Bradley Cooper plays Eddie – a down-and-out loser who’s struggling in his career as a writer. He comes across NZT-48 – a “smart drug” that lets him access 100% of his brain instead of the usual 10% (this is a myth, but hey, it’s a movie).
He swallows the pill, and suddenly he’s the most productive, creative and prolific person in the world:
A lot of people think that the act of creating is like taking NZT-48. For example, when my friends ask me about what it’s like to write a blog, they imagine me sitting in a cafe, leisurely sipping a latte and effortlessly conjuring up Shakespearean prose.
The truth is a lot less romantic. It’s more like me sitting in a dark room in my underwear at 5.30am, rubbing my eyes and staring helplessly at a blank Evernote screen, wishing I could throw my laptop out of the window and go back to sleep.
Don’t get me wrong – I love creating – but it’s often really, really tough. Not many bloggers talk about this, because we want to show that we have it all together. We want everyone to believe that “passion” is enough to sustain us.
A lot of people have a completely wrong idea about what it’s like to be creative. So today, I want to peel back the curtain and share a couple of behind-the-scenes myths about my own creative processes.
Myth: Creating Takes Just A Couple of Minutes
Lots of people think that “writing a blog” is like writing a diary. “Wait… aren’t you just typing a couple of sentences on a page? How hard can that be?”
Sometimes, if I get lucky, the muse visits me and I can zip through a great post in just 1-2 hours. But for 90% of my posts, they take at least 4-6 hours of work: Brainstorming, researching, drafting, editing, finding links and images, and publishing.
In other words, I can’t simply publish a post during my “free time” before dinner or something, like how you would squeeze in an email between meetings.
No, I have to actually set aside time for it and show up – just like a regular job. Paul Graham – the founder of Y Combinator – calls this “Maker Time“: Deliberately setting aside several hours of uninterrupted, focused work. Personally, my maker time is early in the mornings when there are less distractions, and when I’m fresh from a good night’s sleep.
Sometimes – like in the past couple of weeks – things get pretty crazy at my day job and I don’t get the luxury of those few hours of maker time. In fact, the only way I could find the time to write THIS blogpost was because I was in the middle of a 6-hour flight (and I had to tear myself away from Doctor Strange – which is an awesome movie, btw).
Myth: Just Come Up With An Idea And Put It On Paper
Fact: I don’t actually know what I’m going to write until I actually start writing. When I’m brainstorming, I’ll usually write out outlines for 5-6 different topics before I actually come up with something I like.
Some people can formulate and develop an idea in their heads. I envy them. For me, my ideas exist as some ambiguous, shapeless form – kinda like an Obscurus in Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them (another awesome movie). They don’t actually take form until I actually SEE them typed out.
About 80% of my ideas are absolute crap. They are mainly mental itches related to a random “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if I wrote about X” thought that turned out to be not so cool after all. Out of 10 ideas I have, usually only one will show some promise.
After I decide on an idea, I’ll write out my first draft, which is usually horrible. It reads like some kid who threw a tantrum and vomited all over my keyboard. Sometimes, I’ll take that first draft and spend hours editing and re-writing it before it starts to take shape into something worth publishing. Other times, I’ll write a 1000-word article, only to discard it completely because I just couldn’t make it work.
Sidenote: The process reminds me of an Revisionist History podcast episode titled “Hallelujah“, where Malcolm Gladwell explores how a creative work – a painting, a song – can sometimes take years and years of iterations before it gets to a level where it’s considered good.
Myth: It’s About “Just Putting Something Out There”
The Silicon Valley culture we live in today is all about failing fast. For example, a lot of the blogging advice out there just asks you to “Just start writing!“. For a beginner, that has SOME truth to it – you often don’t know what you have to say until you actually publish about a hundred articles.
But when it comes to serious blogging, “just publish something” isn’t enough to take you to the next level.
Unfortunately, too many of today’s blogs follow this advice in their copycat attempts to create “viral” content. They churn out listicles which are just generic rehashes of old ideas: “10 Ways To Save Money on Restaurants” or “5 Reasons Why You Should Invest In Forex”. Even worse, they throw on a clickbait title like “This Girl Saved Up A Million Dollars By 28 – You’ll Never Guess How She Did It!” Urrrgghhh. Please stab me with a satay stick.
If your only goal is to drive traffic and get people to click on your scammy ads, then writing mediocre content may cut it. (It’s a dying model, though). But writing good content – stuff that people will actually read and find useful – takes time, sweat, frustration, and thousands of hours of practice.
I’ve been doing this for 6 years, and I don’t even think I’m anywhere near “good” yet. But I keep on trying and testing, and improving just a little bit every week.
Fact: This Is Perfectly Normal
This article isn’t meant to be some sort of sadomasochist brag about how much I’ve suffered. I love writing for you guys, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Instead, it’s to offer a word of encouragement to those of you who are trying to create something that matters: That business idea, that novel, that film, that social cause. I’m here to tell you that all the frustrations, setbacks and months of “wasted” time are perfectly normal.
People see the results, but they don’t see the work behind it.
They see that your startup gets acquired, but they don’t see the times when you couldn’t afford to pay your employees. They admire your six-pack, but they don’t see that you ate steamed chicken and vegetables for every meal for 6 months. They read a blogpost, but they don’t see you sitting in your underwear at 5.30am in the morning, staring helplessly at a blank Word document.
If you’re in the midst of creating something and you’re feeling stuck or discouraged, it’s perfectly normal. If weeks go by and you have nothing to show for it but crumpled notes and a bad mood, it’s perfectly normal. If it seems exhausting to juggle family and work and kids and chores and it takes that last ounce of your energy to crawl to your desk and actually create something, it’s perfectly normal.
Keep pushing through. Because all you need is just one success to make it all worth it.