It’s that time of year again. Everyone and her sister is talking about setting life goals for next year, promising themselves that this time will be different. I’m not immune. I’m thinking about my own goals altogether too much. For good reason: Like you, I’ve been burned before.
When I don’t achieve my life goals, I blame myself. I think “I didn’t work hard enough,” and recommit myself to work even harder next time. I’m constantly hearing people say that the secret to creative success is “doing the work.” Butt in chair.
I’ve even kind of waffled on this myself, saying in one place that it’s not as simple as all that, while elsewhere saying that the key is thinking less and making more.
You can work like a burro, head down and pushing through, day in and day out, and never seem to get anywhere.
That’s because simply working harder is not the answer; it’s working on the right thing. And in order to clearly define what that “thing” is, sometimes you have to spend time envisioning your future projects. More to the point, you have to envision your future SELF.
I hear that I seem to be setting myself up as “some kind of guru or something,” about creative productivity (according to an old friend I saw recently…it was said with love…). But even though it’s quite true that I care deeply about helping other creative people get their work done, I don’t want to be a guru. Because if I’m a guru, what I’m about to tell you is even more embarrassing for me to admit than it would be otherwise.
Here’s the truth: of all the articles I’ve written about leading a creative life and improving creative productivity, this post is the one that talks most clearly about what holds ME back.
Lack of clarity on where I wanted to be—and lack of planning about how to get there—basically define my adult life.
You want examples? I’ve got ’em.
When it comes to finishing projects I set out to finish, I turned a corner a long time ago, and for at least the last 10 years, actually getting the work done has not been a problem.
Writing this article has made me think of a minimum of four or five major life phases I went through where I devoted myself to some project, which I in fact finished, but it was the wrong project. I had pointed myself in the wrong direction.
As recently two summers ago, I spent untold hours hand-drawing a GIF animation for a book trailer for the release of my book Trish Trash in the French market—a country where they don’t make book trailers, and no one ever sees book trailers—thinking that it would help the book…somehow. I had absolutely no strategy about how I would get it distributed. I guess I sort of thought the publisher would see it and run with it.
I’m happy with how the clip came out. But it did nothing towards the goal of getting my book noticed, and getting people interested in buying it. It was an enormous waste of energy, and the opportunity cost was immense: I was drawing this thing rather than enjoying my summer vacation. That’s just dumb.
Even making my podcast, which I’m incredibly proud of, and very glad I made for a whole variety of reasons, could be seen as a huge waste of energy—IF my primary goal was to sell a lot of books. It didn’t sell very many books, and it took almost all of my time for 6+ months.
I’m not even going to tell you about how I vaguely hoped that drawing a 250-page black-and-white literary graphic novel would somehow lead to me becoming able to support myself as an author. I would never want to not have created La Perdida. It’s changed my life for the better in so many ways. But if I’d thought things through, and realized how unlikely it was that this book would make a positive change in my financial circumstances, I might have made different choices about what else I was doing to build a viable career during those—count ‘em—six years.
This is the key to understanding why finishing some amazing project can ultimately feel so disappointing. Your goal was “finish the project,” and you may not have figured out the bigger why. WHY finish the project? What is it for? Picture it: what is the life goal that this project builds towards?
What happens when you don’t think that stuff through—what happened to me—is that you get to the end of a long project feeling proud and happy about the thing itself, but puzzled and disappointed that whatever change you thought would have magically happened as a result of completing that project (money, fame, attention, access, love, whatever), didn’t.
And what usually happens then—at least this is what happened for me—is that you plunge straight into the next project because all you can think to do is to keep working, working more and harder, and hoping that somehow the quality of the hard work you’re doing will be noticed eventually.
And the longer that goes on, the more embittered you may feel, and that’s what will make you want to stop doing the work. Which is no good. No no no no no.
My point is not to talk you out of doing work isn’t going to make you a bunch of money. I sincerely want you to make whatever work you want to make.
My point is to help you get clear about your larger goals, and then figure out how…and if… the work you have in front of you builds towards those goals.
It gives me immense satisfaction to help creative people build the life they want to build.
When you’re drowning in Idea Debt, your main focus is (and probably should be) simply on doing something, on building a creative practice of any kind. But when you sit down to work, you’re likely to be distracted and scattered, unable to choose among the many options for how to spend your limited time.
In the One Goal article and worksheet, I dispensed some relatively simple, tactical approaches to deciding what it is you should spend your energy on. But what that activity assumes is, the right choice is already sitting on your list.
If you’re not clear where you’re going with your creative work, you really can’t know if you’re spending your only precious life in a way that will lead you to a sense of accomplishment and contentment…or not.
Let me emphasize, these are all completely valid choices. However, they’re completely different choices.
For example: While making a living as a cartoonist will definitely include making comics, there may be a lot less of this than you might imagine, and a lot more entrepreneurship: building your audience, marketing, and sales.
If you want to make comics that are read by a huge number of people, but you’re not that concerned with making a living at it, you may make totally different choices about how you publish and how you build your connections with your audience. You also may end up making a living at it. But then again, you might not, not if you’re not focused on that outcome.
If your goal is to be able to afford to quit your day job to paint, simply working harder at painting will not get you there.
For the most part, hard work (and good work) is the cost of entry.
The key to achieving your goals is envisioning your future success. But it’s envisioning it in a very specific, detailed way…and then using that vision to build a plan that will get you there.
I call this the Vision Quest, because I wanted to choose a name that you’ll have a hard time taking seriously. Laughter and anxiety don’t cohabitate well. You can also download the Vision Quest worksheet to help you through the process.
You’ve built your defining body of work (whatever it is) with 2-5 major projects, and any number of smaller bits and pieces. Imagine what kinds of creative work and research you’re engaged in.
Now, is the work you’re doing today what you need to be doing to achieve that vision?
Life goals are bigger than any individual project, and you'll only become clear on them when you take in the 50,000-foot view of your creative life. That's what you'll do with the Vision Quest worksheet.
December 14, 2016 at 5:08 pm
Well, well-written as usual, Jess.
So, are we all sell-outs to the dream? You and I have had some extraordinary lives. We also know when a project drops down into a hobby, and loses some of its luster. And we know those things that just don’t pay; truth is, we’re still here to tell the tales.
For your tribes:
Amass good projects. Money sometimes can’t lead; let a good notion out.
Become very good at a couple of things, not just one. Doing a daily grind pays bills; doing something else feeds the soul and gives back to the universe. But do bank some money.
Sell your work where it’ll be seen and appreciated. Also tested, seen and collected.
Even if you have to do a mundane daily grind to pay the bills, do it to feed your inner beast. That day gig will carry you and care for you when you need to eventually end… and you will end, trust me.
Get the hell away from negative people. I’d spent a lifetime between feeling undeserving and a failure at a couple of things because really destructive people put that on me. Change the climate. The best revenge is wealth, accomplishment, comfort, happiness and leaving a trail of great works.
Accept that sometimes a failure is the natural solution to stupidity; pigs don’t fly, but a better project will someday, with work, fly faster and higher.
And accept that some people just hate when you do well. Suck it up and laugh; you’ll find by seeking out (as you’ve done time and again) supportive people who’ve accomplished something. One of my mentors was a failed cartoonist who led me toward the same joyous failures at publishing, but he was a multimillionare, a pal to Milt Caniff and Al Hirshfeld, and a great life guide. Nobody EVER said he was a failed cartoonist. His personal success was far from that, and he was a generous supporter of great stuff.
December 14, 2016 at 9:28 pm
This is a good, thoughtful, constructive post. I’m just coming to terms with the possibility that a project I’ve spent three years on, based on the promises and assurances of people I trusted, may go nowhere. It happens a lot in creative fields–some screenwriters spend entire careers writing scripts that never get shot–but I’m not a kid and am painfully aware my time is finite. I haven’t quite gotten to the point that I’m sorry I did it; I think it was a shot worth taking. Not sure what I would’ve done differently. I’m also not sure what I’m supposed to learn from it. “Don’t trust people?” That’s not right. “Get it in writing” is closer, but I’ve had that bite me before, when they want it as soon as the contract is signed and you haven’t really begun work on it. “On to the next thing” is the best I’ve got right now. “Vision Quest” sounds helpful, if ridiculously named. Mark’s comment is apt, too, thanks.
December 17, 2016 at 4:18 am
Thanks for this and your other wonderful posts! I sent you an email, but, just thought I’d mention that I think another potential situation folk might relate to, is the person in early transition. As in they’re starting to fall in love with a new skill or hobby like drawing, coding, dancing, authoring, etc., but haven’t learned enough to know exactly how/what they’d want from it, or how it’d fit in to they’re, otherwise, established life. But they just feel compelled that it somehow could. Maybe food for thought for a topic to address (sorry if I’m being presumptuous suggesting a topic!)