4 Undeniable Rules of Creative Work

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The Lady Gaga instrumental crooned as I moved into downward dog.

41 days after a complete mental breakdown, I pulled my tailbone to the sky as the music played. There were no words, but as a not-so-closeted pop fan, I sang them in my head.

“Hello, hello baby. You called, I can’t hear a thing.”

With the rest of the class, I pushed my right leg far into the air, then placed it back. 17 bodies moved from downward dog into Warrior 1, with left legs lunging and arms overhead. My thoughts were melting away, replaced by only instructor’s voice.

“I have got no service in the club, you see see.”

Lift the right leg off the mat and lean forward into Warrior 3.

“What what what did you say, aw you’re breaking up on me.”

Pull the right leg back and spread arms into Warrior 2.

“Sorry, I cannot hear you, I’m kinda busy”

Most people probably don’t receive a significant spiritual insight from Lady Gaga lyric. I am not one of those people. Tears peeked into the corners of my eyes as we maneuvered toward tree pose.

“Kinda busy.”

These were the words I told my wife as my workload shuffled from medium to high to unbearable. Not that I would ever freely admit it was unbearable. No, what caused that were flu-like symptoms which resulted in my inability to move, breathe, or think.

“Are you okay?” asked a coworker.

No. I wasn’t.

Can I be honest? Part of my work overwhelm was a lack of focus. Who was I? Was I the Todd who wanted to be Tony Robbins or the Todd who wanted to be James Altucher or the Todd who wanted to be Malcolm Gladwell or the Todd who wanted to be 6?

My confusion expanded exponentially with my workload. I would do anything and everything which I thought might get me ahead.

(I still laugh about using that word — “ahead.” Ahead of whom? And where were we going?)

Instead of deciding to Quit, I just quit. 45 days, no published posts. That was the rule. Anything would be better than this nonsense. Several existential crises, many conversations with my wife, and a yoga habit later, here’s what I realized:

I am here to help you do better creative work.

That is it. That is all. You can talk to Hal Elrod for morning advice. You can read Eric Reis to learn about startups. You can pour through the work of Tim Urban to learn interesting information about the world at large.

But if you are a creative person, if you feel like you have a work of art dying to get out of you, come to me.

If you have ever struggled with the process, the motivation, or the execution of such an overwhelming calling, I’m your guy. I got you.

I will support you.

I will care for you.

I will love you.

I will advise you (if you want).

If nothing else, I will stand here, week after week, and say these words:

You are not alone.

And now, a few things I have learned after nearly 10 years of creating things for a living.

Be Transparent

Probably nobody does this better than comedian Bo Burnham, who found success as a random kid on YouTube and now directs Netflix specials for legends like Chris Rock.

At the end of Burnham’s own 2016 special — Make Happy — the scrawny 25-year-old tells the audience:

“I could sit here and pretend like my biggest problems are Pringles cans and burritos. The truth is my biggest problem is you.

I want to please you, but I want to stay true to myself.

I want to give you the night out you deserve, but I want to say what I think and not care what you think about it.

A part of me loves you. A part of me hates you. A part of me needs you. A part of me fears you.”

Businessman will not tell the truth. Marketers will not tell the truth. Schools will not tell the truth.

Real artists will tell the truth.

I almost didn’t put this here because I worried you wouldn’t read until the end. It’s that good.

Know the trends

Just like you, I heard the song “Despacito” approximately one billion times.

Just like you, it’s become clear to me that Spanish as a language is on the rise.

Just like you, I have seen the world realize *just* how much privilege rich, white people have gotten.

So, no, it does not surprise me Taylor Swift is going on tour with Camila Cabello.

Be a child

In 1993, Howard Gardner published a book which would turn out to be one of the seminal studies on creative people. Gardner, who is responsible for the idea intelligence can take many forms, analyzed the lives of 7 important creative figures across many different domains. I’ll call them The Big Seven:

  • T.S. Eliot (poet)
  • Igor Stravinsky (composer)
  • Albert Einstein (mathematician)
  • Sigmund Freud (psychologist)
  • Martha Graham (dance and choreography)
  • Mahatma Ghandi (activist)
  • Pablo Picasso (painter)

If you haven’t heard of Gardner, you most likely know the work of his colleague — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi wrote a book called “Flow,” which is mostly famous for this concept:

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The two men worked together to define what they would call the “Triangle of Creativity.” Each of the points on the triangle refers to a different influence on whether or not a subject could be sufficiently called “creative:”

  • The Individual
  • The Domain
  • The Field

It’s the first category which means the most to me. Guess what they decided matters significantly when it comes to the quality of creative work?

How well an adult brought his inner child into his profession.

And NOT — how many hours the individual worked, how disciplined the individual was, how genetically lucky they were.

Many contemporaries of The Big Seven, it was theorized, never questioned the assumptions taught to their inner child. They no longer asked the persistent and unanswerable query of the toddler.


Gardner points out that Einstein specifically became famous by developing theories which stemmed from questions of his youth.

Children play. They break things. They are insatiable. Perhaps most importantly, they stand out in a world which screams at them to fit in.

Maybe that makes the biggest difference.

Have a process

One time, King of Medium Benjamin P. Hardy and I met at a Sonic in Bellevue, Tennessee.

(Sonic was a mere choice of convenience, not cuisine, as Ben drinks neither coffee nor sugar. Processed foods don’t make the list either. All of this is inconsequential… except for the fact I had to skip over my cheesy tots during this particular conversation.)

After some time, he asked me this:

“I mean, how many hours do you actually spend writing? It can’t be that much, right? Most of the process for me is research and reading.”

Ben is a machine of efficiency. In my imagination he reviews research from 6–8:27 A.M., remembers enough of it to write a 2,000 word post over the next 47 minutes and 13 seconds, then publishes that post and goes out for a jog. After setting a PR for the miles (again), he probably checks casually to see that his latest writing has, indeed, received tens of thousands of claps.

I stammered out a reply, fingering the red mesh table between us.

“Yeah, I guess it’s mostly like that.”

What I didn’t mention was the 15 open tabs at any given time. I didn’t talk about the nearly illegible scribbles in a moleskine notebook acting as my Muse for the day. Ben never heard about my coffee and water breaks. Nor did I expand on chasing the dog across the living room in between sentences.

It’s not uncommon I’m working through 4–6 posts at a time. Research happens in spurts, not batches. Typically I don’t know when or where lightning will strike. Maybe my idea will come from a scientific study or maybe an obnoxious pop song.

Here’s what I know, though.

Ben and I both start with nothing.

We both come back with something.

If you are able consistently find The Altar of the Muse, does it matter which road you take?

Thanks so much for reading this. Share it with someone who needs it.

Much love as always,

— Todd B

Originally published on toddbrison.com

And if you ever get stuck in your creative work,

This might help — a book I wrote called The Ultimate Guide to Infinite Ideas.

I’m giving it away for the price of an email address.

Get your copy here.

Written by

An optimist who writes. www.toddbrison.com/infinite-ideas

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