From where does the creative mood strike? Is one’s best work the outcome of good fortune to find the muse of creative inspiration? And/or does it come from simply committing to doing the work, even when you don’t feel like it?
Famed author Seth Godin makes a strong point for the latter in his newest bookThe Practice: Shipping Creative Work. We sat down to discuss how committing to a practice for your creative work is the key to your success; how to handle criticism when you put your work out into the world; why it is essential to be clear about who is the target audience of your work; how to use comparison and self-doubt as fuel to get unstuck; why you should stop focusing on using your authentic voice; when credentialing is necessary versus not (spoiler: it rarely is); and much more:
Darrah Brustein: You open the book by pinpointing brilliantly, “The magic of the creative process is that there is no magic.” Why was this the statement you chose to share with readers out of the gate?
Seth Godin: There are people whom I admire a great deal: creatives, geniuses, folks who have made a difference. My dear friend, Liz Gilbert, wrote a book called Big Magic, and I just don’t think there is any magic. And as soon as you can acknowledge that there is no magic, it’s so much easier and more powerful to do your work because you’re not waiting for Merlin or Harry Potter to come and save the day. Because it’s just up to you.
Brustein: Speaking of Harry Potter, when we last spoke, you talked about the critics and criticisms which naturally arise when one puts his/her work out into the world. You shared that J.K. Rowling has thousands of one-star reviews for one of the best-selling books of all time. Given that, whose criticism should a creator heed?
Godin: I think you need several components. One, that person should be in your target audience or at least have empathy for your target audience. So if you write something in Sanskrit and I don’t read Sanskrit, my criticism is useless. Number two is that person should be good at giving criticism. And criticism is also a skill and most people are bad at it. They’re happy to say, ‘I don’t like it’, but they don’t have any insight as to what would make that different. And so, if you’re talking to somebody who doesn’t like your work and they don’t know why they don’t like your work, or the work isn’t for them in the first place, you’re both wasting your time.
Brustein: So many creatives believe that creativity is born from a mood or a feeling that strikes, such as what you mentioned about Merlin. Can you help our readers understand why the distinction between waiting for creativity to be born and just going into the practice is so critical for them?
Godin: Well, what is creativity anyway? Creativity keeps changing. Creative work in 1850 didn’t look like creative work today. It’s not universal. What it has in common is it is living on an edge of possibility. It is the thing that might happen next if we’re able to summon the nerve and the generosity to do that thing that is next. And because that’s what it is, we can get better at living there. And I think that’s worth doing.
Brustein: So many folks get stuck in the process of seeking their calling, which you say, “Gives you a marvelous place to hide.” What’s a better idea for those seeking this answer?
Godin: If there’s no magic, it’s probable that there can be no calling because they come from the same place. And when we think of our calling, it’s sort of a catch-all for all the ways that we describe what it is to have flow, what it is to feel as if we are succeeding, what it is to be energized by our work. And so we easily dismiss any kind of work that we might need to do that doesn’t match that. My point is that if you don’t have a calling, but simply the opportunity to show up and make things better, that opportunity will always present itself somewhere. And then you get to do the work.
Brustein: Eradicating imposter syndrome is something that is often talked about, however, you brought up an interesting distinction where you encourage readers to embrace it as proof that they’re creating, leading, and innovating. Can you share more on how to shift imposter syndrome into fuel?
Godin: We could talk all day about imposter syndrome, but it turns out that as soon as I started talking about it, everyone acknowledged they have it and we want it to go away. It is not a good feeling, but if you’re doing good work, it’s not going to go away. Unless you’re some sort of sociopath, to be on the edge of creativity means you’re doing something that might not work. And if you’re doing something, it might not work. Of course, you’re an impostor because it might not work.
Brustein: Mic drop! You also shared that it’s important to do the work without attachment to a specific outcome. When one is accustomed to judging his/her/their ‘success’ on the outcome, how do you suggest they shift their perspective on this?
Godin: Attachment means being willing and working to make something happen that is out of your control. And that will destroy your work because you don’t know how to do that. All you can do is your best version of you doing your best version of the work, simply that. And when we become attached to the outcome, we end up imitating other people. We end up coming up with a paint-by-numbers approach because it’s deniable. And what I’m arguing for is, yes, you need a feedback loop, but no, you can’t be attached to it.
Brustein: Is this similar to your rationale of why we ‘shouldn’t chase hits’?
Godin: Well, part of chasing a hit is becoming attached and making short-term little choices. And that’s not what makes a hit. A hit is about a leap, not a short-term little thing. There’s a great book of Billboard number one hits, and I would say fewer than a third of them were predictable. And two-thirds were surprises. And that is the nature of a hit: you can’t chase it.
Brustein: So many creatives fear selling their work for a number of reasons. What is your message to creators about selling what they do?
Godin: You don’t have to sell your work. You can make it a hobby, and I’m in favor of hobbies. But if you’re going to sell the work, then you’re putting yourself on the hook. And I think being on the hook is a good place to be. You made a promise to somebody else, and that promise opens the door for you to lean even more into the possibility and work you seek to do because there’s no room to wiggle away from it. And so the promise and the selling are related. Next to that is the idea that selling is some sort of hustle and for a lot of people, it is. So I don’t think you should do that. I think you should stop that. I think selling is an opportunity for generous work, and that’s not a hustle. There are people who are waiting in line to buy something. They don’t feel hustled by that. They waited in line. In my book This Is Marketing, I’m arguing to begin by making something for which people will wait in line.
Brustein: One of my favorite things about this book is that you interwove so many mindset pieces: abundance, scarcity, self-belief, self-trust, non-attachment… What motivated you to weave in these messages?
Godin: That’s such a lovely question. Thank you for asking it. You know, you turn 60, you think about what you want to say to people. We live in a world filled with shortcuts and tactics, and I’ve never been a fan of shortcuts or tactics, but at this point, I’m saying enough already, let’s get our compass straight. You can find your own map, but first figure out where you’re headed. And it just felt right in this moment to be able to talk to people about justice, about dignity, about opportunity, possibility, and fairness. They all come together in doing work that you care about and doing work about which you’re proud.
Brustein: In this book, you talk about making sure you’re shipping your work ‘for the right people’, ‘for the right reason.’ How do you advise the ‘shipper’ to get clear on who the right person is and to assess if it’s for the right reasons?
Godin: I think most people who are stuck are so because they’re attached to the outcome and they’re reverse-engineering from the outcome. They’re saying, ‘Well, my calling is to make this’. No. Actually, you’ve just reversed it. What you want is that, and now you’ve announced that that’s your calling, not the other way around. To ship the work is this practice of saying, ‘I don’t know yet what change I can make in people. I have some assertions. I have some beliefs, but I don’t know yet. And if I hoard it and I don’t expose it to other people, I will never know. And so if we’re truly here to do generous work, I think a big part of that generous work is sharing it.’
Brustein: Is the inverse to that generosity to be able to say, as you write, that “it’s not for you” either directly or indirectly?
Godin: It’s essential to say this. The smallest viable audience is at the heart of our work. To pick a group of people for whom you are making the thing is to willingly and willfully ignore everybody else. Across from me on my bookshelf is the game Diplomacy from Avalon Hill games. Diplomacy is widely regarded by people who love game design as a breakthrough, as a game for the ages, as an important thoughtful game that takes too long to play. Most people don’t like board games, but the people who do don’t like Diplomacy because it’s not Monopoly or Scrabble or the games of their youth. It’s not for them. If the people who had made Diplomacy had made a game for people who played Scrabble, they never would’ve made this. You have to go into this saying that this game is going to take four hours to play. It might ruin your relationship with your boss, your coworkers, your spouse. That’s what we did on purpose. Don’t play it if you don’t want that. And the same thing’s true with the best Thai restaurants in Queens, right? You want mild pad Thai? Please don’t come here. This food is not for you. We make a different thing here. And particularly in today’s micro economy of the internet, that’s the only kind of offer you get to make. There is no mass. It’s just specific.
Brustein: So much is touted about using one’s authentic voice. Instead, you suggest that we should focus on using our consistent voice. Please explain the difference(s).
Godin: The internet wants people to get on the authenticity train. This means to say whatever you want. If it doesn’t work, blame it on the audience. The thing is, blaming the audience is a really shallow excuse. Whether you’re getting knee surgery, hiring a lawyer, voting for somebody, or just following a musician, no one wants authenticity. They don’t. They want you to be your best self. The fact that you’re in a bad mood, they don’t care. They didn’t come to see someone in a bad mood. They came to see the best version. You go to a concert. You don’t want to hear that the person has a sore throat and is phoning it in. You want the best version of them and that’s called consistency. It’s not authenticity.
Brustein: Let’s talk about credentialing. Aside from the times when it’s absolutely needed, like the knee surgery or the heart surgeon, what’s your take on moving forward without them?
Godin: Some people should get a Master’s in Fine Arts because it will enable them to be a professor or they want to go deep into the intellectual history of an art form. But if you want to be a painter, or a dancer, or write operas, you shouldn’t get a Masters in Fine Arts. That’s absurd. What you’re doing is hiding out and then getting a piece of paper and $200,000 worth of debt that you hope will get someone to trust you more. But what’s going to get someone to trust you more is doing the work. So do the work and your credential is your work.
Brustein: There you go, folks! Two keys you mentioned to getting unstuck are 1. action and 2. auditing your personal narrative or narratives. Can you please share more about those?
Godin: Action, one’s pretty simple, by definition. If you’re moving forward, you’re not stuck. And so what I’m saying is, fake your enthusiasm until it appears. And it will appear because you’re moving forward. Every single person who is a runner is a runner simply because they run. That’s the only reason. And the reason that they run is not because they always feel like running. They run because they’re a runner and you can see that there’s a loop there, but it’s a loop that works. It’s seven o’clock in the morning: therefore, I am running. Not, it’s a perfectly sunny day. I’m in a really good mood: therefore, I’m running. They are different things. And this connects directly into our narrative, which is: about what are you negotiating with yourself? And how are you criticizing yourself? And where do you trust yourself? Tomorrow at about four-thirty in the morning, there’ll be a post on my blog. It will not be there because it’s the best post I ever wrote. It will be there because it’s Wednesday. Because I decided 20 years ago that there would be a post on my blog tomorrow. I made that decision only once. And if we can make a decision once to adopt a practice, then we don’t have to waste a lot of energy renegotiating the decision.
Brustein: You write, ‘You have everything you need to make magic.’ Yet, so many folks doubt this. What final words do you have for them?
Godin: I guess the question is: Have you ever once led? Have you ever once said something funny? Have you ever once been generous? Have you ever once surprised someone with an insight? Because if you’ve done it once, now we know you can do it again. So, we’re not talking about if, we’re just talking about when.
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