As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, “[t]he talent of success is nothing more than doing what you can do well, and doing well whatever you do without thought of fame. If it comes at all it will come because it is deserved, not because it is sought after.”
It’s a dilemma familiar to any creative: To work for others or oneself? To look inside for eternal truth or outside for evanescent acclaim?
These aren’t easy questions. The temptation to seek acclaim over truth can be overwhelming. The idea that your work won’t be valued unless you write or paint for an audience is all-pervasive.
The flawed view goes something like this: In a world of tweets and Facebook likes and Medium claps, creativity for creativity’s sake just doesn’t cut. Not if you want to make a living. One must compromise value. One must privilege public consumption over private pleasure.
Fortunately, the above view is too simplistic. As J.D. Salinger wrote in Catcher in the Rye, “[p]eople always clap for the wrong things.” If you create solely for acclaim, if you ignore what feels true for what feels profitable, you cheapen your work. You cheapen yourself.
Besides — sometimes people clap for the right things. The logic urging artists to create for others is elitist, dismissive of humanity’s ability to find and recognize truth in the revealed truths of artists, writers, philosophers, poets.
In discussing this tension between personal and public creativity, Srinivas Rao— host of the Unmistakable Creative podcast and author of an An Audience of One — frames the point well. After years of writing for others, Rao realized that creative success like happiness can’t be chased. It can only emerge. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow put it:
The talent of success is nothing more than doing what you can do well, and doing well whatever you do without thought of fame. if it comes at all it will come because it is deserved, not because it is sought after.
Longfellow and Rao share an intuition: A mind burning with desire for fame or applause is a narrow mind, a sick one, a mind lacking the mental openness and curiosity necessary to create the sort of work that’s fueled by eternal truth. It’s a mind driven by ersatz ambition — yet good work cannot spring from ambition alone. Good work requires a sense of play. As another New England poet, Robert Frost, wrote, “[t]he play’s the thing.”
Man cannot live by bread alone. If your motivations stem from extrinsic rewards — fame, money, prestige, power — your work will be sub-optimal. And — because extrinsic rewards are less fulfilling than intrinsic ones — your life will be sub-optimal. Happiness comes when what you do or write or paint or sing lines up with who you are. As Rao writes, “[i]f you’re focused on fame or exposure — any external outcome — it’s easy to forget … why you started a creative endeavor. You feel pulled in every direction by your audience’s expectations, you make compromises, and you end up with work that isn’t authentic.”
By stark contrast, if you lose yourself in your work, if you surrender your ego, if you ignore “the external rewards of creativity” and create “only for an audience of one,” if you become so intertwined with your work that your work is scarcely distinguishable from your soul, well, you unlock your mind’s hidden truths. Truths you didn’t even know you knew.
Your work becomes honest, your sense of self more whole. Your recognize that we don’t have a future and we don’t have a past but we only have a present. For future and past are abstractions, as are thoughts of fame or wealth. Like a life fueled by abstractions, a creativity fueled by abstractions is a creativity divorced from truth. It’s a fake creativity. An ersatz creativity — as empty, meaningless, and dishonest as fake kindness.
So create for yourself. Create for the present. Create to unearth the truths you didn’t know you knew. Touch the muse and enter that elusive but cathartic state of “flow.”
For a creative mind is not a mind at work but a mind at play. Indeed, that’s the secret.
“The play’s the thing.”
Previously published on Medium.
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