Are You an Artist?

The dictionary defines art as

the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

Contrary to popular belief, art is not limited to painting or sculpture. Art is also not limited to other creative arts such as music, design or making artifacts, though all of those things certainly qualify as art. Also, art has as much to do with numbers, business models, and conversations as it has to do with the creative arts.

If you make something (art) that creates impact in some way, you’re an artist. If you’re making things without making an impact (and living), then it’s merely a hobby. That’s not being a pro; that’s just being an amateur. And that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with that. A pro also gets paid for the value they deliver; an amateur does not get paid. The “getting paid” part makes you a professional and separates you from the amateurs.

Artists don’t do more. They do what’s important. They are always doing brave and scary work by producing something original and human, which has a risk to it that changes someone else for the better. Art with no one using or watching isn’t art.

Artists are not afraid of thinking differently and questioning the status quo. In fact, doing those things is what defines them. They always take a stand. They take the work personally and don’t care when someone disagrees with them.

Artists know how to manage complexity using the principle of Order and Chaos. An artist brings a special kind of creativity to situations that others can’t. They lead others and they know how to establish a tribe and take them somewhere. They inspire others to create their own art and thereby help make their own change in the world. They have deep knowledge about their domain, and they are good at their craft because they show up every day and do the work.

Artists always give gifts and take emotional risks. They invest emotional labor into their work, they solve interesting problems, they lead, and they engage with people. Daniel Day-Lewis is an artist. So is Roger Federer, Warren Buffet, and Steve Jobs.

What makes art “art” is that the person who made it overcame resistance in their mind, ignored the voice of doubt, and made something worth making — something risky and human. Art is creative, passionate, and personal. Art is always intended for the recipient, and never for the creator. Art is in the soul of the artist, not just in the eye of the beholder.

Art is something new, and it might not work — precisely because it’s new — because it’s human and because it seeks to connect. The art that you make might not work most of the time, and you have to be okay with that. Remember that unless you keep making things, you’ll never come up with anything great. That’s just how it works — that’s the price you pay for making art.

The art you make is not just something that you do, it’s a part of who you are. You feel compelled to share it with the world because it’s important, and not because of some expected future reward. Sure, future rewards would be great, but that is not what drives an artist.

You’re experiencing a piece of art when you read a book, watch a film, listen to music, appreciate a painting, etc. Mona Lisa is art; a copy is merely a painting. Art is displayed when they serve you food at a restaurant. Art is when your car dealer tells you that there is another dealership down the lane who has a better deal for you.

Art is when you don’t keep track of what you get in return because you’re not creating it to get something in return. You’re creating to make an impact, to help change others (more on this below).

Art is a gift. Although, the idea of art is free, it’s the generosity of giving it away that is a critical part of making art.

Art is about adding value to the world. Art brings us closer together. Humans are the only species capable of making art. Art is what we’re doing when we do our best work.

Some even equate art with theft. Artists are not afraid of stealing. Stealing is merely the starting-point, which is where the artist builds on the creative work using their own voice.

We make art for a couple of reasons (in this order):

  • First, to make our soul grow. As artists, this is not just what we do, this is who we are, and we express ourselves through our work. Sure, we feel valued when others find our work useful, but that’s not why we do what we do, and
  • second, to have an impact, and a desire to make change. The art you make is an act of taking personal responsibility and challenging the status quo. It is an act of courage to bring about change in another. Think of art as a gift that is intended to change the recipient.

The hard part is not making art, but in choosing whether you want to make art at all, and committing to what it requires of you. Not to say that making art is easy — it’s not. Committing to making art is a much harder decision that you’ll make. No one can help you make that choice but you.

There is no right way to make art. There is no definitive map. If there was a map, there would be no art. The reason art is valuable is because there are no directions for making it. Therefore, art is the act of navigating without a map.

You’re not looking for a path — you’re looking for choices that will help determine your own path. The more choices you have, the more chances you have of doing something interesting or remarkable.

Roadmaps are the exact opposite of creating art. When you’re creating art, there is no defined outcome. The process of showing up and making art determines the outcome of that art. We need to look for a compass, not maps.

Doing your work is art. Art is doing your work. Art that you make is what you do. No one can tell you exactly how to do it, which is why it’s an art, not science. If others could just replicate, then that would cease to be art, and as a result it wouldn’t be valuable.

So how do you make art? You make art by being a pro. That means showing up and doing the work every day. That’s it. There is no substitute for doing the work.

You need to spend some time making something every day. It doesn’t matter how it turns out as long as you make something every day. Give yourself permission to be less than perfect. Allow yourself to fail. Let the process of showing up every day and doing the work determine the outcome of your work. Let go of the judgement. It’s only when we show up without an agenda that we can take a path that hasn’t been explored before. As artists, we know that unless we’re prepared to be wrong, we’ll never come up with anything great. I wrote more about this in Divergence and Convergence and in Explore, Evaluate, Execute.

Artists don’t care about perfection. They worry about making progress and shipping. They work on a schedule because they are pros.

When we show up every day, we make things and we share them with others. We do the work and we ship. Real artists ship. When we ship, we build trust with our tribe/audience/clients, who show up because we show up. By showing up, we make a promise to “our people” and by not showing up, we’re not keeping our promise to them.

When we don’t show up, we lose trust with our tribe, and we’ll eventually be missed when we’re gone. Where will they go to receive what you have to share with them?

Creating art in teams is no different. There is no map. You create art as a team sport by having people from different disciplines come and work together to create art that has never been created before. The more diverse the group, the better because they’ll complement each other’s strengths and make up for each other’s weaknesses. That’s how you create synergy, but more on that in a later piece.

There are some things that the artist implicitly accepts as part of making the choice to be an artist. Because, let’s face it — it’s hard to be an artist and to keep doing great work consistently. They use their bravery, insight, creativity, and boldness to challenge the status quo. It’s hard doing the work day-in and day-out while remaining detached to the outcome of the work. When creating art, they face self-doubt, rejection, risk, and failure. Creating art is a personal act of courage — something artists do that creates change in others.

What matters is being willing to stand up and make things happen. What matters is that we keep making things and shipping them because that’s what we do. We don’t wait for permission. We keep doing the work.

Artists occasionally suffer from what is known as Impostor Syndrome. They need to stop telling themselves that they aren’t good enough. It’s okay to not be as good as (insert your favorite role-model) because what we’re really looking for is passion and hard work. We understand that only by doing a volume of work will we close the gap between our talent and our taste. We must remember that anything worth doing will take time and effort. We must be patient in the long-term. Let’s not forget that the goal is not perfection, but progress since that helps build momentum. Perfection just stalls you, but more on that in a later piece.

We are artists when we make things that impact the world in some way. You don’t need a brush to be an artist, though you do need to want to make change. When will you start making your art?

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