101 ways to ditch art school and still become a successful creative genius.

If I have learned anything, it’s how to learn new things.

I was homeschooled in elementary school where I mostly studied on my own. In high school, I spent most of my time avoiding classes to build my first internet business in the library. Then I skipped college in favor of reading books and starting businesses to gain practical experience. I’ve always been a fan of teaching myself and learning as I go.

Later, through my journeys in entrepreneurship, food blogging & food photography, graphic design, computer programming, writing, and now being almost totally absorbed with art and music, I’ve picked up a ton of tips, made a lot of mistakes, and (most importantly) learned how to learn in ways that can help me reach my ambitions.

Now as I pursue my own artistic visions, I wanted to put together this guide primarily as a reminder to myself, but also to share what I have learned about developing skills, setting goals, and achieving success outside of the traditional “system” – especially if you’re thinking of pursuing a career in a creative field like the arts. 

download this guide.

This guide is long. Clocking in at over 12,000 words, it is the longest article I have ever written. Because this feels more like a short book than a long article, I also packaged it into a downloadable 40-page eBook that I can send you (for free). It includes nicer formatting for reading on all your devices, and some worksheet spaces so that you can print it out and go through the steps. Enter your info below and my robots will email it to you right now:

Ultimately what follows is not designed to help you answer the question of whether you should or should not go to art school. It’s not that simple. These 101 steps are just my own personal roadmap of how to succeed with any type of creative work you are passionate about – with or without a formal education.

The overarching message of this guide is not that you “should not go to art school” (maybe you should?) but merely to show that it is essential in 2020 and beyond to take personal ownership of your creative vision. You must hold yourself accountable to do / learn / become whatever your goals demand of you.

I also want to point out that I designed everything that follows to be very non-specific. It applies to all types of artists and creators, no matter what your mediums or visions may be. If you want to be the 21st century Warhol and own the culture with your iconic visual art and marketing skill, this plan applies to you. If you want to be a freelance digital designer, this plan also applies to you. If you want to be a composer or regionally successful tech house DJ or genre fiction writer or even a tech entrepreneur, this plan applies to you, too.

The guide itself is divided into 10 categories, each with 10 steps. So let’s get started with the first and perhaps most important category:

1-10. Get Your Head in the Game

Success in any field is about 90% mental… and the other 10% is mental too. Before we can even take the first steps on this journey, you have to get control of your mindset – how you think about yourself, how you approach your career visions, and how you hold yourself accountable to results. This is essential in any project, but never more than when you’re stepping outside the established system and doing things on your own. I know, I know – answering these questions is sooo eye-roll-emoji, but having clarity on these central topics will make or break your creative dreams.

  1. Who are you? One of the most influential books in my life was written in the 1960s and has a scary-sounding name (Psycho-Cybernetics) but the premise is actually very simple – our lives always align with the identity we have chosen for ourselves. Identities are powerful. As an independent creative professional, you’ve got to build a definition of yourself, an identity, that is empowering. Start by writing out an empowering answer to who you are, as a creator, in a way that aligns with your creative visions. This is step #1 because if you don’t do this now, the world will do it for you and I guarantee you won’t like their definition of you.
  2. What’s your vision? Once you know who you are, the question is, where are you going? I am not a huge fan of setting goals because they are always arbitrary. You either fall way short and feel bad or shoot way past them and feel silly. Much better to identify a vision for where you want to be. It doesn’t have to be “X widgets sold by X date” but it should be a clear image of yourself living the life you want to live, something that actually feels emotionally inspiring. Think of your vision as a north star so that you can always reorient yourself towards it when things get tough.
  3. Why? Speaking of things getting tough: they will. One thing I can assure you about creative work is that things will get tough at some point during every day. Every day you will have to stare down some kind of demon that wants to distract or destroy you. The only way you survive is by having a compelling WHY. Why are you dedicating so much of your life to this work? Take this seriously. It needs to be a light that is powerful enough to cut through the many moments of darkness lying ahead.
  4. Where are your pitfalls? Looking at your visions, what do you consider to be the biggest risks that would prevent you from achieving your career / creative ambitions? Is it a lack of money? Is it a fear of failure? Is it an unsupportive family? Identify all the potential pitfalls you think you’re going to face. There will be many pitfalls that you can’t even imagine yet, but let’s start with the most obvious ones.
  5. How will you manage those risks? Now that you have clarified the big hangups that might jeopardize your chances of success, identify a way of avoiding those situations. Is it a lack of support from your family? Perhaps you need to join a meetup group of artists or find a group of friends who CAN give you that support. I can’t stress enough how much better your life will be if you take a minute to handle these dangers before they derail you.
  6. Who’s your pit crew? Think of yourself like a race car driver for a minute. You’re driving the car, you have the vision, it’s all in your hands. But you can’t do it alone. You need a pit crew, mechanics, a race engineer, and someone on the radio to keep you calm. Your creative work is no different. Identify a handful of people who will be on your team, who can give you emotional support, help execute your visions, or even offer mentorship. Write them down, and then send them a text saying, “hi you’re on my pit crew” with no further explanation 🙂
  7. How can you stay productive? Part of the problem with working on your own is that no one is there to tell you what to do. If you watch Netflix all day, no one cares. That’s dangerous. I previously wrote about my own productivity system and you can use that as inspiration, or find something entirely different. What matters is that you know your system and how to hold yourself accountable to it. [There’s a lot more advice on this subject in the rest of this guide, so feel free to read the rest before answering this one.]
  8. Where will you do your work? Space is actually a really important issue that often goes overlooked for artists. People doing creative work need a dedicated space to do it. School, in some cases, gives this to you. Without that, you’ll need to make sure you have your own space. This doesn’t have to be fancy. It could literally just be a walk-in closet that you turn into a mini recording studio, or a separate desk in the corner of your bedroom. It could be Starbucks. I don’t care, just identify a space that suits your specific type of work that can be reserved exclusively for this work.
  9. What are your unique gifts? It seems like the artist’s mind has an open door to inferiority. Doubts and insecurities just walk in whenever they want. You can be sure that the Inferiority Monster will LOVE the fact that you don’t have a degree like others in your industry. It will happily show you all the examples of successful artists who graduated from __ College or __ University and that’s why you suck at everything. You must get control of that situation before it ever starts. Your “why” above will help with this, but another technique is to identify what makes you special – why the world needs you, specifically, to create your work – why it would be “selfish” to hold back these gifts. You may not be a superstar genius (yet), but you DO have unique gifts and a unique vision to share. When you can tell the Inferiority Monster to back off because the world needs you to ___, you’re way ahead of the game.
  10. Where do you start? Finally, get back to the practical reality and identify one meaningful step you can take right now. All journeys feel overwhelming and the key is to break them down into small tasks that you can do in one sitting – even if you can’t see how they will lead to the final vision. Getting into action is essential, so take all of the above and distill it into a handful of simple actions that will lead to your vision. Then, go do them right now.

11-20. Read All the Books

As someone taking on the challenge of learning and developing a career independently, you’ve got to be comfortable with reading. Even if you’re one of those “visual learners” who doesn’t like to read books, still – books are and will continue to be the best, most highly-curated sources for absorbing new information and gaining a foundation of knowledge on any topic. Having direct access to the mind of an expert in the field who shares everything they know in an organized format is invaluable to your growth and success.

Once again, I’m not going to provide domain-specific book suggestions, like on painting techniques or color theory. Here, I want to go up to a higher level and share books that are required reading for anyone pursuing a life/career in the arts. I could probably list 30+ more, but these 10 books will give you such a solid grounding in what it means to be a creative professional. You’ll be forever two steps ahead of those who don’t have this knowledge:

  1. Mastery by George Leonard. I wouldn’t be nearly as far along on my creative journey if I hadn’t found this book. In about 100 tiny pages, it explains exactly why and how most people fail to build sustained “mastery” within a domain and shows how to avoid it (hint: love the plateaus). It totally changed my paradigm and saves me from failure almost every day.
  2. Mastery by Robert Greene. Yes, two books on mastery. After reading this one for the first time, I realized that mastery is really all I want in this world. What I want more than money and power and fame is mastery. This one will make a compelling case that mastering your domain is the most valuable thing you can do… and it will show you exactly how to do it while providing dozens of examples along the way.
  3. Creativity by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This book is long and boring and dry and not very much fun to read… but it has so many amazing little gems, I would still recommend it. Maybe you don’t have to read the whole thing, but definitely all of Part I and then Chapter 14 for some great insights on how we can intentionally model our lives after highly creative people.
  4. Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This is the book Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is known for, much more than the one above, and it is a better book. It’s all about his research into the state of flow that creators, athletes, performers, etc. reach when doing their work. You’ll learn so much about how to intentionally setup your work to reach this blissful, peak state more often and it will definitely impact your results.
  5. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. Required. Reading. This is probably the most important / inspiring book creative people can read. The premise is that resistance is trying to prevent us from doing the work that matters and we have to go to war against this resistance in order to create our work.
  6. Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield. Kind of the sequel/extension to the above, it goes further into the concept of amateurs (who give into resistance and let it beat them) vs professionals (who wake up and do the damn work no matter what) with tons of inspirational one-page chapters on how to actually do this.
  7. Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon. This viral bestseller that you have probably already read is a gem. It has 10 brilliant chapters that each feel like, “duh, why didn’t I think of this before now.” Austin Kleon has a way of distilling some mad wisdom into bite-sized chunks that will kick you into action… and if you like this, his two followups (Show Your Work and Keep Going) are just as good.
  8. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. You might not want to draw, fine, this book is an amazing exploration of how to activate your “right brain” creative mode no matter what the medium. You don’t have to do the drawing exercise, but I would recommend it even if fine art isn’t your goal.
  9. Daily Rituals by Mason Currey. A really fun little read where the author researched the daily habits of dozens of creative people throughout history and pulls back the curtain on what their daily lives were like. I picked up tons of hints on increasing my own results (and also felt better about some of my own quirks after reading about others who were even crazier than me).
  10. Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson. Okay. I’m biased because all I want to be when I grow up is Leonardo. But honestly, his creativity and unique way of thinking – as shown so well in this Walter Isaacson biography – will kick you to a higher level of possibility about your own creative potential.

21-30. Handle Your Business

It seems like the biggest value of art school is getting discovered. In some ways, it’s like investing $100,000 and years of your time into a lottery. The dream is that once you get into the MFA system, you can just focus on your “vision” and the industry will embrace you, and market you, and make all your dreams come true. I even remember reading a quote where someone said, “I had to get an MFA because I looked around and realized that 80% of the people getting shows were from good MFA programs.” A person with that mindset has no chance today. If you think the only thing standing between you and success is [not your work quality, not your unique message, not your communication skills] just whether or not you “get chosen” by fitting neatly into the standard mold… go back to 1955. What matters in 2020 is hustle. With a little effort and some street smarts, you can take control of the process and create far better odds than the “system” will give you. This section is about building your business skills so that you can actually sustain your art practice well into the future.

  1. You are a business now. Artists have a hard time with this one, but above all, you must remember that you are a small business owner now and your professional decisions need to be filtered through that model. Art can be esoteric, so instead imagine that you run a vegetable stand and your very livelihood depends on your ability to sell some vegetables. You’ve got to: invest your time into growing good vegetables… align your produce with what people want to buy… differentiate yourself from the other vegetable stands… manage your cost of materials like fertilizer and rent… market your veggies to the right audience… keep your books in order… and more. You will have so much more success if you think about your work in these terms from square one. “Turning a profit” may or may not sound sleazy to you in terms of your artwork, but just remember: it’s about sustainability. If you can’t thrive on your work, you can’t do your work. So, figure out some way to sell those tomatoes and turn some profits.
  2. Find your niche. It is essential that you carve out a unique place for yourself above the noise, above the 100,000 other people pursuing the same dreams. If you look/sound/act/paint just like them… why even bother? The world doesn’t need more of them, it already has way too many. Find your own unique space, something special that no one else can do. Marketing is a HUGE topic and we’re only scratching the surface in this section, but simply having this clear picture of what you do better/different than anyone else (and knowing how to communicate it) puts you a step ahead of the masses. In my own personal example, the niche I am carving out for myself is a creator who works across domains (painting to music to design to writing to science to programming and more) in order to see the bigger picture and make unique connections that no one else can make. In everything I do, I’m trying to communicate that unique value, whether it be a particular piece of work, or the vibe of my website, or this article. Even the [label.] name is all about this open-ended, undefined creative space that allows me to shift between mediums. So, find your unique value and be consistent with it.
  3. Build a website. What I love about websites is that they are spaces where you can communicate your unique value (see #22) better than anywhere else. You can own your name (literally, your domain name), present your work in whatever format makes sense, and build your email list. Most importantly, it will be there long after the latest social network fad is gone. A polished website will make everyone think you are SUCH a professional. This is literally the #1 step I would take. You can hire someone to help out (see #59), or use something like Wix or Adobe Portfolio to make it really easy.
  4. Blog > social media. Social media is seriously overrated right now because 1) everyone is doing it so the market is oversaturated and 2) it’s a very shallow type of value that has little staying power. I could write for days about the value of blogging to position yourself as a creative professional (or any type of professional), but the gist is that blogging (i.e. sharing your coherent thoughts with others) establishes you as an authority figure in ways that social media cannot. Best of all, blogs are enduring. A good post will still be there 10 years from now, ranking in Google, drawing eyeballs back to your work. It’s the marketing equivalent of passive income. A social media post, on the other hand, gives you a big hit of likes and then disappears forever.
  5. Blog for credibility. If you are not going to school, it can make you feel insecure about having less credibility than your peers. Who are you? Why does anyone care? Blogging is the #1 way to overcome this. Create a blog with 100+ articles that display your expertise in a certain field, grow it to just a few thousand readers a month, and no one will ever again ask you what school you went to or what qualifications you have. People will see you as a de facto expert in your field from then on.
  6. Build an email list. In my previous experience with my plant-based cooking business, I was able to grow my email list and Instagram accounts pretty evenly (both around 15-20k). When selling products, I saw a 100-200x higher return from my email list than Instagram. Not 200%, like twice as much, but literally $200 in sales for every $1 from Instagram. Being an “influencer” is having a moment (it will be dead soon), but all the old school marketing pros know that year after year, trend after trend, email marketing remains king when it comes to reaching customers and generating sales. No matter what you’re creating, having an email audience will be one of your biggest assets, so make it happen. This is another reason why having a website is so important, as most of your subscribers will come from your website. [By the way, if you scroll back to the top, you can download this entire guide as an eBook if you subscribe to my email list.] 🙂
  7. Study email marketing. Because this is so important, you will probably want email to form the core of your marketing strategy. That means you should be actively studying email marketing. We will discuss how to learn later in this guide, but I would highly recommend taking a course on email marketing from Udemy or some free online guides, searching for something like “how to do email marketing” will get you pretty far. At the very least, you want to have prominent signup forms on your website and give people a free gift or reward in exchange for joining, whatever makes sense for your work.
  8. Use social media (wisely). Social media does have its benefits, and I would recommend setting up basic accounts on all the major ones… but I would also recommend NOT using them all, for reasons already discussed. There are too many and most of them have very low return on the time you invest. Instead, I recommend choosing just one and treating it like a business investment and nothing more. That doesn’t mean you need to be boring and impersonal (don’t do that), but also be professional and use it as a marketing platform to build awareness and reach customers in whatever ways work for you. When you think about it like that, it stays in the right box and doesn’t take over your whole life. But now that you have your blog and social accounts, what do you actually post?
  9. Show Your Work. Austin Kleon (mentioned in the reading section) has another book called Show Your Work and it is basically the default answer to the question of, “what do I post on my blog / socials?” Show your Work. Give people a peek behind the curtains of your process and they will love it. There are TONS of books on social media and you should read them, but this is the one I think you, as an artist, need to read because it will forever help you understand how to create the “right” content for blog / social to grow your creative business.
  10. Go deep, not broad. Finally, a quick tip on building your audience. When you’re starting out, you don’t have very many fans or patrons. It can be tempting to reach for the broadest possible opportunities to get famous and make your work connect with everyone. That’s the surest way to get ignored. What you need instead is to provide DEEP value to a small group of people (10-100), your core fans, who will sustain you during these early years. Find ways to give these core people deep value. For example? Write a 12,000+ word article on skipping art school with everything you know. The people who actually bother to make it to #30 and beyond will feel much more “invested” in your work because of all the free value you gave them upfront…

31-40. Avoid the Vacuum

If you choose to pursue an independent creative career, the biggest mistake you can make is to be too independent. The vacuum of isolation – that space where you toil away in your basement without connecting with others – is absolutely deadly to your career ambitions. In fact, this is the biggest argument for going to school. You’ll be surrounded by peers and mentors without any effort on your part. But, if you don’t mind putting in that effort on your own, you can recreate an even better network of connections that will take you wherever you want to go.

I also want to note here that in the 21st century where we meet all of our friends online, in-person meetups have become more rare and therefore more valuable. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that joining a few Facebook groups is all you need to do. The more you’re willing to get out there and shake people’s hands (I know, what a scary thought), the faster you’ll build a powerful network of peers, mentors, and patrons who will take your career to the next level. That’s what we’ll talk about here.

  1. Join a Scenius in your area. We often think of really creative and successful people as lone geniuses, but study their histories and you will see that most (all?) of them were deeply integrated into a “scene.” Austin Kleon calls this a scenius (scene + genius) and it’s a brilliant concept. Whatever your niche is, you need to find others who are on the same vibe, reaching towards similar goals. If nothing like that exists around you, even better because you can…
  2. Become a leader or an organizer. This is a supercharged extension of the above point, and it is a secret weapon. If you put in the effort to organize groups, meetups, events, lectures, exhibitions, etc. you’re instantly seen as the one spearheading the movement and everyone will want to know, interview, and write about you rather than all the lurkers in the back of the room. Don’t be a lurker, be a leader. Whatever time/energy you invest here will be paid back in droves. This could singlehandedly make your career.
  3. Read How to Become a Power Connector. If you need any guidance at all about being a better connector and networker (you do), start here. This book is a fantastic overview that will shift your perspective about what “networking” is all about, and then show you exactly how to do it.
  4. Keep a rolodex. Like, get organized with your connections. Make it into a game. Not a sleazy networking game, but use the advice in “Power Connector” to build more contacts with whom you can share ideas and exchange value in some meaningful way. Even if they don’t all turn into major business or creative partners, just having others around who will keep you out of the vacuum is essential.
  5. Connect on social media, but… As I mentioned, in-person meetups and connections are what you care about. That famous influencer in New York who replied to your Instagram comment is nearly worthless to you in comparison to the relatively obscure but passionate student with whom you had lunch last week. So, you can use social media to stay out of the vacuum, but ONLY as a means of making connections and facilitating in-person meetups as a result.
  6. Go to events. In whatever domain you’re working, there are events in your area where other people are showing their work. This might be gallery openings, concerts, authors making a stop on their book tour, or whatever. It might also be a networking or meetup group for like-minded creators. Go to these events every week. It’s not always easy and you won’t always feel like each event was a good use of your time, but remember that big breaks happen around other people – not while you’re sitting alone at home watching Netflix.
  7. Take classes. Even if you’re totally onboard with teaching yourself and being independent, classes can still be a great way to pull yourself out of the vacuum. Enrolling in a community college class is a really effortless way to connect with others in your industry and feel less isolated without much time, pressure, or investment. You might even learn something!
  8. Work for others. We’ll talk more about this below, but working for someone (even for free) in a way that puts you in proximity with people in your industry is a phenomenal way to get connected. Show up, be a professional, be humble, and definitely go out of your way to build connections with everyone. What you lose in time by working for free, you’ll gain back 10-fold down the line by having a stronger network.
  9. Talk to me. Personally, I would love to expand my own creative network at this point. If you have interesting goals or projects that you’re working towards, hit me up and let me know more about what you’re doing. We can all help each other connect with those who are on similar paths to build our networks and avoid the vacuum. Feel free to reach out through my contact form and say hi.
  10. Show your work. The vacuum isn’t really about networking. Networking is just a stepping stone toward a bigger goal: showing your work. The more you can show your work to real people in the real world, the better. You will develop much more quickly when that painting is hanging in a public place or you’re DJing in front of a real crowd. And, showing your work is also the quickest way to kill any concerns about validation and legitimacy – in your mind and the minds of others. Don’t go for massive fame and success here, just little victories. Be creative. Ask around. Rely on this new network you’re building. Do whatever you can to show your work in real life and watch the vacuum disappear.

41-50. Make Money…

One of the most compelling reasons for not going to art school is that it isn’t exactly free. If it was, the decision might be a tossup, but the price alone makes it seem like a pretty bad investment, in my opinion. Instead, I think you can often learn and grow your career just as much by making money (working, apprenticing, interning) as you could by spending money (going to school). As we look at the process of making money in these next 10 steps, try to keep this in mind: even if you earn no money over the next few years, you will still be ahead of the game financially. Framing things like that will help you make better, smarter decisions to advance your career.

  1. Organize your credibility. One if the issues you are likely to face as you get your foot in the door is credibility. Who are you and why does this potential employer / client care? What can you do for them? How do they know you’re legit? The good news is, if you’re following along with what I’m outlining here, you are already way ahead of the game. The things I recommend in this guide will put you in a place where you can… communicate a clear vision for your work and its purpose… tap into a strong network of references… show your professionalism through your website and blog… show your work through a strong portfolio of personal projects and freelance work… and ultimately look like a professional who is handling their business. Before you start reaching out for work opportunities, I would suggest organizing all the “value” that you have into a one-page document with bullet points, just for yourself, so you feel clear and organized about your own value and you are prepared to convey this value to others.
  2. Work to learn. Again, even if you earn nothing for the next few years, you’re still doing better financially than if you were hemorrhaging cash on tuition. So, don’t demand massive financial success right away. Instead make it your goal to find jobs, apprenticeships, or gigs that allow you to learn and grow on the fly. You’ll get tons of practical experience working on other people’s projects and you’ll be able to learn the ropes with an expert guiding you. And after doing the credibility step above, it should be fairly easy to find people who would be happy to have your help.
  3. Freelance. Now. Whatever your skills look like now, start doing some freelance work on the side. Do it before you feel ready. There is tremendous psychological power in suddenly being a “professional” at what you do. When a client is demanding work on a deadline, you will learn 10x faster than just practicing without a purpose. Plus, you’ll make some extra cash that you can spend (below) to grow your career. With sites like Fiverr and Upwork, it’s so easy to get into the freelancing game no matter what your creative domain. And, you will build up a portfolio of work much faster and more impressively than you could either in school or just fiddling around on your own.
  4. Teach. This may seem totally counterintuitive since you’re just learning, but the moment you start to think of yourself as a teacher, you instantly get better and take your own education more seriously. You may not be able to teach high-level skills that you’re still learning, but I bet you have already mastered the fundamentals in some area of your work that you can teach to younger people who need to learn (like: playing basic guitar chords, drawing on the iPad, etc.). You could earn a little extra money teaching this to others, gain more credibility, and start to feel much more professional in the process.
  5. Work to make connections. One of the best things you can do now is to make connections, as we have already discussed. Working for others is one of the best ways to do this. If you do freelance work and your client is impressed, you just expanded your rolodex. If you apprentice for a highly-connected mentor, you might gain access to all of their contacts or their customers who come in every day. Nurture these relationships by doing quality work for them and they will become investments that pay dividends for years to come.
  6. Build a scale model. You probably have big visions for your work. Good. But, there might also be a bit of a Grand Canyon between where you are now and the realization of that fame and fortune. So, whatever the vision is for you, take baby steps towards it right now. How can you do your ultimate vision in a smaller way? Maybe you want to produce records for Drake, but why not start uploading your beats to beatstars.com right now and earn enough to just cover the cost of your software + time? It’s the same vision, the same business model, just at a much smaller scale. Embrace that, because if you can make your visions work in miniature format, you’ve won. The rest is just a matter of scale.
  7. Start a business. You already know that you, as a creative professional, are a business. Everything discussed in this section is really about helping you advance this business. Another option you might consider is to actually start another small business, perhaps tangentially related to your creative work (i.e. selling fonts online if you are a graphic designer, selling stock photos if you are a photographer), where you can just produce and sell a product in a straightforward way. I recommend this mostly for the business skills it will teach you. Even if it fails miserably, you will learn so much about marketing, communication, product development, competition, etc.. What you learn running a small business will make you a more successful creator for the rest of your life.
  8. Give away value. I’m a big fan of getting paid fairly for your work, even at the beginning. If you don’t demand a fair return on your time, it can be demoralizing and hard to take yourself seriously. Having said that, there can be times where it makes sense to do things for free and give away your work to a potential client, or the world – IF you can identify clear value for doing so. Some cases might include: creating an icon pack on your website and giving it away in exchange for an email signup (you did read section 3 and already have an email list, right?!), making an illustration of your favorite celebrity and sending it to them for a shout out, making music and offering it to big YouTubers in exchange for a link. In all of these cases, the work would also help build your portfolio. My rule for giving work away is: do it when you have no better options available. It will keep the momentum flowing, build your portfolio, and give you some type of return on the back-end.
  9. Work to invest in yourself. Even if you ignored everything above and decided to work at a job that didn’t advance your creative work at all, that would still have value as long as you can make sure it meets two conditions: 1) it gives you enough money to sustain your practice by meeting your needs and allowing you to invest in your creative development, and 2) is “easy” enough that you have enough free time and energy to dedicate yourself to your work.
  10. Be humble. Seek proximity. What you want more than anything is to squeeze your way into the door. Even if you have to do work that isn’t aligned with your passion, if it puts you in proximity to the people and the industry that matters to you, do it. Be a security guard at the gallery or run errands for the mix engineer, do $7/hour freelance work to build your portfolio. Don’t think any type of work is beneath you, because it isn’t. The foundation is always built on the ground, and you need a strong foundation for your future, so be humble and do whatever you can, as long as it helps you further your vision in some way.

51-60. …And Spend Money

Money is probably tight, and you don’t have a huge budget to invest in your career from square one. I get that. In this section I will lay out some tips for how to spend your money to achieve maximum value, what to avoid spending money on, and how to make good investments that will further your artistic career and pay dividends down the road.

  1. The message > the medium. The most common trap I see noobs make is thinking that gear is their limitation. It isn’t. We live in a world of marketing that has conditioned us since before we were potty trained that buying something will solve our problems. It won’t. Your vision matters a hell of a lot more than whatever tools you’re using to create it. Whatever you have now, there are people making MASTERPIECES with less. When you’re tempted to buy something new, hesitate. 
  2. Buy every new tool or piece of gear you want (as long as you do this first…). Take your current tool – the student-grade paint, the slow computer, the older version of Photoshop, the iPhone 5s video camera – and try to make what your vision is demanding. If you can demonstrate to yourself that this new piece of gear has a specific feature (write it out) that is the ONLY missing link between where you are and a completed piece of work, fine. You can buy it if you can afford it. 99% of the time, though, you won’t be able to meet this standard. 
  3. Spend money on courses. Obviously, not going to school is no excuse not to learn. If anything, it means you have to be more focused on your education because no one is forcing you to do it. Spending money on online courses is (in my opinion) where you’ll get the most return on your investment. Udemy is where I spend all my free time. I have over two-dozen courses and have gone through (or plan to go through) nearly all of them. The fact that I can spend $10 to get lifetime access to 50 hours of world-class instruction on any subject that interests me is almost too good to be true.
  4. Spend money on books. If you read section 2, it’s obvious that I’m a big fan of books. I buy and read them like they’re going out of style. Sometimes I read ebooks on my iPad, sometime I buy hardcopies, and I also try to have at least one audiobook going at a time for when I can’t be staring at a page. I heard Will Smith once say that, “whatever problem you’re having, someone has already solved it and written the solution in a book” and I have literally never found one instance where that was untrue. So, I read to learn, to solve problems, to expand my awareness on all kinds of topics, and also to stay inspired…
  5. Spend money on inspiration. Spending a little money on products, tools, resources, or events that inspire you can make a lot of sense. This goes hand-in-hand with avoiding the vacuum because it gets you out of your own boring limited daily life and sparks a new perspective. This might be going to a festival to give you new musical inspirations, buying that beautiful $75 Leonardo book, or playing the video game with the character design you appreciate. This also helps to support others in your industry and deepen your immersion in your field. All great investments, if you ask me.
  6. Get “Educational Discounts.” As a random tip to save money, I love the idea of joining a local community college (see above) in order to get an ID and .edu email address because you can claim a ton of educational discounts, especially on digital products and software (even hardware) that you may need. One $60 class could save you $60/year on Amazon Prime alone… and hundreds (or thousands) more on software like Photoshop or Ableton.
  7. Piracy. Speaking of buying software, what about piracy? I remember when I first got into music production I had a pirated copy of Logic which I used for a few weeks. Then, I realized that I would never take the program (or myself) seriously like that. It (I) would always seem fake and cheap. So, I bought it and I’ve never pirated software since for that reason. It is not even really about the companies getting paid, it’s all about me and my professionalism. You just won’t take your materials seriously if you don’t buy them. It is a universal truth that no one has ever read the manual for software they pirated. But when you own it, you feel invested in it, and that will make all the difference.
  8. Avoid premium online courses. This is tricky, but I would generally recommend staying away from most of those “online marketing” type of courses with the big launch events and sales pitches that get you to pour $200, $500, or even $1,000+ on an online course and make it seem like the magical content inside is the only thing holding you back from fame and fortune. As an example, a guy was selling $300 access to his course on songwriting. His emails had me convinced that I needed to become a better songwriter, but instead of joining his course, I found one on Coursera from Berklee Music School – for free – taught by a world-class songwriter and I probably learned more than I ever would have from this course. It’s not a rule, but a lot of those courses are just marketing fluff. Why spend hundreds when you can get similar information for cheap or free?
  9. Hire to save time. Since we both know that you are a business now, it may make sense to hire a freelancer for $100 to do something in 5 hours that would take you 25 hours to do on your own. Being able to “delegate” is actually pretty hard for some people (me) but it becomes essential – especially if you’re at a place where you can make sales to at least cover the cost of the freelancer. Then, it’s like having an extra pair (or two, or 10) of hands all working towards your goals.
  10. Hire to cover weaknesses. The other type of hiring I would recommend is to get expert help in areas that might not be your strong suit. For example, I stressed earlier that having a website, building an email list, and doing email marketing is critical to your success. If this is so foreign to you that you don’t even know where to begin, you may want to find someone else who can (affordably) help you get things up and running. (Note whenever I’m looking for freelancers in any field, I typically go to Upwork and Fiverr first).

61-70. How to Learn, Part 1: Immersion

I feel like we’re just now getting into the good stuff. Everything before this is just the prep work that makes it possible to do what really matters: continuously getting better at the work. In my view, that starts with immersion. When I first got into art, I took two trips to NYC to practically live in the museums and they were soul-shaking, life-changing experiences. On both trips, I made it through every room of the Met and MoMA and a whole new world of artistic possibilities opened up for me. I live in LA and started to visit the major museums here. I also started reading a ton of art books and watching every art documentary I could find. I was practicing every day, absorbing as much information as possible through courses / books / free practice, and pushing through my own limitations.

This kind of short-term immersion can be really helpful. A period of several months where you live and breathe nothing but the area that interests you is great for helping your brain shift into the mindset of a professional. Magical things happen when you get into beastmode and demand more and more of yourself, day after day, going deeper and deeper into your domain. Not only will your brain literally rewire itself to “become” this domain, but that kind of focus is also an open door to the muse who will bring you the most powerful creative ideas of your life.

  1. Show up every day. The number one tip I can give you for developing a higher level of skill is to work on your craft every day of the month. Your brain rewires itself to internalize more of your craft every time you work on it, making it easier and more automatic. When you sleep, this progress is crystalized. So that process of relentless work / sleep / work / sleep is extremely powerful for a period of 4-8 weeks, followed by a short break.
  2. Prepare content ahead of time. To me, immersion is all about hitting your neurons from a hundred different angles to help build connections and “embody” the work you’re doing. Watching video courses… reading books… listening to audiobooks… practicing with your own hands… and doing all of this on 10 different topics from 10 different points of view is ideal to immerse yourself in the field and make big gains. To this end, be prepared. Find documentaries and podcasts and audiobooks and courses and keep them always on the ready. Maintain a list of the next items you want to move through so that you can pick up this content (instead of Instagram) in spare moments and keep reinforcing what you’re learning.
  3. Every Day is Groundhog Day. This is the title of the first chapter in Austin Kleon’s latest book, Keep Going, because that’s how it is for artists. You wake up and do the same work over and over again. The days feel repetitive and boring, but you need that repetition to keep your momentum. If you look for variety and change every day, half your time and energy that could have gone into your work will be wasted. I feel this strongly in my own life, as I wake up at the same time every day, run, wear the same clothes, and eat the same breakfast. Because that’s all so routine, my mind has more energy leftover to do the dynamic and creative work that matters. Find a routine that works for you, that you actually enjoy, and then embrace the groundhog.
  4. Use Udemy and Skillshare. You already know what a fan I am of online courses. Udemy is my #1 source for everything from DJing to Swift programming to figure drawing because it has so many courses on so many diverse subjects. I also like Skillshare. The quality of the courses is not on par with Udemy, but they are shorter and easier to digest, and the pricing model is more like an all-you-can-watch buffet which is pretty great. (P.S. I like Udemy so much that I even made my own course on Food Photography many years ago. It has over 4,000 students and makes hundreds of dollars of passive income every month. Making your own course on an area of expertise can be a great way to act on the “Teaching” point #44 above.)
  5. Find Specific Courses Elsewhere. In addition to those two general-purpose sites, there is almost certainly a niche site that offers more in-depth courses on whatever specific skillset you’re learning. For example: the courses on ADSRSounds.com literally taught me how to produce music… TeamTreehouse has good programming videos… Corusera has more technical computer and science courses… and as a last resort, there is always YouTube!
  6. Double your practice. When it comes to taking online courses, the pattern is always the same: 1) a book or course tells you to do a certain amount of practice to master what they taught you, 2) you do nothing. That’s not going to cut it anymore. If you’re serious about developing skill, take the practice seriously and DOUBLE it. If they tell you to draw 100 circles, draw 200. If they tell you to play the chord progression 20 times, play it 40. It’s annoying, it’s repetitive, but practice is the only way you get better. If all you’re doing is listening to the video about classes vs. structs as they relate to inheritance in Swift, at 2x speed, while browsing Instagram, you’re really just wasting your time.
  7. Have [small] patience. What I mean by small patience is the patience in each moment to sit there and keep going, keep struggling, keep advancing, instead of just throwing up your hands and walking away. This is super, super, super important! Somewhere along the way I realized that being great at art has more to do with patience than skill. You can turn your mediocre work into great work simply by being patient enough to keep working on it. Contrast this with the music producer who never gets past making little 4-bar loops because they all suck at first and he doesn’t realize that the key is to be patient and keep refining it rather than giving up to start something new. You will make SO much more progress by putting in the effort to make “bad” work better rather than constantly starting over and getting nowhere.
  8. Use multiple sources. During this process of immersion, it’s great to hit the same subject from multiple sources. For example, if part of your work requires mastering color theory, don’t just take a 30 minute Skillshare course or read a book and call it a day. Find numerous sources on this same subject and go through all of them in succession. Do a course, practice, read a book, practice, read another book, practice. At the end of that process, you’ll have an extremely high level of mastery over the subject. This is because your brain has more opportunities to build stronger connections on this subject and internalize the material as you go over it from different perspectives, as opposed to reading a quick book and calling it a day.
  9. Eat, sleep, art, repeat (temporarily). It’s not smart to have no interests outside of your main focus (there’s a whole section on that below). However, it can be helpful to let your craft absorb all of your time and energy for a period of weeks. As a painter, for example, you would go to museums on the weekend, watch art documentaries at night, read art blogs instead of the news and just live and breathe your work. Again, not forever, but a conscious decision to cut out the noise and go all-in for 1-3 weeks will add massive gains to your skills and understanding of your craft.
  10. Let your curiosity run wild. One of the most fun ways to immerse yourself in your craft is to simply be curious. Sit down with a piece of paper and list out 10 things related to your field that start with “I wonder…” Like, “I wonder how guitar strings are made” … “I wonder whether canvas or wood panels have better archival qualities” … “I wonder whether birds sing in standard melodic intervals” and then chase down the answers. [This, by the way, is basically all I do all day.] It’s makes learning into more of a game, and can be a great way to keep up the momentum even when the monotony is becoming too repetitive.

71-80. How to Learn, Part 2: Chase the Masters

It may be apocryphal, but I remember this quote from Picasso where someone asked, “why did you spend so much of your early years chasing the masters?” And he replied, “because if I didn’t, I would have spent the rest of my life chasing myself.” I didn’t understand what that meant until I ran up against the reality that my visions were bigger than my abilities. I couldn’t execute the work I wanted to do. Then, it became clear that every minute I invested in learning the techniques of the masters who came before me wouldn’t be “wasted” but would actually pay dividends for the rest of my career. That was a defining moment for me.

As a side note on this topic: Speed is one of the biggest advantages of developing mastery… Practice will make you a better creator for sure, but it will also make you faster. At one point I calculated that I could do the work I wanted to do with my current skill level, but it might take 2-3 weeks per painting. With a lot more skill, I could do the same work in 3-4 days. Obviously it made sense to reinvest more time into developing more skill because I would then be able to produce 4-5x as much work.

With that in mind, here are a few ways you can developer a higher level of mastery in your domain:

  1. Understand the master’s journey. By now, you’ve read Mastery by George Leonard and you understand all about the plateau, right? For me this has been one of the most important concepts for creating long-term success. The idea is that progress comes in spurts, followed by long plateaus where nothing happens, followed by another spurt of growth. This means 90% of your time will be spent on those plateaus where you put in the effort every day and nothing seems to happen. In order to develop mastery, you’ve got to love the plateau (and read that book, see #11).
  2. Approach knowledge like a tree. I got this idea from Elon Musk where he says: “it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.” and this is fantastic advice for developing mastery. As you learn new things, make sure you understand everything “below” them first, and how this new bit of information fits into the whole. For this reason…
  3. Master the fundamentals. If knowledge is like a tree, that means the trunk, the thickest part, is the fundamentals from which everything else grows. And that means you need to spend the most time and focus on those fundamentals – even (especially) when you’re “too good” for the fundamentals. Mastery really is mastering the fundamentals because when they are strong, the rest of the branches grow easily. You can never practice the basics enough.
  4. Think “time + effort”. It doesn’t matter how much your work sucks right now, the outcomes are irrelevant. The only metric you should care about is: how many hours am I giving to my craft and how hard am I pushing myself to get better during those hours? That often-quoted rule saying that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a master has a caveat: this only holds true if the practitioner is giving it serious effort to improve during those hours; if they simply go through the motions, nothing changes. By definition, effort is hard and uncomfortable. Deal with it. Success at this point is not doing great work, it’s showing up every day and pushing to your limits for sustained sessions of 90-180 minutes. For example, right now I’m working on figure drawing and my mind feels like mush after practicing – that’s how you know you’re pushing your skills to the limit.
  5. Recreate masterpieces. Devote a certain number of hours each week to simply recreating your favorite works. This can be effective no matter which type of artist you are: music producers can recreate their favorite Zedd tracks in Logic, artists can recreate their favorite baroque vanitia oil paintings, interface designers can recreate their favorite apps, whatever! Once you have a deep enough understanding (trunk) to know what you’re doing, this technique will help you gain skill faster than anything else.
  6. Identify where you suck. In the process of learning, you will see someone else doing an aspect of your work in a way that is lightyears ahead of you. You’ll think, “wow, I just realized how much I suck at this.” Keep a list of all those things you would like to do better, and then, work on them! In the end, you can always hire others to compensate for your weaknesses (if you’re in a position to do that), but I would still encourage you to work at sucking less. You will find so much satisfaction and empowerment in tackling your weaknesses, and it will improve your “trunk” of knowledge in a big way.
  7. Practice kaizen. Kaizen is the Japanese principle of constant, small, incremental improvement and it will change your life. If you were able to do one thing today to get 1% better at your craft or expand your business… and you made another 1% improvement every day for the next year… how much of an impact would that have? That’s the power of kaizen – you will never notice these tiny changes in each moment, but at the end of a year it will be a staggering, life-changing difference.
  8. Fail often. It might seem terrible, but failure is one of the most important parts of the road to mastery. Failure will help you grow much quicker than success. The adversity of shooting for a vision and falling short gives you new levels of wisdom and insight into the creative process like nothing else. For that reason, make friends with failure because you’ll be seeing it a lot. Later on, when the stakes are bigger, I promise you’ll be grateful for your many early failures.
  9. Get $10 mentorships. Mentorship can skyrocket your success and opportunities almost more than anything else… but it doesn’t have to be a totally 1-on-1 relationship where they “choose you” to be their disciple. With Udemy, for example, nearly all of the teachers will make themselves available to answer your questions. Some have so many students, they hire assistants to help them answer every question. Make use of this. You can buy a $10 course on a subject central to your focus and submit your work for review and feedback, ask questions, and engage in discussions that will give you tons of useful guidance from a pro. This can also work with authors too. Most of them love to hear from readers, so they make their email address available and will happily answer thoughtful questions to help expand your knowledge after reading their books. And who knows, this instructor/author might like what you’re doing and become a highly-connected ally on the inside.
  10. Have [big] patience. Small patience was all about immersion, but big patience is about trusting the process and knowing that mastery is a game of decades, not hours. This is about accepting that the results you seek aren’t going to happen overnight. Think of it like compound interest. Investing in your craft is like throwing an extra $2,000 into an index fund every month. At the end of the first year it doesn’t amount to much change. But if you do that consistently for the next 35 years with 12% interest, you’ve got $11 million – and over a million per year in income from that point forward. Your work is like that. Have the patience to make investments in your skills / career and wait for them to pay off.

81-90. Cross Train

In contrast to immersion, cross training helps you grow by stepping away from your primary work to create balance. As an endurance runner, I know that I will be a much better, stronger, more resilient runner if I spend a little time cycling and lifting weights (cross training). The same is true with my artistic work. As I write on my about page, I love the process of forcing myself to learn new skills so that I can apply their lessons back to the core work that matters. It makes me a better, smarter, and more creative artist. If you want to stand out from the crowd, you’ve got to develop breadth into your work and these steps will show you how.

  1. Take vacations. One of my favorite stories from the book Creativity (see #13) is of a physicist who worked nonstop on a theory for many months and then went to California to shut his mind off and do absolutely nothing for a few weeks. While on a bus ride back home, the whole theory suddenly made sense and everything he had been struggling to discover was just “there” as a complete idea. Our minds seem to like this balance of several months of intense work followed by a little time off. School gives us spring break and summer, but when you’re woking on your own, it’s too easy to just go go go all the time. Avoid that. It may seem counterintuitive, but building these breaks into your routine will boost your creative potential.
  2. Make a chart of related fields… Put your chosen domain at the center of a piece of paper (i.e. Playing Electric Guitar) and draw 5-10 arrows in all directions. Off each arrow, list a field that is different but related to the central one. With electric guitar, those arrows might point to digital signal processing, electrical circuitry, music theory, songwriting, beatmaking, DAW software, recording engineering, mixing, the physics of sound waves, and who knows what else. Now you have a list of related fields. You better believe that you would be a MUCH more powerful guitar player if you had a solid foundation in each of these fields.
  3. …And study one every month. Once you have that list of related fields, start chasing them down. You don’t need to make these tangents your primary focus in life, obviously, but give each one a month of background focus, just a few hours each week, until you have a good foundational knowledge. This will broaden your perspective and make these tangental connections that no one else is making.
  4. Build your weaknesses. I’m not talking specifically about your creative weaknesses, I already mentioned that in #76. Here, I mean the weaknesses in the other areas of your life. A lot of times creative people can develop some mad tunnel vision and think that nothing else matters… but it does. It’s tempting to look at those creative geniuses who had totally crazy lives and couldn’t even function in the world as the “models” of what we should be like as creators. But really, your limitations will always be your limitations, not your strengths. So, take time to work on your relationship skills, or your fitness, or your contributions to your community. In the process of becoming a more well-rounded human, your creative power will increase. I promise.
  5. Balance your brain. One thing that can be really helpful for your overall creative development is to balance out your area of focus with something opposite and complimentary. The yin to your work’s yang. Get as far away from your domain as possible for a few hours a week. If you’re a painter, take up gardening. If you’re a writer, take up cooking. Whatever works. Rebooting your mind in this way will do wonders for your creativity.
  6. Exercise. Some people get all their good ideas in the shower. For me, it’s when I’m running. I’ll spare you the science about brain/exercise connection, but it’s pretty powerful. Exercise is basically a spa treatment for your brain that flushes out waste products, increases positive chemicals, and leaves you feeling fresh and creative for the rest of the day. I would never be able to chase my dreams and find creative inspiration if it wasn’t for exercise.
  7. Meditate. A lot of people struggle with meditation and I’m not saying you need to become a zen monk in order to achieve your creative goals… but it wouldn’t hurt! Like exercise, there’s tons of research on the power of meditation to increase your brain’s overall happiness and creativity. The ability to stop and clear your mind, finding peaceful brain waves on demand, is an extremely powerful tool. If you don’t want to meditate, I would still suggest finding something similar that you can turn to in moments of chaos and overwhelm. Perhaps taking quiet walks (I’ve seen a lot of anecdotal evidence between successful people and those who take long walks) or going for drives, or whatever works for you.
  8. Eat berries and stuff. I feel like this section is becoming a health and wellness seminar, but that’s because these tools like exercise, diet, and meditation are so powerful at “cross training” your creative potential. In a nutshell, you will be a better, smarter, more confident, and more effective creator if you have these things in your life. So finally, I would highly recommend cleaning up your diet as much as possible because when your body is happy, your creative energy will skyrocket. Specifically, the foods that have legitimately been proven to boost your brainpower are berries, leafy greens, healthy fats from nuts / seeds / avocado, beans, and the spice turmeric. Get these into your diet every day and the difference will be noticeable.
  9. Do something new every day. I once read that by the time we’re 35 years old, 95% of who we are is just habitual patterns that have been programmed into our brains. As someone who is working every day on dynamic creative work, you are not part of that statistic. Still, it’s good to be mindful of the habitual patterns we fall into and how they can limit our potential. It can be fun to set the goal of doing one small new thing each day to push your mind in new directions. Go to that part of town you’ve never been to, eat with only your non-dominant hand for the whole day, say only positive and supportive things to others, anything that breaks you out of your habitual patterns.
  10. Have friends in other fields. I talked a lot about having a support system, networking with like-minded people, and all of that. On the other hand, it can be incredibly refreshing to have friends who know absolutely nothing about your field so that you can connect with them in different ways. Not only will this provide an opportunity to step outside your narrow focus and shut off your creative mind, it might just give you some fresh, out-of-the-box ideas that you can later apply to your own work.

91-100. Do the Work

At the end of each day, the only question to ask yourself is whether you did the work today or not. There is no grey area here. It either got done, or you made some kind of excuse for putting it off until tomorrow. Whether you go to the best schools in the world or never step foot inside a classroom, I can guarantee that you will NEVER be able to achieve your goals if you don’t actually do the work today. There are no bullet points for this, only the fierce discipline to fight against the obstacles and produce work now. Nevertheless, here’s some suggestions that you can use to make sure the work gets done. I like to think of these as armor in the battle against all the negative forces that try to keep you and your work apart.

  1. Demand work every day. It seems like one of the most effective lies that we all tell ourselves is that “there is plenty of time this week/month/year… so I’ll start tomorrow.” You can fight back against this tendency by demanding (at least some) work product every single day. With this rule in place, things become VERY clear and you have no way of escaping reality: did you produce today or not?
  2. Read The War of Art. Yes, I know this is a duplicate point. So what. Read it again. The entire book is about this concept of overcoming the resistance to doing the work. If it doesn’t get you motivated to show up and do the work, nothing will.
  3. Break it down. A big project or vision can be really overwhelming. If it is actually worth doing, you probably won’t even know how to do it before you start. Don’t let that stop you. Take one sheet of paper and write I AM HERE at the top and write the completed vision (be specific) at the bottom. Between the top and bottom, you’ve got about 30 lines. Start brainstorming all the steps you can imagine this project will require and write them on those lines. Then just start taking action and checking off the steps that are clear to you at this point. As you actually DO them, you’ll uncover the next steps, and the next, and the next, and then you’ll eventually reach the completed project at the bottom of the page. You don’t need to know how to reach your goals, you only need to know where to start.
  4. Surrender the outcomes. One of the easiest ways to get stuck in procrastination is to focus on the outcomes instead of the process. If all you care about is how the work will be received, you will get nothing done. You won’t even start. Instead, you’ve got to find the place where the process is the reward, where success is simply getting it done, period. This was a revelation for me. When I learned to see “shipping” my work as success, rather than achieving some particular outcome, everything changed for me.
  5. Find an accountability buddy. Find someone on a similar path and agree to meet up once a week and hold each other accountable. You should each keep notes on what the other is expected to provide by the next week. More than the meetup itself, just knowing that this person is going to be asking for answers next week will keep you motivated and focused in a way that you might not otherwise be.
  6. Go public. Part of the problem with being an independent creator is that many of the incentives to do the work are gone. There’s no audience (at first) who will be impressed when we finish a big project, maybe no one to buy it and reward us. That can be demoralizing. So, do your work in front of an audience who will appreciate it. Engage an audience on your favorite social network and hold yourself responsible for sharing work with them on a pre-set schedule. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t think social is a great investment for new artist at this time, but if it helps you stay accountable, go for it. Make your Instagram bio something like “new painting [poetry, beats] posted every Monday and Thursday” or whatever it is, and hold yourself to that schedule.
  7. Start early in the morning. This is a simple technique, but I know from experience that it can save you a ton of angst – get the most important work done first thing in the morning. When you do this, the pressure to do the work is off your shoulders for the rest of the day and you’ll carry power and momentum in whatever else you do. When you put off the important work until later, you carry that weight of procrastination around with you and it will drain your energy and make it harder to ultimately do the work later. Do the work early and enjoy your life.
  8. Study in reverse. For many people (myself), learning becomes one of the biggest blocks to creative output. It is so easy to always feel like you can’t do the work because your knowledge/skill is just one step away from being ready. You can spend your whole life feeling that way and getting nothing done. So, stop learning, stop studying, and do the work. THEN, when the work is done, you can assess what you need to learn or improve, and study those subjects. Learning in reverse like this is extremely effective because 1) you get a lot more real work done, and 2) you already understand the process from having done it yourself, so the knowledge can be applied immediately rather than it just being a theory.
  9. Give each day of the week a theme. I learned a lot from this one music producer who shared his system from when he was younger. He committed an hour per day to working on music and each day had a theme; “Tech Tuesday” … “Songwriting Saturday” and whatever else. I’ve done this as well and it works nicely because you always know what needs to get done each day and and it keeps things interesting. For whatever reason, I found it much easier to get the work done with that model as opposed to the monotony of “work on music” day after day after day. You might want to try applying this to your work to see if it helps.
  10. Do it now. “Hmm, when should I start working on this project… I think I should first take another drawing course and then go on a vacation to get some inspiration. Then I’ll come back home and see how I feel…” DO IT NOW. The thing about the Muse is that she doesn’t stick around for very long, and when she’s gone, you’re screwed. Whatever lies you tell yourself about tomorrow being a better day, notice them, ignore them, and then go do the damn work whether you’re “ready” or not.

101. Own Your Life.

  1. Ultimately, this guide was not about the choice of “going to art school” vs “doing these 101 things instead” as if you need to pick between the two. Nothing in life is that simple. More than anything, what I wanted to lay out here is a message that you alone are responsible for taking ownership of your life, your time, your skills, your work product, and your outcomes. Not just for students or creative professionals, but all of us who want to create anything significant with our lives. As we enter this new decade, a prestigious degree or a safe corporate environment matter less than ever before. In 2020, your greatest shot of success and satisfaction is all about your willingness to take charge of your visions and own your life. As I hoped to show in this guide, that formula is equal parts hustle and dedication. Everything else you can pick up along the way.
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