I recently watched a TED talk by Srikumar Rao that really got me thinking about my approach to my work – and life in general. Rao teaches that we are all ‘hardwired for happiness’ and that it’s only our thinking that gets in the way. For a creative lifer, his teachings also have a lot to offer in terms of how we approach our creative projects.
Let’s back up a bit, though and talk about my Mum, because she was way ahead of old Srikumar. He’ll keep. Mum’s wisdom always comes first.
Mum instilled in me as a child that it didn’t matter so much how things worked out, provided the effort was there. I was always a striver and, like most kids, I enjoyed making my parents proud. But fate made me a specialist. I inherited my mother’s creative leanings and excelled at the Arts, but was lousy (and I do mean lousy) at math and science.
Fortunately, my school listed two types of grade for every subject: Attainment grades (how well you actually did) and Effort grades (how hard you actually tried). Lucky for me, Mum was always far more interested in the latter. Within reason, it didn’t matter what end result I achieved, provided she could see I had put in the necessary effort. A ‘C’ for attainment was acceptable, provided it was arrived at via ‘A’ or ‘B’ level effort.
In other words, Mum wasn’t so worried about the outcome so much as the process.
Little did I realize at the time that she was teaching me one of the most important lessons of creative life, and life in general.
Back to that other wise old head, Srikumar.
Rao believes that our happiness depends upon our ability to remove ourselves from the ‘If…then…’ mentality – the idea that ‘IF (INSERT DESIRE) happens, THEN I will be happy.’ This, he argues, is a formula for misery simply because no matter how much effort we put in, we in reality have no control over the outcome, so when you focus on the outcome you make yourself unhappy.
To paraphrase Srikumar Rao:
Passion exists within you, not within the job. You have to find it yourself. When you do, the world arranges itself around you.
Had Mum chosen to chastise me for ‘failing’ to get an A or B in math, even though I’d put in that A- (or B- it was probably closer to a B) level effort, she would have ingrained me that I was a hopeless loser and that, even if I tried my very hardest, my work would never be good enough to make the grade.
Of course, there is a general correlation between effort and outcome. The more you put in (all those miserable after-hours math tutoring sessions) the more you are likely to get out (scraping a C in my math GCSE, without which I wouldn’t have been able to move on to higher education). But you should never let the outcome define you. It could turn out to be the diametric opposite of what you wanted.
Instead, invest in the process.
Deadlines are dangerous. I’ve lived in a world of deadlines for the last fifteen years (generally the short-tempered, toothy, snarling type that ain’t gonna back down) in my day job as an ad man. Don’t get me wrong – everyone needs them. Especially creative types. Writers and visual artists will tweak and tweak till the end of time if you let them. (Graphic designers are particularly adept in the art of filling all available time like a noxious gas.) We need goals in our work so that we actually finish things, and I’m sure that goal setting and finishing will be future subjects for this blog. But you also need to be careful deadlines don’t define you or your work.
Don’t let deadlines define you.
I’ll give you an example from my own life and work: I’ll sometimes write something because I know there’s a deadline coming up for a contest or award or some such. That’s fine provided the deadline is realistic. But when I get to writing, I’m writing because I love to write. I’m writing because I love the idea I had, because it excites me to see the story unfurl before me. I’m writing because writing, not because deadline. The deadline just serves to give me a slap and get myself organized, but it does not trump the art.
If you spend all your time thinking – and I’ve been guilty of this – ‘I just need to get this done. I desire a finished story/painting/design/song/Great Depression-themed sand sculpture. IF I finish this masterpiece, THEN I’ll be happy’, you’re screwed, and so is your work.
In creative work, and in life, it’s really like my Mum always said: You just want to be able to look yourself in the mirror and know, ‘I did my best’. If you can do that, you will find the results are often favourable.