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The Practice: Shipping Creative Work (2020) by Seth Godin

Being creative is a choice and creativity is contagious.

Art is the generous act of making things better by doing something that might not work. The combination of talent, skill, craft, and point of view that brings new light to old problems. The way we change our culture and ourselves.

“One of the problems with art is that it is self-anointing: Anyone can be an artist by simply pointing to themselves and saying so. The truth is that there are very few artists. [Making the world a better place through art] is the highest attainment of the specialization. It is to recognize that it is not all about you, and that you have a communal function you can serve to help everyone get along. This is important for people to understand, especially in a capitalist society.”

But art doesn’t seek to create comfort. It creates change. And change requires tension. The same is true for learning. True learning (as opposed to education) is a voluntary experience that requires tension and discomfort (the persistent feeling of incompetence as we get better at a skill).

The trap is this: only after we do the difficult work does it become our calling. Only after we trust the process does it become our passion. “Do what you love” is for amateurs. “Love what you do” is the mantra for professionals.

If we condition ourselves to work without flow, it’s more likely to arrive.

Flow is a symptom of the work we’re doing, not the cause of it.

Our failure to trust ourselves can consume us. The scarcity cycle turns us selfish and makes us fail to trust others as well.

The same instinct to match whatever narrative is dominant pushes us to fit in instead of to stand out. It amplifies our fear at the same time it diminishes our contribution.

As we engage in the practice, we begin to trust the practice. Not that it will produce the desired outcome each time, but simply that it’s our best available option.

If you want to change your story, change your actions first. When we choose to act a certain way, our mind can’t help but rework our narrative to make those actions become coherent. We become what we do.

A good decision is based on what we know of the options and the odds. A good outcome happens or it doesn’t: it is a consequence of the odds, not the hidden answer. Decisions are good even if the outcomes aren’t.

Identity fuels action, and action creates habits, and habits are part of a practice, and a practice is the single best way to get to where you seek to go.

Do the work, become the artist. Instead of planning, simply become. Acting as if is how we acquire identity.

Reassurance is simply a short-term effort to feel good about the likely outcome. Reassurance amplifies attachment. It shifts our focus from how we persistently and generously pursue the practice to how we maneuver to make sure that we’re successful.

Choose to make work that matters a great deal to someone. Develop an understanding of genre, work to see your audience’s dreams and hopes, and go as far out on the edge as they’re willing to follow. Choose to be peculiar. Choose to commit to the journey, not to any particular engagement. Because you’re dancing on a frontier, it’s impossible that all of your work will resonate. That’s okay. Great work isn’t popular work; it’s simply work that was worth doing.

And Maybe You’re Trying to Do Two Things at Once The first thing is making exactly what you want, for you. And the second thing is making something for those you seek to connect and change. Pursuing either is fine. Pursuing both is a recipe for unhappiness, because what you’re actually doing is insisting that other people want what you want and see what you see. Most of us would like that—we might even deserve it after all the work we invest—but that doesn’t mean it’s likely to happen.

As William Gibson has said, “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Every cultural change follows precisely the same uneven path.

Being hated by many (and loved by a few) is a sign that the work is idiosyncratic, worth seeking out, and worth talking about.

Our desire to please the masses interferes with our need to make something that matters. The masses want mass entertainment, normal experiences, and the pleasure of easy group dynamics. The masses want what the masses want. We already have plenty of stuff that pleases the masses.

We are in free fall. Always. Attachment pushes us to grab ahold of something. Attachment is about seeking a place to hide in a world that offers us little solace. But of course, the bad news is that there is no foundation. We’re always falling. The good news is that there’s nothing to hold onto.

When we get really attached to how others will react to our work, we stop focusing on our work and begin to focus on controlling the outcome instead.

Becoming unattached doesn’t eliminate our foundation. It gives us one.

Believing that we’re owed something is a form of attachment.

The feeling of being owed (whether it’s true or not) is toxic. Our practice demands we reject it.

We can begin with this: If we failed, would it be worth the journey? Do you trust yourself enough to commit to engaging with a project regardless of the chances of success? The first step is to separate the process from the outcome. Not because we don’t care about the outcome. But because we do.

The time we spend worrying is actually time we’re spending trying to control something that is out of our control.

The practice is choice plus skill plus attitude. We can learn it and we can do it again.

Go too far to please the audience and you become a hack. Lose your point of view, lose your reason for doing the work, become a hack. Focus only on the results, become a hack. On the other hand, if you ignore what you see and simply create for yourself, you’ve walked away from empathy.

When we are generous with our work, we have the chance to earn trust and attention, and if we’re fortunate, we will find the people who are ready to go on our journey. Those people will eagerly pay, because what we offer them is scarce and precious.

No property is more private than your voice. Your dreams and fears and contributions are yours—peculiar to you, idiosyncratic.

The industrialized economy, which is now drawing to a close, was mostly about hiding your peculiarity. It was organized around cogs, replaceable parts, and the endless drive to fit in as much as possible. If you had a voice, you were encouraged to lower it. If we wanted your opinion, we would have asked for it. If you wanted to make change, you should keep that desire to yourself.

Better clients demand better work. Better clients want you to push the envelope, win awards, and challenge their expectations. Better clients pay on time. Better clients talk about you and your work. But finding better clients isn’t easy, partly because we don’t trust ourselves enough to imagine that we deserve them.

Better clients are demanding. They demand more rigorous deadlines, but they also pay more. They demand extraordinary work, but they’re more respectful. And they demand work they can proudly share with others. Better clients also have good taste.

You earn better clients by becoming the sort of professional that better clients want. It’s lonely and difficult work. It’s juggling—throw and throw, and one day, the catching will take care of itself.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t a moral choice, it’s simply a practical one. If you’re committing to the process, you’ll need to choose. Choose who it’s for and what it’s for. And the more different the person you serve is from you, the more empathy you’ll need to create the change you seek to make.

Sooner or later, the culture changes. But not because you brought everyone an idea. Because their friends and family and colleagues did. That’s how widespread change always happens. First from the source, but mostly from the sides.

First, find ten. Ten people who care enough about your work to enroll in the journey and then to bring others along.

Once you choose which subgroup to tell your story to, which subgroup needs to change, this group becomes your focus. What do they believe? What do they want? Who do they trust? What’s their narrative? What will they tell their friends?

What do they believe? Who has hurt them, double-crossed them, disappointed them? Who inspires them, makes them jealous? Who do they love, and why?

There’s a tension, the gap between what the work wants and what the person paying for it wants. Dancing in that gap is the work of creating our art. On one hand, the self, your self, has a vision for a possible future. On the other, the person you’re seeking to serve and lead brings a set of expectations and desires to your work. The two will never be perfectly aligned, and this friction is the place where your work can thrive.

To cause change to happen, we have to stop making things for ourselves and trust the process that enables us to make things for other people. We need the practical empathy of realizing that others don’t see what we see and don’t always want what we want.

Again, it’s easy to decide to avoid being clear about the “what’s it for.” If you announce what something is supposed to do, it’s difficult to avoid a feeling of failure when it doesn’t do what you said it was going to do.

Intentional action demands a really good reason. Find a who, make an assertion, and execute your work to deliver on that promise. You can’t find a good reason until you know what you’re trying to accomplish.

If you’re going to Huntsville, it’s okay to ask for directions. You’re not offended if someone tells you that you’ve taken a wrong turn. It’s not personal and it’s not devastating. It’s simply helpful advice on how to get where you’re going. That’s not going to happen if you’re unwilling to tell us where you’re hoping to go.

All of us get an endless supply of ideas, notions, and inklings. Successful people, often without realizing it, ignore the ones that are less likely to “work,” and instead focus on the projects that are more likely to advance the mission. Sometimes we call this good taste. It’s possible to get better at this pre-filtering. By doing it out loud. By writing out the factors that you’re seeking, or even by explaining to someone else how your part of the world works. Instinct is great. It’s even better when you work on it.

Each of us has worked with intention at least a little. The opportunity is to turn it from an occasional accident into a regular practice. We can return again and again to this simple narrative: This is a practice. It has a purpose. I desire to create change. The change is for someone specific. How can I do it better? Can I persist long enough to do it again? Repeat.

If you’re using any sort of self-control (there’s that “self” word again), then you’re not being authentic. Only a tantrum is authentic. Everything else we do with intention. If we’re going to act with intention and empathy, our path is clear.

Your audience doesn’t want your authentic voice. They want your consistent voice.

Not sameness. Not repetition. Simply work that rhymes. That sounds like you. We make a promise and we keep it.

When you trust yourself enough to turn pro, you’re entering into a covenant with those you seek to serve. You promise to design with intention, and they agree to engage with the work you promised to bring them.

Steven Pressfield wrote, “What have you and I been put on this Earth to do? Is it not the creation of the ‘inauthentic,’ that is the purposefully crafted, in order to deliver to others the gift and simulacrum of authenticity? That’s why they call it Art, and why, in some crazy way, it’s realer than real and truer than true.” Realer than real and truer than true. That’s the authentic we seek. That’s the work of creation. To invent something, not to discover it. Steven and I couldn’t agree more about authenticity. But it’s still a powerful place to hide.

Inauthentic means effective, reasoned, intentional. It means it’s not personal, it’s generous. The hack can’t do this. The professional can choose to.

From an early age, high achievers are taught to sacrifice independent thought for a good grade. We’re taught that compliance will be rewarded by being picked. And the biggest pick for many kids is the approval that comes from a famous college (or the improv group that’s running auditions at said famous college). This desire for external approval and authority directly undermines your ability to trust yourself, because you’ve handed this trust over to an institution instead.

Credentialing wouldn’t have the power it does if we didn’t eagerly embrace our lack of a credential as the perfect place to hide. After all, if you haven’t been picked, you’re off the hook.

And if you don’t have the means to apply or pay for the credential, you don’t even have to bother getting rejected, because you’ve already rejected yourself.

But of course, there’s no such thing as being blocked. Because being creative is a choice.

If your story isn’t working for you, you can find a better one to take its place.

Certainty, then, must be elusive, because we can’t know for sure. The elusiveness isn’t a problem, it’s not a bug, it’s not something to be eliminated. The uncertainty is the point.

If it’s getting in your way, then instead of trying to change the outside world to match your expectations of it, it might pay for you to change the narrative instead.

Our narrative informs our choices, our commitments, and most of all, our ability to make a difference in the culture. It’s the frame we use to interpret the world around us.

The real lesson of improv is the power of uncertainty and the acknowledgment of the absurdity of writer’s block. Improv keeps moving, so there’s no writer’s block. But there’s still lousy improv, because of ego, seeking control. There is fear, putting up walls, and stopping the process. When we let the ego subside and acknowledge the fear, then we’re able to say “yes, and . . .”

True fans require idiosyncrasy. True fans are looking for something peculiar, because if all they wanted was the Top 40 or the regular kind, they could find it far more easily from someone who isn’t you.

Gifts from your former self to the self of today.

The helpful critic understands this. She’s more likely to say, “I love x, y, and z, and we could make the other parts even better by . . .” Because that bypasses the brittleness. Sunk costs are real, but sunk costs must be ignored.

You are not your work. Your work is a series of choices made with generous intent to cause something to happen. We can always learn to make better choices.

Creators flee the bogeyman every day. They invent new powers for him, imagining his ability to destroy the work and derail a career. The more power you give him, the more power he has. But only if you’re afraid to look at him. As soon as you look him in the eye, he vanishes.

My daily activities are not unusual, I’m just naturally in harmony with them. Grasping nothing, discarding nothing . . . Drawing water and chopping wood.

To do it without commentary or drama. To do it without regard for things that are out of your control. To do it without relying on the outcome being what you hoped for.

External success only exists to fuel our ability to do the work again.

Seeing the tools and ingredients, ready to go, prepared with care, opens the door for intentional action.

The internet brings uninvited energy, positive and negative, to the work we set out to do. It opens an infinite spigot of new ideas, new tools, and new people for the project. If you want to create your work, it might pay to turn off your wi-fi for a day. To sit with your tools and your boundaries and your process and nothing else. There is time to engage with the world after we do our work, but right now, we fill the cup and we empty the cup. We sit and type and then we type some more.

Desirable difficulty is the hard work of doing hard work. Setting ourselves up for things that cause a struggle, because we know that after the struggle, we’ll be at a new level. Learning almost always involves incompetence. Shortly before we get to the next level, we realize that we’re not yet at that level and we feel insufficient. The difficulty is real, and it’s desirable if our goal is to move forward.

Don’t worry about changing the world. First, focus on making something worth sharing. How small can you make it and still do something you’re proud of?

We can make a sincere promise about the future if we believe we’ve got a shot at keeping that promise. Overpromising is not a professional’s habit. Welcome to the practice.

We promise to ship, we don’t promise the result.

Good needs to be defined before you begin. What’s it for and who’s it for? If it achieves its mission, then it’s good. If it doesn’t, then either you were unlucky, incorrect, or perhaps, what you created didn’t match what you set out to do.

The world is too busy to consider your completely original conception. The people you bring your work to want to know what it rhymes with, what category it fits in, what they’re supposed to compare it to. Please put it in a container for us, they say. We call that container “genre.” That’s not a cheap shortcut; it’s a service to the person you’re seeking to change.

Genre is a box, a set of boundaries, something the creative person can leverage against. The limits of the genre are the place where you can do your idiosyncratic work. To make change happen, the artist must bend one of those boundaries, one of those edges. Generic is a trap, but genre is a lever.

Begin with genre. Understand it. Master it. Then change it.

Before we can begin to make it different, we have to begin with what’s the same.

What makes us not a chimp is the last little bit. That’s all you need. The smallest viable breakthrough.

If we choose a genre, we’ve just made a series of promises.

Without genre, we’re unable to process the change you seek to make. It’s too difficult to figure out what you are doing and for whom, so we walk away.

There’s plenty of time to make it better later. Right now, your job is to make it.

There’s nothing wrong with the non-believers. They don’t have a personality disorder and they’re not stupid. They’re simply not interested in going where you’re going, not educated in the genre in which you work, or perhaps not aware of what your core audience sees.

Skill. The best swimmers swim differently than the ones who don’t perform as well. They do their strokes differently; they do their turns differently. These are learned and practiced skills. Attitude. The best swimmers bring a different attitude to their training. They choose to find delight in the parts that other swimmers avoid.

When you’re surrounded by respected peers, it’s more likely you’ll do the work you set out to do. And if you’re not, consider finding some. Find this cohort with intent. Don’t wait for it to happen to you. You don’t need to be picked—you can simply organize a cohort of fellow artists who will encourage themselves.

When we think of an artist we admire, we’re naming someone who stands for something. And to stand for something is to commit.

But first, each of us must choose. Choose the skill we’re going to assert to the outside world. Even if it comes at the cost of neglecting some of the work you used to do that, in the end, was simply a distraction.

Good taste is the ability to know what your audience or clients are going to want before they do. Good taste comes from domain knowledge, combined with the guts and experience to know where to veer from what’s expected. Veer enough times, watch what the market does, and learn from that. That’s the formula for good taste. Good taste means that you understand genre and its benefits even more than the fans do.

Some of the most important work goes on in live theater, a room with no retakes, no special effects, and a tiny budget. That’s because it’s constraints that enable us to create art. Art solves problems in a novel way, and problems always have constraints.

Finding the constraints and embracing them is a common thread in successful creative work.

In fact, overconfidence is one of the symptoms that you might not trust yourself yet. Because overconfidence, like all forms of resistance, is a way to hide. Don’t sabotage the work by ignoring the practice. Trust yourself to find a way forward, but seek out the resilience you’ll need to persist as the practice continues.

By searching for (and then embracing) a practice that contributes to the people we care about, we can find a path forward. That path won’t always work, but we can trust ourselves enough to stick with it, to lean into it, to learn to do it better.

The alternative is corrosive. When we begin to distrust our own commitment to the practice, we’re left with nothing but fear. When we require outcomes as proof of our worth, we become brittle, unable to persist in the face of inevitable failure on our way to making a contribution. No one can possibly do a better job of being you than you can. And the best version of you is the one who has committed to a way forward. Your work is never going to be good enough (for everyone). But it’s already good enough (for someone).

Creative is a choice. Avoid certainty. Pick yourself. Results are a by-product. Postpone gratification. Seek joy. Understand genre. Embrace generosity. Ship the work. Learn from what you ship. Avoid reassurance. Dance with fear. Be paranoid about mediocrity. Learn new skills. Create change. See the world as it is. Get better clients. Be the boss of the process. Trust your self. Repeat.

The path forward is about curiosity, generosity, and connection. These are the three foundations of art. Art is a tool that gives us the ability to make things better and to create something new on behalf of those who will use it to create the next thing. Human connection is exponential: it scales as we create it, weaving together culture and possibility where none used to exist.

Curriculum Vitae (CV)