“For artists, the great problem to solve is how to get oneself noticed.”Honore De Balzac
A New Way of Operating
“Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.”John Cleese
A book for people who hate the very idea of self-promotion. An alternative, if you will, to self-promotion.
1. You Don’t have to be a genius
“Give what you have. To someone, it may be better than you dare to think.”Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Find a Scenius
- Scenius doesn’t take away from the achievements of those great individuals; it just acknowledges that good work isn’t created in a vacuum, and that creativity is always, in some sense, a collaboration, the result of a mind connected to other minds.
You can’t find your voice if you don’t use it
“Find your voice, shout it from the rooftops, and keep doing it until the people that are looking for you find you.”Dan Harmon
- Talk about the things you love. Your voice will follow.
Be an Amateur
“That’s all any of us are: amateurs. We don’t live long enough to be anything else.”Charlie Chaplin
- “On the spectrum of creative work, the difference between the mediocre and the good is vast. Mediocrity is, however, still on the spectrum; you can move from mediocre to good in increments. The real gap is between doing nothing and doing something.” Amateurs know that contributing something is better than contributing nothing.
- “Amateurs are regular people who get obsessed by something and spend a ton of time thinking out loud about it.”
- The best way to get started on the path to sharing your work is to think about what you want to learn, and make a commitment to learning it in front of others.
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked.”Steve Jobs
2. Think Process not Product
Take People behind the scene
A lot of people are so used to just seeing the outcome of work. They never see the side of the work you go through to produce the outcome.”Michael Jackson
- Process is messy. But human beings are interested in other human beings and what other human beings do. “People really do want to see how the sausage gets made.” That’s how designers Dan Provost and Tom Gerhardt put it in their book on entrepreneurship, It Will Be Exhilarating. “By putting things out there, consistently, you can form a relationship with your customers. It allows them to see the person behind the products.” Audiences not only want to stumble across great work, but they, too, long to be creative and part of the creative process.
Be a Documentarian of What you do
“In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen— really seen.”Brené Brown
- Whatever the nature of your work, there is an art to what you do, and there are people who would be interested in that art, if only you presented it to them in the right way. In fact, sharing your process might actually be most valuable if the products of your work aren’t easily shared, if you’re still in the apprentice stage of your work, if you can’t just slap up a portfolio and call it a day, or if your process doesn’t necessarily lead to tangible finished products.
- Start a work journal: Write your thoughts down in a notebook, or speak them into an audio recorder. Keep a scrapbook. Take a lot of photographs of your work at different stages in your process. Shoot video of you working. This isn’t about making art, it’s about simply keeping track of what’s going on around you.
- Whether you share it or not, documenting and recording your process as you go along has its own rewards: You’ll start to see the work you’re doing more clearly and feel like you’re making progress. And when you’re ready to share, you’ll have a surplus of material to choose from.
3. Share Something Small Everyday
Send out a daily dispatch
“Put yourself, and your work, out there every day, and you’ll start meeting some amazing people.”Bobby Solomon
- Overnight success is a myth. Dig into almost every overnight success story and you’ll find about a decade’s worth of hard work and perseverance. Building a substantial body of work takes a long time—a lifetime, really—but thankfully, you don’t need that time all in one big chunk. So forget about decades, forget about years, and forget about months. Focus on days.
- A daily dispatch is even better than a résumé or a portfolio, because it shows what we’re working on right now.
Turn your flow into stock
“If you work on something a little bit every day, you end up with something that is massive.”Kenneth Goldsmith
“Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people you exist. Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.” Sloan says the magic formula is to maintain your flow while working on your stock in the background.
The “So What?” Test
“Make no mistake: This is not your diary. You are not letting it all hang out. You are picking and choosing every single word.”Dani Shapiro
Build a Good (Domain) Name
“Carving out a space for yourself online, somewhere where you can express yourself and share your work, is still one of the best possible investments you can make with your time.”Andy Baio
- A blog is the ideal machine for turning flow into stock: One little blog post is nothing on its own, but publish a thousand blog posts over a decade, and it turns into your life’s work.
- Build a good domain name, keep it clean, and eventually it will be its own currency. Whether people show up or they don’t, you’re out there, doing your thing, ready whenever they are.
4. Open up your Cabinet of Curiosities
Don’t be a Hoarder
“The problem with hoarding is you end up living off your reserves. Eventually, you’ll become stale. If you give away everything you have, you are left with nothing. This forces you to look, to be aware, to replenish. . . . Somehow the more you give away, the more comes back to you.”Paul Arden
- Where do you get your inspiration? What sorts of things do you fill your head with? What do you read? Do you subscribe to anything? What sites do you visit on the Internet? What music do you listen to? What movies do you see? Do you look at art? What do you collect? What’s inside your scrapbook? What do you pin to the corkboard above your desk? What do you stick on your refrigerator? Who’s done work that you admire? Who do you steal ideas from? Do you have any heroes? Who do you follow online? Who are the practitioners you look up to in your field?
- Your influences are all worth sharing because they clue people in to who you are and what you do—sometimes even more than your own work.
“You’re only as good as your record collection.”DJ Spooky
No Guilty Pleasures
“I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. If you f—ing like something, like it.”Dave Grohl
- “In my opinion, the most ordinary things, the most common and familiar, if we could see them in their true light, would turn out to be the grandest miracles . . . and the most marvelous examples.” All it takes to uncover hidden gems is a clear eye, an open mind, and a willingness to search for inspiration in places other people aren’t willing or able to go. —Michel de Montaigne, in his essay “On Experience,”
- We all love things that other people think are garbage. You have to have the courage to keep loving your garbage, because what makes us unique is the diversity and breadth of our influences, the unique ways in which we mix up the parts of culture others have deemed “high” and the “low.”
- Don’t try to be hip or cool. Being open and honest about what you like is the best way to connect with people who like those things, too.
“Do what you do best and link to the rest.”Jeff Jarvis
Credit is always Due
- If you share the work of others, it’s your duty to make sure that the creators of that work get proper credit.
5. Tell Good Stories
Work doesn’t speak for itself
“To fake a photograph, all you have to do is change the caption. To fake a painting, change the attribution.”Errol Morris
- Words matter. Artists love to trot out the tired line, “My work speaks for itself,” but the truth is, our work doesn’t speak for itself. Human beings want to know where things came from, how they were made, and who made them. The stories you tell about the work you do have a huge effect on how people feel and what they understand about your work, and how people feel and what they understand about your work affects how they value it.
- “Why should we describe the frustrations and turning points in the lab, or all the hours of groundwork and failed images that precede the final outcomes?” asks artist Rachel Sussman. “Because, rarified exceptions aside, our audience is a human one, and humans want to connect. Personal stories can make the complex more tangible, spark associations, and offer entry into things that might otherwise leave one cold.”
- If you want to be more effective when sharing yourself and your work, you need to become a better storyteller. You need to know what a good story is and how to tell one.
“‘The cat sat on a mat’ is not a story. ‘The cat sat on the dog’s mat’ is a story.”John le Carré
Structure is Everything
“In the first act, you get your hero up a tree. The second act, you throw rocks at him. For the third act, you let him down.”George Abbott
- The most important part of a story is its structure. A good story structure is tidy, sturdy, and logical.
- “Once upon a time, there was _____. Every day, _____. One day, _____. Because of that, _____. Because of that, _____. Until finally, _____.”
- Philosopher Aristotle said a story had a beginning, a middle, and an end. Author John Gardner said the basic plot of nearly all stories is this: “A character wants something, goes after it despite opposition (perhaps including his own doubts), and so arrives at a win, lose, or draw.”
- This simple formula can be applied to almost any type of work project: There’s the initial problem, the work done to solve the problem, and the solution.
- Every client presentation, every personal essay, every cover letter, every fundraising request—they’re all pitches. They’re stories with the endings chopped off. A good pitch is set up in three acts: The first act is the past, the second act is the present, and the third act is the future. The first act is where you’ve been— what you want, how you came to want it, and what you’ve done so far to get it. The second act is where you are now in your work and how you’ve worked hard and used up most of your resources. The third act is where you’re going, and how exactly the person you’re pitching can help you get there. Like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, this story shape effectively turns your listener into the hero who gets to decide how it ends.
- Whether you’re telling a finished or unfinished story, always keep your audience in mind. Speak to them directly in plain language. Value their time. Be brief. Learn to speak. Learn to write. Use spell-check. You’re never “keeping it real” with your lack of proofreading and punctuation, you’re keeping it unintelligible.
- Everybody loves a good story, but good storytelling doesn’t come easy to everybody. It’s a skill that takes a lifetime to master. So study the great stories and then go find some of your own. Your stories will get better the more you tell them.
Talk about yourself at Parties
“You got to make your case.”Kanye West
- You should be able to explain your work to a kindergartner, a senior citizen, and everybody in between. Of course, you always need to keep your audience in mind: The way you explain your work to your buddies at the bar is not the way you explain your work to your mother.
- Tell the truth and tell it with dignity and self-respect. If you’re a student, say you’re a student. If you work a day job, say you work a day job. (For years, I said, “By day I’m a web designer, and by night I write poetry.”) If you have a weird hybrid job, say something like, “I’m a writer who draws.”
- Author George Orwell wrote: “Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful.”
- Bios are not the place to practice your creativity. We all like to think we’re more complex than a two-sentence explanation, but a two-sentence explanation is usually what the world wants from us. Keep it short and sweet.
“Whatever we say, we’re always talking about ourselves.”Alison Bechdel
6. Teach What You Know
Share your trade Secrets
“The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”Annie Dillard
- The minute you learn something, turn around and teach it to others. Share your reading list. Point to helpful reference materials. Create some tutorials and post them online. Use pictures, words, and video. Take people step-by-step through part of your process. As blogger Kathy Sierra says, “Make people better at something they want to be better at.”
- Teaching people doesn’t subtract value from what you do, it actually adds to it.When you teach someone how to do your work, you are, in effect, generating more interest in your work. People feel closer to your work because you’re letting them in on what you know.
- Best of all, when you share your knowledge and your work with others, you receive an education in return.
7. Don’t turn into Human Spam
Shut up and Listen
“When people realize they’re being listened to, they tell you things.”Richard Ford
“The writing community is full of lame-o people who want to be published in journals even though they don’t read the magazines that they want to be published in,” says writer Dan Chaon. “These people deserve the rejections that they will undoubtedly receive, and no one should feel sorry for them when they cry about how they can’t get anyone to accept their stories.”
- No matter how famous they get, the forward-thinking artists of today aren’t just looking for fans or passive consumers of their work, they’re looking for potential collaborators, or co-conspirators. These artists acknowledge that good work isn’t created in a vacuum, and that the experience of art is always a two-way street, incomplete without feedback. These artists hang out online and answer questions. They ask for reading recommendations. They chat with fans about the stuff they love.
- If you want fans, you have to be a fan first. If you want to be accepted by a community, you have to first be a good citizen of that community. If you’re only pointing to your own stuff online, you’re doing it wrong. You have to be a connector. The writer Blake Butler calls this being an open node. If you want to get, you have to give. If you want to be noticed, you have to notice. Shut up and listen once in a while. Be thoughtful. Be considerate. Don’t turn into human spam. Be an open node.
The Vampire Test
“Whatever excites you, go do it. Whatever drains you, stop doing it.”Derek Sivers
- Brancusi practiced what I call The Vampire Test. It’s a simple way to know who you should let in and out of your life. If, after hanging out with someone you feel worn out and depleted, that person is a vampire. If, after hanging out with someone you still feel full of energy, that person is not a vampire. Of course, The Vampire Test works on many things in our lives, not just people—you can apply it to jobs, hobbies, places, etc.
- Vampires cannot be cured. Should you find yourself in the presence of a vampire, be like Brancusi, and banish it from your life forever.
“Part of the act of creating is in discovering your own kind. They are everywhere. But don’t look for them in the wrong places.”Henry Miller
You want Hearts, not Eyeballs
“What you want is to follow and be followed by human beings who care about issues you care about. This thing we make together. This thing is about hearts and minds, not eyeballs.”Jeffrey Zeldman
- Stop worrying about how many people follow you online and start worrying about the quality of people who follow you. Don’t waste your time reading articles about how to get more followers. Don’t waste time following people online just because you think it’ll get you somewhere. Don’t talk to people you don’t want to talk to, and don’t talk about stuff you don’t want to talk about.
- If you want followers, be someone worth following. Donald Barthelme supposedly said to one of his students, “Have you tried making yourself a more interesting person?” This seems like a really mean thing to say, unless you think of the word interesting the way writer Lawrence Weschler does: For him, to be “interesting” is to be curious and attentive, and to practice “the continual projection of interest.” To put it more simply: If you want to be interesting, you have to be interested.
- It is actually true that life is all about “who you know.” But who you know is largely dependent on who you are and what you do, and the people you know can’t do anything for you if you’re not doing good work.
- Make stuff you love and talk about stuff you love and you’ll attract people who love that kind of stuff. It’s that simple. Don’t be creepy. Don’t be a jerk. Don’t waste people’s time. Don’t ask too much. And don’t ever ever ask people to follow you. “Follow me back?” is the saddest question on the Internet.
Identify your fellow Knuckleballers
- the knuckleball—a slow, awkward pitch that’s really hard to throw with any kind of consistency.
- As you put yourself and your work out there, you will run into your fellow knuckleballers. These are your real peers—the people who share your obsessions, the people who share a similar mission to your own, the people with whom you share a mutual respect. There will only be a handful or so of them, but they’re so, so important. Do what you can to nurture your relationships with these people. Sing their praises to the universe. Invite them to collaborate. Show them work before you show anybody else. Call them on the phone and share your secrets. Keep them as close as you can.
“It’s all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others.”Susan Sontag
Meet up in Meatspace
“You and I will be around a lot longer than Twitter, and nothing substitutes face to face.”Rob Delaney
- If you’ve been friends for a while with somebody online and you live in the same town, ask them if they want to grab a coffee. If you want to go all out, offer to buy them lunch. If you’re traveling, let your online friends know you’re going to be in town. I like asking my artist friends to take me to their favorite art museums and asking my writer friends to take me to their favorite bookstore. If we get sick of talking to one another, we can browse, and if we get sick of browsing, we can grab a coffee in the café.
- Meeting people online is awesome, but turning them into IRL friends is even better.
8. Learn to take a Punch
Let’em take their Best Shot
“I ain’t going to give up. Every time you think I’m one place, I’m going to show up someplace else. I come pre-hated. Take your best shot.”Cyndi Lauper
Relax and breathe. The trouble with imaginative people is that we’re good at picturing the worst that could happen to us. Fear is often just the imagination taking a wrong turn. Bad criticism is not the end of the world. As far as I know, no one has ever died from a bad review. Take a deep breath and accept whatever comes. (Consider practicing meditation—it works for me.)
Strengthen your neck. The way to be able to take a punch is to practice getting hit a lot. Put out a lot of work. Let people take their best shot at it. Then make even more work and keep putting it out there. The more criticism you take, the more you realize it can’t hurt you.
Roll with the punches. Keep moving. Every piece of criticism is an opportunity for new work. You can’t control what sort of criticism you receive, but you can control how you react to it. Sometimes when people hate something about your work, it’s fun to push that element even further. To make something they’d hate even more. Having your work hated by certain people is a badge of honor.
Protect your vulnerable areas. If you have work that is too sensitive or too close to you to be exposed to criticism, keep it hidden. But remember what writer Colin Marshall says: “Compulsive avoidance of embarrassment is a form of suicide.” If you spend your life avoiding vulnerability, you and your work will never truly connect with other people.
Keep your balance. You have to remember that your work is something you do, not who you are. This is especially hard for artists to accept, as so much of what they do is personal. Keep close to your family, friends, and the people who love you for you, not just the work.
“The trick is not caring what EVERYBODY thinks of you and just caring about what the RIGHT people think of you.”Brian Michael Bendis
Don’t Feed the Trolls
The first step in evaluating feedback is sizing up who it came from. You want feedback from people who care about you and what you do. Be extra wary of feedback from anybody who falls outside of that circle.
Do you have a troll problem? Use the block button on social media sites. Delete nasty comments. My wife is fond of saying, “If someone took a dump in your living room, you wouldn’t let it sit there, would you?” Nasty comments are the same—they should be scooped up and thrown in the trash.
At some point, you might consider turning off comments completely. Having a form for comments is the same as inviting comments. “There’s never a space under paintings in a gallery where someone writes their opinion,” says cartoonist Natalie Dee. “When you get to the end of a book, you don’t have to see what everyone else thought of it.” Let people contact you directly or let them copy your work over to their own spaces and talk about it all they want.
9. Sell Out
Even the Renaissance had to be funded
“Sellout . . . I’m not crazy about that word. We’re all entrepreneurs. To me, I don’t care if you own a furniture store or whatever—the best sign you can put up is sold out.”Bill Withers
- People need to eat and pay the rent. “An amateur is an artist who supports himself with outside jobs which enable him to paint,” said artist Ben Shahn. “A professional is someone whose wife works to enable him to paint.” Whether an artist makes money off his work or not, money has to come from somewhere, be it a day job, a wealthy spouse, a trust fund, an arts grant, or a patron.
- We all have to get over our “starving artist” romanticism and the idea that touching money inherently corrupts creativity.
Pass Around the Hat
“I’d love to sell out completely. It’s just that nobody has been willing to buy.”John Waters
- When an audience starts gathering for the work that you’re freely putting into the world, you might eventually want to take the leap of turning them into patrons. The easiest way to do this is to simply ask for donations: Put a little virtual tip jar or a donate now button on your website. These links do well with a little bit of human copy, such as “Like this? Buy me a coffee.” This is a very simple transaction, which is the equivalent of a band passing a hat during a gig —if people are digging what you do, they’ll throw a few bucks your way.
Keep a Mailing List
- I know people who run multimillion-dollar businesses off of their mailing lists. The model is very simple: They give away great stuff on their sites, they collect emails, and then when they have something remarkable to share or sell, they send an email. You’d be amazed at how well the model works.
Pay It Forward
- When you have success, it’s important to use any dough, clout, or platform you’ve acquired to help along the work of the people who’ve helped you get to where you are. Extol your teachers, your mentors, your heroes, your influences, your peers, and your fans. Give them a chance to share their own work. Throw opportunities their way.
“Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck— and with luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.”Michael Lewis
Make More Work For Yourself
- “There is a point in one’s life when one cares about selling out and not selling out,” writes author Dave Eggers. “Thankfully, for some, this all passes.” What really matters, Eggers says, is doing good work and taking advantage of every opportunity that comes your way. “I really like saying yes. I like new things, projects, plans, getting people together and doing something, trying something, even when it’s corny or stupid.” The people who holler “Sellout!” are all hollering “No!” They’re the people who don’t want things to ever change.
- Yet a life of creativity is all about change—moving forward, taking chances, exploring new frontiers. “The real risk is in not changing,” said saxophonist John Coltrane. “I have to feel that I’m after something. If I make money, fine. But I’d rather be striving. It’s the striving, man, it’s that I want.”
- Be ambitious. Keep yourself busy. Think bigger. Expand your audience. Don’t hobble yourself in the name of “keeping it real,” or “not selling out.” Try new things. If an opportunity comes along that will allow you to do more of the kind of work you want to do, say Yes. If an opportunity comes along that would mean more money, but less of the kind of work you want to do, say No.
“There is no misery in art. All art is about saying yes, and all art is about its own making.”John Currin
10. Stick Around
Don’t Quit Your Show (Dave Chappelle)
- “In our business you don’t quit,” says comedian Joan Rivers. “You’re holding on to the ladder. When they cut off your hands, hold on with your elbow. When they cut off your arms, hold on with your teeth. You don’t quit because you don’t know where the next job is coming from.”
“Work is never finished, only abandoned.”Paul Valéry
- Add all this together and you get a way of working I call chain-smoking. You avoid stalling out in your career by never losing momentum. Here’s how you do it: Instead of taking a break in between projects, waiting for feedback, and worrying about what’s next, use the end of one project to light up the next one. Just do the work that’s in front of you, and when it’s finished, ask yourself what you missed, what you could’ve done better, or what you couldn’t get to, and jump right into the next project.
“We work because it’s a chain reaction, each subject leads to the next.”Charles Eames
Go Away So You can come Back
“The minute you stop wanting something you get it.”Andy Warhol
Chain-smoking is a great way to keep going, but at some point, you might burn out and need to go looking for a match. The best time to find one is while taking a sabbatical.
- Commute. A moving train or subway car is the perfect time to write, doodle, read, or just stare out the window. (If you commute by car, audiobooks are a great way to safely tune out.) A commute happens twice a day, and it nicely separates our work life from our home life.
- Exercise. Using our body relaxes our mind, and when our mind gets relaxed, it opens up to having new thoughts. Jump on the treadmill and let your mind go. If you’re like me and you hate exercise, get a dog—dogs won’t let you get away with missing a day.
- Nature. Go to a park. Take a hike. Dig in your garden. Get outside in the fresh air. Disconnect from anything and everything electronic.
- It’s very important to separate your work from the rest of your life. As my wife said to me, “If you never go to work, you never get to leave work.”
“Every two or three years, I knock off for a while. That way, I’m constantly the new girl in the whorehouse.”Robert Mitchum
Start Over Begin Again
“Whenever Picasso learned how to do something, he abandoned it.”Milton Glaser
- When you feel like you’ve learned whatever there is to learn from what you’re doing, it’s time to change course and find something new to learn so that you can move forward. You can’t be content with mastery; you have to push yourself to become a student again. “Anyone who isn’t embarrassed of who they were last year probably isn’t learning enough,” writes author Alain de Botton.
- When you get rid of old material, you push yourself further and come up with something better. When you throw out old work, what you’re really doing is making room for new work.
- So don’t think of it as starting over. Think of it as beginning again. Go back to chapter one—literally!—and become an amateur. Look for something new to learn, and when you find it, dedicate yourself to learning it out in the open. Document your progress and share as you go so that others can learn along with you. Show your work, and when the right people show up, pay close attention to them, because they’ll have a lot to show you.