I was talking to a friend recently about the difficulty of shipping: putting our creative work out into the world.
My friend is a polymath, whip-smart and good at pretty much everything. This person is capable of making an interesting artistic statement in, like, four different mediums.
But the fear of shipping is universal.
I know a thing or two about it. In college, I failed British Romantic Literature because I couldn’t stand the thought of handing in a paper that wasn’t my best work, and the task of producing a paper that was my best work was so intimidating that I couldn’t get started. I mean, you try writing ten great pages on Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It’s hard! Playing Grand Theft Auto was much easier.
In fact, I was bad at shipping until I did something very simple:
I started a blog and began telling everyone I was going to publish two posts a week.
I’m not the best writer, that’s for sure, and some posts are better than others. But I have learned to ship without fail.
If you’re interested in writing, making music, drawing, painting, crocheting, coding, or some other creative enterprise, here are five tips for establishing a creative habit and pushing through the fear to share your work with the world.
1. Start with what you know
The old adage applies to every field of creative work:
Write what you know.
I can hear your objections now, because they echo mine.
“But everything I know is super basic! There are already 10,000 bloggers/singer-songwriters/poets/graphic designers/web app developers doing exactly what I want to do. My work would just be redundant.”
Everyone feels this way, but we have no other choice. The only other option is to make affected, inauthentic art, and this fools no one. Least of all ourselves.
Write/record/design what you know. If you do, very soon you’ll know more and the scope of your work will expand accordingly. Rinse and repeat.
2. Start where you are
Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.
— Miles Davis
Don’t try to make great art all at once. The road to greatness is very long. Here’s the key most people miss:
You must start sharing your work before your work is worth sharing.
But even if you do both of these things (start with what you know and start where you are), you’re likely to run into yet another problem: your finished work feels unoriginal and derivative.
This. Is. Normal.
I’d love to give you my thoughts on this, but two of my idols have said it better than I ever could. Here are their thoughts instead.
Do not be afraid to copy someone’s style. It is through this process that we begin to develop our own.
— Phil Smith, longtime principal trumpet, New York Philharmonic (from the intro to his CD Orchestral Excerpts for Trumpet)
Seth Godin puts it even better in What to Do When It’s Your Turn:
We seek out the safe harbor of being completely original as another place to hide, because it’s impossible to be original. So, when we see a competitor or someone who has done something remotely like our work, we stop. Too late, this one is taken.
There are countless varieties of original, productive work, and all of them are based on something that has been done before. Your recombination, your generous reshuffling of what we already have, is the first step on the way to producing work that matters to us. Steal, give credit and ship . . .
Remember, we’re not trying to write War and Peace or even Zen Habits. We’re trying to routinely overcome the fear of shipping, of putting our creative work out into the world. The art doesn’t have to be good, not at first. If you ship routinely, your work will slowly get better (and more importantly, slowly become yours).
3. Start anonymously
I think everyone should have a blog. I don’t think everyone needs to have a blog with their name on it.
One of my favorite blogs, Frugalwoods, was started anonymously. Many writers use a pen name, and musicians release music under other names all the time. A lot of great creative work is posted anonymously on reddit, CodePen, and a zillion other sites. Getting credit really isn’t the point.
If it helps you to leave your name off, by all means leave it off!
4. Start with defined terms
Set the bar low if you want, but make sure there’s a bar.
- One blog post a day for a week.
- One blog post a week for a month.
- One song posted on Soundcloud two weeks from today.
- One WordPress plugin 3 months from today.
Here’s another crucial step: Tell someone you trust about the bar you just set. Accountability is a powerful tool, and it’s free.
5. Start now
There will never be a perfect time.
Since the fear of shipping never goes away, our only option is to repeatedly overcome the fear, in small ways at first. When we do this, three things happen:
- We get a tiny bit better at overcoming our fear of shipping
- We get a tiny bit better at our craft
- Because of 1 and 2, we are likely to ship something slightly better next time.
This is how you build a creative habit. It is not easy, but it is worth it.
If you’re not creating (and shipping what you create), start.