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Exercising the idea muscle

Comparison abolition.

Sometimes I get buried in the writing of philosophers and political commentators. I indulge in them regularly, because I want to feed my spirit and develop a strong foundation of values.

These writers possess extraordinary writing styles, clarity of thinking and expression. Most of them are polymaths that intimidate and inspire their following with their intellect and wisdom.

There is a lot to look up to. These are the real thought leaders. They are humble and disciplined, their writing is perfect and their speech is crystal clear.

I look up to them and their teaching. But there is a problem.

What do Casey Neistat, Seth Godin and James Altucher have in common?

Nerdwriter does a great essay on what it takes to make films like Casey Neistat.

Their content is so well put together, so accessible, so fluent that it seems effortless. It seems like everyone could do it.

It inspires. It makes you feel that you could do it. It makes you go out and try it.

And that’s the point. Because when you try you may realize that you love doing it. Then all it takes is what you don’t see.

The thousands of hours of practice.

Reading for education vs. reading for inspiration

When I read those philosophers I find myself judging every idea that comes up in my mind. I overthink every sentence and I’m shameful of my stuff.

“You call that a sentence?”

That never goes anywhere. It’s the shameful perfectionist inside me, the critic that says “you’re not good enough. Your writing doesn’t even compare to what that other guy wrote.”

Yea, yea, comparison is the thief of joy and all that. I don’t consciously compare myself to anyone. It’s what Steven Pressfield calls the Resistance. The Resistance is the mythical force that wants to keep things as they are. When you’re creating something, when you’re thinking, you change things.

You’re hoping to inspire change. Even if you’re not shooting for it.

So the quote here should go like this:

Prolific is better than perfect.

I don’t know who said that. The point here is to watch your influences and optimize for the least resistance.

Design an attention diet that is optimized for inspiration vs. perfection.

For me, it’s mostly watching my reading discipline. It’s not a question of reading more.

The ratio of reading for information vs. inspiration must lean toward inspiration. And the time spent reading must be proportionate to the time spent writing.

Create > Consume

These ideas must go in and go out, otherwise, they get stuck. And then I get stuck in the judgment and pathetic perfectionist excuses.

Yes, pathetic. It takes courage to be creative. An actual quote here:

A lot of people have taste, but they don’t have the daring to be creative.
— Bill Cunningham

Idea creation is a muscle that must be honed. No one is born with great ideas.

Work on it. Think and make stuff every day.

Compare yourself to yourself only. If you must, think and compare yourself to your heroes at the beginning of their journey. At the start of their career. At year two of their creative writing practice. Even that will make no justice. Our outcomes are all determined by endless streams of influences throughout our lives. And the lives of our parents and those of our immediate social groups.

So you might as well abolish the comparison habit.

Just go ahead and make something every day. And show it to people.

And remember that ideas are borrowed.

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Reflecting on a minor burnout

My happiness is directly tied to my productivity. A perfect day is when I make something. More than that, when I finish something.

I love making content. So the question is why am I not making. While reflecting some of these doubts have been popping up in my head.

How do you keep going? Can you really burn out? You call that a sentence?

Do you really have no good ideas? Do you have any ideas at all?

A while ago I had an idea for a video. I had momentum, I was writing consistently and posting on Youtube once per week. All was well.

So you wanna ride that in this city?

I got excited about the idea and went along with it. The traffic is getting really bad around here and I hate wasting time in the car. I tried to solve it with a Boosted Board.

It came in the mail and I took it for a spin. Then it hit me. I’m going to ride around town and make a point of recording all the potholes and rough sidewalks.

With this video, I wanted to show (and prove to myself since I already bought it) that even in a city with bad roads and sidewalks, one can easily use an electric skateboard as a transportation vehicle.

It sounded great in my head. But I was up for a treat.

The shooting went fine, I did a round trip around a few blocks and with a few exceptions, the ride wasn’t too rough. The point was made.

Then I sat down to edit. All these ideas turned out far more difficult to execute than I thought. And even when I did do them after all, it wasn’t making any sense.

I struggled with it for four days and two nights. I wanted to finish by Tuesday night. I changed the structure twenty times.

After all this agony, I finished it at 6 AM on a Wednesday morning and posted it the same day.

It turned out fine. I learned a lot. But I was exhausted for the next few days and I didn’t make a video for the following week. Then it got busy at work and I didn’t make a video for another week. Then some traveling and no video again.

*excuses*

Three weeks later, no videos.

Zone of Proximal Development

It’s easy to forget this one fact when you’re self-educating.

The zone of proximal development is the extent of new ability you’re able to put on while learning something new. If you aim too high, you will get discouraged. You get exhausted, you grow resentful and judgemental. Suddenly no idea is worth pursuing, and no sentence is good enough for the inner critic.

If you aim too low, you’re not learning anything. To learn efficiently, you must stretch within that zone again and again. This way the zone moves slowly towards the once impossible.

A great teacher stretches you within that zone. But when you’re learning by yourself, you must learn to balance your “lessons”.

Small but consistent steps. Slow but steady. Just like the tortoise.

For short:

Aim low enough today.

The video was so far outside of my zone of proximal development that I had to push really hard to get it done in time. Which in turn jeopardized all the other areas I’m trying to improve.

It is necessary to stretch, but my priority is to keep doing this indefinitely as well stay healthy and be useful to my family. So I need to as well take small steps consistently.

Do little today.

Put in a good day's work and close the laptop.

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Get good first

What do you do?

I despise that question. I never know what to answer. My mind goes to overdrive searching through acceptable answers.

I start sweating.

All the while hoping I wasn’t there. All the while hoping I would be doing the work.

Writing, editing, creating. Not selling, not persuading, not marketing.

Seeking no approval, no rating, no opinion. Just making.

I used to judge the stereotypical young artist. The one free to think her own way about the world. The one not afraid to be different. The one not afraid to try things not allowed.

The one searching.

Even if they weren’t free, even if they played a mask. They went out and did something out of the ordinary. They stood up.

I resented them. I used to be like that. We all did.

Artists are childlike.

The creative adult is the child that has survived.
— Julian Fleron

I grew up and learned to fear uncertainty. I learned to crave stability, to follow. I thought I would get taken care of. If I learn one thing and do it well. Not too well. Just well.

You can call that the safe path. Become good at one thing and get paid for it. Follow the rules, keep your head down.

That doesn’t work anymore. Safe is risky. I’m a writer. Even if I’m making videos, I’m a writer.

And yes, I am searching. Because who isn’t.

How am I going to make a living out of it? I’ll figure it out.

I want to get good first.

Writing, CreativityMartin Uhnak
Consistency over content

What’s the one thing that is really hard? Really really hard?

The one thing that you can’t fix easily. The one thing you can’t fake.

It’s consistency. It’s perseverance. It takes time.

When building habits, choose consistency over content…

It’s the discipline that makes you show up day in and day out. It makes you put out work on a regular basis. It’s the virtue of reliability.

It’s the virtue of all virtues because it’s not easily attained. Because only consistent action enables progress.

It enables mastery of anything. It enables leadership.

We respect those with this sort of work ethic because deep inside we know how hard it is to keep up.

We know how hard it is to keep working day after day, week after week, month after month.

Year in, year out.

The hard thing is not to learn the craft. That’s attainable by studying.

The hard work is doing the little bit when you don’t feel like it the most.

The hard thing is to keep at it when you don’t feel like it the most.

And you will not feel like it.

That’s why you have to make it easy for yourself. You must care for yourself deeply, so you can focus on tackling the resistance.

… The best book is the one you can’t put down. The best exercise is the one you enjoy doing every day. The best health food is the one you find tasty. The best work is the work you’d do for free.
— Naval Ravikant
Good work is enough

Attach to the act, not the result.

I recently stumbled upon a post in a group for creators on Facebook. We encourage and help each other to challenge ourselves to make stuff and create on YouTube.

A fellow member was sharing how he wasn’t happy about the way his channel was going. He was worried that the followers he amassed on his channel were taking his content in the wrong direction.

Is it right to worry about this? Or is it the wrong question to ask?

Why Am I Doing This?

When we create, when we put something out there, it’s a piece of art, it’s a piece of us. It must come from the internal, as opposed to external motivation.

Internal motivation is a form of motivation that fulfills an inner desire for achievement. External motivation, in contrast, ties to external validation such as attention, fame, money etc.

The focus must be clear at all times. You have to course correct regularly.

Imbalance of external vs. internal motivation can lead to impersistence and inability to complete tasks, especially in an area as scrutinized as creative work.

“What matters to an active man is to do the right thing; whether the right thing comes to pass shouldn’t bother him.”

— Wolfgang Goethe

I get there too sometimes. Balancing the internal and external is a game we strive to master all our lives. It’s the battle with ourselves, against our own egos.

I want and need to share my work. Otherwise, I wouldn’t finish it, hence wouldn’t make anything. But when I post online and get the feedback I ask for honestly, I catch myself drawn towards the wrong questions:

This seems to resonate with people, should I do more of this?

Maybe I should do more of that other thing?

Should I do what the other guy is doing?

“Comparison is the thief of joy.”
 — Theodore Roosevelt

That takes me to compare myself with other creators, which is utterly counterproductive. I’m not competing with anyone, I’m learning and growing.That’s my why behind all of this.

I’m making something special. And it’s not for everyone, but it is for someone.

We need clarity. Seth Godin has said that the right thing to ask yourself whenever you make anything:

1. What’s it for?

2. Who’s it for?

If you answer these and stick to it, there is no way you find yourself hating what you’ve created. You might resent it over time, but that’s encouraged. As we grow, we should be embarrassed by our previous work. But never should we question why we did it.

Doing good work is enough.

The only way we can do good work and do it well is by doing just that. Doing good work is enough. The less attached we are to outcomes the better.

We cannot control the outcome. We determine the value of our work by doing it well.

What we can control is the action.

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Originally published in The Startup on Medium.com.

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