The incurable creative virus

So far in my life I’ve been: a writer for business publications, a web designer to Valley Startups and Fortune 500s, a nature photographer, a teacher of freelancers, a touring musician (and co-owner of an indie label), a failed startup founder (twice), a podcast host, a self-published author of five bestselling books, and, for a few weeks in the early 2000s, a stock icon creator and seller (they were very pixelly–it was a trend back then).

All of these things I’ve started on my own and continue to do independently.

PSST: Stop guessing when I publish new posts and get articles like this in your inbox every Sunday.

But it wasn’t supposed to be like this. I went to university in Toronto to get a great sounding degree with the hopes of finding a steady job with regular income. Nearly twenty years after I dropped out I’ve found myself working independently and supporting my family through creativity. Somehow it has all worked out and I’ve built a life that is equal parts unknown/wild/scary while being supportive and steady.

I had no intention of following this life. At first, I figured school would give me a shot at the adult life I’d envisioned. After dropping out, I thought working for someone else would accomplish the same thing. Once I quit my one and only job as a creative director at an agency I came to realize that all my dreams up until that very second had been someone else’s and not my own.

I was supporting their work–their vision.

The day I quit that job was the day I realized only I was responsible for what I put out into the world. So that work had better be damn good—work that I can stand behind (or in front of) with confidence.

Since then, so many ‘jobs’ have come and gone that I don’t even know what to call myself anymore. There are too many passions, too many projects, too many tangents.

The only descriptor that comes even close is ‘independent creative’.

When you’re a creative there’s no separation between life and work. Everything blends together in a beautiful (and often stressful) way. Your life isn’t separated into neat little compartments like a plate of food from the army canteen. It’s more like a single serving of delicious vegan stew. Everything melts together into something bigger and better than the sum of the individual ingredients. Even the people that I talk to on a regular basis blur the line between work and life. Most clients I consider friends and most friends I’ve either collaborated with or been hired by (or I’ve hired them).

Creative drive is like a virus. It takes hold slowly at first, and sometimes you don’t even realize you’ve got it or where it came from (probably via public transit…). In time you start to see the signs and symptoms. But by then it’s too late: you’re driven to create. You daydream about making things larger than yourself and feel wholly unsatisfied unless you’re being challenged with new and scary ideas.

The day I dropped out of university, my dean asked to see me to discuss my ‘options’. What he really meant, since I had already committed to leaving, was that he wanted to give me one last lecture on why it was a bad idea to quit the program I had worked so hard to get into.

He wagged his finger and told me that two things were going to happen. The first was that I was going to regret leaving school to pursue creativity: ‘There’s no money to be made—at least not real money—in being creative for a living,’ he said.

The second was that I’d be back, just as soon as as I realized his first point, and that I would regret having wasted all that time. The funny thing about that talk is that I don’t remember ever saying anything in my defence. But I do remember getting up and leaving, very quickly.

That meeting rattled me at the time because I was young and unsure of myself and my future.

Luckily, I realized that my fears and taking action could co-exist. I could be scared shitless and still move forward with my creative work. Twenty years later, I can say with confidence that ‘the fear’ of being a creative never truly goes away. It’s always there, sometimes as a tiny voice whispering from off in the distance, while other times it’s so loud that it’s all you can hear pounding in your eardrums, relentlessly driving you forward. Every creative has a different way of dealing with the voice. But what’s universal is that we all hear it and we all find some way of making our work speak louder than it.

Being an independent creative isn’t just a job. It’s not even all the jobs combined. It’s a responsibility to yourself to make—to take what you see out in the world and turn it into something different and unique.

We take shapes and ingredients and all things beautiful (or not) and repurpose them into designs and photos and books and meals. Our brains don’t stop working when we punch out—which is why we keep notebooks or camera rolls that are constantly filling up. And most importantly, we don’t do any of this because we’re after specific outcomes, goals, or financial rewards.

The journey, the process, the step into the question of “what if I try…?” is all that we’re after.

It’s a constant mental tight-rope that comes from acknowledging your past accomplishments (if even in some small way) while relentlessly pursuing your next idea. There are no laurels to rest on, no awards to display on your mantle so you can then sit back and say, “I’ve accomplished this, so therefore I’m done”.

You create because you have to create. It’s an unending movement.

There’s no option to sit on the sidelines, to simply consume other people’s art and visions or wait until you’re ‘more ready’ (which never, ever happens—trust me). Your mind is constantly taking ideas and turning them into tangible expressions of you and your vision: books, photographs, courses, articles, paintings, all of the above, at all time, without end.

To this day I still think about sitting in the office of my dean. I think about the life I’ve made for myself being creative as a job and realize that I’ve proved him wrong. Not in a going back to the university now, wagging my finger at him, and saying that I proved him wrong sort of way. But more in a holy crap, I’m actually doing this sort of way.

What it is I’m doing, I’m still not sure of, but I’m definitely enjoying the ride.

As creatives, the work we do is both rewarding and challenging. What drives each and every one of us is unique and different but there is one absolute truth to this life: none of us create simply because it’s easy. But when you get to the end and can look back, you know it was worth it.

Are you ready for the virus to take hold?

While you’re here