the thing every artist needs to do
In his book MAKING IDEAS HAPPEN Scott Belsky (founder and CEO of Behance) makes the point that a successful creative life isn’t about (or just about) being genius or having genius ideas. For all the emphasis we put on the ‘creative’ part of ‘being creative’, an artist needs to execute and ship.
Often it’s the discipline of shipping that separates the creatives from the wannabes.
Seth Godin talks about the importance of shipping in his book LINCHPIN. He quotes poet Bruce Ario: “Creativity is an instinct to produce.” If you’re a writer, you need to be someone who actually sits down and writes. It doesn’t have to be great. It just has to get done. (And the more you sit down and do it, the better you’re likely to get.)
And then you need to show it to people.
Reading and writing are two halves of the same whole: to get good at the latter you have to do a lot of the former. Same with listening and communicating (it’s hard to have something powerful and worthwhile to say if you’re clueless to the conversation that’s going on around, behind and before you). With creative work, one half is the making of it…and the other half is the showing of it.
Shipping is the connecting point between your work and the world. Shipping starts to create the space where your art will find an audience. For all the time an artist spends inside her head, she needs to stay tethered to the reality outside it.
Artists don’t think outside the box, because outside the box there’s a vacuum. Outside of the box there are no rules, there is no reality. You have nothing to interact with, nothing to work against…
Artists think along the edges of the box, because that’s where things get done. That’s where the audience is, that’s where the means of production are available, and that’s where you can make an impact.
Seth Rose (founder of Digg) advises young dot.com entrepreneurs to build cool stuff and get it out there soon as possible. You need to see what your audience is actually going to do with it…or if they’re going to bother with it at all…and go from there. This reminds me of a conversation I once had with Jason Calacanis, who introduced me to Twitter when most people had no idea what it was. Twitter, Jason told me, would evolve in ways that even its creators wouldn’t expect; people take these new technologies and find their own uses for them, so that technology both shapes and is shaped by its connection with its audience.
When you show your creative work to people, when you get stuff out there – when you are disciplined and productive enough to ship on a regular basis – you’re engaging in a relationship with your audience that helps you evolve as an artist. You see the message that you’re communicating (as opposed to what you intended or thought you were communicating). You develop a sense for what works and what doesn’t. Your audience becomes a kind of mirror reflecting back your strengths and weaknesses, and you can use this self-knowledge to create more powerful projects. You also start to discover who your audience actually is…which might surprise you.
In short, you get feedback. And honest and timely feedback is one of the requirements for the deliberate practice necessary to achieve greatness in anything.
I like the term shipping because it is so mundane and banal. It grounds the idea of “being creative” within everyday routine. It orients the dreamy, creative mind toward what Belsky calls an action bias that translates ideas into reality, creating value and meaning for others.
When you ship, you’re forced to accept your work as it is…and then let it go, and move on to the next thing. You’re forced to trust that there will be a next thing, that your pool of creativity isn’t some finite source soon dried up, that there’s always something in the box. You learn that your job as an artist isn’t to wait until the Muse strikes you with inspiration, but to show up at your work, day after day, so that the Muse has the opportunity to come find you and move through you.
(Elizabeth Gilbert has a great TED talk on the creative genius in all of us. )
Sometimes, shipping feels like a compromise. You set out to make a huge difference, to create art that matters and to do your best work. Then a deadline arrives and you have to cut it short. Is shipping that important?
…I think it is. While some artists manage to work for years or decades and actually ship something important, far more often we find the dreams of art shattered by the resistance*. We give in to the fear and our art ends up lying in a box somewhere, unseen.
…Not shipping on behalf of your goal of changing the world is often a symptom of the resistance. Call its bluff, ship always, and then change the world…
The only purpose of starting is to finish, and while the projects we do are never really finished, they must ship.
Or as Steve Jobs put it: “Real artists ship.”
* Godin takes the concept from Steven Pressfield’s book THE WAR OF ART.