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.