Creative = Work

Throughout my decades in business, marketing, writing and church work, I’ve seen the word creative thrown around a lot, often as an excuse to avoid rules, evade work and sidestep standards, or as a reason for refusing instruction by claiming creativity is all free flowing and different for everyone, having no principles, guidelines or rules, and therefore cannot be taught. These thoughts are the product of inexperience, misinformation, arrogance or out-and-out rebellion – but they are certainly not the truth.

Being a creative doesn’t mean you sit around a coffee house drinking fair trade tea with twigs, wearing a beret and spouting deep thoughts or that you’re so awesomely mysterious that you can’t possibly be understood by mere ordinary mortals. Being a creative means to produce and production takes work.

It’s going to take an enormous amount of work to even get to the point of being any good… and even more work for what you produce to be considered valuable.

 Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, gives example after example of how it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to be great at what you do. 10,000 hours of quality practice, I might add.  Quality practice doesn’t happen without study. Quality practice is first understanding the building blocks and principles of what it takes to produce significant work.

If you’re a painter, you need to understand prospective, composition and color mixing  – you don’t just mindlessly slap paint on a canvas and become famous.  A golfer must know how to hold the club, position his hips and properly swing. He doesn’t walk out there and use the club like a baseball bat ‘cause it feels right. A real golfer has to be willing to learn the proper stance to be effective. A writer must become skilled at developing characters, advancing the plot and operating within scene structure to be able to create something worth reading. Stringing together pages of clichés and random thoughts won’t do it. She has to understand what makes a great story.

If you practice badly, doing whatever you feel like with no knowledge of the craft, it will be painfully evident to all…. except maybe your mother. Worse still, you will be ingraining the ability to produce bad work and the process it took to do so into your subconscious. The process by which you create bad work will become your habit. Without the willingness to learn foundational information, you will continue to turn out piffle that no one will want, all the while complaining about the corporate suits are too uptight to ever “get” creatives like you.

We once hired a young, energetic “creative” right out of college who majored in communications with an emphasis on video production. Fresh faced, wide-eyed and grateful for the opportunity to learn (or so we thought), he spent an impressive amount of time writing, shooting and editing.  The problem was that it was all mediocre, and worst of all, he was clueless to that fact and had no interest in learning. You’ve got to be teachable. You must always be striving to improve. We all must.

Somewhere there are people who have spent their lives painting velvet Elvises and they have perfected their particular way of painting… but they are painting velvet Elvises.

Image One of my favorite movie scenes ever is from When Harry Met Sally. Harry and Sally’s best friends Marie and Jess are about to be married and are moving into an apartment together. As Jess objects to Marie’s intention to get rid of much of his furniture, in particular his wagon wheel coffee table, he’s looking for help and someone to tell him they like the monstrosity that it is.

 JESS: Somebody has to be on my side.  

MARIE: I am on your side. I’m just trying to help you have good taste. 

 JESS: I have good taste.  

 MARIE: Everyone thinks they have a sense of humor and good taste but they couldn’t possibly all have good taste.

If you think you know it all and have nothing to learn, you will become better and better at producing more wagon wheel coffee tables, and no one will want them… not even your mother.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Reign in your fears, climb down from your high-horse or get off that lazy ass of yours (whichever the case may be) but shed your equine albatross and start learning from skilled artists and seasoned professionals so you too can do the work and create your art from within.

The world, and you, will be the better for it.