Austin Kleon is 34. He has a wife, two young children, and three extraordinary books that have featured on the New York Times bestseller list.
Despite this success, and the relatively young age at which he’s achieved it, the act of creating great work doesn’t come any easier to Kleon now than it did when he started out. It probably never will.
That’s a fact many creatives aren’t prepared for. They see the challenge of creating as an obstacle on the path to professional success, rather than an intrinsic element of the process itself. Those that don’t accept it are doomed to feel like failures. Like their work will never get better. But that’s simply not the cast.
In his recent address at the 2018 Bond conference in San Francisco, Kleon revealed ten ways in which he and other artists have addressed their own struggles, and more importantly, how they kept going despite them.
For all ten, be sure to watch the talk above, but for those who don’t have the time, I want to look at the four points which resonated with me the most.
The first deals with what is probably the most common issue creatives face: doing the work. They’re scared of failure. Scared of success. They procrastinate, make excuses, and do just about everything else they can in order to avoid the work.
Kleon believes the best way to deal with these fears is to insulate them by adapting a Groundhog Day mentality. In the film, Bill Murray’s character must relive the events of February 2nd over and over again. Whatever actions he takes each day seem to make no difference until, in the end, they do.
This is what it means to create. The concepts of success and failure have no relevance on a day-to-day basis. Only the work matters. Concentrate on it, knowing that each day holds as much potential as the last, so long as you put in the effort.
We’ve talked about the importance of hobbies before. Hobbies bring crucial balance to busy lives by providing a relaxing, rewarding outlet. So why are we so obsessed with turning them into jobs?
“You take great photos. You should become an Instagram influencer.”
“Your paintings should be on Etsy!”
“These cupcakes are so delicious. Are you selling them online yet?”
As Kleon says, the quickest way to lose your passion for something is to turn it into your job. Of course, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be passionate about your job, only that you must be prepared for that passion to dip once in a while.
Falling in love is easy. Staying in love is where things get difficult.
“Art is for life.”
As topical as anything he touches on in his speech, Kleon’s reminder to be good to those around you in the pursuit of your great work is timely, and important.
People should not be treated as stepping stones on the path to your goals, and the value of your work will never, never, justify despicable behaviour.
It seems obvious. It should be. Yet we know it’s not. Once the slate is scrubbed clean, it is the duty of all artists to preserve it.
A good artist has strong feelings about the world around them. A great artist allows these feelings to be fluid, to change despite our desire to cling onto what we believe.
In a time when extremism on all sides is dictating the social and cultural landscape, accepting uncertainty and a state of “not knowing”, as author Donald Barthelme calls it, is a mark of strength.
Exploring ideas, questioning them, and sculpting answers is what great art is all about, and what gives creatives the push required to carry on their work. Those that reject this notion will only be left behind.
The act of creation is never easy, but as Kleon demonstrates, that’s not a bad thing. Follow these tips, find what suits your needs, and keep on working.