One life-changing moment was when I realized I would never have another good idea.
It was Seth Godin’s fault.
He was telling some overly enthusiastic podcaster that most of his writing was below average, and he had no idea which of his ideas were any good — even after they were published.
“I can just tell which ones are most popular,” he said, that mischievous little smile tweaking the corners of his lips. “They could still be terrible ideas.”
Many creatives, particularly writers, get caught up thinking they must have something to say.
It’s an ego thing. Just ask Dostoyevsky.
There are plenty of terrible, meaningless, and badly-made ideas that are considered extremely valuable and worthwhile by many people.
The secret to being a successful creative or entrepreneur isn’t having one big idea or one breakthrough piece or one work of critical acclaim that blows everybody’s socks off.
The secret is getting used to getting a ‘D’ and still keep on plugging away at it, churning out bad ideas.
You never know which one might stick.
This week, the 202nd KaizenBen blog post was published.
There’s a story behind the 25,202 number, which we’ll save for another day. But I’ll give you a hint and tell you that I’ll be ninety-nine and a half years old by the time the 25,202nd blog post goes out.
If I haven’t kicked the bucket, that is.
With any luck, the commitment might drag a few more undeserving years out of me, and I shall drop dead moments after hitting ‘Publish.’
It’s pretty sobering to see your life reduced to a handful of digits.
25,202 blogs left to write.
25,202 days left to live.
For most things, that’s more than enough. But until that moment, the days had seemed countless.
It wasn’t until those immortal snakes danced across my notepad that fateful morning that I realized: it wasn’t very long at all.
And only 24,999 left to go!
We don’t say MVP in the UK; we say Player of the Year and give them a golden ball.
MVP has another meaning: Minimal Viable Product. And it turns out that quite often, the simplest option turns out to be the best one too.
It’s easy to get tripped up adding bells and whistles when all we need is something simple that just works.
It’s not like we can lie around doing nothing and enjoy it forever.
At least not without spending a lot of money on drugs.
Sure, it’s nice to hit the beach or the lakes and do nothing for a bit. But after a few weeks, a tight emptiness forms in the guts, followed by a dull nagging in the back of the skull: shouldn’t you be doing something with your time?
Maybe some people are lucky enough to be born truly carefree, with no fear of the rapidly approaching Big Nothing. The rest of us have to distract ourselves by doing stuff.
It seems that we work to death one way or another.
May as well do something you enjoy. May as well get really fucking good at it, too.
Maybe then, it will barely be work at all.
A guy at work spent the last year working on one word.
Now he’s going on sabbatical.
Big companies that want to handle other big companies’ data must show that they’re going to look after it properly and protect it from anyone who might be snooping.
This guy at work spent the last year figuring out how to do that — and we are very grateful. The thought of all those painful words and mind-numbing legalese sentences makes me want to weep.
Multiple salaries were invested in the project. Operations were overhauled. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t cheap. But he did it.
All so we could add one little word to our website and become:
That’s one expensive word. One very valuable word.
We’re surrounded by the attentions of others. There are countless little things we take for granted that are the result of a life’s work.
All those things that “just work” when we push the button, work because someone spent their days designing it to work, for us.
There’s a monastery perched high in the Himalayas, where the monks spend all day making beautiful patterns in the sand.
Then just before tea-time, they brush them away.
They don’t even take photos.
There’s another monastery where the monks paint a circle every day, just to see how close they can get it to perfect.
They never do, of course, and all those paintings are burnt before the sun sets.
Art isn’t about perfect, and it’s not about forever, although our planet is littered with monuments to the contrary.
It’s nice to create for other people. And it’s probably more profitable in the long run. But we always win if we create for ourselves and focus on improvement, instead of being popular.
The person having the most fun is usually the one doing the creating.
If you just create for yourself and you do it often enough, pretty soon people will start turning up — just to see you having fun.
There was a big, stubborn rock sitting on my desk this morning.
It took me 15 minutes to move it off, by writing, “Get the ball rolling.”
Rolling the ball off the line is the official way to start a game of football. Once the ball is moving, the game has begun.
We use this phrase at work too, where it means we’ve talked a project to death and must begin the game of creating.
The implication is that it takes a bit of effort to get the ball rolling, but things get easier once momentum is on our side.
Inertia is difficult to overcome — especially if we’re making something new. But once we put in the energy to start, it’s tough to stop.
Fortunately, all it takes to get the ball rolling is a little nudge in the right direction.
It doesn’t have to be new or shiny.
It doesn’t have to be interesting or original.
It doesn’t have to be exciting or controversial.
It doesn’t have to be perfect or polished.
It doesn’t even have to be finished.
That leaves an awful lot of things it could be, and not many excuses why it couldn’t.
Better it be made bad than never to be at all.
And it does have to be made.
Yesterday, the greatest businessman alive wrote us a letter containing some sage words of advice.
And they’re not about how to time your pee breaks.
Ol’ Jeffo’s advice for success is simple: stay different.
The Universe is always trying to reclaim us for itself, to return us to equilibrium, to flatten us into our surroundings.
To make us ‘normal.’
Merely staying alive is a struggle because Life isn’t typical in this cold, vast, empty Universe.
Distinctiveness is what makes you and me different but also what brings us together. And our differences are worth fighting for, together.
I’ll leave you with the words of the man who will take humanity to the stars…
Be kind, be original, create more than you consume, and never, never, never let the universe smooth you into its surroundings.
Earl was a troubled child of no determinate birthplace.
His teenage mother would frequently take him to the ER with severe bronchial asthma, probably worsened from sleeping on the floor with the roaches.
By the time Earl was old enough to start school, his mother had knocked out his two front teeth.
When Earl was 7, his aunt got him drunk.
When Earl was 9, his mum locked him in his room all summer.
When Earl was 10, his mum sent him to an orphanage.
When Earl was 14, he was stealing a living on the streets.
When Earl was 16 he was sent to prison.
There, he committed to music and began selling mixtapes on his release.
When Earl was 28, he released three albums in two years. They all went multi-platinum.
Earl was imprisoned 30 times. Earl was a pastor. Earl was bipolar. Earl loved dogs and orchids. Earl was an artist.
Earl was a very troubled man who turned his hurt into some of the greatest, most honest art ever made.
There’s a lot to say about Earl “DMX” Simmons. But nobody can ever say he didn’t give us everything he had.
X gave it to us.
And for that, we’ll remember him forever.
Special doesn’t mean good and it doesn’t mean unique.
Some moments are always special: weddings, new homes, first days, birthday parties.
These are special regardless of whether they’re in a fancy hall or under a bridge. And trying too hard to make these special always has the opposite effect.
Some things are special because they mean something to us: a song, artwork, clothing, photos. People have to find that kind of special for themselves.
Most things are considered special because they do something new or better: bike tires that don’t puncture or cars that drive themselves or people that run very fast.
This is a special that everyone can achieve, but it takes a lot of hard work and help from other people; even then, it’s not guaranteed.
The final kind of special is what we call Quality. It’s the kind of special that you feel when you pick up a hand-made instrument or use a very cleverly designed tool—made with love and care.
That’s the special we can all achieve: turning up consistently and investing our time making the best and most useful things we can.
Because, sadly, that’s not very common at all.
It’s not like anyone enjoys getting punched in the face.
But if you’re going outside, there’s always the risk that some asshole will come along and clobber you.
That doesn’t mean you should stay inside all the time either. There’s always the risk that your house catches fire.
Risk is part of life.
It’s the same if you want to do or make anything interesting or different. Some people aren’t going to like it, no matter what you do.
My mum loves this quote from the film Zorba the Greek that I keep thinking about: “Life is trouble. Only death is not. To be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble.”
Life is a thrilling battle with a very definite end.
May as well go down swinging.
Originality is almost as big a curse as perfection.
For millennia creatives have wasted their time trying to “be original.”
Due to the laws of nature, both measurable and imperceptible, nothing can be the same twice.
Nothing is the same. Nothing is original.
Even if it looks roughly the same. Even if we try to make it precisely the same — and we do — we’ll always cock it up somehow, and it’ll be its own, new, slightly different, not perfect thing.
The best creatives learn to do this “stealing like an artist” better than anyone else: taking something you like and doing it your way.
And although imperfect unoriginality might the best we can do.
It’s always a damn sight better than doing nothing.
Soon after discovering the monumental Seth Godin, I unsubscribed from his email list and decided never to think of him again.
Not only was it frustrating that some of his blogs were just a couple of lines — not even paragraphs — but it was frustrating that I had written nothing at all.
Writing a daily blog always seemed like the sort of thing I should be doing and yet, for some reason, could never quite manage to do.
Seth’s wonderfully elegant and effortless scrawling reminded me that for all I called myself a writer, I could never do that.
It was magic if I wrote once every six months. And a miracle if it got shipped once a year. Whatever it was that people like that had, I didn’t have it.
I could never do that.
Seven years later and Seth Godin pops up in my life again, talking about The Practice.
And suddenly, it all made sense.
The outcome wasn’t the point; just like ‘enlightenment isn’t the point of meditating.
Don’t write to sell a book. Don’t write to get rich (good luck with that). Don’t write to get famous.
Write every day because that’s what writers do.
All those years spent trying to change into someone worthy of writing every day — a real writer — were just me hiding from myself.
All it took was actually doing it, and all of a sudden, I was.
It wasn’t until I was 27 that I went skinny dipping.
Out in the Bay of Dragons in North Vietnam, my head swimming from Bia Hanoi and cheap rice wine, I finally took my clothes off in front of people I wasn’t about to have sex with.
And we plunged into the dark, star-speckled water, and I was free.
It still took another three years before I had the nerve to show myself to anybody.
I had been holding myself back, fretting about what people would think of me, laying my thoughts bare to the world; worrying what other people would think about what I think.
And whether I would measure up to everyone else writing out there.
But you know what?
Just like that balmy night on Monkey Island, as soon as I took my clothes off, I stopped caring.
It was the easiest, most natural thing in the world.
Whatever it is that you’re hiding inside you, put it out there.
You were born that way.
Art is an excellent example of humanity at its best.
We’re so lucky to have the luxury of sitting around and thinking of ways to make things pretty. To have time to spare to make a little mark on the Universe:
“I’m just gonna draw my mate killing this mammoth because it was legendary.”
Isn’t that the greatest gift?
It’s probably True that most of what we create comes from a need to be remembered, for our time on this bald, wet little planet to mean something. Our infinity projects.
But you know what’s better than looking at art?
It doesn’t matter if nobody sees it. It doesn’t matter if it gets hung on the fridge. It’s the making it that really makes you feel.
That’s what art’s really about.
Hopefully, after you made your art you’ll want to show it to someone.
And they’ll be interested to see what you’ve made.
And maybe you’ll even inspire them to make their own little mark on the world.
The more I write, the more I realize how important it is to the soul to write — to create.
To make a mark; a little spark.
To rub my fingers against the fabric of reality and warm it in my favour.
We’re all out here, one of eight billion souls (that we know) trying to figure out Why in our own little way.
What else is life but a reason to share our little spark, our short story, with the rest of the world?
You’re you. And we’re here.
So, start a fire and let the rest of us know.
We’re listening. We want to hear you.
That’s how we make fire.
And that’s how we change the world.
Circles are proof we don’t know anything.
We live such vibrant and data-filled lives that it’s easy to think everything has already been invented or danced or sung or written or painted.
Nothing is original and everything has been found. And there’s nothing left for you to discover or create for the world.
Fortunately, that’s just not true.
The truth is that we make a lot of noise about what we think we know, but ask any math professor what (π) is they’ll only be able to give you an approximation.
It’s a very accurate and useful approximation but it’s still an approximation.
A computer hasn’t figured it out yet after three months of trying.
That doesn’t mean it’s worthless — it’s accurate enough that we can send rockets to the moon and make incredibly well-rounded balls and engines that fit together oh-so-beautifully.
But that trillionth of a trillionth place is still unknown. (π) is still represents an anomaly. It’s just a letter we use to describe something we don’t understand or haven’t met yet. Something we don’t understand.
Don’t let anyone tell you there’s nothing left to do or find or make.
We haven’t even started.
There’s a lot of money to be made in the world of Art.
There’s a lot of poverty to be made as well.
One of the travesties of our childhood is that if you weren’t ‘creative’ then you didn’t get to do creative stuff.
But being human is being creative. It’s not something for ‘creative people.’
People are creative but we get trapped into thinking that what matters is that other people pay for it.
I’m blessed that anyone reads this; I truly am.
But strangely, it wasn’t until I accepted nobody might read it that I was able to start writing it at all.
Sometimes, we don’t need an encyclopedia to understand.
Often, things don’t take as long as we think they will.
And always, showing up is better than not showing up at all.
Most Fridays for most of my life were happy days. Drunk days.
The days I was released from the yoke to drink and revel and rut.
But since lockdown started and Friday nights turned into a night like any other, something weird happened.
I noticed that — left to my own devices — at around 2 or 3 pm on a Friday, I would crack open a beer and lean back into my chair and start to work.
Not in a frantic way — just keen. Almost like I enjoyed it.
And I was.
Don’t get me wrong, as soon as they let us out, I’ll be hitting one of those sticky downtown bars.
But I think I’m going to give myself a little date every other Friday to sit down while the rest of the world relaxes and write.
Elizabeth Gilbert — author of “Eat, Pray, Love” — has a great story about creativity.
She talks about how dozens of people asked if she was worried she would never write something as big as EPL again.
And then she starts thinking, “What if they’re right?“
Those doubts lead to her throwing the next book straight in the bin, never to be read.
To publish another book, Elizabeth tells us how she had to come to terms with the fact that whatever she wrote would never be as successful as Eat Pray Love.
Seth Godin calls this, ‘Giving yourself a D’ so you can move on and make something better. It’s not a Fail but it’s definitely not great.
When I heard this for the 47th time it was like a weight had been lifted.
I was finally free to do some writing. There’s no way I can publish every day without most of it being below average. And none of it will be perfect.
The thinking is that if I write enough, somewhere along the way there might just be something that blows your fuckin’ mind.
But I’m not making any promises; except to show up every day and write.
This week the internet introduced me to a guy called Kofi who made a great album a couple of years back. If you like good words and chill beats I highly recommend it.
The title track is a great little story about people and making art…
One cold night in Birmingham city center, Kofi stood on a corner rapping as the world walked by.
For hours he spat into the void but folks were too busy Christmas shopping to stop and listen. He knew they could hear and he was happy doing his thing so he kept on going. For hours.
Eventually one person stopped by to listen to him and before too long a large crowd formed. Because when you’re creating, Nobody Cares Until Everybody Does.
And I’ll bet Kofi will be making music long after people stop caring because that is what we do when we decide to create.
Thanks for being the first to stop by and listen.
I hope you stick around.
Children naturally make mistakes and think little of it.
They’re not bothered at how bad their painting is. They’re just happy to get covered in paint making it and even more delighted if it gets stuck on the fridge.
As teens, we’re taught to stop playing and stop making mistakes so that we can pass into the world as sensible “adults.”
But we can carry on playing forever. And we should!
Playing with new things is how we learn, and playing as an adult is called creativity. It doesn’t have to be a painting either; you can play with anything.
Keep playing. Keep trying new things and messing them up to make something unique.
One day, someone might just think it’s good enough to stick on their fridge.
Or better still, pay you to keep playing.