Your best work does not come from your ego: it survives in spite of it. To be serious about your craft and the outcomes of your efforts, focus instead on your work methods and allow the self to become small.
Just as master chefs treat their kitchen, their methods and their menu with respect, so too must you with your studio, your process and your product.
To illustrate how this works, consider how restauranteur Daniel Boulud concludes his book Ten Commandments of a Chef: each one resonates with anyone who is in the business of being creative.
1. Keep Your Knives Sharp
Your thinking must remain sharp, but that means far more than filling your head with facts. Sharpness of thought is much more about agility now. We underestimate how much our world is changing. We’re networked now like bees in honeycomb rather than tethered to the world by a single telephone line. Performance is rewarded best now for being adaptive rather than predictive. Empathy defeats self-centeredness. And yet we carry around this brain that’s still hardwired for hunting sabretooth tigers. Make regular exercise out of the notion that your assumptions about the world might not be correct.
2. Work with the Best People
Notice how this is framed. It’s not about surrounding yourself with people who are just as good or just as talented as you are. In fact, how good you are doesn’t even enter into this equation: look for excellence in others and they will seek it in you.
3. Keep Your Station Orderly
This is my least favourite item on the list. If I define my station as my work desk, then I have a lot of orderly work to do. But if I see my station as my MacBook Air and the flow I count on to generate clients, ideas and products I’m proud of, then I’m doing ok. Or maybe I’m engaged in a tiny bit of sophistry here just to get out of cleaning my desk.
4. Purchase Wisely
This has been a steadfast rule of mine for over 15 years. And I learned it from tradespeople: any tool directly linked to your ability to turn work into money is a tool you cannot afford to cheap-out on. A subset of this rule: own only what you need, not what you desire. I’m selective about what I keep: I sell or give away what I no longer use.
5. Season with Precision
Chefs know that seasoning doesn’t define but accentuates the dish. Writers know that adverbs and adjectives are like salt: there’s a fine line between enough and too much. Designers know that their best work happens when their product is made more understandable without explanation or ornamentation. Consultants know the hazards of over-explaining and that sometimes you have let an idea simmer with the client for a bit. It’s all seasoning. Know yours and use with care.
6. Master the Heat
Fear is fire. Learn to cook with it. And don’t let it burn you. You’re doing it wrong if owning a business doesn’t scare you from time to time.
7. Learn the World of Food
I would have put this one closer to the top. If you choose to make a career out of creativity, you have a responsibility to yourself and to everyone you serve to have well formed, thoughtful opinions on your tools, processes, influences and choices. Learning your world means you know exactly why you do what you do. That is the trademark of mastery.
8. Know the classics
If you’re anything like me, when you were young you assumed classics was just another world for old. Look around you: most things do not survive even 100 years on this planet. The rare things that do teach us two things: having a good sense of taste is a timeless trait, and any problem you struggle with today someone long before you also had…and had the good sense to write it down.
9. Accept Criticism
This gets easier as you get older and realize—paradoxically—that the more experience you gain, the less you are sure of. That’s not an excuse for being thin skinned when you’re younger. You only own the first draft of what you do: after that, it becomes something that’s beyond you.
There are two ways that ideas can be polished. First, through self-criticism and self-reflection. Second, by welcoming a process that allows your work to be challenged by having it bump up against the opinions, beliefs and biases of others.
10. Keep a Journal of Your Recipes
This is why my newsletter, CreativeBoost, exists. It is as much a travelogue as a record of what’s new to me. Keeping track of what you’ve learned is as much a gift to your readers as it is a letter from the past to your future self.