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Success, DIY, and the avoidance of fame

July 28th, 2013 No comments

If you’re going somewhere, where are you trying to get to? […] First it’s just getting a gig, then it’s supporting someone big, then it’s being someone big in your own right, and then what? Eventually, surely, the ultimate prize becomes not being famous, becomes regaining some of the dignity and privacy you so happily shed all those years ago. – Miranda Ward

F**k the Radio, We’ve Got Apple Juice is Miranda Ward’s account of the rise and self-propelled fall of UK band Little Fish at the end of the 2000’s, written in collaboration with the band. Little Fish found a kind of fame when spotted during a gig by Linda Perry from 4 Non Blondes, and went on to support Courtney Love and Blondie on tours around the world before recording an album in LA – only to follow this up by moving back to Oxford and recording their next album in their garage. But the book is less a biography of the band than an honest, insightful analysis of what exactly the band wanted from music, and what exactly they regard as success. Alongside this Miranda Ward examines her own motives for wanting to be a writer, and what that even means in an era of wall-to-wall blogging and self-publishing.

What was so refreshing to read here was what felt like sincere honesty in the band and the author’s desire to avoid fame. Whereas it is common to hear musicians and authors say they do not want to be part of the mainstream music or publishing industries, you still always have a nagging feeling that were they to have a hit single or novel they would lap it up and jump straight in to the fame machine. But it feels like a revelation when Little Fish recall that their most enjoyable gigs were the ones they played in Oxford venues to small audiences of appreciative fans – and when keyboard player Ben Walker describes what he now thinks of as success: as simply ‘being able to do interesting things with my time’.  Miranda Ward herself describes being surprised by a perfect day, of spending seven or eight hours writing, going for a swim then having an evening with her boyfriend, and what this means to her:

I don’t want to be a famous author for the fame; I want to be a famous author so that I can structure all of – or as many as can be considered reasonable – days like this. Because this […] is what makes me happy.

This feels exactly right to me. I’d like people to read what I write, because even though I take pleasure from writing itself there seems something missing if no one reads it. But in the end I just want to have the opportunity to go on writing about the things I consider important. This is the kind of life I aspire to in The Tyranny of Careers.

In this manner a fulfilling life is one that is focussed on what Miranda Ward calls ‘sustainable creativity’ – where the purpose of writing or making music or whatever is not necessarily to produce a book or an album, but simply to find a way to fund the continuation of making stuff. And whilst this means making do with less, and creating in a DIY fashion, these were the aspects of creating that made Little Fish feel more successful, rather than less. (In line with the DIY ethos of the book, it was published by Unbound, who raise the money needed to publish by collecting money from subscribers beforehand.)

This is a successful life for me: one of continued sustainable creativity. Highly recommend.

 

No one else is responsible for us not doing stuff

January 17th, 2013 No comments

When we find we’re not doing the work we really want to do, the creative work we say we really want to do, we make excuses. Or if we have not yet found what it is that will make our lives feel worthwhile, then we make excuses as to why we have given up the search.

We tell ourselves we don’t have the time or the money. Or we make life choices that, we tell ourselves, have cut off creative opportunities: we start a relationship, we have children, we take on a new job. And then we complain that these new responsibilities now prevent us from investigating our creative work, safe in the knowledge that the choice has been taken away from us.

But these are all excuses. I told myself that I no longer needed to write as much, when I had children, because I now had responsibilities. Somehow it was partly my children’s fault that I was using them as an excuse. I remember my mum telling me that she turned down a job in Switzerland in order to stay and marry my dad and have a family, and my mum was using her choice to have children as an excuse. But these were her, and my, choices and somewhere in our subconscious we were relieved that this closed off other more unknown, more scary choices.

We must all make life decisions at various times. But they are our decisions alone, and whoever makes demands on our lives after such a decision, they are not responsible for our lack of creative work. Excuses are just excuses. Just get on with it. Just make stuff.

10 Pieces of Careers Advice to My Younger Self

December 11th, 2012 4 comments

1. The majority of career jobs do not involve work or goals you intrinsically value

Traditional careers advice tells you that a full-time career is the one essential source of valuable work, and that valuable work is the source of self-esteem in life. But the majority of career jobs are work towards goals that you do not personally value. Self-esteem does come from valuable work – but only very rarely does this work begin within a career.

2. The rewards of rewarding jobs are suffocated by the stress of a full-time career

Medicine, teaching and working for a charity are all worthy professions with rewarding goals. But these rewards are so submerged beneath overwork and work politics in a full-time career as to make the rewards almost imperceptible.

3. The pleasure of creative work is not found in a ‘creative’ career

Most careers in the ‘creative industries’ are not creative, but administrative. And the positions in these industries that do require creativity do not want ideas that stem from your own personal interests – they require ideas to sell their clients’ products or find the largest audience. This is a wholly different different creativity from taking pleasure in your own creative ideas.

4. A full-time career does not give you control of your life, it takes control away

When you place high value on your career, for both your income and self-esteem, you hand your employer control of your life: control of your time, your ambitions, and your respect for yourself. For fear of losing that hard-fought-for career, you allow yourself to be treated in ways you would not put up with in your personal life.

5. Earning money is less important than your own creative work

The work you do to earn money for rent and food does not need to fulfil you, or be the source of your self-esteem. The real source of self-esteem is work you have originated yourself, not (at least at first) for money. The purpose of work for money is to support the discovery and pursuit of your own creative work, the work that you do find fulfilling.

6. Learn to live cheaply

If you avoid a career you will almost certainly, at least to begin with, need to live on less money than your careerist peers. But you need  less money to treat and entertain yourself when you can spend a significant number of hours a week taking pleasure from your own creative work.

7. Genuine self-esteem comes from pleasure in your own creative ideas

Everyone can be creative. Just because you were not labelled arty at school means nothing. Creative ideas are not limited to the traditional arts, they are found in the setting up of charity, in science, in anything. What would you do if money was no object? Creative work begins by copying your heroes. Everyone who does creative work feels like an imposter until they recognise the progress they make.

8. University or college is not essential

The valuable experiences you have at university – living with your peers, meeting interesting people, further study – can be found elsewhere where they will not leave you with enormous debts. University can be fantastic, but is only essential for a degree in order to get that career job. And if you do want to go, there is nothing that says you have to go straight from school, or after a gap of only a year. Do the minimum number of exams you need for college to leave the option open. And exams can always be retaken.

9. Define your own success

Success need not be measured by the size of your impact upon the world, by how famous you become. Success also comes from the satisfaction of personal, truly valuable goals, even if they affect only a small number of people. Many people who feel successful are invisible in society.

10. A career can wait, perhaps forever

Don’t aim for a full-time career straight from school or university. Find paid work that best supports your discovery of the work you really want to do, that you would do without expectation of money. If you do later come to have a career, let it follow from this valuable work. But it may be that you never have a career at all. This is the life of the happiest people I know.

Read the full essay: Semi-Retirement for the Under Twenties: How Can Work Make You Happy?

Finding Other Semi-retirees Will Lessen the Chance of You Giving Up Your Creative Work

August 14th, 2012 No comments

Part of what holds us back from pursuing our creative work is the idea that we are not going to be good enough at it. When you try your hand at writing, or photography, or whatever your interest is, a recurring feeling is ‘why the hell am I doing this?’ If you never move beyond this thought, and never arrive at the point where you take creative pleasure from your work, you tell yourself that there are better ways to spend your life. And you give up.

You need support for your creative work, someone to encourage you in what you are doing. But the kind of support you need when you start out is not someone who will critique what you are doing, who will tell you what is good and bad about it. This is useful later, when you have gained confidence. But not at the beginning, because your initial work will be bad. You will not create great work right from the beginning.

The best kind of support is to surround yourself with other semi-retirees: other people who spend as little time as possible on their paid subsistence work so they can concentrate on creative work. They will encourage you, even if they are not doing the same kind of work. It does not matter in the least that they are not doing the same kind of work – it is the fact that they are willing to spend their spare time on work that no one but themselves has asked them to do is the inspiration you need to carry on. In the words of Hugh MacLeod, ‘The sovereignty you have over your work will inspire far more people than the actual work.’

Rent a space in an artists’ studios. (I rent a space for writing and I’m surrounded by other semi-retirees with many different creative pursuits.) Renting costs money, but bear in mind that your social life will become cheaper because your new semi-retiree friends will want to live cheaply as well. Volunteer to work with someone doing your kind of creative work. Aim to hang out more with friends, and friends of friends who have a creative side to their life. However you do it, if you associate more with creative people, and avoid people who have or want a high-flying, well-paid career, you will feel more encouraged to continue, even when you think you have no idea what you are doing. Talk to them about your fears and insecurities. If they are serious about their creative work they will know what you are talking about.

Semi-retiree friends are one of the most important factors in discovering the pleasure from creative work. Talent, whatever that may be, is merely secondary.

The Purpose of Your Creativity is Not Making Money for Your Employer

July 10th, 2012 No comments

I love Ken Robinson. His TED talk and RSA animated talk were a big influence on many of the posts on this blog. He constantly reiterates how society does not value creativity enough, and it’s great that someone in such a prominent position says these things.

But I disagree with the reasons he gives for why creativity is important. He suggests it is important because creativity is what is needed in the modern workplace. His argument is that labour used to be part of a mechanised process, which needed workers to be specialised and controlled by bosses from above, but the modern workplace requires individuals who can think for themselves, who can work autonomously, and so creativity is needed to dream up new ideas for the companies for whom they work.

To dream up new products and services for your employer is not the reason to value creativity. It is certainly a better way to earn money than to have your every move dictated by a boss in a Victorian factory. But this is still using your creative ideas to sell mobile phones, or create websites to sell insurance, or design animated characters to entice children to spend money on your employer’s website. Are ends such as these really how you want to use your creativity?

The number of jobs where you are fulfilling goals about which you are personally enthusiastic is tiny. And if creative work does not originate from yourself, from your personal interests and passions, then a large part of the pleasure of fulfilling them is taken away. You do not end up with a finished piece of writing or artwork or other piece of work that started as your fleeting idea jotted in a notebook. It is not something in which you can feel truly proud, even though your company will try to make you feel artificially proud, so that you will do it again. And even if you have a job say, designing the covers of books, a job many people would love to do, the pleasure of creation is greatly diminished by the stress of deadlines, the criticism of editors and authors, the constant interruption of meetings and emails. It is very far from the pleasure of creating something of your own.

To be fair to Ken Robinson, I’m sure his idea of using creativity in the tiny minority of jobs where you have great freedom to follow your passion: scientific research, for example. But very few people get to do this, and we should not delude young people with the idea that it is likely to happen to them in their paid work. Having a creative part of your life is too important to be left to chance in a career. Find subsistence work that allows you time for your important creative work – your lifelong work in a craft that truly interests you.