A friend sent me this great article in WIRED by illustrator and author Chris Niemman. The piece is a beautiful and moving look into the creative process and moving from very good work to exceptional. As you’d expect, it’s full of existential questions and the search for meaning.
I loved all of it, except this…
The idea here is that craft + routine can get you to very good. But to do something great (or, as I like to call, exceptional), it’s all luck.
I respectfully disagree.
I say “respectfully” because the rest of this post is amazing, and Chris is massively talented and hard working.
I say disagree because, well, it’s just so … unsatisfactory. It’s so hopeless. It’s awful to say that you don’t control your own ability to do great work. It cuts you out of the process and places your greatness into the hands of — what? The Muse? Others?
No. No I can’t accept that. I also don’t believe it.
I believe creating great work involves something you do control, it’s just that you control it long before you need it.
First and foremost, I believe it’s about equipping yourself with the skills and practice (both directly and indirectly related to your work) as well as the mentality and collection of experiences needed to succeed in a future moment. In other words, you don’t just sit on the couch and wait for luck to hit you.
In a future episode of Unthinkable (iTunes, SoundCloud), we’re doing a story about how the musician Sting can identify musical similarities between songs where you and I can’t. (Unfortunately, we couldn’t get Sting himself to appear…)
In the story, we learn that Sting doesn’t know HOW he comes up with the connections or even WHAT the connections are. But he does sense a connection. He does do something we’d dub “great.” He acts like a musical genius, really.
But he can only say, “I have this gut feel about it.”
That’s the “luck” explanation. It’s always described with the same set of words: luck, gut feel, inspiration, “ah ha! moments” etc.
To me, and to anyone trying to make great work for a living, they’re all such unsatisfactory, BS answers.
So, what did they do with Sting? They hooked him up to some kinda contraption used to measure brain signals, and they saw the connections being made in his brain (not gut) while he connected wildly different-sounding songs. They figured out that, by consuming and writing and playing a ton of music in his career, Sting had trained his brain acted like a filing cabinet. He’d filed away all these bits and pieces of past experiences, which his subconscious could pull out in the moment to make sense of things.
All this to say, in the moment, it’s a “gut feel.” It’s “luck.” It’s “an inspiration striking.” And while Sting didn’t consciously control the moment where he pulled out a connection others couldn’t see (the same skill enabling Sting to be GREAT) … it was still him doing it. It wasn’t an external force.
So, what can we control? Maybe not that moment where we chalk it up to luck. But we can back up a step from the moment creation today and actually control and be regimented about the stuff that comes before. We’re responsible for the preparation that allows us to “get lucky” in the future.
So it’s not actually luck. It’s hours, days, weeks, months, years of hard work. It’s caring deeply about your craft. It’s putting yourself in a position to succeed.
To call it luck is to render meaningless the same things that got you to very good. But it’s all a spectrum of quality and fulfillment. You don’t run up against a cliff at “very good” and suddenly need to make a leap to “great.” There are thousands of tiny steps in between the two. And going from “very good” to “very good-plus-one-step” isn’t about luck.
Eventually, neither is achieving great.
Thanks to Tommy Chou for sharing the original WIRED article with me. Check out his art here.
Thanks to Chris Niemann for putting forth an amazing and worthy read about creativity. Everyone should check it out here and support what Chris does!
This read pairs well with this podcast episode (one of our top-3 most popular!)
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