If you’ve ever seen a video of the art prodigy ZhaoXiaoli, a Beijing-based painter who turns trash into her canvas and tools, it’s pretty clear there’s an incredible amount of creativity not only in her work, but in how she presents it:
If you scroll through a profile of hers on social media, you’ll get a strange aesthetic of a rebel who wears a beret while dipping roses into paint and splattering it across a canvas– and turning it into something brilliant. I’m pretty sure they don’t teach you that in art school.
Back when I used to host open mic nights in Los Angeles pre-pandemic, there was an energy about the musicians and storytellers who took the stage and moved the audience. While their performances came across as effortless, fellow creatives know how many hundreds of hours of practice and experimentation goes into achieving a high level of talent and quality of creative output.
Great Writers and Creatives Have Different Motivations
When you come across a once-in-a-lifetime creative, you feel it. The way that person talks and shapes their life around their art is not of desperation of fame or of winning, it stems from the pure passion of making something incredible that comes from within.
The motivation of why we’re making something informs how we make it: if we’re making something because we find true joy and meaning in our work, we’re going to approach it much differently than if we’re just trying to get something out of it (i.e. fame, status, money, whatever.)
That’s why those great writers and creatives you run into feel different. They aren’t running around trying to make the next big hit or hop on a trend bandwagon: they’re making their art or writing that book because they have a powerful intrinsic motivator to do so.
This expands beyond the arts, also: if you’re doing a job for the end result rather than for the love of it, you’re probably not feeling a ton of joy on a daily basis and probably aren’t delivering incredible work. You might be operating at a high level, but you’ll never be able to compete with someone who is doing something first and foremost for the love of it.
Which brings me to one of my main points: if you aren’t doing what you love, you’ll never be able to be at the top of your field and get everything you want out of life.
Striving for High-Quality Work is Different Than Perfectionism
Our manuscripts, drafts, and art in general is often frequently in a “work-in-progress” state. Great creatives understand that high-quality work isn’t achieved instantaneously, and that the creative process is, indeed, a process.
That’s why great artists don’t beat themselves up over something not being perfect. Worrying about perfection is a quick way to not make real progress on the work at hand. And great creatives are obsessed with progress. They wake up every day and jump at the chance to solve creative problems and dream up new solutions. They’re in it for the long haul, not a magical end-result.
Most people get frustrated when something doesn’t go as planned. They quit when the going gets tough or when there are too many obstacles. Great creatives thrive in the messiness of it all, because they’re in it for the process. They love picking up the bouquet of flowers and splashing it in art and still make it out the other side with an incredible piece of art because they stuck with the intensity of the chaos and followed their process to the other side.
When you’re in love with the process, the result becomes 100x because of the work you were willing to do in the trenches.
The Lack of Care in So Much of Our World and Work
One of the things that deeply bothers me when I’m hiring help on a project or collaborating with others is the lack of care I so often see in a majority of people’s work. Nothing screams “I don’t really care about this!” like a draft that is riddled with typos, a project that is rushed, or details that are wrong.
There’s plenty of excuses you can name for not doing great work. You’re tired, there’s too much to do, the world is a disaster, you didn’t get enough guidance or structure or whatever. There’s a lot of reasons why you just can’t make it. Some are more valid than others.
But at the end of the day if you’re doing what you love and in that flow state, your work will speak for itself. You’ll be able to adapt to the challenge at hand and you won’t need excuses because you’ll have your process.
People who show up, do great work, and go above and beyond — especially creative people! — are very rare. But the intersection of great creativity and high levels of conscientiousness and generosity of spirit begets true genius.
So often we love to deify the wild, out-of-control creative who cuts off their own ear out of suffering and madness but leaves great art. But in reality, timeless creatives like Michelangelo were highly structured and hit that level of conscientiousness: Michelangelo was a business owner who hired others to help him with the Sistine Chapel and oversaw huge projects. A scatterbrained, chaotic artist couldn’t do that.
It’s less fun to remember the ways in which the great creators of history were highly competent, detail-oriented, fast-learning folks. That’s why we’ve gotten such a caricature of writers and artists being raging alcoholics on the brink of madness.
Ending up in an insane asylum that burns down might make for a great end to a story, but it’s definitely not a sustainable way to live your life if you want to make a bunch of cool stuff and, I don’t know, not die for a bit.
Honoring the Work: You Are What You Do Every Day
Our world could be an incredible place if everybody woke up and said, today, I’m going to honor my work and do right by it.
We are our habits and what we choose to do with our time every day. Our thoughts are originated by our environments and the types of content we absorb that informs our mental frameworks. If you want to be a great writer, you’ll read great books and write every day. You’ll seek out the work that inspires you and changes you and challenges you: if you want to create unique work, you’ll need to source unique inspirations and experiences.
If you want to be a great artist/writer/creative/anything, you’ll need to wake up each day and choose to be that through your actions.
So, what will you choose today?