How consistency can drive creative output

How consistency can drive creative output

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I’m often asked to distill my post-Wall Street career transformation into some simple advice. And when I think about my business today – the speaking engagements, consulting, coaching, and press there’s one thing that sticks out: a consistent writing practice.

People assume that I’ve always been a writer. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, as a Computer Science major, I avoided English and Humanities classes like the plague, didn’t read fiction for a decade (in favor of technical white papers), and only started writing at age 35 (for an audience of five people). I still struggle to self-identify as a writer, instead opting for the moniker “accidental creative” (which reeks of imposter syndrome).

The power of compounding

One of my personal philosophies is to “compound small wins over the long-term.” I’ve used it in investing, fitness, career development, and now as a solopreneur. It’s a patient approach that is about putting one foot in front of the other versus hitting home runs. The author of Peak Performance: Elevate you game, avoid burnout with the new science of success Brad Stulberg succinctly describes this approach in a tweet:

We’ve all felt the pull to be consistently heroic. The “silver bullet” workout that will magically your fitness goals appear. The “super-habit” that will quell your anxiety. The “next project” that will deliver product-market fit to your startup.

Not only is this approach unsustainable, Stulberg adds that it “takes a huge toll emotionally, physically, and cognitively.” But what about the opposite, being heroic at consistency? This activates compounding, and over time “good enough over and over again makes you great.”

The consistent creator

But don’t just take it from me. Take the “accidental illustrator” Mari Andrew who started sharing her crude watercolors each day on Instagram. The novelist Ray Bradbury also embraced consistency in his creative process, and advised the same to other writers, suggesting they would find success if they wrote a short story every week since it wasn’t “possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.” And what about super-agent Ari Emmanuel (who inspired the Entourage character) – notorious for making 300 short calls a day to his clients asking “Can I help? All good? You need anything?”

Why consistency works

Many of you readers have graciously been on the receiving end of my attempts at heroic consistency – the newsletter (approaching three years), Snapchat stories (250 stories), podcast (52 weeks), and Instagram posts (one month). I’m humbled but also deeply grateful because you’ve had to suffer through a lot of my own self-experimentation (and failed experiments, like my disastrous attempt at inspirational Instagram memes).

Creating with consistency is challenging. The sheer volume forces you to widen your creative apertureOn the days when you find yourself stuck – the proverbial writer’s block – you have to dig deep to get over that hump. With time, this compounds your creative confidence. And in a digital world, the feedback loops are much quicker – allowing you to A/B test your ideas in real time.

But the greatest benefit comes from improving your clarity of thinking. Here’s Fred Wilson, the founder of Union Square Ventures, on the benefit of daily blogging for fifteen years:

For me, I have gained a daily practice that starts me off with a wide-open mind, that makes me think and articulate that thinking, that has led to numerous spectacular investments and has honed my ability to communicate, not just in the written word, but also in many other ways.

He’s created his own luck with his heroic consistency.

A quick warning

But consistency can also be a double-edged sword. First, one can become so obsessed with the process and lose sight of the bigger picture. The desire for consistency can become overwhelming, suck the joy out of the process culminating in creative burnout. Exacerbating matters, the burnout is often accompanied by increased guilt and self-loathing. Often times, the best remedy is taking a break – which can feel difficult and contradicting. Personally, I felt the impeding burnout at the tail end of the podcast and this summer with the email newsletter. Once I took the break, I felt like I could breathe again – a sign that I had taken the consistency too far.

Then there’s the issue of identity. The exact thing I’m doing with this post; stating that “I’m proud that I’m heroically consistent.” Attaching to certain identities is restrictive and can set you up for internal strife – what if your situation changes? What if you no longer value consistency? The label becomes much harder to shake. So clearly I still have a lot to learn!

A marathon, not a sprint

Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way coined the practice of the morning pages, the practice of writing each morning. She adds:

Growth is an erratic forward movement: two steps forward, one step back. Remember that and be very gentle with yourself. A creative recovery is a healing process. You are capable of great things on Tuesday, but on Wednesday you may slide backward. This is normal. Growth occurs in spurts. You will lie dormant sometimes. Do not be discouraged.

A just like running, she adds: “Marathon runners suggest you log ten slow miles for every fast one. The same holds true for creativity.”

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  • Atomic Habits, James Clear – The inability to launch new habits is a systems failure, not a willpower failure via @patricksouth (and many others).
  • The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron – The classic book on developing creative habits – instrumental for anyone trying to push forward unique ideas. via @tomcritchlow

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