Don’t find ideas for your voice. Find a voice for each idea. Poets see everything as a poem. Filmmakers see everything as a film. Musicians see everything as a song.
What if we started with the idea and tried to find the best structure for it? Even if it was out of our comfort zone and experience?
Don’t find an audience for your creative work. Produce creative work for a specific audience. I could try to write “The Great American Novel” and try to get people to care and buy it. Or I could start with a group of people I identify with and care about (like writers & artists). And write a book specifically for them.
Which do you think has the better chance of impacting people?
Products build brands. Not vice versa. The Mac, iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad made Apple “Apple”. The Sun Also Rises and short stories made Hemingway “Hemingway”. American Graffiti and Star Wars made George Lucas “George Lucas”.
From the public’s perspective, it takes a great work to make a great artist. Even though you and I know it takes it great artist to produce a great work.
We protect first. Risk second. This includes everyone who might buy our creative work. Even if “buy” means spending time and attention to read something we’ve written and offer for free.
Measure outcomes, not outputs. Don’t measure how much time you invest on your creative work. Or the quantity of work you generate. Measure whether or not it impacts others in constructive ways.
Attention requires tension. Pick a pole and stick with it.
These are mantras I’ve adopted and adapted over the years.
They guide the decisions that drive my creative work.
There is a thread woven through these mantras. I call them root notes.
The work/life balance movement has bled into all aspects of our culture. We’ve grown up with this notion that our lives, like our meals and checkbooks, should be balanced.
The idea of balance is very appealing.
Instead of feeling overwhelmed with guilt for not doing all the things we want (or need) to do, we can “balance” them. Spend a little time on this. And a little time on that.
The problem is that this contradicts the behaviors of the most successful and productive people.
The greatest artists in history didn’t live balanced lives. They lived for art. Art was their root note. Everything else in their lives aligned around that root note.
The greatest missionaries in history didn’t live balanced lives. They lived to serve the least, lost and lonely. God was their root note. Everything else in their lives aligned around that root note.
The greatest leaders in history didn’t live balanced lives. They lived to serve communities of people. Their community or country was their root note. Everything else in their lives aligned around that root note.
Balance suggests we can have a little bit of everything.
But for some of us, a little bit just isn’t enough. We want to dedicate a significant portion of our lives to something more important than ourselves.
So we are forced to make choices. Trade-offs.
Every chord has a root note around which many alternatives and options can align. But there is only one root note in a chord.
Same with our creative choices. Let’s glance back up at those mantras that led this essay.
You can serve your voice. Or you can serve ideas. One is a root note. The other must serve as harmony.
You can find an audience for your work. Or you can find work for an audience. One is a root note. The other must serve as harmony.
You can create products to build a reputation. Or you can use your reputation (assuming you have one) to build products. One is a root note. The other must serve as harmony.
You can protect. Or you can take risks. One is a root note. The other must serve as harmony.
You can measure outcomes (i.e. achievements). Or you can measure outputs (i.e. activities). One is a root note. The other must serve as harmony.
Every tension has two poles. That’s what creates the tension, right?
You can try to find “balance,” but you will find yourself serving two masters.
Or you can pick a pole. Make it serve as a root note. And let the tension created by the other pole harmonize with it. Serve it. Strengthen it.
So where does this leave us?
It leaves us with the difficult task of making some tough choices.
What is the root note of your life?
Is it your day job?
Your physical health?
Your financial health?
Whether you admit it or not, you’ve already chosen a root note. It’s where you spend the most time and energy.
You can accept the choice you’ve made and find ways of harmonizing everything else in your life around it. Or you can change the root note. Change the harmony.
Of course, every great song has clever chord changes. And beautiful harmonies.
Which means you and I need to figure out which part of the song we’re playing right now.
I write this blog for writers, artists and other creative types. My goal is to reveal the familiar in unfamiliar ways. Unlock your creativity. And re-connect you to your craft and community. Please invite other artists to join the conversation!