Know Your Why

15 minutes, 18 links


Updated November 3, 2022

You’re reading an excerpt of Creative Doing, by Herbert Lui. 75 practical techniques to unlock creative potential in your work, hobby, or next career. Purchase now for instant, lifetime access to the book.

If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.Unknown

Have you ever wondered why the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes only exists on the printed page? Unlike Snoopy or Mickey Mouse, there are no blockbuster movies, no Netflix specials, and certainly no stuffed animals. Nobody even knows what Calvin’s or Hobbes’s voices sound like. That’s the result of a deliberate decision that the cartoon’s creator Bill Watterson made to not license out his work.

Watterson’s former business partners (the staff at a syndicate responsible for putting Calvin and Hobbes in the newspapers), estimate that tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars could have been made should Watterson have licensed Calvin and Hobbes. But for years, Watterson fought not to, and eventually won out.

At least partially, the decision was practical; Watterson said, “No one cartoonist has the time to write and draw a daily strip and do all the work of a licensing program.” But the refusal to license his work was a philosophical stance as well. In Exploring Calvin and Hobbes, Watterson wrote, “The artist gets to decide what his own creation is about and stands for. If licensing fits your vision of your creation, wonderful, go nuts. But I reserve the option of saying no for my own work. If I don’t like licensing, I should be allowed to refuse it. That’s all it was.”

We may not have hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, but we do have dilemmas and decisions to make every day related to our own ideas of our integrity. Should we try to get the promotion, or should we put more time into our creative work? Should we incorporate feedback to try to make our work more popular, or should we stay true to our original vision?

In his commencement speech to Kenyon College, Watterson talked about these decisions, and advocated defining what success and happiness mean for you. He urged listeners not to confuse being happy with being enviable, and said, “Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement.”

Set an Intention

Each of us has an impulse to make excellent things, to tinker, and to seek fulfillment and reward. We may also feel a need to express ourselves in order to gain a sense of comprehension or fulfillment. We want to tell our stories, like we have for hundreds of years, to make something that has a chance of lasting beyond our finite human lives, as well as to make a bid to connect with other people. We may also be driven by a deeper mission or through-line, to support or honor something or someone. We may want to give back to our community, or to find more fulfillment and reward in our jobs.

As you move forward, gaining momentum, you’ll face countless obstacles. You will need to do a simple, but very difficult, thing, which is to set an intention for your work. This transcends practice, technique, and experiments. What are you doing, and why are you doing it?

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If we don’t make time to reflect on why we are creating, then political, economic, and social incentives all have a way of seeping in and causing us to make decisions based on their values. As Watterson said, “Selling out is usually more a matter of buying in. Sell out, and you’re really buying into someone else’s system of values, rules and rewards.”

The solution I propose here is an intention—your own position on what you want to do. In order to do that, you need to have an idea of your purpose as well. I know there are plenty of books out there that talk about how to do this, but my opinion is they complicate the whole matter. Nobody, no framework, no prompt, can figure out why except for you, so the only thing left to do is for you to do it and trust that you’ll figure it out along the way. Or as Ethan Hawke says, “There is no path till you walk it.”

Set a Mission

Commercial success and acceptance are both outside of your control. Aiming at those goals would be like trying to aim at the wind, instead of trying to ride with it and have it fill your sails.

Rather than succeed commercially, set out to do something for yourself. It could be as simple as trying to have as much fun as possible. As renowned record producer and recording artist Pharrell Williams says, “As long as I concentrate on the fun, it usually turns out cool. It’s when I become too worried about how it has to be, that’s when God spends a lot of time chuckling at me.”

Maybe you are setting out to express or expose some sort of truth, or to discover it, and to figure it out. Or you’re just trying to refine your techniques. Whatever it is—make it an internal mission, and not an external one.

Another way to say this is to develop a through-line for your current project. The through-line is at the heart of your project. In his class for Skillshare, author and restaurateur Eddie Huang likens a through-line to a thesis, and describes the through-line for his restaurant Baohaus driven by the truth, “No one would kick you out, call the cops, or serve you shitty 7-Eleven pressed Cubans.”

On a trip to Japan, Momofuku founder David Chang stumbled upon an insight. He writes in Eat a Peach, “I could eat extraordinarily well in places that weren’t punishingly expensive.” Later on, he adds, “The way people ate in train stations, shopping malls, back alleys, and strip malls in Asia was superior to the way we ate in upscale New York restaurants.” This insight would be the through-line for Momofuku: “That was the big idea: leave everyone walking out the door of Momofuku happy and surprised and glad to have spent their money.” The rest of the themes we identify with Momofuku—innovative food, the decor, the service, and everything else—were driven by this simple through-line, the heartbeat of Momofuku’s restaurants.

If you’re struggling through this, don’t just write one mission (or through-line) down. Write everything down that comes to mind, without thinking too much about it. At this stage, it should really just be a single sentence. Write down 100 sentences, 100 missions. If it takes more than a couple of hours, you’re thinking too much. Allow the mission to emerge from the quantity—let yourself be drawn.

After writing 100 missions, if you still don’t have anything, re-read them, and pick the ten that resonate most with you. Make the case for each of them, by answering some of these questions:

  • Why is this mission important to you?

  • What idea or experience inspired you to take on this mission?

  • What will the world look like after you accomplish your mission?

  • Can you imagine the world without you accomplishing your proposed mission?

  • Who or what does your mission serve? Who or what will your mission honor?

These questions are merely starting points for you to explore your ten most resonant missions. From there, pick one. (If you’re feeling really stuck, you can enlist the help of a friend and make the case against each one—to start eliminating missions. Or, if you’re feeling spontaneous, roll the dice.)

Eventually, you may be able to even boil it down to a single word and hang it above your worktable.

Or flip this prompt: Sell Out

Ignore the Stats

Everyone creates for different reasons; some of us might do it to be seen, read, heard, or felt. And while this deep connection can be incredibly rewarding and meaningful, the pressure of increasing expectations, social engagement, and sales that often represent it can crush the joy out of creativity.

Before author Mason Currey published his Daily Rituals series of books, he says in an interview with me, “I had, literally, 12 readers for like a year and a half. It was just my coworkers and my family.” His first book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, has now been reviewed over 17,000 times on Goodreads.* When I asked artist Shantell Martin—who has 250,000 followers across YouTube and Instagram—about her analytics, she said, “I don’t pay any attention to that stuff.”

“The most important thing I can tell you is to relish writing in obscurity,” author Michelle Kuo said to me in an interview. “I feel that I was the happiest as a writer when I was in hiding, when I was invisible, when I was secretly writing, stealing away portions of time at work, or writing on scraps of paper, or forming sentences in my head on the commute. That was a time before I had published really anything and before I even thought my writing would become a book, I was just trying to organize or to create order in my emotional life.”

Kuo recalls focusing, instead, on simpler metrics: “​​Am I writing?” “Am I showing up?” “Am I discovering something new about these experiences or about this world?” “Am I having new encounters alone?” These types of qualitative metrics, more grounded in the process than the outcome, will enable you to get back to what really matters: your creative work. Remember to enjoy the plateau.

See the Vision

Martial artist George Leonard quotes Arnold Schwarzenegger in his Mastery: “All I know is that the first step is to create the vision, because when you see the vision there—the beautiful vision—that creates the ‘want power.’ For example, my wanting to be Mr. Universe came about because I saw myself so clearly, being up there on the stage and winning.”

Picture the final version of your project, or the specific accomplishment you want. You can put it all on a vision board, collaging images of your vision together. Or, you can write it down in your journal. You can also make it more formal and concrete, writing it down as a press release like the Amazon team does.

Align your energy all towards the same goal. Aim it. And then fire. Or, in Zen fashion, forget about the goal, and let the unconscious deal with it.

Keep Moving Forward

Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.A popular saying*

Donald Glover was a screenwriter for 30 Rock and played the beloved character Troy on Community, and his work has since earned him several Grammys, Golden Globes, and Emmy awards. Glover is a polymath. When he released his first official album as Childish Gambino, Camp, a critic at Pitchfork gave it a scathing review and a score of 1.6/10.

It’s not difficult to imagine how I might feel in such a situation—disappointed, embarrassed, and discouraged—at such a public rejection of what I had worked so hard on. And yet, whether it was due to his commitments or his drive, Glover kept moving forward with his music career even though he experienced so much success as a writer and comedian. It would have been easy to quit and stick to his comfort zone, but he didn’t. He said, “I don’t even really understand what I’m doing. I don’t. And I don’t think anybody great understands what they’re doing, hopefully. I don’t think they do.”

Dacoury Natche, who has worked with Donald Glover on his album 3.15.20, spoke to me in an interview for this book about his beliefs that great prolific work is fueled by inspiration and a connection to culture. Mixtape runs in hip-hop are a great example of this, whether it’s Lil’ Wayne’s Dedication series, 50 Cent’s pre-debut mixtapes, or Gucci Mane’s many mixtapes. Natche’s point reminds me of musicologist Neal Zaslaw, who writes of Mozart’s work, “Mozart did not compose because he was inspired, although inspiration may be why he composed so well.”

Mixtapes are also a good example of inspiration paired up with the key element of consistency. Maria Popova, curator and creator of Brain Pickings (now The Marginalian), describes this as “consistency driven by a deep love of the work.” Consistency works best when you love the process. When you want to keep coming back to the work, you’ll find consistency. You can only grit your teeth and march through hell for so long.

Consistency needs to be manageable. Complexity needs simplifying. Rigidness needs flexibility. And sometimes this means returning back to focus on doing the actions of your work every day.

“There is nothing stronger than those two: patience and time, they will do it all,” Leo Tolstoy wrote in War and Peace. When you allow time to do its work, instead of working against it and trying to aim for quick success, you can truly harness its power.

Acknowledgments1 link

Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you.Steve Jobs*

Each opportunity to create provides us with a chance to become a part of something much larger than ourselves. Sometimes, creativity can even feel like a force channeling into us from the heavens, history, space, the infinite beyond. As recording artist Pharrell Williams said, “We don’t make much happen when it comes to creativity. We’re just antennas and transistors. We’re speakers. We’re just lucky to get the transmission.”

I wrote Creative Doing at home, mostly locked down during the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m still grateful that I had a chance to make it happen, and I couldn’t have done it alone. Writing this book indeed allowed me to become part of something larger than myself. There are a lot of people who contributed to my creative doing:

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