What Is Required To Create Works That Matter?

Can a creative person afford not to attend to the business details and promotion/branding of their practice these days?

Cal Newport, perhaps unwittingly, wades into the longstanding debate about pure practice of ones craft vs. being more business savvy and oriented with his post “Want to Create Things That Matter? Be Lazy.”

In this instance, the “laziness” is not doing anything that distracts you from deeply investing in your core pursuit. So no engaging with fans on social media or email; accepting speaking engagements; show casing work, etc.

While Newport doesn’t explicitly say this includes ignoring personal finances and legal arrangements, his definition that:

“…shallow work is an activity that can impede more important deep efforts and therefore cause more net harm than good. It might slightly help your writing career in the moment to be retweeted, but the long term impact of a distracting Twitter habit could be the difference between a struggling novelist and an award-winning star like Stephenson.”

could easily be used to support a rationalization for avoiding the less pleasant aspects of a creative career.

Paying attention to the contracts you enter in and analyzing if you are effectively pricing your work provide a net benefit to one’s career, but this is also time consuming if you don’t have the resources to pay someone else to do it for you.

While you would be on solid ground to claim these are definitely worthy pursuits, according to Newport activities like public speaking engagements are on shakier ground. Still, public appearances, especially ones you are paid for, aren’t really on the same level as busyness that you engage in to avoid doing substantive work.

Emails and social media can be a time suck and you can rationalize that you are getting things done and advancing your career, but Newport has a point that the trade off of spending an hour on tweets vs. an hour of productive creation in unequal. At a certain level of notoriety, public appearances can become a huge time and energy suck of themselves.

At the same time, we can point to examples of people who have had their careers start based on the effort they have put into a social media presence. Whether you think that success is deserved or not or whether you believe the career will endure or not is another issue.

Even though I am pretty much firmly on the side of balancing your checkbook and reading your contracts, I think the conversation about how best to pursue a career as a creative isn’t one that can be definitively settled.

That said, it doesn’t serve creative artist well to lecture them on being mindful of all aspects of their lives without some good practice guidelines (if not best practice guidelines).

Most creative oriented folks would say it is important to them to create work that matters. But if no one is aware of the work’s existence, if no effort has been made to make people aware of it, does it matter? Or rather, does it matter to the extent that others feel it has impact in their lives.

There can also be the question about whether it matters enough to support the creator financially, but that touches upon an immense conversation so I will just leave the question as one of impact.

So how do you know when you are neglecting the practical requirements of a creative career? How do you know when you are favoring shallow pursuit of your creative goals over deeper pursuit of them?

These statues were in a side alley people park their bikes in. Does this work matter?
These statues were in a side alley people park their bikes in. Does this work matter?

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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4 thoughts on “What Is Required To Create Works That Matter?”

  1. The fundamental mistake that article makes is to value ‘deep’ or ‘shallow’ type work only for its immediate impact. This foreshortened perspective makes it easy to deny the type of holism our lives depend on. It makes it easy to think, “Well, yes, deep work IS more important, so I should maximize that” rather than seeing the whole ecology of influences in our lives’ work.

    Lets say we were talking about nutrition. Getting your vitamins and minerals is a real value, a ‘deep’ value, and so eating food is important. But is it important to maximize? Should we eat as much as we can, non stop, until we can eat no more? We need nutrition, so getting the most of it should be what we focus on, according to the author’s logic. If we are nor stuffing our faces we are wasting our time, in other words.

    But that’s ridiculous. The downtime from producing serves an actual need of the up time. We need to rest from production so the production itself can be advantageously placed. We need to digest first to make the next meal profitable. What this article ignores is any notion of a golden mean, timing (“For every thing, turn, turn, turn. There is a season, turn, turn….”), and the interplay of inconsistent and opposing influences that are both unavoidable and necessary in real life.

    My own art practice requires that I let my mind go fallow so the next time I enter the studio I have an uncluttered and fresh perspective. I can be more effective and innovative if my nose has lifted from the grindstone sufficiently that I am not weighed down by the preceding bouts of studio practice. But also, as a selling artist I need to feel as if I’m not wasting my time in the studio. If I have work that has languished on display shelves for long enough I can become depressed. I can turn that neglect from the customers to a condemnation of the work itself, but worse, I can also use that oversupply of undervalued work as an excuse not to continue making it. That is a real obstacle for working artists, unfortunately, and that requires that at minimum we do a good enough job of clearing the shelves to help us justify new work. In a sense, our time in the studio gets justified by how well we prepared the ground for that time to properly matter to us.

    What this means is that for sanity’s sake artists often have to do things that are *preliminary* to actual studio work. We have to lay the groundwork, also. What this means is that the fun stuff of being in the studio making work rests on a foundation of less enjoyable tasks that themselves make the studio time possible. Its an ecology of practices.

    I have no idea who the author is speaking for. The idealized artist working in a vacuum is all very nice, but a living artist who depends on their art for an income is under strange and fraught influences. The author has convinced me of nothing so much as that he has no idea what he’s talking about. That, or he’s never had to make a living as an artist. Oh wait, he’s a computer science professor. Perhaps he has not?

    • Yes, but have you ever questioned whether writing lengthy blog posts and responses to other bloggers is detracting from your ability to make meaningful work!? ;P

      The other thing to consider is that you aren’t just your work. You can create meaning for others that don’t manifest as pottery. The example of Feynman in the piece isn’t really apt because he didn’t eschew teaching (or playing bongos) as detrimental to creating deep work.

      • Ha! 🙂 I’m lucky that my making cycle is not year round or crazily focused more than a few months of the year. Even in my busiest periods I sometimes need to let some steam out on a blog post or my head will explode!

        Yeah, Feynman was a weird reference. As huge as he was in Physics, he did so many other things with passion and even obsession. The author lost the plot of his own daydeam, I think 🙂


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