Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Young Artist's Guide to Playing For Keeps, Part 23

You’ve chosen an uncertain path.
You’ve adopted an inconvenient lifestyle.
You’ve embarked upon an unconventional journey.
You’ve felt the voice inside you growing more urgent.
You’ve committed yourself enough so you can’t turn back.

IN SHORT: You’ve decided to play for keeps.

This is the critical crossroads – the emotional turning point – in the life of every young artist.

And I’ve been there myself.

Here’s a list of suggestions to help you along the way:

1.     It’s hard to be creative alone. First, without people to bounce our ideas off of, it’s like playing basketball without a backboard. Hitting nothing but net is hard to do every time. Second, when working in isolation, out of context, trapped in our own head, there’s only so much perspective we can bring to our work. Third, without a strong sense of we, without a real connection to the human family, we can’t access the full potential of networked knowledge. Fourth, without access to each other, without regular exposure to other ways of being, our work remains myopic and untextured. Fifth, without collaborating with and enlisting support from others, executing broader projects is a futile endeavor. The upside is, we are never alone in this world unless we want to be. Sometimes all we have to do is extend our arm. Which is hard. It makes us vulnerable and out of control. And it forces us to depend on someone beside ourselves. But anything worthwhile depends on other members of our species. Who do you play ball with?

2.     Chaos isn’t a merit badge. You don’t need to keep reminding me how busy you are. The fact that you’re overextended, booked solid and barely able to juggle all the craziness that is your very important life, doesn’t impress me. What does impress me is when you ship. Execution is the measure of man, not bravado. If you’re inventing things to outsource to preserve the illusion of productivity, we’re not interested. If you’re wearing busyness as a badge of honor to inflate your ego, we’re not interested. And if you’re spending your time convincing competitors that you’re busier than you really are instead of creating work that matters, we’re not interested. Let your work do the talking, not your words. Are you spending your time creating work that matters or convincing your competitors that you’re busier than you really are?

3.     Evolution is inevitable. If our work is the same it was a year ago, if what we do hasn’t evolved with who we are, we’re in trouble. Some of us fail to renew because we’re lazy. Others because we’re comfortable with the current level of our success and don’t want to let go of what’s working. Some fail to renew because we don’t think we need to evolve. And some of us fail to renew because we don’t think renewal is necessary to become great. But more often than not, we fail to renew because we fail to reflect. We fail to renew because we’re so busy with the day to day, wrapped up in the demands of the marketplace, that we forget to take time to step back from the work and ask ourselves what the work is evolving into. And as a result, we become prisoners of our own labors. Instigating a process of renewal is so essential. Without it, we don’t just grow stale, we grow cynical as we watch the evolvers pass us by. Are you telling the same story just because you know it’s guaranteed to get applause?

4.     Nothing lives once anymore. Thanks to the beauty of the web and its abundance of access to the otherwise unattainable, any art we create – and openly share – has infinite shelf space, unlimited airtime and endless viewership. In one click, our work can live online, in perpetuity, for anyone in the world to experience, for free, forever. This is the best thing that ever happened to us. For the first time in history, there are no walls. No boundaries separating creators from consumers. No permission police preventing us from sharing the things we love. It’s one big transcontinental farmer’s market that never shuts down. Even better, we live in the age of the remix. Consider Shepard Fairey’s famous campaign poster for Barack Obama: It became instantly iconic not because it was brilliant – but because it was mixable. Originally, Shepard only sold a few hundred posters on the street the day it was printed. But once he converted his art into a digital image and invited other artists to create variations, parodies and imitations of his work – also known as communal recreation – the poster earned instant recognition. He made history because he bravely stepped back, let evolution do what it did best. Will you enabled your art to live more than once?

5.     Originality isn’t about content, it’s about movement. If the work pushes us forward as human beings, it’s original. True creativity, unprecedented or not, will always result in change. You could argue that Glee isn’t original. It’s just another comedy drama about teenage angst with standard issue high school archetypes, cliché storylines and perfectly choreographed cover songs. Then again, Glee gives voice to the bullied and misunderstood. They ask questions the public is afraid to confront. They put a human face to cultural taboos like religion and sexuality. They bring social justice to the forefront of popular culture. And they show us that we don’t have to be weird alone. Maybe they’re singing an original song after all. Do you need to be original or in motion?

6.     Make room for the new. Humans have a built in reluctance to let go of what’s working. Because it means we’re no longer in control. Worse yet, it means we have to trust ourselves, trust the process of change and trust whatever result emerges. Yikes. The advantage is, when we bow to the door of next, when we tear ourselves away from the safe harbor of certainty and let go of who we are, we become who we need to be. A few months after Seinfeld went off the air, Jerry recorded a live comedy special in which he vowed never to use old material again. He even opened the program with a mock funeral scene, literally burying stacks of paper in the dirt while celebrity graveside mourners wept along with him. Because he didn’t want to be a new guy doing the old guy’s act. Interestingly, Jerry’s special was nominated for a Grammy. Talk about a punchline. Sometimes we have to let go of what’s working today to make room for what needs to happen tomorrow. Sometimes we have to operate from the edges to allow the truest, freshest expression of ourselves to emerge. Are you making a joke or making history?

REMEMBER: When you’re ready to play for keeps, your work will never be the same.

Make the decision today.

Show the world that your art isn’t just another expensive hobby.