These two skills changed everything for me

Today I want to talk about the two skills I focus on every single day in order to push my creative work forward. These are habits I see used again and again by successful writers and artists to find clarity amidst chaos; to feel a true sense of accomplishment, even when they experience setbacks.

So what are the two skills that I see in every single creative professional I meet? These:

Ambition is a skill. It helps drive you when nothing is clear. When everything feels like chaos. When every piece of feedback you receive, takes the wind out of your sails.

Ambition is also what keeps you from settling. Keeps you from stopping at the first failure or roadblock you experience. Ambition makes you question what is “normal” in order to find what is meaningful. Ambition comes from within — something that drives you. You can’t borrow ambition, you can’t fake ambition.

Ambition is not just about how many hours you throw at something, it is about the energy and enthusiasm. Let’s say you are trying to write your first novel. Ambition can look like this: spending 15 minutes per day — every day — working on your novel and sticking with it to the end.

Ambition can be leveraged with total simplicity, and with the resources you have at hand. In fact, that is where ambition thrives.

Ambition is often what separates a hobby from a profession. It is, of course, okay to be a hobbyist with your creative work. But when we look at classic stories of how a creative professional found success — such as this one with Ira Glass — what you realize is that ambition is what bridged the gap between being an amateur, and creating work that truly touches millions.

Developing habits, reaching milestones, doing great work — is all a process of finding out how to do it. It requires not just a plan, but the gumption to work around unforeseen roadblocks. It requires not just a great idea, but the ability to work with collaborators to make it happen. It requires not just being good at something, but to do so while juggling family, finance, health, and the other various hats you wear.

A year ago, Bryan Harris shared a video on this theme called “Figure it Out.” His tone is a bit edgier than I take with this, but the message is similar.

Without ambition and the drive to “find out,” your life is filled with so many more roadblocks:

  • With every opportunity, you can only see pitfalls.
  • You feel so overwhelmed that you can’t take any action because you can’t imagine “taking on more work.”
  • What seems “reasonable” has clear boundaries which you uphold. Which means your potential has clear boundaries.
  • Waiting for the “perfect” answer seems like the best and most logical choice. You wait for others to figure it out, so that they illustrate it is safe, and then you — along with thousands of others — try to poorly copy it.

The process of finding ambition and figuring it out is what I go through with every single one of my clients. Do I share lots of advice based on experience working with hundreds of creative professionals? Of course. But for each client, their context is unique, and working with them means that I am in the trenches with them finding the enthusiasm to figure it out for them.

Why do I love this? Because often we find that the answer involves this:

Creativity and simplicity reign — we don’t develop a complicated system, but rather focus on innovative — and fun — ideas that feel great.

If you pay attention, you’ll see this in people who are wildly effective. An example I saw this week: I was re-watching a documentary on the 1986 movie Aliens, directed by James Cameron. In it, they describe how James simplified the Alien costume. How, instead of adding to it and making it more imposing, he simplified it. He took everything he could away from it, so it was a simple body suit with a few protrusions attached to it.

His goal was this — to give the actors maximum mobility, and to use shadow and light to project an image of a terrifying monster.

He focused less on how the Alien looked, and more on what it was capable of, and how it moved. He felt it would be more terrifying for the audience — and he was right. His solution was one of simplicity.

None of this is about being aggressive. In fact, I would say that the skills of ambition and finding out better allow me to:

Listen better — because I want to learn.
Have more room for empathy — because I want to understand.
Help others more effectively — because I want to have an impact in their lives.

In closing, I have two questions for you:

  1. What motivates you to take action? This can be a positive motivation (“I want to help others”) or a negative motivation (“I’m so envious of her success, I have to push myself harder”). I know, it’s better to be positive than negative, to be driven by an internal goal than external reaction to others. Yet, I have spoken to so many people who have used a negative emotion to drive the creation of amazingly positive work.
  2. What is the one thing — more than any other — that you want to figure out in your creative work by the end of this year?