About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
In 2013, the film rights for his second novel were optioned and he signed a book contract for his third novel. Despite many people encouraging him to pursue his passion for writing in light of his success, he has kept his day job. He feels it is his dharma, or calling, to be in business. He told me in our conversation that not tying his passion to money was one of the best decisions he ever made. He said, "It's been very liberating for me to answer my deepest questions through my writing. I never write for my niche, my industry, my audience, my platform. In a sense I think that's been the reason for the success of my writing."
Bajaj's story is exemplary of the possibilities that open in our lives when we're willing to embrace creativity for its own sake rather than external recognition. The creative process-not the result-is the source of our happiness. We feel the joy of being so immersed and engaged in what we're doing that we lose track of time. We experience moments of creative daring, beautiful magic, and the unexpected surprises that show up along the way. Fortunately, our commitment to and belief in the process is entirely in our control. We can decide to show up, sit down, and create. If we listen to the process of creativity and stay attentive, it can be our gateway to meaning.
The Downside of Rewards over Process
Paradoxically, when we're excessively focused on potential rewards rather than the process, the product suffers.
If a podcaster is thinking about the potential downloads while conducting an interview, the quality of the interview declines. They're no longer present, conversations come across as canned, and they end up trying to sound impressive as opposed to inspiring or informative.
If an author is thinking about reviews and bestseller lists while writing, the quality of their books declines. It places their focus on elements of creative work that are completely out of their control. What makes a great piece of writing great is an unwavering commitment to the craft, not the prize.
If a musician is thinking about their potential Grammy Award while recording an album, the quality of the music suffers. They try to live up to other people's expectations and their work ends up feeling forced and inauthentic.
Somewhere in the middle of 2014, all of my work started to become about feeding my ego and getting external validation. I wanted the approval of my mentor, my audience, and the world at large. All I cared about was our bottom line. In that process the work I loved turned into the job I hated, and what had once been one of my greatest sources of joy was making me miserable.
We must learn to let go of our attachments and expectations if we're going to derive satisfaction from our work and create art that we're proud to put our signature on.
When we value product over process, we depart from what psychologist and author Carol Dweck calls a growth mind-set. With a growth mind-set, you believe that you can continue to grow and learn. With a fixed mind-set, any perceived flaws or strengths are seen as permanent. We believe our well-being is determined entirely by what's out of our control, and our motivation and effort all begin to dwindle.
Because of the rapid pace at which we can go from idea to execution in the digital world, this is an all too common occurrence for people who start creative projects on the internet. When an enthusiastic start doesn't translate into an overnight success, people give up on their creative work. They don't give their efforts enough time to experience any visible progress and inaccurately conclude that they lack the necessary creativity or talent. They overlook the fact that nearly every "overnight success" is usually years in the making.
When we focus on end results, we essentially defeat one of the main benefits of creative work: to derive joy from the work itself. Our well-being fluctuates based on the outcomes. If temporary setbacks appear permanent, any effort appears to be completely fruitless.
On the flip side, when we focus on the process, we see opportunities for improvement. Opportunities for improvement elicit action, effort, and enthusiasm. It's in "the thousands of days of trying, failing, sitting, thinking, resisting, dreaming, raveling, unraveling, that we are at our most engaged, alert, and alive," says Dani Shapiro, memoirist and author of Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life.
By sticking with the process, we also increase the likelihood of a favorable outcome or product.
Here's an example: When our content strategist, Kingshuk Mukherjee joined the Unmistakable Creative team, his first major assignment was launching an interactive online course. Everything from the final product to the marketing and sales was based on his recommendations, but he had little control over the outcome (revenue generated from the launch). Reflecting on the launch, he said:
You're taking on a new project and your results will dictate how much you get paid. Now, the more time you put into it, the more you have to lose. A bad outcome means not only will you not get paid, but you'll lose all the time you invested. So there I was writing three to four versions of a landing page, a bit more than I've ever taken on before. If I thought about how bad I need to nail the final version, I'd choke-I wouldn't perform at all. So instead, I looked at "What do I have to accomplish RIGHT NOW to make this project a win?"
He focused on the process and ultimately ended up with a successful outcome (an increase in revenue).
The process is in our control. The process results in progress, which in turn increases our motivation. External outcomes, on the other hand, are not. And if the only measure we have for our success is the external outcome, and we don't see it materializing, we're likely to give up or just get bored with the work.
If you see your creative work as a chore, an obligation, or solely as an item to cross off your to-do list, the work will feel that way to you and anybody who interacts with it. On the other hand, if you see your work as a gift, a privilege, an opportunity to share the truth of what's in your heart with the world, that's the experience you'll have with it. Same work, different perspectives.
For example, in 2003, Frank Warren, who had started a small business called Instant Information Systems, was in Paris when he had a powerful lucid dream about three postcards he had bought that day. Purely as a creative experiment, he was led to print three thousand anonymous stamped and self-addressed postcards, blank on one side. On the other side he listed some simple instructions to "anonymously share an artful secret they've never shared before." He handed them out to people randomly on the streets of Washington, D.C., not knowing what to expect. The idea went viral, and Frank started receiving postcards from thousands of people from around the world. "In a weird way, the secrets give me strength," he said in an interview on Mediabistro.com. Today PostSecret.com is the most visited advertisement-free site in the world with more than 200 million visitors. In addition to having no ads, no products can be purchased on PostSecret. As the absentee owner of Instant Information Systems, Warren has no need to monetize his creative endeavor.
In fact, based on PostSecret's success, Warren has been able to raise awareness and money for a nonprofit suicide prevention organization. Warren is a clear example of the power of creativity for its own sake as well as giving back to others. When our work feels like a gift to others instead of an obligation, it gives us something to look forward to every day. It inspires us as much as it does the audience we create it for.
If outcomes become the primary way of measuring our creative success, and those outcomes are not to our liking, our creativity goes from being something that adds energy, joy, and enthusiasm to our life to something that drains it. We simply go through the motions, eventually losing our motivation.
Listen to: Madeleine L'Engle
But unless we are creators we are not fully alive. What do I mean by creators? Not only artists, whose acts of creation are the obvious ones of working with paint or clay or words. Creativity is a way of living life, no matter our vocation or how we earn our living. Creativity is not limited to the arts, or having some kind of important career.
The Myth of "Making It"
When my self-published book The Art of Being Unmistakable gained the attention of media pundit Glenn Beck, I was suddenly in the spotlight like I'd never been before. My book was selling thousands of copies, I was receiving checks from Amazon far larger than anything I'd ever imagined, and it felt like I could do no wrong. But a few months later, everything was back to normal. I was confronted with the next challenge: letting go of my ego-driven desire for external validation and getting back to work like none of this had ever happened.
The myth of "making it" causes many aspiring creatives to believe that there will be a day when they no longer have to do the work that has gotten them to where they are. Those who buy into this myth and rest on their laurels become victims of their own success. They don't stand the test of time.
For instance, author and journalist Jonah Lehrer was on track to have a prolific career. He was a regular contributor at major media outlets like Wired magazine, had written multiple books, and was a frequent keynote speaker. However, it eventually surfaced that he had put made-up Bob Dylan quotes in one of his books, and he was eventually outed as a "serial fabricator." Lehrer later described his career as a "mixture of insecurity and ambition" that led him to stop doing the original creative work that had gotten him to where he was in the first place. He became a victim of his own success.
As author Ryan Holiday said to me in an interview on The Unmistakable Creative, success gives you the conditional opportunity to try again. We have to begin every new creative endeavor with the same enthusiasm and commitment regardless of the results from our previous efforts.
The act of creation contains a sense of fulfillment that we'll never get from any fleeting external outcome. Consider: A book on the New York Times bestseller list this week may be forgotten by next week. The box office smash eventually becomes a footnote. Today's viral sensation has vanished by the time you wake up tomorrow.
When we are dependent on anything external to fuel our creativity, we're effectively handing over control of our lives and happiness to that external reward. When the reward vanishes, so, too, does our creativity.
Our creativity can provide us with something to look forward to every day and a lasting sense of fulfillment. Why is the creative process itself so fulfilling?
Listen to: Sarah Joy Shockey
Anything you create that brings you joy or even frustration shapes you into someone with experience.
Creativity Makes Us Happy
The idea that creativity increases happiness isn't just a theory or an artsy opinion: A number of research studies have proved a strong link between creativity and happiness.
In our formal education system, creativity is primarily seen as an extracurricular activity, yet students derive tremendous benefit from a curriculum that includes the arts.
In 2014, University of North Carolina at Greensboro professor of psychology Paul Silvia and his colleagues published a paper called "Everyday Creativity in Daily Life: An Experience-sampling Study of 'Little C' Creativity." Their thesis was that "everyday creativity-creative actions that are common among ordinary people in daily life, such as drawing, making recipes, writing, and any activity done with the purpose of being creative-both fosters and reflects psychological health."
Seventy-nine college students participated in the weeklong study, in which they were asked whether they were doing something creative and to describe their emotional state at the moment. When participants were being creative, they reported feeling significantly happier and more active. Everyday creativity "allows people to explore their identities, form new relationships, cultivate competence, and reflect critically on the world. In turn, the new knowledge, self-insight, and relationships serve as sources of strength and resilience."
You might assume that you have to be a capital-A artist, painter, or poet "creative genius" in order to benefit from the creativity-happiness connection. But as Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs noted in his analysis of the Greensboro study, "you don't have to be a master poet or painter to reap the emotional rewards."
Creativity, it turns out, doesn't just contribute to our happiness but also to our mental and physical health. Expressing ourselves creatively is a form of self-care in many ways. It gives us the opportunity for self-reflection. And as we build our creative skills, we build confidence. Many therapists even prescribe creative expression to their patients for healing purposes.
For instance, in a study called "How Art Changes Your Brain," twenty-eight people between the ages of sixty-two and seventy were "encouraged to produce visual art and find their own forms of personal expression." During the ten-week study, an art educator introduced drawing and painting methods and materials, which allowed the participants to experiment however they wished.
Such visual art interventions, which were designed to test how art could affect aging, resulted in:
Normalized heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels
A study of Mindfulness Based Art Therapy (MBAT), a method that integrates mindfulness meditation skills and aspects of art therapy into an eight-week program for women with cancer, produced similar results. Participants in the study experienced significant decreases in symptoms of distress (anxiety, depression, hostility, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies) and significant improvements in key aspects of health-related quality of life (physical functioning, bodily pain, and mental health).