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Here’s the transcript of the episode. Enjoy.
Do you dream of having a blog with thousands of readers, a podcast with tens of thousands of listeners, or a YouTube channel with hundreds of thousands of subscribers?
Yeah. I do too. It’s June 16th, 2020. My daily blog is read by around 20 people, my bi-weekly podcast has 24 downloads, my YouTube channel has 9 subscribers, and my Instagram account, where I put more of my writing, has around 139 followers.
The numbers tell only half the story. The other half of the story – the story of humility – is in the act of accepting the fact that you will not be recognized for just about everything that you create. If that’s too much for you to accept, stop listening to this podcast.
To get what you want, you have to put in the work. Wanting without doing is like asking for a promotion right after being interviewed. You have to show to them that you’re capable of taking on extra responsibility. When we’re talking about creativity, of writing that first blog post or recording that first podcast, “them” becomes you. You have to show to yourself that you’re capable of working beyond your sphere of competence.
First off, you are doing this for yourself. A kid doesn’t pick up a toy to impress anybody. A kid picks up a toy because he’s decided for himself that he wants to play with it. You sit down at the keyboard not because somebody told you to write, but because you wanted to write. The moment you forget this is the moment that your creativity loses its fire. Be forewarned.
Fighting with your spouse. Arguing with your boss. The mental aftermath of a petty verbal squabble that you had with somebody in the parking lot of a grocery store. The screaming voices of Twitter. Who’s saying what behind your back on Facebook. Distractions – they will put your creativity to sleep.
To counter distractions, I’ve applied the lessons of a practical ancient philosophy called stoicism. This isn’t about arguing over the definition of is. It’s about controlling what you can control, and accepting that which you can’t.
David Perell, who says a lot of smart things about technology, marketing, and especially the art of writing, tweeted recently: “My problem with stoicism is that it lacks energy. It will never produce a magnificent symphony or a work of art that moves you to tears.” Fair enough. Stoicism is often criticized for nullifying the beauty of life. But I disagree. Much of stoicism is about directing energy away from that which distracts us, so that we have more energy to focus on the things that we want to do, the things that give rather than take.
It’s difficult to get into a state of flow when you’re thinking about how she was wrong and you’re right and that guy in the parking lot was a real piece of crap and altrighticon500 on Twitter said something nasty. Don’t take the bait. Focus on what you can control. The rest will fall into place.
Clean your room, bucko.
Don’t worry. I’m not here to lecture you about chaos and order. Josh Waitzkin, chess prodigy and basis for the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, keeps his room messy as a physical emulation of the chaos of a master level chess game. But the difference between him and somebody who’s got a days old piece of pizza crusting over next to their keyboard is that Josh Waitzkin employs chaos with intention.
If you’ve got something that you want to share with the world, but can’t concentrate because there’s there’s filth and grime in the space that you spend the most time in, then you need to clean up your room. It’s an act of humility. How could it be that you have the motivation to write the next Walden, but you can’t clean up your immediate environment? The math just doesn’t add up.
I’m not a Josh Waitzkin. Besides being terrible at chess, it’s not easy for me to concentrate in a chaotic environment. I can only focus for long hours if my immediate environment looks nice and orderly. Coffee on the left of my keyboard, cell phone set to airplane mode and out of sight, and absolutely no garbage or old clothes scattered across the floor.
Before I open up WordPress in the morning, I go through my ritual. First, I’ll meditate for 20 minutes after waking up. Next, I’ll brew some coffee or tea. While the coffee is getting hot, I’ll go for a short walk. Once my coffee is ready, I’ll warm-up my brain by writing into my journal.
Now I’m ready.
Now the muse will call and I will answer and be served my awakening masterpiece.
Not so fast.
There are no masterpieces in Heaven – only effort
I go through my ritual not so that I can write the next Infinite Jest. Consistency is our goal. The strongest habits, the rituals that you’ll stick to, are the ones that are the easiest for you to keep. Adjust as needed.
You need a ritual so that you can get yourself into the proper mindset – the mindset that prepares you for the coming work. Your mindset and my mindset are going to be different. We each have our own reasons for starting something. But at bottom, the point of our rituals is the same – they remind us that it’s time to show up and do the work that only we can do.
I believe in self-respect, not self-esteem. What is self-esteem, anyway? Self-esteem is like patting yourself on the back after taking a nap. On the other hand, self-respect is what content creator Matt D’Avella means when he says, “confidence builds by doing.” Self-respect is the idea behind Jocko Willink’s powerful life axiom of discipline equals freedom.
Steven Pressfield, one of the wisest individuals to ever speak about the creative process, writes in his book The War of Art, that the difference between an amateur writer and a professional writer is a difference in mindset, not a difference in paycheck.
Sonia Sotomayor, a jurist who serves on the Supreme Court, says that, “a surplus of effort could overcome a deficit of confidence.”
And if you want even more evidence of greatness by effort, remember Bruce Lee. Don’t fear the man who has practiced ten thousand kicks. Fear the man who has practiced one kick ten thousand times.
How many kicks should you practice?
Should you write 1,000 words a day? 800? 500? 100?
Should you wake up at 8 in the morning? 7 in the morning? 6 in the morning?
Why are we asking ourselves these questions? Who’s coming up with these numbers? Is there a board of directors, a bunch of people in suites in some corporate office, deciding what the standards should be?
What’s enough? Enough is enough. If you’ve written 50 words today, and you feel content with that, then take the dog for a walk. Come back tomorrow. Remember – consistency is the goal.
If you’ve written 50 words today and you feel like you can write another 500, or a thousand, then by all means – go for it.
The choice is yours.
To wrap this up, there’s another choice that you need to make.
It’s the choice of what you’ll do when after countless hours of concentration, the numbers don’t rise. The number of subscribers, listeners, followers, readers – they remain the same.
What gives? You’re putting in the hours. So why is nobody paying attention? Why not take a few shortcuts, copy some buzzwords and succumb to the siren song of clickbait?
There’s a principle in the world of finance that I believe applies to the world of creativity. What counts more than what stocks you invest in is how much time you’ve spent in the market. I’ve been at this for six months. 20 people read my daily blog. 24 people have downloaded my podcast. 9 people have subscribed to my YouTube channel. 139 people have followed me on Instagram. Results may very.
So what are you supposed to do when nobody sees all the words that you wrote, the hours of audio that you recorded, the days worth of B roll footage that you captured? What are you supposed to do when nobody acknowledges your hard work and long hours?
Your choices are: quit, or keep showing up.
Remember – you’re doing this for yourself. Over time, of course, people will start to see your work. At that point you might begin to think that you’re doing it for them, for the fans. You’re not doing it for the fans. If Radiohead did it for the fans, they’d still be making records that sound like OK Computer. They never would have made Kid A.
I hope you’ll make the choice of continuing to show up.
We need what you can give us.