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The Owl of Athena, symbol of wisdom. Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Personal Growth

7 Pieces of Wisdom That Will Change the Way You Work

Advice that will make you think from Steven Pressfield, Kurt Vonnegut, Martha Graham and more.


“If wisdom were offered me on the one condition that I should keep it shut away and not divulge it to anyone,” said Roman philosopher Seneca, “I should reject it. There is no enjoying the possession of anything valuable unless one has someone to share it with.”

Wisdom, in the words of Maria Popova, is knowledge that matters; it has both a practical and moral component to it that enriches our lives and inspires us to act wisely. Because the path to creativity is fraught with uncertainty, fear, and self-doubt, we naturally look to the wisdom of others to stop us from getting off course.

Here are seven gems of wisdom I’ve picked up along the way as a writer, a path that I accidentally stumbled upon and was only able to thrive because of the generosity and admonishments of those willing to share their learnings.

1. Ship and don’t look back

Author Steven Pressfield

Author Steven Pressfield

In July 2012, I set off to write a short book to sell online. It took me eight months to write and ship it. I patiently waited for the results—praise, recognition, and opportunities. To my surprise, nothing happened, and I felt mortified. There were no downloads, no reviews, and no revenue—just crickets. 

In a desperate attempt to understand why I was feeling horrible, I emailed one of my favorite authors, Steven Pressfield.  His response:

What you’re feeling is what everybody feels.  Start something new right away and don’t look back.  Don’t check the grosses, don’t look up the reviews on Amazon. Get used to it.

In “The War of Art,” I tell the story of when I finished my first novel (after about ten years of trying and failing), walked down the street to visit my mentor, Paul Rink, and told him the good news.  He never looked up from his coffee.  “Good for you,” he said.  “Start the next one tomorrow.”

My own theory is to have the next one already in progress.  I like to have 30 or 40 pages of the Next Book already done (and have momentum going on it) when I finish the Current Book.

Congrats to you, Paul.  You did good.  You shipped.  I salute you.   Every other member of this select club salutes you.  Get drunk.  Have a party.  

Then start the next one tomorrow.

To believe that any project is the cure to our restlessness, uncertainty, and fear of failure, is borderline egomania and it’s unhelpful for the creative process or creativity in general. 

When we “start the next one” it keeps us vigilant for the long haul, to remove the desire for immediate gratification, and to ultimately create a mindset that serves as a foundation for sustained and disciplined creativity by enjoying the process and not the outcome.

It’s also about momentum, because after this project ships, what are you going to do next? It’s easy to sit around and read reviews, but that doesn’t prepare us for a fruitful career. Shipped projects are essentially a reflection of how your skills and mind are evolving. Each project is a step up from the last. Your first project, say, is a level one—not so great. But as long as that project ships, as long as you learn from it and poured your heart into it, your next project can’t help but be better.

2. “Practice becoming

Vonnegut

Author Kurt Vonnegut

In 2006, students from Xavier High School were given an assignment to write to their favorite authors—five of the students chose Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut’s response, the only one the class received, encapsulates essential wisdom unbounded by craft or circumstance. 

What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.

(Read the full letter here.)

Although Vonnegut’s wisdom was for young students to get them to start learning a craft, it’s easy to limit our creativity to one specific domain, like writing or graphic design. In these fresh stages of creativity, we are not affected by financial worries or job obligations—we are simply playing, expressing ourselves, making our soul grow and returning to the essence of creativity. The realizations that we recognize during these activities should be transferred over to our main craft.

3. Keep things in perspective 

“Stop whatever you’re doing for a moment and ask yourself: Am I afraid of death because I won’t be able to do this anymore?” — Marcus Aurelius

This quote should immediately stop you from squandering your most precious resource: time.

Creativity as both a lifestyle and a career is audacious but rewarding. To simply love what we do while also being fulfilled financially and emotionally is an aspiration and challenge for many. That aspiration can become a reality, but it takes exceedingly hard work, dedication, some luck and time. Which is why we must be reminded on a daily basis on what’s actually important and fully commit to the actions that yield meaningful progress. 

4. Build your solid routine

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Choreographer Twyla Tharp

In Daily Rituals, author Mason Curry shares choreographer Twyla Tharp’s morning ritual. She says: 

I begin each day of my life with a ritual: I wake up at 5:30 a.m., put on workout clothes, my leg warmers, my sweatshirt, and my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st street and First Avenue, where I work out for two hours. The ritual is not stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.

Think about how your day is structured and what you do versus what you actually need to be doing. Whether it’s waking up early, working for hours, and then going for a walk, you need to find a rhythm—your rhythm. When you create a solid routine, you save your willpower for the stuff that matters.

Through this disciplined, personalized routine, it will help you bring out your best work, to put your hours in deliberate and focused practice, and to learn to pace yourself so you don’t burn yourself out for some faux honorary badge that shows you worked eight hours straight. 

Routines will change from time to time due to circumstances. The idea is that you have a routine, something that builds the necessary habits to develop your creativity and mind, and to ultimately do the work. Your friends know not to text or call during your creative hours because, from past experience, you don’t respond—you’re working.

5. Study the work of other artists and domains

Composer Mozart

Composer Mozart

In Mastery by Robert Greene, he emphasizes the importance of studying the work of other artists using Mozart as an example. This is an essential building block for the pursuit of mastery and for improving creativity [emphasis mine]: 

Throughout his career, Mozart never asserted any particular opinions about music. Instead, he absorbed the styles he heard around himself and incorporated them into his own voice. Late in his career, he encountered for the first time the music of Johann Sebastian Bach—a kind of music very different from his own, and in some ways more complex. Most artists would grow defensive and dismissive of something that challenged their own principles. Instead, Mozart opened his mind up to new possibilities, studying Bach’s use of counterpoint for nearly a year and absorbing it into his own vocabulary. This gave his music a new and surprising quality.

Learning does not entail the study of one domain but rather a diversity of them. This facilities the process of cross-pollinating ideas and concepts, introducing you to new methods and ways of thinking. Not everything will be put to use, of course, but it will develop your taste and style and tailor it to your own individual creativity.

6. Ask for what you want

In Debbie Millman’s book, How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer, she recalls the story about designer James Victore and how he got an apprenticeship by asking. He retells the story:

I had one instructor in my second year, the graphic designer Paul Bacon. He gave me a D. But when I dropped out of school, I went to his office and said that I’d like to apprentice. I didn’t even know what it meant, but I wanted to apprentice with him. He looked at me and put his pen down and told me that no one had ever asked him that before. Then he agreed to let me do it. I learned a huge lesson at that moment: You have got to ask.

I got that apprenticeship because no one else had ever asked. So I started hanging out in Paul’s studio, looking over his shoulder. I’d get there in the morning and sweep; I didn’t really have any jobs. And then I’d hang out. When a desk was available, I tried to do some ‘real’ design. Three months after I dropped out of SVA, I had put together a portfolio with three fake book jackets. I started showing my portfolio, and I got hired right off the bat. I’ve been working ever since. 

7. “No artist is pleased 

Dancer Martha Graham

Dancer Martha Graham

In 1943, American dancer and choreographer Agnes de Mille was having a soda with the legendary choreographer and dancer Martha Graham. After years of having difficulty finding work, Agnes de Mille had an unexpected, wild success for her choreography for the Broadway show Oklahoma!, which she thought her work was only “fairly good.” The production ran over 2,200 performances and eventually closed five years later. Mille recalls that her desire for greatness was always present, but her lack of faith is what kept her in the dark.

 Graham gives her one of my favorite admonishments ever [emphasis mine]: 

It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.

This ties closely to what Steven Pressfield said: “What you’re feeling is what everybody feels … Start the next one tomorrow.”


How about you?

What kind of wisdom has changed the way you lead your life and do your work?

 

Paul Jun

Paul Jun is a writer and author. His latest book, Connect the Dots: Strategies and Meditations on Self-education, is available. His blog, Motivated Mastery, is where he connects the dots between subjects like mastery, philosophy, psychology, culture, self-awareness, and more.

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