Today, I want to talk about your creative work as performance. Not a performance on a stage, but performance as we typically view it in terms of athletics. I want to assess your creative health — the capacities you need in order to work through the challenges that will inevitably arise next year.
That’s right — I hate to tell you this, but you will face some problems next year. I don’t know what they are. You don’t know what they are. Despite your best planning, despite your stellar track record, some things next year are going to blindside you.
Yes, that sucks.
So the question right now is: Are you prepared to move forward anyway? Despite the setbacks — possibly crippling setbacks — that will arise? Is your creative health up to the challenge?
Work is Performance
I don’t follow sports, but I would like to use it to make a point today:
It is easy to think of a basketball player’s work as PERFORMANCE. Something to hone in a myriad of ways. Yet, difficult to think of our own work that way.
So many writers and creative professionals I speak to feel scattered — they are wildly distracted by other responsibilities. They struggle to set up work processes, and the ones they do are thrown off kilter at the slightest gust of figurative wind.
I OBSESS about this. About you moving past writers block. About raising the game in your craft. About you reaching your audience. About you living up to the vision you have. About how your identity is affected by your creative work. How the lives of others are affected by that which you create.
Just downloading Scrivener is not enough.
Just as buying a pair of Air Jordan’s is not enough.
Just writing for an hour per day is not enough.
Just as practicing free throws for an hour per day is not enough.
Just putting your butt in the chair for 4 hours per day is not enough.
Just as athletes focus on so much more than time on the field. They focus on an entire system of capacities.
Okay, let’s dig in…
The Capacities You Need to Hone
When we think of performance, we think of honing one’s craft and skills. To create capacities that will ensure your work is as good as it can be.
Each of us will have our own unique system of performance. What works for one bestselling author will not for another.
When you consider the various capacities that an athlete focuses on, it may include some or all of these components:
- Game strategy, unique to each team they compete against.
- Nutrition and nutritionists.
- Bringing together the right teammates, and training them to work together as a single unit.
- Coaches — and typically not just a single coach, but an entire staff of coaches for various types of players, smaller capacities, etc.
- Various kinds of workouts, workout schedules, and how a multitude of workouts need to evolve into a larger program.
- Study of other players, other teams, other strategies, other technologies, the rules, and the history of the game.
- The right tools, be it sneakers, uniforms, helmets, and so much else.
- Physical therapists.
- Doctors and other medical staff.
- The value of competition itself — game day.
- So many others in the process, including masseuses and even the water boy, not even mentioning management, the fans, friends, and families of players.
I couldn’t care less about sports and even I understand (and respect) the complexity of this system of performance.
Yet, when I speak to many creative professionals such as writers, I don’t often see any of these components. They are immensely proud if they have a single habit related to their writing. But otherwise, they tend to feel as though they are struggling. Not struggling to achieve greatness, but struggling to even call themselves a writer. I hear this so often, that it bears repeating:
So many writers struggle with even giving themselves permission to write, that it hobbles any further effort to create a system that encourages writing.
Assessing Your Creative Health
No need for me to beat around the bush, so I’ll just say: This takes a toll.
When someone wants to write more than anything else, but won’t allow themselves to, there is a piece of themselves that is locked away. Imagine dreaming of playing basketball, and being locked in a tiny prison cell with a view of an open basketball court just 20 feet away.
Clearly, this only describes a small subset of you, but I would like to suggest a range of capacities that you may want to explore as you consider your creative health:
- Ideation and idea capture. Do you give yourself the mental space to do this? To take walks to clear your mind. To put down the smartphone when you are waiting in line somewhere to let your mind wander, instead of filling it up with a social media feed? To carry a notebook for ideas? To sit quietly at night to explore ideas, instead of flipping through Netflix?
- Prioritizing time to write. Is this the LAST thing you add to your calendar, after everything else? Or the first? Oh wait, do you even calendar writing time at all?! Even starting small, you can carve out one hour per week to write. Start there.
- Physical health. You were hoping I wouldn’t go here, right? That we can just pretend that none of us knows how to stay healthy? Turns out, it’s painfully obvious for many people. Even for those who struggle with a complex amalgamation of serious health issues, it is not a mystery how to give yourself more energy through physical health. And for the areas where you do struggle, there is a wide range of professionals who can help you. Nutritionists. Physical therapists. Trainers. Accountability coaches. Classes. Because the big open secret is that when you are physically healthy, you have MORE creative energy. Yes, I know your health insurance may not cover this stuff. Save up for it to pay out of pocket. Most of these places will offer reduced rates for those whose insurance doesn’t cover it. Others are worth the cost outright.
- Nutrition as fuel for performance. I kind of covered this one above, but nutrition is its own category because we have to eat multiple times throughout the day. It is a habit that our body requires of us, like breathing. What you eat is the building blocks of what your body has to work with in order to feel good. This too is not a mystery. It takes a TINY amount of research to understand how to eat better. Yet, most of us trap ourselves in horrible eating habits. Make a tiny effort to change 25% of how you eat. I say this because it is not my goal to rob you of the joy of food. Rather, I would like for you to consider how changing part of your diet could result in more creative energy each day.
- Rest as fuel for performance. I beg of you: get more sleep. Change your habits in the 2 hours prior to going to bed. Go to bed earlier. Wake up later. Yes, I know that you have responsibilities that affect this, most obviously kids and others you care for. This is another open secret: When you don’t sleep, everything else is affected. Your energy level, your mood, your relationships. Step One is to buy a FitBit or other health tracker. Track your sleep for a couple weeks to get hard evidence on how much rest you are really getting.
- Mental heath as foundation for performance.Yes, I mean everything from depression and anxiety to so much else in between. There are so many people who can help with issues that are unbelievably common, even though most of us hide it. Find someone to talk to that has you spending time working through issues, instead of masking them.
- Prioritizing creative work, and giving yourself permission. Does a track star have an argument with her coach 3 minutes before running a race? Does she check her overflowing inbox just before crouching into starting position? No, she focuses on performance. All else is secondary in that moment. Saying ‘no’ is a part of this. Those around her know this. They may feel a desire to wish her luck, or ask about the strategy of the race, but they see that look in her eye of intense focus, and they back away. She may even rudely walk away when addressed, and it is understood and forgiven. Yet, many writers sit down to write and think of 100 reasons why their work is not worthy. They have a difficult time even telling others that they write. They put every other priority first. If this is you, change this.
- Collaboration and social health. I have been cleaning out my parent’s old house, and posting photos to Instagram of my childhood belongings. There is my Dungeons & Dragons modules; my Star Trek lives button; my Goonies cards; my Welcome Back Kotter record case; my Star Wars soap collection, and so much else. My point is, I was a dork growing up. I was never the cool kid, and would currently consider myself an introvert whose nightmare involves being invited to a party that I would have to attend alone. I’m the kind of person who would rather intentionally make myself sick than walk into a room of strangers alone. Does any of this sound familiar to your own social preferences? Yet today, I have a wide range of collaborators for my creative work. Having others involved in my work makes it stronger. Sharing it publicly makes it stronger. Being an introvert, or growing up a dork, doesn’t give me an excuse to not learn how to collaborate. I would encourage you to explore your own collaborations. Just this past week I spoke to four people about potential side projects. These would be fun collaborations in addition to my regular work. For two of them I said yes, although both are pretty aggressive in terms of scale and time frame. Two other potential side projects I said no to. Don’t get me wrong, I really like the people, but the project just wasn’t a perfect fit. Learn how to say YES more often to collaborations, but likewise recognize when saying NO is appropriate.
Athletes don’t wait for a perfect system; they move forward anyway. Even those athletes who perform at the highest level of their sports are superstitious. I remember hearing Gabby Reece talk about not wearing the same outfit again, if she had worn it in a volleyball game she lost. She is a top performer, yet, she believes in magic.
Which is to say, you don’t have to be perfect and rational. But I would encourage you to assess your creative health, and consider how you can optimize it for performance in the coming year.
In what ways can you make creative health a priority next year?