How To Live Your Life as Creative Professional: Be a good steward of your gifts

I don’t remember the speech or the speaker from my undergraduate ceremony. But I hope the grads at Ringling College of Art and Design’s 2011 did. If not the speaker J.C. Herz, author of Joystick Nation : How Videogames Ate Our Quarters, Won Our Hearts and the New York Times’ first computer game critic, need not worry about her words being in vain. Her commencement speech is probably one of the most important pieces of material I’ve read about being a creative individual and living as a professional artist (I define artist as anyone who creates) since I left my job last November.

It’s pretty lengthy, but if I knew you, I would print this out for you and push it in your face until you started to read. It’s that good folks. Her primary audience is the graduating class in front of her, but when she says, “you”, don’t dismiss it as the universal “you.” Take it as YOU–the person with lots of ideas, and a desire to create and perform.

So if you are stuck in a cube or if you just left your corporate gig, this is a must read. The link is above, but I also re-printed it. (Hope I don’t get in trouble for that.)

Ringling College Commencement Address
by J.C. Herz
The following is a transcript of Ringling College of Art and Design’s 2011 Commencement Address given May 6, 2011

“It is an honor and a privilege to be speaking to you today. Because at most commencements, you can talk about following your dream and keep your passion alive. But most of the people you’re talking to are going to build careers sending and receiving e-mail, composing Powerpoint slides, and generating Excel spreadsheets. “Click strong! Thank you very much.”

But you? You have gone to school to pursue a creative vision, and have now acquired the skills to do so. This puts you miles ahead of most recent college graduates, who have yet to realize that skills exist, and that skills matter. Expertise matters. The important work that you build your reputation on – you can’t just Google it. You don’t cut and paste it from Wikipedia. You roll up your sleeves, and bring all your creativity and meaningful skills to bear on the problem of building something.

This is what the world requires – this is what the world rewards.

Not just calling yourself creative, but understanding how to exercise your creative powers to some end, to bring your vision and skills together in a meaningful way. This is a powerful thing to be able to do. It gives you tremendous value in a society where attention is currency – being able to capture people’s imaginations is the scarcest kind of power in a fractured culture. Creating work that transports and transcends is one of the few ways to create sustainable value in a disposable society. What you do, if you do it well, is never going to be a commodity. Vision, magic, delight. Heart-rocking spectacle. Pulse-pounding action. These things don’t get outsourced to some cubicle drone in the developing world.

You are an influential group of people, and today is an important moment, as you set forth to become the chief stewards of your gifts. Because, this is what it means to be a creative professional: figuring out how to be the best steward of your gifts, so that your power to create grows and deepens meaningfully over time. So that your edges stay sharp, and your light stays bright. The life you’ve chosen is not one that simply requires clocking in and clocking out. You’ve got to bring your soul to it every day. You’ve got to be on your game.

That takes discipline. And it takes awareness – of how you’re spending your time, and of how what you’re doing affects your capability and your capacity. You are going to have to ask yourself, at every turn: is this project making me smarter, or making me stupider. Is this job stoking my fire, or burning me out? How do I top this? How can I learn from this? How do I produce my best work in this kind of environment? Should my next set of projects build up from what I’ve already done? Or do I need to branch out, go sideways, and push myself to try something new, that I’m less comfortable with.
Of course, people in other fields also have to grapple with these issues. But you have to make stuff that concretizes your decisions. You have artifacts of your choices to invest and grow – or coast and call it in. You will build a body of work that reflects those choices at every turn. Some of it – hopefully a lot of it – will make you proud. Some of it will make you cringe. But this is what you have to show for yourself, at the end of the day. And you need to tackle your work, every day, with this in mind: at the end of the month, at the end of six months, a year, five years, this is what I’m going to have to show for myself. There are only so many hours in the day, and when this day is over I’m not getting it back. So how do I make it count.

Think carefully about how you spend your time, because your work isn’t like other people’s work. There isn’t a hard line between uptime and downtime. Your brain is always working, and what you experience in your downtime influences the quality of what you do when you’re on task. Be mindful of what you’re getting out of the time that you spend. Does your downtime refresh and recharge you? Or does it narcotize you? Does it spark new ideas? Or do you find yourself thinking, “well, there’s three hours of my life I’m never getting back.”
Log the amount of time you spend watching TV shows or videos on YouTube. Log the amount of time you spend on Facebook. Add it up, and figure out whether that’s the best use of an astonishing number of hours. It’s so easy to dribble your time away on time-suck distractions that dull your capabilities.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: if the amount of time you spend on something leaves you feeling vaguely embarrassed, think twice about what you’re really getting out of it. And if you can’t think of a good answer, just stop for a while, long enough to get in the habit of spending that time differently.
Habits are powerful – people don’t realize how powerful habits are, and how much of their success or lack of success in life is attributable to sheer habit. Be aware of your habits, and what is turning in from an occasional to a regular thing, and what are the regular things that you don’t even think about any more, because they are so habitual that they have become invisible. Down to the very basics: how much and when do you sleep, what you eat, how you sit, whether you walk or bike or drive. When and where do you get your best ideas? What sorts of activities and conversations leave you feeling happier and smarter? What do you continually do that leaves you feeling demoralized.

Be mindful of your habits. Make them intentional.
Speaking of habits: take care of your body. Your physical condition affects your mental and psychological state in profound ways. Wherever you end up, run a Google map search for CrossFit and check it out. CrossFit is a way of organizing compressed, high-intensity workouts that make you incredibly strong in less than 30 minutes a day. More importantly, doing CrossFit makes you psychologically capable of tackling things that are challenging and out of your comfort zone, with a kind of psycho glee. CrossFit gyms tend to attract an interesting assortment of characters, who, in addition to spurring you on to mind-blotting sequences of box-jumps, pull-ups and deadlifts, will be different from the people you work with. And it’s important to socialize with different groups of people, especially if the little girls among them can clean your clock.

Also, CrossFitters love to make fun of themselves using XtraNormal animation, and posting those videos online. It’s a good sign when people take their pursuits seriously, but themselves, not so much.
But back to the business of creative work: Getting stuck is a big part of creative work, and it’s really important to be good at getting unstuck. There are two main reasons why creative people get stuck on a piece of work: The first is, you don’t actually have an idea. You may have requirements, and you may have tools. But you don’t actually have an idea that’s going to carry the day, and you’re going to be stuck until you get a solid idea. The second reason creative people get stuck is that, while they have the idea, executing the idea takes a lot of work, and not all of that work is fun, and basically you don’t want to do the work, because having the idea in the first place was the fun part. The problem is, you don’t get to say “check mate in four.” You actually have to finish the project. So you get mystically “stuck” after the brilliant sketch is done. 

It is very, very important to accurately understand which of these problems you’re having when you get stuck. If you don’t have an idea, you need to play around a little, take a walk, have a good conversation, open the aperture. As they say in drawing class, explore the negative space. If you’re balking at the work, you need to stop playing around, sit down, shut up, go offline, and focus single-mindedly on executing the work, and make it real. In either case, if you try to solve one problem when you’re really having the other, you’re going to waste a lot of time. 

When you do procrastinate, learn how to procrastinate productively. This sounds like an oxymoron, but there are a lot of things you can accomplish in ten to 15 minute increments when you’re supposed to be working on something else, and it makes your life a lot smoother, because by the time you get through with the big thing, the other thing that can be accomplished in little chunks is already done. Sometimes your brain does need a break. But it doesn’t need to be playing Angry Birds or checking Facebook during that break. All it needs is a switch – figure out what you can quickly switch to, that’s going to add up to something, five minutes at a time. You’ll be amazed at how productive you become.

Always have a side project that allows you to learn and express things differently than your main work. Side projects are a way to invest in your own growth, and provide a constructive counterpoint and counterbalance to your primary endeavors. Side projects can be small when your main work is big – giving you the satisfaction of completing a personal piece of work while you spend most of your time eating the proverbial elephant. Conversely, a side project can be complex and long-term while your main work is piece-meal, giving you a satisfying sense of progress and accretion towards a more significant achievement while your main work flies out the door in snack-sized bites. When your main work is stretching your brain until it hurts, a side project can be a comfortable piece of familiar knitting. When your main work is all about focused execution, with little room to explore, your side project can furnish oxygen and white space. When your main work is industry-focused, your side project can draw from areas that your colleagues and co-workers are not familiar with, and can prevent you from getting tunnel vision.
Side projects build options, which allows you to walk away when things aren’t working. Sometimes your side project will become your main project. When that happens, recognize that, by virtue of becoming the main project, it will change. It will gain propulsion, but lose the discretionary charm of being a side project. Find another side project, and don’t blame the old side project, now the main project, for not providing the same kind of break-time relief as it used to.

Other times, your side project will flatline, or fizzle. Don’t be afraid to let it go, put it in mothballs, or put it out of its misery. If it’s not adding fizz to your brain or improving your social life, it’s not doing its job. Ask yourself: if I were starting a personal project now, would it be this one? And if the answer is no, find something else to play with.
As a creative professional, you have to get over the idea that your employer or your client owes you a wide blue sky or a creative romper room. You are the one who’s responsible for your continued growth and development. Sometimes, you have to make your own fun, on your own time. The downside is, you don’t necessarily get paid for that. The upside is, you don’t need sponsorship or buy-in. Realize the leverage you have when no-one’s paying you to do something, and use that leverage to carve out new opportunities. Remember: you have talents and skills that are valuable, and there are a lot of ways to leverage that value. It might be the chance to contribute visually to a non-profit organization or shoe-string arts effort that appeals to you. It might give you a chance to collaborate with writers, musicians, or other artists you respect or admire. When you bring your own talent to the table, there are a lot of social and creative dividends you can earn. It’s not just about the dollars.

But when you are talking dollars, realize one thing: Most people say that time is money. But for a creative professional, it’s exactly the opposite. Money is time. Having some extra money gives you time to say no to things that will put you in a professional holding pattern. Money gives you time to say yes to the right thing, not just to the first thing. It’s hard, but try to live in a way that leaves you with enough of a financial buffer to take enough time to make the right career choices. Incidentally, it helps if you marry someone with a job – a real jobby job where artistic fulfillment is not a core on-the-job pursuit. One artist in the family is enough, for all kinds of reasons.

As an artist, realize that mere artistry is not enough, and realize the limits of what your artistry can bring to a project that demands other kinds of talent. One year I went to Game Developers’ Conference, and 3D animation software had evolved to the point where game artists were crowing about being able to put a tiny upside down image of the outside scene in every raindrop on a car windshield. It was impressive. But at the same time, a popular online game review site was rating game quality by the amount of time it took the player to blow up the first crate full of ammunition or new weaponry. The less time it took to blow up the first crate of ammunition or weapons, the more the game sucked, because the designers couldn’t think of anything better to do in the opening moments of a game than blow up crates of ammunition. The most stunning animation in the world won’t make a bad game (or a bad movie) good – if anything, the artistic quality will highlight the project’s creative failure in other respects. This isn’t your fault, as an artist. But it is an occasion to realize that great artistry is only one element of most creative projects, and heighten your awareness of other talents as you choose your next project. Look out for great writers, game designers, musicians – people who can amplify your best efforts.

Realize that “no’s” are good. Yesses are better, but maybes will kill you. The world is full of “maybe” people who want an infinite amount of research and specifications but won’t actually make a decision until something is inevitable. Push those people to say no – or to tell you exactly what they need to say yes. It’ll sae you time and help you figure out who’s serious and who’s just winding you up.

Lastly, consider your portfolio – and your life – from the perspective of yourself at 80 years of age. When you don’t know what to do, picture your old-guy or old-lady self looking back on this moment and being proud of the work you did, or the decision you made, or how you conducted yourself. Picture yourself looking back, and don’t do something that old guy or old lady would regret, or be embarrassed about. Because someday, you will be that old guy or old lady, and you really do want to be proud of the work that you’ve done, and the decisions that you’ve made, and how you acquitted yourself, and how you were the best steward of your gifts.

Thank you, and good luck.”

©JC Hertz. All rights reserved.


2 responses to “How To Live Your Life as Creative Professional: Be a good steward of your gifts

  1. Pingback: The Last Post: Closing One Door, Opening a Window | CREATIVES CULTURE

  2. Pingback: The Last Post: Closing One Door, Opening a Window | CREATIVES CULTURE

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