I have heard certain business types swear by the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey. Unfortunately, one of my few principles in life is to be highly sceptical of whatever business types like.
In case you never heard of them, the habits are: Be Proactive, Begin with the End in Mind, Put First Things First, Think Win/Win, Seek First to Understand, then to be Understood, Synergize and Sharpening the Saw (Yes, you could play a rather succesful game of Bullshit Bingo with these).
But of course, the main reason these “habits” don’t apply to my work is that they were made for business types.
If you’re an artist, your work is completely different and require different habits.
In fact, creative work require exactly the opposite habits:
1: Reactive is What You Are
(As opposed to: Be Proactive)
Every artist is acutely aware of his or her shortcomings and the overwhelming burden of conditioning that we all carry along with us. After all, creative work exposes the human condition: The flaws and idiosyncracies that make us human – drawing attention to exactly those conditions beyond our control – and how we try to relate to them. This is not only reflected in the work – it is the very foundation.
2: End? What End?
(As opposed to: Begin with the End in Mind)
Take it from me: You never know where you’re going to end up. Creative work isn’t a smooth ride from A to B – it invariably deviates from the route, often ending up where you didn’t intend to go. Authors talk of characters taking over, film directors have to improvise endings, and we all have to “kill our darlings” – getting rid of our favourite bit of our work – which may have been what inspired us to start in the first place.
3: Abandon Order
(As opposed to: Put First Things First)
You never know what you’re going to do next, where it will lead you or what skills you need. Forget about focusing your tools – your best strategy is to be open. If you’re a writer, hang out with painters and composers, too. Be interested in anything and everything, no matter how obscure or unrelated to your work. It may well come in handy one day.
4. An End in Itself
(As opposed to: Think Win/Win)
Let’s face it: The world doesn’t need art. The audience didn’t ask for this particular work in advance – they had no way of expecting what was coming. And though the artist may hope they like it, he won’t know until it’s out there, anyway. A work of art is a useless creation released on a world that doesn’t necessarily want it. Only the artist believes it has a point – and that’s the only point we should ever count on.
5: One-way communication
(As opposed to: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood)
Art is all about communication – even about finding new and unique means of communicating. But ultimately, it’s one way one: The artist communicating to the audience. And trying to understand the audience in advance (“giving people what they want”) inevitably stifles the expression. The real artist probably doesn’t even care about being understood. Conveying a comprehensible “message” isn’t really what art is about, after all.
6: You’re on your Own
(As opposed to: Synergize)
A work of art is always a personal vision. Sure, creative collaborations exists, but they tend to get nasty: The singer yells at the guitarist, the producer yells at them both, the film director yells at everyone in sight. At best these collaborations are never a democratic process towards common consensus. They are Darwinian struggles which only the fittest artistic vision survives. And if possible, every artist will always prefer to do anything himself, Übermensch-style.
7: Dull the Blade
(As opposed to: Sharpen the Saw)
Business people have it easy – after all, they just have to focus on making money. Art, on the other hand, is serious work – dealing with life and death and love and the plight of humanity. Of course you can’t keep that level of seriousness up forever. Why do you think painters drink and rock stars take drugs? The businessman may live and breathe his job. But to preserve his sanity (or what’s left of it), the artist has to pull the plug every once in a while.