Here’s a commencement speech, made by an artist to a group of graduating artists just a few weeks ago. It lays out six lessons for the trained but inexperienced artist about to enter the world in search of work and a fulfilling professional life.
The talk is clever, entertaining, and profound. It’s also relevant to a whole bunch more people than graduating artists. If you consider your work art, and you should, then there are many lessons to be distilled here. More than six. And they’re applicable to a lot of professionals, no matter how experienced.
If you can’t see the embedded video, click here.
Instead of making a plan, make a list
A lot of time is spent thinking linearly about careers and about life. But things don’t always happen sequentially (often they don’t), self-imposed prerequisites are often unnecessary, and it’s impossible to plan a path going forward in too much detail. A simple list highlights goals that can be aspired to and accomplished in a variety of ways – and it’s easier to create!
Find the boundaries on your own
Don’t worry so much about learning all the rules and limits. Ignorance about how things are (or should be) done may allow you may stumble into the most creative solutions.
Action trumps everything
If you want to do something, then go and do it. You’ll learn more by doing stuff than by any other means. And sooner or later you’ll become good at it.
Set big, distant goals and try to move toward them
Embrace vagueness. The detailed plan isn’t the way to go, but you need some way to give yourself direction. Use big goals and accept that the path will be unclear and may be quite meandering at times. If the goal is big enough, you’ll be able to keep an eye on whether you are moving toward or away from it at the different decision points along the way.
When your work feels adventurous, that means you’re learning, and that makes it feel more fun and less like work.
Accept that success is in the minority
A reasonable ratio for success is 1 in 100. So, just do work that you’re proud of, and do a lot of it. Eventually some if it will pay off. Don’t worry so much about the work that doesn’t seem like it’s paying off – if you’re being adventurous and you’re doing work that you’re proud of, you’ll at least enjoy the process and the results.
Doing things just for the money is almost always a mistake
The path to unlocking your true genius is likely not through the checkbook. People create better stuff when intrinsically motivated, when the work is a labor of love, when it’s fun. That process is rarely (if ever) sparked by a strict focus on financial gain.
When you do achieve success, know that you deserve it
Impostor syndrome can creep in at any point along the way. Often that’s what stops you from trying many things. But it can also pop up when you’ve already proven successful. Recognize this and expect it. Then, set it aside when it appears. You’ve earned success.
Being successful means saying no to some things
Once your near, or at, that big mountain goal, the world will conspire to move you away from it. At that point, you need to say no to things that will take you off the mountain (in the same way you said yes to things that moved you toward it).
Mistakes mean you’re doing something
Mistakes are the result of actions, so making mistakes means you’re doing something. You’re moving toward your goals, you’re experimenting, you’re learning – those are all good things!
Do good work, always
Making good art, or doing good work, regardless of the circumstances. Do it simply because you enjoy it and it puts a little bit of you out into the world, and that’s always the right thing to do. Don’t let distractions and excuses from the rest of your life deter you. Your art, your work, is the thing you own exclusively and what you create is yours alone in the end. Don’t let others take you off track.
Develop your own style
When you embark on something new, it’s ok to lean on precedents, guides, and mentors. But ultimately, you need to seek your own voice, your own style, in order to put forth something truly unique, something that is fully yours. And doing that is going to create the most value for others, and the most satisfaction for you.
As you work on your craft, you’ll never know in advance what’s going to resonate with others. And you may find it difficult or impossible to deduce the formula even after you’ve created things that resonate strongly with others.
Play well with others
You’re going to work with other people and they are going to have an impact on your success. Getting along with others is important. The secrets here are really quite simple – strive to do good work, deliver on time, and be easy to get along with. Recognize that you must do at least two of these things, but try to do all three.
Don’t worry so much
Anxiety isn’t productive, particularly when we need to embrace uncertainty on our nonlinear journey toward an unpredictable pattern of successes. Be present as much as possible, and enjoy success when it happens.
The harder you work, the luckier you’ll be
Luck is important, and it can happen with little involvement from you. But you can encourage luck by being active constantly, and by being prepared for it when it arrives.
The rules are changing
We are living in changing times. Many rules, business models, and ways of doing things are in flux. That means a good deal of uncertainty, but also a good deal of opportunity to help shape the new way of doing things. Embrace change, help shape the future.
Fake it till you make it
If you think you can’t do something, pretend that you are someone who can do that thing and then just do what they would do. Remember, action trumps everything and learning from experience is the best way to learn.