There are three words I see all the time online that make me want to stick a pencil in my eye.
The reason I dislike these three words is that they prevent people from growing creatively. What are the three words?
Grow your audience
The dawn of social media birthed the arrival of influencers, online audience building, laptop lifestyles, endless life coaches, and get-rich-quick schemes. Some of it has value, but most of it is piffle.
I know it has become fashionable in some quarters to bash social media. I won’t go that far.
Platforms like Facebook connect family and friends. Instagram allows like-minded folks to share artwork, photography, and passions. YouTube entertains millions, and you can read some great stuff on Twitter.
The part that concerns me, and that opportunists play off of, is how the Internet and social media seduce our need to be liked at the expense of our desire to get better.
The ironic part is that if we spent more time honing our craft instead of chasing gimmicks, our creative work would improve exponentially. And the better the work, the more likely people will take notice.
The craftsman mindset
Author Cal Newport has written and lectured about the importance of developing rare and valuable skills. People who possess rare and valuable skills tend to stand out above the mediocrity.
Such people tend to be more financially successful than folks with common, everyday skills. That’s why the salary for janitorial work is not the same as for neurosurgery. The latter requires years of specialized training and education.
Everyone wants to chase their passion, but the motivation is often self-aggrandizement rather than doing the hard work to share something of value for others.
Whereas the craftsman mindset focuses on what you can offer the world, the passion mindset focuses instead on what the world can offer you. This mindset is how most people approach their working lives. -Cal Newport
The reason why there is so much copying and similarity on social media is because everyone is emulating the successful few at the top. Instead of developing rare and valuable skills, online creators waste time aping their heroes.
What would happen if you stopped posting wanna-be content on social media and double-downed on honing your craftsmanship?
What would your creative work look like if you subtracted the hours spent on social media and put them towards focused practice and perfecting your work?
The antithesis of how our society operates
Dan Milnor is a photo-journalist, writer, and photographer who works primarily in black and white. He currently serves as the “Creative Evangelist” for Blurb Inc., the world’s premiere indie publishing platform.
Milnor is not a big fan of social media, which he feels focuses creative people more on the audience instead of their creative work. But he does use Twitter and YouTube to share his creative work, albeit with little concern for the size of his audience.
In one online interview, Milnor encourages photographers to pursue long-term projects instead of incessant posting on social media. Milnor notes:
Doing a long-term project is the antithesis of our culture. It’s the antithesis of how our society operates. And it’s, frankly, an antithesis of the professional photography industry, the modern photography industry.
Pursuing a long-term creative project is about producing a consistent body of work, not a rushed daily upload to Instagram. Creative projects allow you to escape the superficial social media treadmill and embrace deep work.
5 things to help you get to the next level
Whatever your creative discipline, here are five tips to help you break free of the social media rat race and truly hone your craft.
Start a project
Last year, during the COVID lockdown life, I embarked on a figure drawing project. I took a few online courses, bought a few books, and committed to deepening my skills.
The courses were both educational and inspiring, and I loved falling into the creative zone of sustained, focused, figure drawing.
How about you? If you’re a writer, try doing a series of short stories. Stretch yourself, and see what your creative voice comes up with. Or maybe you’re into embroidery. Try doing a series of completely new designs.
Whatever the creative endeavor, take the time you’re wasting now on social media to start an ongoing project of discovery. Your work will likely improve as a result.
A lot of creative people, including me, get distracted in a million directions. It’s great to experiment and allow new things to inform your work, but you also need to finish.
By finish, I mean you need to finally put a frame on that painting. Finally, print your best photographs. Finally, gift wrap that beautiful quilt you made for your granddaughter.
Instead of sharing endless update photos on social media, why not finish it?
Make a book
There are plenty of online resources that allow you to create your own beautiful books. Forget about Amazon and on-demand publishing. Make a picture book of your creative work, just for you or your loved ones.
Selecting the paper, trim size, font, and design of your book forces you to make decisions about how you want to present your work. It will also make you examine your work more critically.
The best part about making a book is that you end up with something real and tangible. Something that permanently showcases your best work. You can print your books, if you like, as samplers or gifts for prospective clients.
It’s easier than ever to find online courses from the comfort of your own home. Whatever creative discipline you enjoy, there’s likely an online course that can help you get to the next level.
Imagine if you replaced the time spent on social media with learning new skills in an online course? Also, if money is tight, there are plenty of free tutorials online.
There’s a difference between getting lost on YouTube watching cat videos and learning new skills and techniques via free YouTube tutorials. Also, many universities allow you to audit online courses for free.
I have a buddy in New Zealand who is a talented writer, cartoonist, and photographer. Recently he challenged me to take up daily journaling.
I used to journal quite a bit but fell out of the habit. My friend suggested we share a photo of one another’s daily journal entry. Below is an example of one of mine.
Collaborating with a fellow creative is a great way to hold one another accountable. You can also bounce ideas off one another, share resources, and improve your craft.
Ironically, my New Zealand buddy and I use social media (WhatsApp) to collaborate.
Social media can be useful if you use it as a tool to improve your work, rather than distract from your work.
Everyone wants to have fans of their creative work. They want to “grow their audience” and receive lots of attention. The question is, is the work you’re producing worth people’s attention?
All the growth hacks, free downloads, and branding gimmicks in the world are no replacements for rare and valuable work. To that end, remember the five tips outlined above:
Start a project
Make a book
Your work is too important to be guided by the capricious whims of the masses. Stop thinking about the audience and focus more on deep work and honing your craft.
Do these things instead of chasing social media likes, and you’ll be able to take your creative work to the next level and beyond.
Before you go
I’m John P. Weiss. I write elegant stories and essays, to inspire you to live an artful life. Sign up for my popular Saturday Newsletter here.
This post was previously published on Medium.
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Artworks by John P. Weiss