Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Earn Your Way Into People’s Memories

Anything worth doing is worth doing for a long time.

Because eventually, you’ll start to run into people who have heard of you. Or remember one of your works. Or talked to their friends about you. Or saw you perform somewhere. Or listened to you do an interview. Or read something you wrote. Or did a case study on you in one of their marketing or psychology or communication classes.

Proving, the shortest distance to someone’s brain is through your body.

Your body of work, that is.

Julia Cameron, artist, poet, playwright, novelist, filmmaker, and composer, has accumulated an astounding body of work in the last thirty years. Her insights have had a profound influence on my creative life, from my tactical daily routines to my strategic career decisions. In her book The Sound of Paper, she paints a powerful picture about the importance of longevity:

“Creators must take the long view and be in it for the long haul. The ability to see distance is critical to a creative career, because we’re out to accomplish a body of work, not merely one piece. And so, making great strides in creativity means taking small steps. We must always bear in mind that each day’s work is part of a larger body of work, and that slow, steady output amasses into a work of a lifetime. But unless we are able to take this long view, we will be derailed by rejection.”

The goal, then, is to leave behind an easily found trail of accomplishment. And not just any creative output, but work that’s worth collating and highlighting.

Here’s what that means:

Putting yourself into as many mediums and channels and expressions as possible, so that over time, the total output of your work becomes a collection that people can access in many different ways.

Standing for something faithfully, so that you become a living embodiment of that thing, almost like a placeholder, bookmark, beacon or a reminder, which allows people to start equating you with the thing itself.

Staying with yourself as the world orbits around you, knowing that no matter how long it takes before people come back into your atmosphere, they’ll still find you doing what you do, even if you’re doing it in new ways.

Generating as many potential brand touches as possible, so the universe of people you’ve interacted with grows naturally and incrementally until eventually, the right group of people finds you.

Getting up in the morning, listening to what you’re supposed to make next and shoveling coal into your creative locomotive, laying down track as fast as you can, without the fear that your best ideas are behind you.

Establishing themes in your work so your art is less random and more of a representation of your feelings and ideas and sense of life, like a physical index of your human value system.

That’s how your body of work, which is everything you create and contribute and affect and impact, will earn its way into people’s memories. To get there, here’s the formula:

Small times long equals big.

That’s the equation for prolificacy. Proving, that we just have to learn to be incrementalists. To make our art like a mosaic, adding one small piece at a time.

The writing formula I’ve been using for years was five hundred words a day, five days a week, fifty weeks a year. Now, for most professional writers, that isn’t that many words. And yet, the number nets out to about three books a year. All from one page a day. That’s not mystery, that’s not mastery. That’s just math. And yet, few artists have hooked into this way of working. They haven’t committed to a critical number of creative output. They don’t realize that building a body of work boils down to those everyday disciplines that contribute to the sheer accumulation of material.

Small times long equals big.

Seinfeld understands this formula. As a comedian and writer, he has an estimated net worth of eight hundred million dollars. And so, it’s no surprise that he famously said that the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes, and the way to create better jokes was to write every day. He suggested getting a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hanging it on a prominent wall. And for each day that you hit your quota, you get to put a big red x over that day. Then, after a few days you’ll have a chain. And if you just keep at it, the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain as a visual reminder of progress, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. And at that point, your only job is to not break the chain.

Small times long equals big.

Schultz understood this formula. In his biography, he famously said cartooning was a job where you’re doing the same thing over and over, but you’re never allowed to repeat yourself. And yet, he explained that the secret of his success was focusing on drawing one good comic strip every day. Not making millions. Not achieving fame. Not changing the world. Not advancing his personal agenda. Not making publishers and newspapers happy. Just the art. Just the work. Just one good strip, every day. That single goal, that incrementalist approach, governed Schultz’s work for more than fifty years, and it made him the most influential, popular and profitable cartoonist in the history of the medium. The strip was his mission piece. That one chunk of art he committed to, focused on and obsessed over, each day, until it was done, no exceptions; trusting that everything else, from the television specials to the merchandising to the books, would flow from that.

Small times long equals big.

Proving, that consistency is the ultimate shortcut. That the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. That small times long equals big. And as a result, he forever put his body into our memories.

And so, whatever you’re creating, don’t just do it well, do it for a long time.