t take long for the buds of talent to burst into bloom in a child). My talents are linguistic, and of all the arts I, who grew up in home where music filled the house, I’ve always wished I could write beautiful music–but I can’t.
I have a composer friend whose music is performed by major orchestras. He’s received many prestigious awards. But he can’t paint as well as my grandson. I can’t touch my friend in any aspect of music. He is much too talented musically for me. But he can’t write poetry or prose as well as I can. Nature specializes creatives and points them in a direction. Whether they will choose to follow that direction in the course of their life or will not is their choice. How serious they will become about developing their talent–whether refining it to a high level or ignoring it–is up to them.
When you’re making use of your main talent you’re as effective as you will ever be in any area of your life because your talent is what psychologists call your “dominant faculty.” Putting it to use habitually, day after day, to be free without being interfered with in any way, is a wish, a hope, a goal, of all serious creatives.
For the creative the quality of curiosity is extraordinary because it is so intense. Also there is a fascination with how everything works, fits together, and is useful that starts of its own accord in childhood and stays with creatives to the last day of their life. Being curious and having an aptitude for picking up knowledge here and there is important. People who have stored up a wide range of knowledge have a very good chance of being creative. Once they are serious creatives and are deeply involved in their field, they have a hunger for extensive knowledge of it: “The most eminent creators are consistently those who have immersed themselves utterly in their chosen field, have devoted their lives to it, (and) amassed tremendous knowledge of it” (Geoff Colvin).
Then there is a desire, impossible to satisfy in a single lifetime, to create original things–poems, symphonies, paintings, performances–that are added to the culture, and in doing so to leave behind at career’s end a legacy, the traces of a vital human being who walked this earth, breathed, achieved, and had a personality, a name, and a reputation which will outlive the talented person by a year, or ten, or a hundred.
At a certain eventful time in creatives’ careers when they are no longer a novice and have matured as a craftsman, the need to paint or write, compose, act, or dance takes over, becomes powerful, and can’t be ignored. This is a turning point in the career of the creative, a new level of involvement with their craft. The creative may well feel as novelist Henry James did, that “It is art that makes life, makes intensity, makes importance…and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.” The creative becomes willing to give up other rewards for the sole experience of practicing an art because it is both fulfilling and challenging in a way little else is.
To practice the art may be more than adequate compensation for disappointments in other areas of life. Disappointed in love or work, if novelists they may choose to stop thinking of their hurt and turn their active minds to the task of writing a story with many characters and an intricate plot. Rather than grieving a loss, a ballerina turns to the only art she’s known since childhood and begins to warm up.
There is now something in the movements of the body and mind of creatives as they work, of muscle and thought, of experimenting with ideas, and entering the pleasant elevated mood of losing oneself in the work–some force implicit in the creative act–an urge that is more intuitive than rational, subliminal and subconscious. Those aspects of the processes of creation add up to an experience which may be so blissful that it can be as addictive as abuses of alcohol, drugs, gambling, and sex. But creativity is a positive addiction, not a harmful one.
As a mature creative, your thoughts are continually on how to get better. In an interview Pablo Casals, aged ninety, was asked why he, the best cellist in the world who had been practicing the cello for eighty five years, still practiced every day, and he said, “Because I think am making progress.”
You’re already excellent at your craft–you are far above average–but are not satisfied and talk about getting better. You study, you read, you learn, you discuss. You seek feedback and help because no one in the arts or sciences–no one in life–succeeds in a noteworthy way without someone advising and helping them–a teacher, a mentor, a friend, etc. You work exceptionally hard because if you are an artist you can’t help yourself and there is no other way to work, not always knowing why you do, but feeling strongly you must.
You know, and experience of the creatives who have preceded you bears out, that the more hours you work, the better you get. And your skills improve–you can see that–and your work does get recognizably better–either slowly, or moderately fast, or by leaps that may astound you. Your satisfactions, ambitions, optimism, and hopes rise as your work improves.
Creative people are models of focused human effort. Few people seem to recognize that. In my many speeches to businessmen and women I had an unusual point of view. I referred to my life-long love–artists–as the best examples of highly motivated people. I’d say, “Strive to have the soul of an artist. Learn what it’s like to create something and the value of persistence from artists. Study artists. Read biographies of artists. Let their habits filter into your behavior.”
The commitment to write (or sculpt, perform on stage, etc.) can be extreme and may surpass other of your commitments. Nobel laureate writer Saul Bellow said writing had always been more important to him than his wife and children. There are other creatives such as painter Paul Gauguin and short story master Sherwood Anderson who felt the same and abandoned their wives and children for art.
The overriding aim of creatives is very practical. It is production: to produce polished works that must be completely finished because “It is only as the work is done that the meaning of the creative act” can be understood (Brewster Ghiselin). “The only certainty about writing and trying to be a writer is that it has to be done, not dreamed of or planned and never written, or talked about … but simply written” (Janet Frame). Psychologist Howard Gardner writes about high-excelling creative people. He says, “Individuals whose stock in trade is to do things which are novel, are people who’ve got to have a pretty good command of how they work.”
The creative sets out to answer the production question, “How can I produce the quality and quantity of work I want?” A perfect work place and good production routines and rituals are to be treasured. Simply by being at your work place ready to work repetitively the same time day after day, the power of good habits goes into effect.
If creatives are unable to work or the work doesn’t go well, they suffer. A creative must always have goals and begin every day’s work with those goals in mind: “Today I will buckle down and…” Many tremendously talented creatives aren’t nearly as successful as they have the talent to be. They are frustrated because they haven’t figured out for themselves the best work/production program that will achieve a desired level of high-quality output.
If you are a creative, if you could you would create night and day because for you there is never enough time and your talent finds resting very hard. Long before you finish one work, you’re contemplating the next. When artists work, they are seeking freedom of expression through perfect technique. Many of them are willing to sacrifice material rewards just to be able to exercise their talents and do their work without being interfered with or restrained–to make creative things free of conflicts. Many creatives choose lower paying jobs that will allow them time to do their creative work over higher paying jobs that don’t allow them to.
You may be working on 3, 5, or more projects simultaneously, moving from one to another as the mood strikes, putting one aside and picking up another. A creative’s lively, but unsettled production-oriented mind is a cornucopia spilling over with concepts, words, techniques, methods, facts, recollections, hopes, fears, needs, problems, solutions, texts, authors, disappointments, successes, plans, possibilities, family, projects, and if a professional, finances. It rests only at bedtime. And often, not even then.
The logical end of the Creatives’ Way is to have the identity of a capital C Creative, a Real Creative–to become known by your family, friends, teachers, editors, agents, other creatives and lovers of the arts, and to define yourself as “someone who is very serious about producing creative work, and is very good at it.”
The trappings of your chosen discipline appeal to you. Great writers “loved the range of materials they used. The works’ possibilities excited them; the field’s complexities fired their imaginations. The caring suggested the tasks; the tasks suggested the schedules. They learned their fields and they loved them….They produced complex bodies of work that endured” (Annie Dillard, The Writing Life).
When you’re away from your art you miss it. If you’re away too long you become edgy. Away from it longer, you become irritable and hard to live with. If you don’t do your art for 48 hours, your skills begin to decline. The only relief is to get back to your work as quickly as possible. You try to work at least one hour every twenty-four. If you work for four hours you are more satisfied with yourself than if you work for two hours.
Creatives are subject to the heights and depths of moods. The act of working makes you happy, makes you confident, and empowers you. However badly you might feel when you begin a day’s work, you feel better when you are working and when you finish you almost always feel good–but you need to work at least a little. Gertrude Stein said that even though she had never been able to write more than a half hour a day, all day and every day she had been waiting for that half hour.
When you’re producing your art, you’re searching for something: authenticity. You’re trying to cut through the fakery, the tricks, the games, the insincerity, the deceit and phoniness, and the lack of conviction so that you might tell the whole truth as you see it–accurately–withholding nothing. You are modest and try to do nothing merely to make a splash because you believe that it’s only through producing work that is sincere and deeply felt that the truths you’ve discovered and now believe in and feel strongly about will be expressed.
For many serious artists, the art’s process itself is more rewarding than the product that ends the process. In this world there are many competent writers who have almost no interest in having their work published. That doesn’t excite them, but the process does. There are pianists who prefer practice to performing in public.
Patience is a necessity for creatives. Eventually after a long period of impatience you learn patience. “It’s so hard for people to be patient. It took me a very long time to get better, and a very, very long time to begin to publish. I wasn’t very patient. It’s painful….Young people are pushed so hard right out of school to get the first novel done. It takes time to write well. You have to sit with it. You have to be patient with it. You have to trust your intuition and your own material and stay with it as long as it takes” (Andrea Barrett). It’s been said that genius is nothing but an aptitude for patience.
Creatives must have a stomach for loneliness and must be able to adjust to it when it strikes. They have no choice. Pleasure increases the more you work on your art, partially because you work alone, independent, isolated, on your own, self-sufficient, and that is how most creatives enjoy working. Since creative achievers typically engaged in solitary activities as children, they are no stranger to working alone. “Aloneness…is not merely the effect of the circumstances in the life of creators: it is often also part of their personality–for the creator is frequently apart and withdrawn even in the presence of others, and makes a deliberate attempt to seek solitude” (R. Ochse). Creatives solve many problems every day. Creatives are problem-solvers. Research on problem-solving shows that people are likely to come up with better solutions when they work alone. Poet Lord Byron said, “Society is harmful to any achievement of the heart.”
At times you live in uncertainties, doubts, tension, anxiety, and fear. But over the years you develop the strength to resist them. You acquire confidence and faith in your abilities and judgment. You fear fewer things. You grow less anxious and have a much fuller and more accurate understanding of yourself. The hardships, worries, disappointments, and stresses you encounter play a necessary part in making you stronger. Your strong faith in yourself helps you persist through obstacles, psychological blocks, and setbacks. Poet Stephen Spender said, “It is evident that faith in their work, mystical in intensity, sustains poets.”
Through your art you’re drawing out of yourself the end result of the entirety of your being–100 percent of yourself from your toes to the top of your head. That includes all the knowledge you’ve acquired, all the experiences you’ve lived through, good and bad, happy or painful, what your emotions are and the breadth and depths of feeling they are capable of because art depends so heavily on feelings, how courageous you are, what skills you bring, and what you aspire to become. Then, self-aware, you have a clearer understanding of who you truly are, and how high the talent you possess that is growing stronger and more apparent might take you, and what new pleasures your talent may open for you.
The beautiful paintings featured on this post are by Australian artist Richard Claremont. He says, “A successful artist knows that we do art because we have to. We would do it even if no one ever got to see it. What really matters is our commitment to our own vision, painting from our heart, creating work that matters.”
“Nobody has a right to be unhappy, or to live in a way that makes them unhappy” (James Agee).
Glowing by Nadia Parsons
There are many paths to the top of a mountain, and there are many paths to a meaningful life readily available to us. Paths are as innumerable as stars, and everyone has more than one. If you think your paths are best, well then they’re best–for you, though even the person dearest to you might give you an argument. But even if they did, it wouldn’t matter. If you believe yours are best, no argument will convince you they aren’t. And if you believe someone else’s aren’t, no argument will convince you they are.
Some find that living what I call a “smart” life–a life rife with meaning and vitality and purpose involves acquiring wealth and luxury. Others–like me–have little interest in that at all. They can’t understand what the overly aggressive pursuit of wealth is all about and what makes pursuers of it tick. If you are a writer, artist, or actor, and I asked you about your attitude toward money I suspect you would be something like me.
Some people live to acquire power, and they run for political office or head a corporation. Others, like many artists, like to stay out of the limelight and are not interested in acquiring power, they prefer quiet, modest lives. Some other people like to win and are so competitive that they’ll bet you that their pat of butter will melt faster than yours or their elevator will beat yours to the top. But others find no meaning in competitiveness and couldn’t care less about butter pats or elevators.
Coating of Smog by Nadia Parsons
However they differ, all paths to meaning and living a smart life have this in common: for the people traveling them they have heart. Following paths that have heart brings you happiness. You don’t find meaning as if it’s lying around like a quarter on the sidewalk by a parking meter. You have to decide on the paths you’ll follow and hold them prominently in mind and commit yourself to them. That’s mature living.
These are ever-changing times. Everything is going faster. But here are paths that are leading people like you and me to meaningful creative lives.
You and I have had moments of experiencing something so incredibly beautiful it was indescribable. It was then that we were reminded of what we had forgotten in the whirl of our everyday lives: we are insignificant and half the time we don’t know what we’re doing, but there’s pure joy in just being alive. The flow of life in our veins, in the world, before our eyes–the dazzling sun settled in the sky like a yellow coin, flopping in the whitest snow when we were children, sky-writing on a summer day in a clear sky, clouds, friends waving as they come down the street, a poem, a painting, the smell of a barbeque, a yelping dog chasing a squirrel in the yard– precious life at its simplest. What is more to be treasured than the energy I feel in my muscles right now, this moment, and the ability to think any idea I wish this moment, and excited now, to follow it wherever it leads?
Devotion to a Purpose.
A life without purpose is a meaningless existence. For many people life is tedious and unrewarding. But when, perhaps suddenly, they discover the purposes that ignite their imagination, their lives acquire a vital meaning. They focus on their most important purpose and their lives change instantly.
Adventure, Thrills, Excitement, and New Experiences.
Divisions by Nadia Parsons
This is the path of men and women of action: explorers, mountain climbers, high wire trapeze artists, etc. Race car drivers are the happiest they will ever be when they’re banking into a curve at 180 miles an hour.
Fun and Laughter.
Play comes naturally to animals, including humans. Every mother knows that even babies have a sense of humor. Smiles are universal. In every culture on earth a smile means the same thing. Laughter is therapeutic. There are more than five thousand laughter yoga centers worldwide.
Leading a Moral Life
“How lovely goodness is in those who, stepping lightly, go smiling through the world” (Virginia Woolf.) Our goodness tells us what we ought to do. During the Great Depression my mother found a hundred dollars on the floor of a bus. That was a lot of money in those days; money was scarce in our family. Instead of spending it she placed a notice in the newspaper, despite the fact that she and my father were broke, unemployed, and had a family to support. Here was a good woman and good man. No one claimed the money so it now belonged to my folks.
People often think of hard work and long hours as unpleasant and damaging to one’s health. They consider it something to be avoided, whatever the achievements it might lead to. It’s often thought that people who are like that are “work addicted.” Well, that’s true, they very well might be addicted, but hard work in pursuit of your purposes, overcoming obstacles to them, is a positive addiction. People who train hard every day to run a marathon–for that achievement–are addicted, and it’s positive. We applaud them. Psychologist George Valliant studied the lives of leading achievers among graduates of the Harvard Business School. He found that they had unusually excellent health, and good marriages and happy lives, in spite of seventy hour work weeks.
Living Up to Your Duties and Responsibilities.
A duty is an obligation. It’s what we owe. Even the word “duty” sounds like a burden to some people. But if we love what we owe the duty to, it is no burden at all, and we welcome it.
“Responsibility” is derived from the Latin “re-spurdere,” which means, “to answer the challenge.” We bear responsibilities to ourselves, our husband or wife, our children, our parents, our lovers, our friends, the earth, and all humankind. When we live up to them, we answer the challenge to a responsible life.
Climate Shift 2 by Nadia Parsons
Some people will shirk responsibility and refuse to answer the challenge whenever they can. You see that in personal life and at work. In any group or organization, given a task to perform, if one member of the group doesn’t do his job, the best workers will generally assume the responsibility he is avoiding rather than not accomplishing the task. To complete the task is their duty. Many people living smartly and meaningfully relish taking personal responsibility rather than being the pawns of circumstances. They owe that duty to themselves and to those who depend on them.
Some duties you bear as lightly as a feather and live up to gladly. But duties are not always pleasant. You would rather stay home on a rainy night when you are bone tired rather than driving twelve miles to visit your friend in the hospital. But you do what your duty requires you to do, without regard to how pleasant or unpleasant it is, and you’re proud of yourself and happy you answered the challenge. To lead a life of duties fulfilled is worthy of you.
The need for security is a powerful human need, and people will do almost anything to satisfy it. It’s said, “Money can’t buy happiness.” But after having none of it for a long time and suffering, when you have it, it certainly does bring happiness. Some people have the need to acquire security, and when they do they’re at their best and leading a smart and happy life.
The Good Life
A life of ease, luxuries, good food, good drink, and good times brings meaning to the lives of many people. It has down through the long corridors of history. In the ancient Roman city of Timgat an inscription was found in the pavement which reads, “To hunt, to bathe, to gamble, to laugh, that is to live.”
The young believe they are generally immune to illness, just as they are not quite convinced that they’re mortal and will not live forever. Older people know they are mortal and everything about the body goes through periods of disrepair. That’s why you hear them say, “The most important thing is your health.” For some people, attaining and preserving good health through such things as diet, exercise, and fitness is prominent in their life path.
Some people value vacations, long weekends, or puttering around in nature. A famous little Zen poem reads: “Sitting quietly, doing nothing/ Spring comes/ And the grass grows by itself.” Wonderful nineteenth century American author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Time is but the stream I go fishing in.”
A Spiritual Life.
Clarity by Nadia Parsons
It’s been said that the essence of modern life is that nothing is sacred. But for many people who are leading a smart, meaningful life that’s not true at all. Some people find happiness in material objects, but others find it by turning away from outward things. They seek happiness inwardly, in the spirit. Many find meaning in the belief that they belong to something cosmic, something beyond human existence. They believe that we all come from God trailing clouds of glory and are the beneficiaries of divine grace, and that one’s soul can be elevated toward God. Walt Whitman wrote: “I see something of God each hour of the/ Twenty four and each moment then/ In the faces of men and women/ In my own face in the glass.”
Some people are happiest and seem most alive when they’re miserable. You might be able to name people like that. But in some ridiculous way, they may have found something that suits them. Their unhappiness may be deceptive. Listen to your friend bitterly complain about a terrible job, nagging wife, troublesome children, interfering in-laws, the price of gas, a bad movie, problems with the boss, too-tight shoes, a medical report, crooked politicians, traffic, etc. In the middle of their complaints interrupt him and ask, “Are you happy?” They will stop talking, smile, and say, “Yah, I’m pretty happy.”
The Respect of Other People
We have a need for family, for friends, for company, to fit in and be a part of society, to belong. But at the same time we also have the contrary need–to be unique, to be different, to be noticed and singled out and respected for who we are alone, individually, for ourselves.
Life isn’t a courtroom. People needn’t prove their worth to anyone else. But they do need to find themselves acceptable, approve of themselves, be a person they can believe in, feel proud of being someone they can confidently reveal to the world and not hide. They can boldly declare, “This with my flaws, weaknesses, and strengths is who I am.” Those who pursue a path of self-respect, no matter what circumstances they find themselves in, never lose sight of that goal. They strive never to do anything that is in any way unhealthy for them. Then they are in good company with themselves.
Loving and Being Loved
“Love is patient and kind…. Love bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (First Corinthians 13) “Love seeks only one thing. The good of the one loved” (Thomas Merton). We are intended to be loved and to love, and not to be lonely and unloved. We are not isolated islands in a sea of humanity. If we love, we will be loved. D.H. Lawrence wrote: “Those who go searching for love/ Only make manifest their own lovelessness/ Only the loving find love/ And they never have to search for it.” To have a day as I have and you have when everything turns against you, to arrive home, to be greeted by someone you love and who loves you, to see a smile, to hear laugher somewhere in the house, to be kissed: that is life at its fullest.
Sacrifice and Service.
Transitioning to Night by Nadia Parsons
Leading a life without concern for others becomes increasingly unsatisfying. We are capable of pettiness, jealousy, and selfishness, but we are also capable of unselfishness, compassion, helpfulness, kindness, and sympathy. “Man achieves fullness of being in…care for others. He expands his existence by bearing his fellow man’s burden….The deepest wisdom man can attain is to know that his destiny is to aid, to serve” (Abraham Joshua Heschel). Some people find great happiness devoting themselves to the wellbeing of others, and ask nothing in return. There are countless examples of such quiet self-sacrifice in everyday life. Someone set out this morning to help the needy, and someone else to comfort the sick, or to visit the home-bound, or to raise money for a charity. They make the other person’s problems their own. Helping to solve them, they are making the most of their lives.
There are many paths to the top of a mountain, and there are many paths to a meaningful life. What are you doing here on this earth with this life you’ve been granted gratis? Does it have meaning? How will you be remembered? What paths are you following?
The beautiful and powerful paintings featured in this post are by artist Nadia Parsons, the Sky Painter, whose path is to capture fleeting moments of change in the sky. “As we observe the sky,” the artist says, “we can become acutely aware of how small we are in contrast to the vast scale of the universe. We also have an opportunity to appreciate our importance as it coexists with fears of our own insignificance.” (Nadia Parsons, https://www.skypainterstudios.com/about/ )
In college I had a brilliant professor of creative writing–he was dazzling. After class one day I said to him, “You know everything about literature and writing. Your analysis of works is something to behold, and you’re able to tell students how specifically to improve their work. But as far as I can tell you’ve never produced any creative writing yourself. Have you?
“Because I have no talent.”
He didn’t have the talent his students did have, but his students didn’t have the knowledge he had, and that’s what we were there to acquire so we would have both talent and knowledge.
A painter will not automatically improve her performance by painting more. A writer’s performance won’t improve simply by further writing. To ratchet up their performance they will have to make changes designed specifically to develop it to a higher level. One major change is to acquire more knowledge.
In the arts and every other pursuit knowledge isn’t everything, but it’s almost everything. Most often the reason a creator isn’t yet accomplished isn’t because he’s unintelligent or not gifted but because he isn’t knowledgeable enough. You need a big data base to be an accomplished creator.
Knowledge translates into new techniques and skills. New techniques and skills translate into new creative accomplishments–roles for the actor, publications for the writer, commissions for the painter and composer, greater satisfaction with your craftsmanship, and so on.
Particularly important in the acquisition of knowledge about your art is the instruction you receive. It may come from yourself if you are a self-taught autodidact who acquires knowledge by reading and studying the author’s ideas as many creators do, and instruction from direct in-person exposure to expert, skilled teachers. Most creators are to some extent studious and have the ability to apply themselves and to learn quickly. They are teachable.
Everyone who has reached the highest level of excellence in their chosen field will be found to have spent much of their lives immersed in that field pushing themselves to improve their performance, and have amassed tremendous knowledge of it. Experts have a higher number of patterns–“chunks” of knowledge–in their memories to draw on and apply to solving the problems at hand. Most experts consider about 50,000 different chunks to be the foundation of their expertise. When you are learning, you are adding chunks. It is no secret to you when you are talking with masters of a domain. Knowledge seems to come out of their every pore.
If you are interested in reaching your upper limits of performance and the most effective training in reaching them, you should study experts in your field–read about them, listen to the stories about them. They have probably spent their entire creative life maximizing their performance. Lengthy, on-going, never-ending training is nearly always the reason for superior performance. All the known routes to high performance require extended training. There are no shortcuts.
Research on what enabled many people to reach high expertise reveals that very often elite performers attach themselves to teachers who give them quality feedback, and with their help engage in specifically-designed training tasks. Training tasks force the creators to solve specific problems and stretch their performance, break bad habits, acquire new skills, and often experience career-changing insights.
Often creators we’ve heard most about received a more ancient style of education rather than modern large classes and many teachers. They received at least some one-on-one personalized education, spending time with a teacher with a good reputation known for their work with students on an individual basis, engaging in give and take dialogue and questioning.
When a student in an art studies with a role model, a master, sparks fly. The two of them immerse themselves in the world of their art. Together, they analyze the piece of work, the skills that went into producing it, and the additional skills that will be needed if the student is to go further. The student learns the importance of concentration and sheer effort, and the need to overcome self-doubt. The student is gaining independence and confidence, and learning to solve problems on her own. Then in time, she may become a master in her art.
Troubled and immensely talented American short story specialist/poet RAYMOND CARVER was called “The American Chekhov.” A turning point in his life was being taught at the Iowa Writers Workshop by author John Gardner and being affected profoundly. Carver said that whatever Gardner had to say “went right into my blood stream and changed the way I looked at things…He took my stories more seriously… I was completely unprepared for the kind of criticism I received from him.”
American MARY CASSATT’S emergence midway in her painting career was the result of a sequence of happy events: living in Paris, mingling with the French Impressionists, especially mentor/teacher Edgar Degas, becoming an Impressionist herself, and finding her subject–her voice: mothers with their children. Degas was a generally unpleasant, abrasive, hard to deal with man who most other painters couldn’t stomach. But he was a good teacher, the right teacher for Cassatt.
Ernest Hemingway had a most astounding capacity for absorbing information as soon as he was exposed to it and applying it immediately. He was greedy for knowledge and went to everyone for help—and they gave it freely–Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and others. He studied, read, and wrote, sometimes eighteen hours a day.
Expert performers and their teachers identify specific goals for improvement, particularly crucial aspects of performance. The person who is trying to improve his mastery must concentrate full attention on getting rid of shortcomings, focusing on where in his performance there’s the most room for improvement. Not any old teacher will do; a bad teacher is worse than no teacher. The teacher must be effective and must know how to support and excite the student to go on learning. What could be more unendurable that a dull teacher?
The most important quality that leads a creator to success is his motivation. A good teacher stokes the creator’s motivation through positive reinforcement and encouragement.
If a writer is weak on imagery she must write out a hundred, two hundred, three hundred effective images in practice. If she’s already a master of imagery she needn’t practice making images as much and can concentrate on what she’s not strong on.
Admitting shortcomings is hard for some people, but not hard at all for others. It wasn’t hard for Vincent van Gogh. His brother Theo asked if he should stop criticizing Vincent’s work in his letters. Vincent replied: “Continue writing me about my work. Do not fear to hurt me…I will take such criticism as proofs of sympathy worth a thousand times more than flattery.”
Generally speaking, writers, painters, ballet dancers, actors, and composers are quite probably the toughest-on-themselves, most self-critical creatures on this globe. Only the poorer and most naive of them are seduced by undeserved praise. If there are flaws in their work, they almost always recognize them before anyone else. Tell a prima ballerina her performance was breathtaking and she will shake her head and say, “I missed a beat and my right foot wasn’t arched properly.” And if the criticism of their work is unfair and not justified, they recognize that too.
The whole reason for being of the creator is to produce fully realized, polished works that as closely as possible approximate the ideal of “The best I can do at this time. In a year I should have more knowledge and should be able to do better if I keep working and learning, and in five years, better still. But right now this is the best I am capable of.”
Until you can say that, the work isn’t finished and needs more attention. That attitude should be yours as long as you paint, as long as you write, as long as you dance, as long as you act, as long as you compose.
In the lives of great creators past and present, we find many characteristics that equip them uniquely for their role, especially tremendous powers of concentration. Those same powers of concentration are readily available to you.
Concentration is the heart and soul of creative work. How to develop and sustain it is a concern of actors, painters, dancers, pianists, composers, writers, and all other creators. Unless you bring to bear all the mental and physical alertness and clear-mindedness that you have the potential for you will not be enjoying the best conditions for your creative work.
Creators who can concentrate their mind like brilliant beacons of light at will can focus anywhere and can work under any conditions, and whenever they wish. For example, even fledgling actors are able to routinely commit to memory many pages of complex dialogue in a short period because of the phenomenal ability to concentrate they’ve had to acquire if they wish to act.
Make a pact with yourself: when you do creative work let nothing interfere with the only life that exists at the moment, namely the life of an actor or dancer or sculptor, and so forth. Just kick everything else out of your mind. All your life now for this time is the role your whole being has equipped you for because you have a love of your craft. There is no separation between you and it. It is part of you as much as your arm.
Concentration is an ability most people have not developed. Their minds run wild. That people generally are so poor at concentrating is shown in the fact that patrons in an art museum look at a work on average for 1 1/2 seconds. But out of the necessity of producing a stream of tangible works of high quality, many creators have disciplined their mind to be clear and not to wander. Those creators remind me of this famous story about concentration from the samurai Way. Samurai are ideal examples of how with application a person can increase his or her mental powers substantially and turn them to practical results, how ordinary people can become extraordinary.
Centuries ago in Japan there lived a man who had devoted himself completely to kyudo, the Way of the bow. Early one evening he was walking in the mountains when suddenly he saw a flicker of movement in the shadows. It was a tiger, its back arched, ready to pounce. Without hesitation the archer nocked the arrow. Concentrating all his power in the shot, since it might be his last, he let the arrow fly. A direct hit, right in the head. Without stopping to examine the dead animal, the archer continued on his way.
The next day, though, he became curious and returned to the spot. But hard as he looked he could not find the dead animal. He was about to abandon his search when he saw his arrow, lodged in a huge boulder. It hadn’t been a tiger after all, but his concentration had been so intense and his shot so powerful that the arrow had been driven into solid rock.
From this incident came the famous maxim about concentration and power in any Way of life–business, athletics, the arts, everyday life, and more: “Ichinen iwa wo mo tosu:” “The focused mind can pierce through stone.” (From Fighting To Win: Samurai Techniques For Your Work and Life.)
One-pointed, stone-piercing concentration is the ability of you, the creator, to direct your attention exclusively on the challenges of the work at hand as they appear, and being able to prevent any stray, muddling, interfering thoughts that aren’t related to solving the creative problems confronting you.
Also from the samurai Way , applicable to the Way of the creator, is the story of a contest:
The greatest archers in the land were invited to the contest. A fish was put up on a pole a great distance away. Asked by the judge if they could see the fish, one by one the archers said they could. One last contestant stepped to the line.
“Can you see the fish?” asked the judge.
The archer replied, “I’m looking at its eye.”
This was the champion.
Learn to concentrate on the fish’s eye and you’ll often find success in creative work. You will produce more works, and the work’s quality will improve.
I proved to myself the benefits of concentration in another context when I was a bodybuilder. I said, “I’m going to devote myself to this and see what happens.” It is as much a craft with high standards of performance and traditions as acting, painting, and writing. For the body builder and the writer at work a single stray thought not belonging to the performance breaks concentration. A lift is wasted, an injury is possible. The writer loses that one thought that would have conveyed exactly what the text needed. I worked hard and concentrated totally on each separate lift and every repetition with remarkable results. I had put into practice the words of champion bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger: “One lift with concentration is worth ten lifts without concentration.”
The first quality of the creator’s concentration is an alert, undivided, focused, attentive mind that has nothing left over for anything unnecessary, irrelevant, and inessential while you are creating. As much as possible you want your concentration to be uninterrupted while you work and to not be diverted from the task involved in creating, or divided for any reason. How does a creator work on developing an alert mind?
Preparation: You begin preparing your mind for the task of writing well before you sit down at the computer, on sculpting before you enter your studio. Skilled actors don’t wait until they get to the theatre, but prepare themselves for their first entrance on the stage while they are still at home. On the days they are to perform they don’t clutter their minds with all sorts of unimportant things that have nothing to do with playing their role. When they arrive at the theatre they may not stop to engage in idle chatter that takes their mind from their performance. When they are putting on their makeup in front of the mirror they are solving problems and finding inspirataion.
In the morning start the day by thinking of the novel you’re writing, or the painting, or the role you’ll play when the curtain goes up tonight, of what you want to have accomplished creatively when your work days ends. And think of it in the afternoon and before you go to bed. Think of it when you drink coffee and brush your teeth. Think about it whenever you can. Scribble notes about it on napkins when you’re having lunch. You must be a novelist, actor, painter, etc., the whole day, not just an hour or two.
Harmful emotions like anxiety, fear, envy, discouragement, and self-doubt are threats to your concentration. So you must learn to concentrate on the task and forget the emotion. As much as possible, put how you’re feeling out of the equation. Tell yourself your emotions are irrelevant at the moment; you’ll take care of them after work.
Take your mind off what you’re feeling. You can feel afraid to write, as many writers do, and still write, and you can still do what you doubt you can do if you don’t let the fear and doubt stop you from concentrating. And too, once you’re engrossed in creative work, however poorly you were feeling before, your mood almost always improves and becomes more positive, optimistic, hopeful, confident, even blissful.
While you’re working develop your attention so that no extraneous thoughts interfere with the work. Don’t worry, for instance, whether you’re at your best today or you aren’t, or think about what might happen if you succeed and produce a great work–the glory, the applause– or if you fail–or if you have the sniffles or would rather be making love. Don’t fret about bills or personal problems or what you’ll make for dinner. Again and again bring your mind back to the work because right now it is the most important thing.
It’s hard to change your concentration from low to high if the environment you’re working in isn’t comfortable. It may not be comfortable for me, but it has to be for you. For example, I am very comfortable with chaos–not in my personal life, not at all, I crave tranquility there. But in my work room chaos is welcome. To me in chaos there is order. But my wife tsk-tsks, and says, “It amazes me that you can possibly work under these conditions.” To placate her I say, “You’re right. I have to organize this mess.” But between you and me I have no intention of ever organizing the mess.
You have to find an environment in which you can flourish, or create one. Many writers work in restaurants. I see them in the Starbuck’s down the street. Nobel Prize winner Ernest Hemingway wrote in cafes and was extremely productive. But home is best for me. F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t have a comfortable work setting because of his wife Zelda’s constant interference. She would take Scott away from his work to have fun and play pranks. One night she collected all the women’s purses at a party and boiled them. Whatever the place you work you should be able to go to it, focus, and be productive.
A perfect work place and good production routines and rituals are to be treasured. Simply by being there ready to work repetitively the same time day after day after day the power of good habits goes into effect. Some creators’ work habits will strike you as strange. The poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) splashed ink on her clothes to give her a feeling of freedom when she wrote, and poet A.E. Housman rarely wrote unless he was sick.
For high quality, uninterrupted work to happen, not all, but most creators need isolation and solitude. To get rid of distractions some creative people eliminate newspapers, TV, clocks, telephone calls, emails, face book, and unnecessary conversation. One study showed that following an interruption for an email or phone call people were so distracted that 40% of the time they didn’t get back to work, but moved on to something else. If you quit 40% of the time, how long will it take you to finish your novel?
All your mental powers should be aimed in only one direction–toward the work at hand. But your creator’s imagination is always boiling over with ideas and has a playful impulse to lead you astray. To keep out even the smallest distracting sounds, the wonderful and eccentric Marcel Proust who was so focused on writing that he never learned how to open a window or boil a kettle of water wrote in a cork-lined sound-proof bedroom. “If you’re silent for a long time, people just arrive in your mind” (novelist Alice Walker). But some creators concentrate best when it’s noisy:–a jack hammer under their window, a baby shrieking. Which do you prefer, silence or noise?
I’m planning to publish Part Two of “Total Concentration: The Heart and Soul of Creative Work” in a few weeks. I hope you’ll look at it. It answers an important question every creator asks: “It’s easy to be absorbed in the creative problem if it’s interesting–that’s not hard at all. But what if it’s not interesting? What if it’s boring? (Creative work is often tedious.) You still have to solve the problem. What can you do?”
In the last post, subtitled, “A New Language for Creative People,” I applied Samurai terms to the lives of creatives to show that those terms have relevance to writers, artists, composers, architects, and actors today, a thousand years after “the tramp of warriors sounded like a thousand convulsions of the earth,” and “the shouts of warriors, the whistling of arrows, the thunder of the feet of foot soldiers and the hooves of chargers did not cease.”
Do: The Concept of a “Way”
The Japanese “do” (pronounced “dough”), means “way,” short for “way of life” or “life path.” That a discipline is a Way is indicated by the do suffix at the end of a word. Thus kendo (ken, sword; do, way) means “sword Way,” or Way of the sword. Bu (warrior) do (Way), refers to the attitudes, behavior and life-style of the Samurai warrior.
In kyudo, the Way of the bow, no quiver is worn and the archer fires just one arrow. From this the archer is to learn daido, a “principle that operates in all things.” The archer is to come to value his life more fully, for each arrow is like the totality of his life. You have but one life; thus you shoot but one arrow. The Samurai was taught, “The Way is your daily life.”
A serious writer’s or artist’s life is a “Way,” for example, the Way of the Writer,” “the Way of Writing,” and “the Way of the painter or sculptor”– just as in Japan there is the Way of floral arrangement, the “Way of flowers,” and “The Way of tea.” It’s axiomatic that what applies to one Way has application to all the other Ways. For example, a basis of the Way of the Warrior is showing courage in the face of adversity. And a writer or actor and painter too faces adversity and will benefit from having a warrior’s courage.
When creating is a Way you say to yourself, “I am full of unrealized potentials and special gifts that need to be developed, and am what I make of myself. I take full responsibility on myself and am choosing a creative’s life of my own free will. I have felt that creative calling for a long time. So many years and days allotted to me have passed and I believe I haven’t gotten far enough. I’m clear now and I have stores of energy in me that will make possible extraordinary achievements. My life now will be an existence that I’m designing to my own specifications. I have the conviction that the life I now envision is the life I was always meant to have.”
On the creative’s Way you’re committed to:
Finding a best outlet for your talents
Perfecting your aptitudes and skills
Discovering and expressing yourself
Communicating with a public
Learning a discipline, becoming part of a tradition
Prevailing over difficulty
Developing and improving
Being paid and/ or compensated in other ways such as through recognition and acclaim
Finding pleasure in creating and the creatives’ life
Skills can be taught, but a Way can’t. There’s no searching for a Way. It comes to you on its own when you’re ready. And when it does come, you know. As a child, you begin writing or drawing no differently than anyone else, but at some point—it could be at the age of five or a hundred and five–you begin creating more purposefully than other people. Then almost without being aware of how it happened, out of the processes of creating, gaining knowledge of your craft, and the craft’s world, and growing in skill, you are “taken” by it fully and completely and find yourself on the Way of the painter, writer, or actor, etc.
The logical end of the creative’s Way is to become a Real Writer, or Real Painter, or Real dancer, and so forth—to become known by your family, friends, teachers, and audience, and to define yourself as “someone who is serious about creating.”
Let your work become a Way.
Mokuteki Hon’I: “Focus on Your Purpose’’
When as a person doing creative things you discover what you must accomplish with your talents and that becomes a major goal there comes something new and extraordinary into your existence. You’re electric with that rarest of qualities—intensity. Doing the work as well as you’re able becomes a Purpose.
The Samurai was taught, Mokuteki hon’I, “Focus on your purpose.” With a purpose your every act takes on power. Obstacles, once so intimidating, fall away because your purpose is more powerful than the obstacles. You feel a zest, a tingle. Your imagination is on fire. It is strength to be of one mind, complete and undivided, fully committed to a life with purposes.
When you make a purpose out of what a moment before was merely a responsibility, or a chore, or a duty by thinking, “This, what I am doing now, is my purpose,” extraordinary achievements become possible. Impediments become light as feathers.
Begin every project and every day, every time you return to work after a break, with your purpose in mind. Say the words, “Focus on your purpose.” I can’t tell you how many times in my life I’ve said “Focus on your purpose” aloud to myself and been inspired by those words. Thousands.
Kufu: “Struggling, Wrestling, and Grappling with Something
Until a Good Solution Is Found”
I was interviewing people for a job that required the ability to write reports. While he wanted the job, Jack confided that he had a problem—writer’s block. Anyone who will apply for a writer’s job and be so honest as to tell the person doing the hiring that he has problems writing is my kind of guy. He told me more. “When I sit down to work, all that I want to say seems clear to me. But when I actually start I have a tough time. The ideas and words don’t come. I try, but after about an hour I give up. What do you think I should do?”
“Don’t quit after an hour,” I said.
The point I was making was a simple Samurai one. I was telling Jack to kufuhis way out. Some problems are one-hour problems, others are two or five hour or longer problems.
Kufu. It’s a wonderful concept that applies equally to the small everyday tasks and problems in a creative’s life and to the big ones too. It means giving yourself completely to discovering the solution or to finding the way out of your difficulties and to your creative goal.
It means to struggle, to grapple, to wrestle until you find the solution. It is holding nothing back in reserve. It is closing ground on the problem and never retreating or hanging back. When you take the kufu, grapple-your-way-out approach, you know that somewhere ahead of you lies a breakthrough point, a moment when you will get the better of the creative problem or the task. It is there awaiting you. All you have to do is remain concentrated and focused on the goal.
“Who knows,” I told Jack, “but your breakthrough point could come at sixty-one minutes or seventy-five or may take days. If you give up after an hour, you’ll never reach it. Kufu your way out of this writer’s block.”
Months later Jack came to tell me that he had gone back to his writing to try the kufu approach of staying with it, trying it again and again, no matter how long it took. Suddenly, he said, writing had become not totally effortless, but noticeably less difficult.
No one is spared resistances to the creative breakthrough experience. Jack continued to encounter concentration problems from time to time, but he had learned what many people never learn: the kufu spirit of staying with it until the problem is solved.
Makoto is the Samurai precept of precepts and a concept of action that the Japanese of today value above all others. It is usually translated into English as “sincerity.” But it does not mean sincerity in the sense of “I’m sincerely pleased with our conversation.”
Makotomeans putting absolutely everything you have, everything you are into an act—all of your heart, and all your spirit, mind, and all of your physical strength. To hold anything back in reserve or to hesitate in any way whatsoever is for the creator to act . . . insincerely.
Creative people are tremendously productive individuals who at their best practice makoto every day, putting all their talents, skills, and training into their work, holding nothing in reserve.
The Samurai terminology I’ve described in the last two posts express ideas that have been useful to creative people everywhere in the world as they all aimed so steadily at perfecting their skills and so devotedly pursued their Way.
A newspaper reviewer of my book Fighting To Win: Samurai Techniques For Your Work and Life thought that a unique feature of the book is that it exposes the reader to an exciting new vocabulary–Asian terms for self-improvement for which there are no Western equivalents. The book begins with an example of what the book is about: the application of the psychological and spiritual insights of the samurai, the most remarkable warriors ever to walk the earth, to the everyday lives of ordinary working people—the most magnificent people of all.
It says: “The tramp of warriors sounded like a thousand convulsions of the earth. The shouts of warriors, the whistling of arrows, the thunder of the feet of foot soldiers and the hooves of chargers did not cease,” and tells the story of a sales woman who uses insights from the samurai Way to overcome her fear of an intimidating prospect and makes a sale.
I think it will be worthwhile to apply a select few of these terms to the lives of creative people–the Way of the artist, the Way of the writer, the Way of the composer, the architect, the performer–since so many creative people read my blog and the concepts will be so beneficial to them. As you read, think of the many applications there are to your creator’s life as so many people have.
Musha Shugyo: Samurai Training. Samurai were trained to fight in the service of a lord—with supreme self-confidence, courage, bravery, and superb skill with weapons. Four things were especially important to samurai:
Duty—we must make good what we owe.
Self-Control—body, mind, spirit, emotions under control.
Commitment to Immediate Action—“The Way of the samurai is immediacy”—no delays.
Constant Self-Improvement—no resting on your laurels; always striving to do better; to develop your skills to the highest level you’re capable of. What creator is not trying to improve?
Ryuu: Dragons. For samurai warriors of feudal Japan all obstacles in a person’s mind, heart, and spirit were “dragons.” A creator’s dragons are no longer of the fire-breathing variety that scared him or her as a child. They’re now a different species entirely, and to become all the creator you wish to become you will have to break completely free of them. When a samurai overcame a dragon he was “striking through the dragon’s mask.”
I arrived early at a conference room where I was to speak. Two men and a woman who’d come to hear me were early too and were at a table with their copies of Fighting To Win open. They seemed to be working hard and I asked “What are you working on?” The woman said, “We’re discussing our dragons.” The main dragons the samurai faced and creative people face too are:
Fear: Creative women and men experience fear most every day. The samurai set out to master fear, to learn to be no more ruffled whatever he was facing—however terrible–than “someone sitting down for breakfast.”
Being Afraid to Take Risks: The desire for certainty, the sure thing, often makes us cowards. There’s no room for sure things in a creator’s world. Samurai were taught that the greatest rewards lie one inch from the foe’s blade—edge in close, take a chance. Why aren’t we more confident and bolder?
Thinking Too Much: To be creatively free creators have to learn to think much less about what might go wrong.
Doubting Yourself: The creator’s most powerful dragon is dwelling again and again and again on his shortcomings, on what he lacks.
Hesitating: Wanting to do something but stopping.
Cowardice: The Chinese language permeates the Japanese language. The Chinese character for “cowardice” is composed of two symbols, “meaning” and “mind.” Creators are often finding too much meaning in things—he or she thinks too much—often worrying and fretting and dissipating their creative energy, that fuel creators need so much of. If you believe you’re thinking too much and that it’s driving you away from instead of to your work, this could be a dragon you’ll want to get rid of.
Try to make it a point to remember the term tomaranu kokoro. No small thing in samurai fighting, it has been called “the secret essence” of the samurai Way. More important, it’s relevant to the Way of the Creator. It means “a mind that knows no stopping.” If you have ever seen a master swordsman in action, you’ve witnessed tomaranu kokoro. Without once stopping he attacks, feints, cuts, slashes, turns, leaps, spins, and thrusts in a whirlwind of action.
The reason he is able to move so smoothly, effortlessly and quickly, his sword a blur, is that he is doing the same thing in his head. His body moves without stopping because his mind is tomaranu kokoro. His mind doesn’t stop to worry, to ask “what if”—“What if I lose?” “What if I die?”—or the creative person’s “What if I’m not good enough?” It doesn’t stop for anything. It keeps moving and facilitates the movement of his body. You can see that tomaranu kokoro is an ideal state of mind for the creator–an uninhibited, free, fluent, effortless yet focused mind and body.
Toraware—its opposite–means “caught,” and tomaru means “stopping” or “abiding.” You might want to remember them too, because they help explain why so many exceptionally talented creators are not as successful as they have the potential to be. It’s when your thoughts get caught (toraware) or stopped (tomaru) that you have trouble executing a creative action. It’s when your mind doesn’t flow from one idea to another but gets hooked or snagged on self-doubt or worry or anger, etc. that you are prevented from fully functioning creatively. Recall the last time you had problems with a painting, sculptor, story, composition, or performance and you were upset or troubled. It was because your thoughts got caught or stopped; they didn’t flow. You were all tied up—your mind, your body.
Whenever you find your thoughts getting caught or stopped, tell yourself to remember toraware, “caught,” and tomaru, “stopping.” More important, tell yourself to get back to tomaranu kokoro, the mind that knows no stopping, and return with confidence to your work. Let your mind be free to function according to its own natural free-flowing nature.
Fudoshin: The Skill of Making the Body Obey the Mind and Immovable Mind
Have you ever run in a marathon, felt pain, thought of stopping but refused to? If so, you’ve tasted fudoshin, immovable mind. No matter what you were going through your mind wouldn’t budge from the goal of finishing. The samurai spoke of iwoa no mi, “rock body” and wanted his commitments to be as immovable as a mountain. Why not yours?
The skill of making the body obey the mind is this: going into action—getting your work done, being creative, thriving, reaching success in spite of your dragons. Not letting any dragon stop you. You needn’t go off to the top of a mountain to overcome a dragon. You can say, “OK fear, come along if you want. “ Self-doubt, hesitation, thinking too much—you can’t stop me.” “Come on, tag along. But you cannot stop me. I’ve got a story to write, an etching to complete, a performance to give, a career to manage.”
Every day in studios, work rooms, and theatres some creators are thinking: “In order to do it (whatever it is) I’ve got to first overcome my problem—my fear (or shyness, lack of self-confidence, bad habits, indecisiveness, etc.). Once I get rid of that baby, I’ll be all right. Then I’ll be able to create my great work.” The real problem isn’t what they think it is. It is not the fear or lack of confidence. It’s their belief that the fear has the power to prevent them from doing what they should be doing.
If the creator forgets about himself and his dragons completely and focuses only on adapting to what his creative life path requires of him, no dragon will ever stop him. The dragon has no right to stop you. But your mind must be immovable. Keep your mind focused on the task. Put negative emotions out of the equation.
In my next post, Part II of this topic, I’ll discuss more samurai concepts creative people can apply to improve their work and lives.
Throughout all my grade school and high school years the only things I could think of that distinguished me in any way at all from my classmates was my ability to write a decent composition and to run faster than all but one other boy my age in the city of Chicago. I realized those abilities weren’t in the grand scope of life all that earth-shaking. In most other areas I was about average or a little above or a little below. I was shyer than most and much less inclined to study than most. My report cards usually said, “Needs to apply himself.”
Yet I remember that one day in the fourth grade as I was standing in line the thought came to me forcefully and abruptly that something quite possibly extraordinary was up ahead for me in my life. I was stunned. After all, I wasn’t much to speak of. So why was I being singled out like that? But BOOM, there it was, a secret promise life was making to me–a pact was being made, a deal struck, a bargain arranged between an eight year old and the life he would later lead, a waiting destiny. I knew I should keep the experience to myself and not divulge it to any living person lest they think I was crazy, or a braggart, or most reprehensible of all, that I’d gotten too big for my britches.
I managed to keep this strange experience to myself for more than thirty years, never telling a soul, but never forgetting it. By accident it popped out of my mouth one night while I was speaking to a large audience. I’d been excited. I’d been in a groove. My spoken words had gotten ahead of my thoughts. As soon as it registered on me that I’d just divulged my secret experience I felt embarrassed. I was a professional, but I’d gotten off the topic and I wasn’t supposed to do that. Who was I to think that what had happened to me would be of interest to 6,000 strangers? I wasn’t that important.
But all around the auditorium—to my left, to my right, in front of me–I could see people smiling and nodding. Some had tears in their eyes. While describing my hidden childhood revelation I’d been describing theirs too! The cat they too had been holding in secret was finally out of the bag, and they were relieved to find they weren’t alone. We talked into the night, men and women, some young, some older, some confident, some timid telling their story as I’d told mine, often for the first time. We were good friends now. We had a lot in common. What a night.
Since that day I’ve often described my premonition to audiences large and small to see if anything similar had ever happened to any of them. So many people confess to having had that same sudden and overwhelming sensation of being selected for something specific that’s going to happen and will benefit them and perhaps many other people too in important ways. I’ve always suspected that for every person in the audiences who has the courage to raise a hand and admit to having had the identical experience, there are others who have reservations about appearing too big for their britches or divulging such secrets.
So what I realize now is that at some point in many lives there’s an experience foreshadowing a destiny that’s waiting and calling for us. We’d been selected for a particularly exceptional undertaking and are being told about it—given hints and notifications that life is holding fruition in reserve, and that something worthwhile and wonderful in the swift flow of time is in store for us. It is not wishful thinking. It is not a fantasy or an empty dream, not mystical, not otherworldly, but a fact as real and as solid as any other fact. A hard and fast promise of what at last we really will become.
However modest and self-effacing you are I think you have the feeling that you are special and that you’re supposed to enjoy a life that’s also special. You know with no doubts whatsoever that you’re intended to lead a life that has meaning and to do significant things. You realize that you must hold steady to that goal, undeviating, even if you haven’t achieved it yet and don’t know exactly what it is, or when it will appear, even if from time to time you’re afraid you’ll never achieve it. When this awareness of a waiting destiny strikes you it’s an intimation of things that surely will come.
When most creative people pursue their goals they imagine what it would be like to reach them (Hope of Success). And they also worry that the goal will not be reached (Fear of Failure). Those two emotions go together and are reverse sides of the same coin. That creators’ fear of failure is perfectly natural and is to be expected whenever you’re facing a difficult, challenging task, such as a writer crafting a play if she’s never written one before, or a lithographer preparing a work for an important contest.
But at times the fear of failing becomes a major psychological obstacle that keeps creators from reaching the success and satisfaction they’ve been hoping for. Creators who are dominated by the fear of not succeeding, but failing have developed—often without realizing it–characteristic tactics for protecting themselves from enduring what often is not just a fear of failing, but a much more dreadful terror of failing. Ironically, those tactics do more to contribute to failure than to prevent it. It’s worthwhile looking at those tactics that you might recognize in yourself so that something might be done about them.
Rather than enduring the misery of experiencing that terror of failing the person harried by it may:
Avoid competing with others of comparable ability. They prefer being the big fish in the little pond.
Be perfectionists. They don’t attempt things in which they won’t be able to attain perfection or near perfection. The tactic here is to carve out a very narrow area of competence in which they excel and can approximate perfection.
Prefer very easy or very difficult tasks, nothing in the middle. In contrast, most high achievers generally pursue tasks and goals they have a one in three or two in three chance of succeeding at. Not a sure thing and not an impossible thing.
Avoid displaying their abilities in public. A pianist may be able to perform beautifully in private, but shy away from performing in front of people.
Avoid attempting anything important. The more important the activity, the more they avoid it. A writer may avoid trying to get his work published even though publication is the logical outcome of the writing process.
Avoid taking risks. Most creators who become eminent experience turning points at which they take a risk which their less eminent contemporaries are too timid to take. Fear of taking chances melts in the face of a strong and urgent purpose and self-confidence (If you’ve been reading my posts you can’t have helped but notice I’m enamored with self-confidence because it, along with skill, is the antidote to most creator’s main problems, including self-doubt and discouragement).
Have trouble performing under time pressure. They panic as they approach the deadline. Even the word “deadline’ scares them. They delay. They give up. They shut down. More confident creators are challenged by a race against time and are often the most excited and highly focused and at the height of their skills when the clock is ticking. The best tactic is to forget about the deadline completely and focus totally on the task.
Prefer practice and games rather than the real thing.
Seek social support. People who fail tend to have as friends others who fail.
Have unrealistic expectations–oddly enough, on the high side. Asked to estimate how well they’ll do at achieving a goal they will say they’ll do far better than they actually will. I had an egotistical friend in college who wrote a paper for English in which he said he was brilliant, a great lover women couldn’t resist, handsome, a wonderful athlete, and a conversationalist who could charm birds out of trees. The professor returned his paper with the comment scrawled on it: “It’s a shame you can’t add a command of the English language to the list of your other accomplishments.”
Misjudge past performance. They also exaggerate how well they did in the past.
Reject the measure of a skill. For example, the student who doesn’t do well and says, “Getting good grades doesn’t mean a thing.”
Avoid measurements of their performance. They don’t want to know how well or poorly they’re doing, for if they knew they might have to admit they failed. Without contrary information they can always say, “I’m doing pretty well.” At work, they are the employees who dread performance evaluations. They might even arrange to stay home on the day of the evaluation. The best writers, best painters and actors are just the opposite. They want to know if they’re doing well or poorly. They welcome feedback, and actively seek it, feedback that is rapid, specific, and helpful. They are always asking about their work, “Well, what d’ya think of it?” Studies of highly creative people show that they accept helpful guidance and have “an openness to advice.”
Not try. A fear that dominates many creators and makes them quit trying to succeed is the fear of failing to reach financial success, or just break even. Writer Francois Voltaire and painter Claude Monet won fortunes in government lotteries and were able to devote themselves completely to their work. But Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner spent most of his writing life in virtual poverty. When his picture appeared on the cover of Time magazine he couldn’t pay his electric bill of $35. He wrote: “People are afraid to find out how much hardship and poverty they can stand. They are afraid to find out how tough they are.” But financial risk is part of the creator’s life style and for many writers the fear of being broke can be exhilarating, a source of creative energy. Most creators perform better under some amount of financial pressure. Sherwood Anderson’s publisher thought financial security would help him produce more and sent him a weekly stipend. But that made him less productive, and Anderson asked them not to send it anymore: “It’s no use. I find it impossible to work with security staring me in the face.” In The Courage to Write Ralph Keyes says, “Knowing that there is a direct line between putting words on a page and food on the table keeps me focused.” Picasso said he was rich but tried to work as though he was poor.
Reject responsibility for their failures. If you wipe your hands of responsibility, all pressure is off and all fear of failing disappears. You might know creators who go to great lengths to avoid responsibility. They concoct elaborate excuses for their failures.
A not uncommon fear of failure among creators takes the form of “encore anxiety.” It is the fear after producing a successful first work that no matter what you do you won’t be able to produce a second work that’s as good or as successful.
To overcome fear of failure, go down the above list and develop counter-tactics. For example:
Always try; don’t not try.
Be interested in measurements of your performance; don’t avoid them.
Consider your past achievements dispassionately; put your ego aside.
Associate with other successful creators of comparable ability, not failures with less ability.
Pursue goals that aren’t easy, goals that are a little out of reach.
Open yourself up to areas in which you haven’t yet mastered perfection
Take more chances; that shouldn’t he hard because creators are attracted by risks.
Have realistic, not unrealistic, expectations.
Judge your performance as accurately as you can.
Actively seek feedback on your performance; don’t avoid it.
Have no fear of financial pressures; let them motivate you.
Don’t be intimidated by deadlines and time pressures; they help you perform better.
Don’t fear competition. It may bring out the best in you and help you reach a level of success in your craft you’ve never dreamed of.
Accept responsibility for failures.
All creators are capable of overcoming fears of failing, and when they aren’t extreme and debilitating, those fears can be positive—a push, an incentive– and have helped many creative people reach success.
I think all creative people are extraordinary. You’re extraordinary. I’m extraordinary too. We’ve been extraordinary all our lives and one day at the age of six or eleven or twenty-one or fifty-seven something remarkable happened and we discovered we were, and then a corner was turned.
But a separate breed of outlier creator is so extraordinary and so driven and capable of such incredible creative feats and leads such an extreme existence of sacrifice that we wonder what there is about them that inspires them so. What sustains them and equips them so perfectly to produce such exceptional work? Theirs isn’t the only path to creative achievements—most creators lead more moderate lives. But it’s a path extraordinary creative outliers often choose.
Creative outliers are so absorbed in facing challenges and solving creative problems that they have almost no interest in anything else. Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow—the premier American writer of the second half of the 20th century– said, “I have always put the requirements of what I was writing first—before jobs, before children, before any material or practical interest, and if I discover that anything interferes with what I’m doing, I chuck it. Perhaps this is foolish, but it has been the case with me.” He was married five times.
Novelist Jane Smiley wrote, “Even if my marriage is falling apart and my children are unhappy, there is still a part of me that says, ‘God! This is fascinating.’” Ernest Hemingway lived in poverty early in his career and sometimes stole food and said a writer’s perceptions are sharper when he’s “belly-empty, hollow hungry,” that “hunger is good discipline and you can learn from it.” Before taking the literary world by storm late-blooming novelist/essayist Henry Miller lived in poverty too. He once said, “I have no money, no resources, no hope. I am the happiest man alive.” Emily Dickinson, the greatest American woman poet, author of 1,775 poems, said that if she felt physically as if the top of her head was taken off, she knew that was poetry. Ballerinas—artistes of artistes–may practice until their muscles scream and their feet bleed.
We look at these creative outliers and we marvel and are impressed or appalled or shocked, and often ask ourselves “Could I live an unusual life like that? Am I willing to sacrifice so much for my art and suffer so much and risk so much? Is that possible for me? How much of my normal life am I willing to give up? If I sacrificed more could I be great too?” And ordinarily decide it isn’t possible at all and we’re not willing to sacrifice in that way, nor suffer, nor risk all that. We couldn’t because a life like theirs asks too much. We draw a line and dare not cross it.
All creative people are obsessed to some extent or another, from mildly to ferociously, so much so that when we obsessed-but-less-obsessed creators hear about these outlier creators we have no problems understanding them since they’re only different from us in degree.
What humans in their craft can accomplish extraordinary outlier creators are willing to push themselves upward toward. They have a genius. They’re self-absorbed. They’re determined. They’re completely taken by a way that’s too demanding for the ordinary run of women and men. But for a select few like these outliers their craft becomes a way of life, a journey, a goal, an inevitable struggle of someone rare who’s capable of achieving the impossible.
Creative outliers pour themselves heart and soul and muscle and blood into their work. They work and they work and they work repetitively, and think about their art or their writing, acting, or dancing continually, and have a monumental amount of confidence. Any time they’re not working they’re making plans for improvement because they know no matter how good you are and what you’ve accomplished you can always be better.
The fundamental role of all creators without exception is to create—to produce works–and they do with a vengeance. Pablo Picasso produced 50,000 works—1,885 paintings ,1,228 sculptures, 2,800 ceramics, 12,000 drawings, thousands of prints, and tapestries and rugs.
There wasn’t a moment of his waking day all his career that Nobel Prize dramatist Eugene O’Neill wasn’t thinking about writing. He produced 35 full-length plays and 17 one act plays and revolutionized American theater. Writing long hours, English novelist Charles Dickens—the most popular writer in the world at the time– would sometimes put his head into a bucket of cold water, dry his hair with a towel, and then go on writing.
Creative outliers learn—often at an early age–that they will achieve more if they concentrate their efforts in one area. They are aware only of the work before them, and let nothing divert them from it. French novelist Gustave Flaubert said that only writing mattered to him, and that he kept all his other passions locked up in a cage, visiting them now and then for diversion. He said too, “Sometimes I don’t understand why my arms don’t drop from my body with fatigue, why my brains don’t melt away. I am leading a stern existence, stripped of all external pleasure, and am sustained only by a kind of permanent rage, which sometimes makes me weep tears of impotence but which never abates.”
French novelist/poet/dramatist Victor Hugo started his day by handing his clothes to his servant with strict orders to return them only after Hugo had finished a day’s work of seven hours. Composer Igor Stravinsky and novelist Thomas Wolfe worked all their lives in a frenzy—Wolfe in a “wild ecstasy” at top speed, never hesitating for a word, as though he were taking dictation.
You can’t measure intensity and a person’s pure life force. But the energy pouring out of outliers like Vincent van Gogh would bowl you over. Van Gogh worked furiously at a fever pitch, gathering up the colors as though with a shovel, throwing them on canvas with rage, globs of paint covering the length of the paint brush, sticking to his fingers. Goethe called such super-charged outliers “demoniacs”–people with a super-abundance of vitality, “something that escapes analysis, reason, and comprehension.” Goethe was aware of this power in himself.
Russian Anton Chekhov wrote 10,000 pages of short stories, and also produced great plays like The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull, and Uncle Vanya, and was a practicing physician too. Noted architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller was often unable to stop working until he dropped from exhaustion. Isaac Asimov, author or editor of more than 500 books, said he wrote for the same reason he breathed—because if he didn’t, he would die.
Extraordinary creative outliers are guided by an ambition, a notion so bold that it’s almost outlandish: that you’re born with a certain aptitude and with direction, discipline, and sacrifice you can transform yourself into something magnificent. Their focus is maniacal—all day long every day. When they’re away from their work they long for it.
Nobel novelist Toni Morrison said, “But the important thing is that I don’t do anything else. I avoid the social life normally associated with publishing. I don’t go to cocktail parties. I don’t give or go to dinner parties. I need that time in the evening because I can do a tremendous amount of work then. And I can concentrate.” Outlier novelist Philip Roth said, “My schedule is absolutely my own. Usually, I write all day but if I want to go back to the studio in the evening, after dinner, I don’t have to sit in the living room because someone else has been alone all day. I don’t have to sit there and be entertaining or amusing. I go back out and I work for two or three more hours.” American William Faulkner said jokingly, “If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate: the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.”
We live in a world where everyone is selling something. Everyone has an ulterior motive. They want to be a brand. But these outliers only want one goal: to reach the highest heights they can. That’s it. There’s nothing else.
You look at Picasso and Faulkner and say, “Oh, that’s why painting and writing were invented. As if the gods of the arts declared, ‘To show you others how it should be done we’re going to make a person to represent perfection’.”
They have bad days, difficulties, and setbacks, and still believe in themselves. Andre Gide said, “The great artist is one …for whom the obstacle is a springboard.” They know that effort is more important than talent. And if you say to them, “You’re just so gifted” they’ll stop you and say, “No, I’m no more talented than anyone else, no more talented than you, but I work much harder” and tell you and me, “If you want to excel you’ll have to overcome the notion that it’s easy.”
They’re a psychologically phenomenal combination of purity of focus and purity of discipline and purity of energy. Their creative lives are both comfortable and disciplined. Even when they’re miserable they’re happy. Age has little effect on their skills except to improve them. They’re never happier and more at ease than when under pressure. They have a sense of being destined for something that very few other people are fitted for. But they are and they know they are.
They have a supreme care about their craft, and they never forget their failures. Their craft is their sanctuary. They’re never better than when doing their craft.
Outlier playwright George Bernard Shaw said, “I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die. For the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It’s a sort of splendid torch which I’ve got to hold up for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible…”