5: Expect More
Last time we discussed self-care and sustainability. But sadly even if we find ourselves benefiting and creating maximum value in a sustainable way, we still aren’t home free. It’s not enough to keep on creating the same work if it no longer challenges you. In fact, I would argue that constantly improving the quality of your work and your relationship with your audience is just as important as creating something in the first place.
Recognising this is an important step but it’s difficult to action. How can we actually improve? Practising our craft is the most obvious choice and it is a solid option. However, practice alone will give you diminishing returns over time without any higher level vision. What else can we do?
- Ask your audience for feedback on your existing work
- Watch, read, listen to other creators wisdom
- Consume media for inspiration
- Improving your productivity and techniques themselves
- Tackling on more ambitious, complex or valuable projects over time
- Sharing more behind the scenes information
For some this process is mostly organic, they find themselves sourcing feedback and tackling larger projects over time. Even if you find yourself naturally doing it I think it is vital to take control of the process and direct your progression intentionally.
There is value in being happy where you are, focusing on the skills and projects nearing or reaching completion. In fact, our industry often clings to a false idea that the work ends at release. In reality, much work happens after D-Day, it is important to leave something in the tank. To tweak the common metaphor, release isn’t the finish line but just the first lap. It is healthy and normal to take some time after a project and let your tank refill, but recognise that as productive time too; you are consolidating and reinforcing the lessons you have learned. That differs from our Fifth Devly Sin: Mental Complacency. To become complacent is to become arrogant and uncritical of your work. This leads to an inability to recognise error or imperfection and an inability to improve. If you feel your work is perfect then you have nothing left to add and you are creatively dead.
It’s a falling leaf. It’s a symbol of contentment. Cool? Cool.
Rather than continue on this negative track, let’s focus on the positive - the Fifth Standard: Expect More. I’m a believer in the power our thoughts hold over us. Not in some supernatural sense, just that the climate you cultivate mentally skews every experience you have. You might be an optimist, so for you this looks like positive self-talk and reinforcement. If you are more dour, this might look like an honest evaluation of your work: “I’m not happy with this. I know I’ve done better work before.” Irrespective of your own personal outlook, expecting more of yourself and your work leads to better work. It is critical that you expect more of yourself as well as your work. Strike a balance with your self-care; it will you no good to make yourself miserable and lose all desire to work.
Improving Existing Work
It’s no secret that the only way to get better at something is to keep doing it. While this is a good start, augmenting this determination with feedback from others is where we start to get real benefit. Now I won’t spend too long on feedback here, people have written volumes before me and done a far better job.
We all know taking feedback is difficult, when you pour yourself into a project it can feel like your personal identity is under attack when someone criticises any aspect of it. It’s important to be able to separate yourself from your work mentally if you want to improve its quality—as an aside this is also a great idea for your own mental health. Still, there is much more to taking feedback than controlling our emotional reactions.
Our first feedback is likely to be from our family and our closest friends. This comes with a challenge, we will want to immediately change our work so that these people who are important to us will like it more. Here-in lies the feedback trap, it’s fairly likely that any individual piece of feedback you receive is… wrong. Perhaps not objectively but if you try and please everyone you will quickly realise you end up pleasing no-one, least of all yourself.
Feedback takes on a new level of utility when we instead analyse it in aggregate. With a volume of feedback we can identify themes and patterns in people’s reaction and these are worth acting on. Furthermore, think about what authority your sources of feedback have - there is value in every opinion you get, but keep in mind the background and experience behind the opinion. Don’t go to majority groups for diversity advice; don’t look for “average” opinions in fringe groups.
Remember that what makes your work distinct is that it carries with it your creative voice and this must be preserved; design by committee is a famously useless process.
I have a personal infatuation with productivity. In my experience focusing on how to be more productive has huge benefits to creativity in the long term. We can learn faster, iterate on our work faster and finish projects faster even while increasing their quality.
Improving your productivity forces you to become aware of and accept your work-styles. By reading and experimenting with different techniques you add other work-styles to your toolbox. This gives you flexibility above all else and you can tackle projects that previously seemed impossible by being more disciplined.
Unfortunately, productivity is a space corrupted by amateur self-help writing. It’s notoriously difficult to separate hype from actual benefit and while there is massive value in learning about different tools and techniques but these should never steal focus away from actually getting work done. Be mindful that it’s possible to waste more time than you save on tweaking your systems, so be realistic about when to pursue future productivity instead of current progress.
An Aside on Iteration
When we start creating, we often have a notion that our work is done once we’ve translated something out of our heads and into the world. This could not be further from the truth: creators must nitpick, gain perspective and iterate on their work over and over if they wish to reach new heights.
This is often an uncomfortable realisation, culturally we regard creativity as being “natural” and the mechanical nature of iteration is quite the opposite. I’m going to address this by laying down some tough love: for the vast majority of us, creativity is 10% ideation and 90% hard work and discipline.
It is important to keep the stream of ideas alive at all costs, it’s pivotal to your own enjoyment, but accept sooner rather than later that there are no shortcuts here. One who simply sits around having ideas all day never ends up making anything.
Tackling Bigger Projects
As you aim to achieve bigger and better things it’s almost certain your project durations will start to blow out. You can get away with almost any approach when a project is over in a matter of weeks or even a few months… But when things start to stretch over years new challenges emerge.
99% of the challenge in constant improvement is finding the discipline to dedicate yourself to larger projects. Our difficulties grow from practical ones (project management, working efficiently day-to-day) to higher level ones (managing fluctuating motivation, questioning your creative worth). We’ve probably all seen or experienced someone taking on a project that’s just too large in scope for them. We have to recognise when something is unachievable, irresponsible or no longer rewarding.
So what are the common pitfalls to watch for? Here are the main three I’ve experienced:
Finding a balance between the various competing concerns in your life
When you’re passionate about something it’s easy to lose perspective and feel that nothing matters more than your work. Keep reality-checking yourself and re-balancing your life. What is the point of expressing ourselves if we are no longer enjoying our lives?
Ensuring ongoing sustainability (burnout, relationships, time off)
We covered this in Sustain Self, understand that you are human and you cannot expect continuous and consistent output ad infinitum.
Disappointing yourself when you cannot reach the standard you set
Aiming to do better every time can leave us with some very warped perspectives. Our old work will look terrible, perhaps even the work we did this morning will start to frustrate us. Why can’t we live up to the image in our heads?
There’s always a bigger mountain to climb. Some of them are even on fire for extra challenge.
It’s all too easy to discredit all the progress we’ve made so far and to get caught up comparing ourselves to others. When you find yourself falling into this thought pattern take a moment to appreciate how far you’ve come and how far you still have to go. This is a life-long journey, how can you expect to be “done” one day? Keep that map in your head of the years and projects to come. Don’t be afraid to dream big, but aim to start with the smallest version of your biggest idea. That’s our Fifth Standard:
Through the process of creating a product you should aim to not only gain benefit but also aim to educate and improve yourself. Rest well. Dream big. Be better.