The creative routines of famous creatives has been popular internet fodder this year. The Pacific Standard thinks this obsession and trend of emulating famous artist’s habits is problematic, to say the least. The larger picture, says Casey N. Cep, is that most artists did not always followed these routines they’re known for anyways. In the end they would have still produced genius work regardless of the kind of breakfast they ate, hours they worked, or whatever office supplies they used.
The idea that any one of these habits can be isolated from the entirety of the writer’s life and made into a template for the rest of us is nonsense. What none of these lists tell you is that sometimes these highly creative people weren’t waking so early on their own, but were woken by domestic servants. Or that some of these highly productive writers also had spouses or children or assistants enlisted in the effort. Or that often the leisurely patterns of drafting and revising were possible only because generous familial support made the financial demands of everyday life irrelevant.
Some of the more scandalous aspects of these artistic routines are also tragically stripped of context. The writer who never wrote without a few gin and tonics died young from cirrhosis. The journalist who relied on barbiturates died of an overdose. The painter who once said it was impossible to paint while listening to music married a violinist who then played constantly in his studio.
We often talk about process at 99U, so we think this is a great debate. Are we interested in the routines of great artists because we think replicating parts of their process will be what we were missing to succeed all along? While we believe strongly that the creative process matters, it’s worth contemplating whether it’s our process that needs tweaking or the work itself. It’s easier to put the fault on something we can change easily and control, like a routine, than it is to dig into the deep, personal issues within the work we’re putting out.
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As a teacher, James Franco who also acts, writes, produces and directs, advises his students to create a close team of diverse talents to work with instead of relying on the industry. During an interview with Variety’s Scott Foundas for Slamdance’s “Coffee with…” series, Franco speaks about how it can be frustrating as an actor to learn your trade when you’re dependent on others.
Part of me was probably really frustrated by the fact that I really trained as an actor but I was still dependent on all these other people to work, to really apply my trade. Like I would have to get cast in something or someone would have to write something that I liked or even if they did write something I liked, I would have to be lucky enough or whatever – prove myself enough to actually get it.
So one of the things that I do at my – I also have my own schools in New York and LA – one of the things that I really try to emphasis there is community, finding your people, so that you’re not just dependent on the gatekeepers in the insular industry. But you have your people that can make movies and that’s very much what this movie [Yosemite] is a result of. And really just go ahead and go do it. You can pursue traditional inroads to the industry but at the same time you can still be making your own things because you either know how to do it all, like you’re a Seth Rogen who can write and act and direct or you have your group and you work with them.
Even if you are dependent on others in your industry, Franco says that is no excuse not to be applying your craft. Instead of networking with others directly in your occupation, like actors with actors, look to those you can collaborate with. Industrial designers should seek out manufacturers while graphic designers may look to web developers. Alternatively, you can learn to do everything to fully complete your project. Either way, don’t allow others to be the cause for your standstill.
Newton’s First Law of Motion says that objects in motion tend to stay in motion. What is said about objects in motion is equally true of our ability to do our best work and make an impact, both in our professional lives and personal ones. It’s a lot less work to keep moving once you have momentum. Far easier than it is to try and slowly fight against every distraction or shortcoming that crosses your path.
To start each day with a little momentum, Naval Admiral William H. McRaven reminds us that we should make our beds when we wake up:
If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right. And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made—that you made—and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better. If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.
McRaven’s summary statement may sound a little far-fetched, but his advice is undoubtedly worth considering: if you want to make an impact at a large scale, you have to be comfortable making it at a small scale too. You can build that momentum up over time, but it all has to start somewhere. Just the momentum you gain from accomplishing simple tasks each morning (like making your bed, brushing your teeth, meditating, exercising, journaling, etc.) can create a positive stepping stone from which to take your next step.
The human body isn’t designed to sit for eight hours at a stretch. Not only is it killing you, it’s hindering your productivity. But research shows that frequently standing up from your desk to take a break can actually improve it.
Julia Gifford uses the time-tracking app DeskTime to study the habits of the most productive employees, and discovered a clear pattern:
The most productive people work for 52 minutes at a time, then break for 17 minutes before getting back to it. . .The reason the most productive 10% of our users are able to get the most done during the comparatively short periods of working time is that their working times are treated as sprints. They make the most of those 52 minutes by working with intense purpose, but then rest up to be ready for the next burst. In other words, they work with purpose.Working with purpose can also be called the 100% dedication theory—the notion that whatever you do, you do it full-on. Therefore, during the 52 minutes of work, you’re dedicated to accomplishing tasks, getting things done, and making progress. Whereas, during the 17 minutes of break, you’re completely removed from the work you’re doing—you’re entirely resting, not peeking at your email every five minutes or just “quickly checking Facebook.”
It’s not humanly possible to be productive for eight straight hours. Break your work day down into manageable chunks.
How do you find a job that, on your deathbed, you won’t regret having devoted your professional life to? This short film created by The School of Life offers a handy guide to figuring out what work is right for you. Based on the ideas of philosopher and author Roman Krznaric, the video walks you through six main guiding principles for determining what career will be deeply meaningful:
Accept that being confused about your career choices is normal. Confusion and fear are natural.
Know yourself. For 99% of us, knowing what we want to do doesn’t arise spontaneously.
Think a lot. It could take a year or more of sustained daily reflection to sort out exactly what professional path to pursue.
Try something. Take small, non-irrevocable steps to gather more information. Investigate through side projects.
Reflect on what makes people unhappy. Business is about solving other people’s problems. Work is a chance to serve.
Be confident. The difference between success and failure is the courage to give it a go.
When the going gets tough, research shows the best indicator for whether or not you’ll persevere (and succeed) is your ability to connect with a close community.
Social psychologists found that if we encounter a problem and have someone we can turn to who may have gone through a similar situation, we are more likely to overcome the challenge. Similarly, if we feel overwhelmed with a task, having a place to turn to for encouragement can be the motivator we need to keep going even when we feel entirely like giving up.
That’s not to say you have to be an extrovert or full time, networking-pro to build the type of close group or community that encourages grit. As Highrise CEO Nathan Kontny has discovered: what matters is that you are open and unafraid to ask for help or advice whenever you might need it, whether it’s from acquaintances online or co-workers across the hall:
Too many of us, especially those running businesses, suffer in isolation…We’re told to fake it till we make it. Nonsense. I can’t believe how many people tell me how well their company is doing, and three months later it’s out of business. If only they had shared their challenges, maybe I or someone in their network could have helped.
Increasing your likelihood of persevering when the going gets tough comes down to who you have to turn to and whether or not you’re open to doing so. If you have a network of people you can openly turn to whenever you need a fresh perspective or positive encouragement, you’re likely to be better off than those who lock their problems up inside.
Kontny concludes by summarizing separate research studies which showed those who regularly succeed are those who connect with the community around them. He writes:
If people weren’t alone, they persevered.
In an interview with Fast Company, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson discusses how frustrating products and services can serve as the best design briefs. Instead of looking for a brand new idea, recall your most recent aggravation. For Branson, it was trying to invest money:
We went into a financial services company—we set up a bank—because I wanted to invest money. And when the guy agreed to invest money for me, I looked down at the piece of paper, and it said “bid-offer spread 5%.” I said, “Well, sorry, what is bid-offer spread? I’m dyslexic. I don’t understand these things.” He sort of looked a bit shifty, and when he had left, I asked someone else what bid-offer spread meant, and was told it meant he took 5% of my money before he even started. And so I thought, “Screw that, we’re going into this business and we’re going to compete!”
From music festivals to airlines to health clubs to financial services, if Branson doesn’t like it, he designs it better himself. Although he may not seem like one to get annoyed by hotel hidden charges, like a $12 bottle of water in the room, it’s quite the opposite. That, along with other frustrations, has Virgin Group now opening their own chain of hotels starting in Chicago.
Instead of criticizing someone else’s work, look at it as an opportunity to do it yourself, and to do it better. Ideas don’t have to be new, they just have to be better.