Just because it’s creative doesn’t mean it isn’t work

I’ve come across very few people in my creative career that I would quietly call unmitigated geniuses. Most of us aren’t. As hard as we try.

We pay our dues. Do our apprenticeship.

Sweat over the details. Incrementally improve. Burnish and buff our skills. We mature, broaden our experience and become well-rounded. Eventually we become master craftspeople. And we’re able to sell ourselves through that prism.

But geniuses are a different breed. Some are stitched up and suit wearing. Others are dishevelled and twitchy. But the great commonality is that they have all been extraordinarily hard workers.

From what I could tell, they always had been focused. That’s why there’s a correlation between mental illness and genius.

Geniuses are typically obsessives. An inability to switch off coupled with an ability to go back to the well and come up with something new time after time. Genius is far from effortless.

We think of Mozart – probably the poster boy of genius.

His natural talents were unbelievable, but what doesn’t get as much attention is just how hard he worked from an extremely young age. Magnus Carlssen is another example. His ability to concentrate and focus on a task is absolutely legendary in chess circles.

We all know that Malcolm Gladwell popularised the idea of 10,000 hours being the key to mastering a discipline.

I call shenanigans.

He’s underestimated it a whole bunch. If you want to count design / art / communications school, most of us will have blown past that number just a few years into our careers.

It’s torturous, difficult, painful, but rewarding.

If you’re getting into the creative industries because you think it’ll be a fun life, think again. The hours can be brutal. The pace of change can spin your mind. Sure, there are moments of fun. I’ll bet morticians have their moments of fun too.

The truth is that a creative career will breed more self-doubt and anxiety than you could ever believe.

But it’s also incredibly rewarding – which is why so many of us pursue it.

Young, smart and engaged talent enter creative industries every year. Some of them will develop a great career. And others – even the most talented – will drift away.

Perhaps this is just my experience, but I’ve found the first to be whittled away are the ‘creative types’. Cool haircuts, the latest fashion and the right drinking establishments will always be trumped by the nerd putting in the hard work.

It’s important to understand the difference between raw talent and a developed skill. 

We’ll occasionally come across geniuses. And it’s wise to learn from them. Because even if we can’t have their aptitude, at least we can appropriate their habits.

Remember, the first goal as a creative is to be competitive. Laziness is your greatest enemy. Once you’re competitive, you’ve got to stay ahead of those who are coming behind you. Now, complacency is your greatest enemy.

At every level, hard work is the only way to keep moving forward.


Never forget that you are in a service industry.

You aren’t being paid to come up with one solution. A valuable creative is one that can conjure dozens of ideas, approaches or designs. Not just one singular glittering diamond.

We have to explore both what’s possible and what’s palatable.

Because your client wants to see a spectrum of solutions. They’re human. They have risk tolerances like anyone else. You need to create a work process to come up with multiple solutions quickly to fulfil that need.

Sit down. Stare at that blank sheet of paper and get your arse to work.

Sometimes a client will choose the idea that could win you plaudits. Other times they won’t – despite the best efforts you or the account people put in.

Great ideas are not entitled to being produced.

Understand that that’s absolutely fine, and perhaps there are other opportunities within that idea’s execution you can explore. Is there an interesting typographic tweak that can lift it? Or a particular illustrator to get involved in the project.

Creative work is no place for dullards

Another interesting aspect of great creatives is that in their time off, they have creative hobbies. There’s a lot of night-time musicians, painters, photographers and film-makers in our bunch.

Outside interests inform our work. They replenish our creative cup.

A bit of travel, some movies, some galleries. But to make it worthwhile, you need to make an concerted effort to feed it into your creative process.

So when you travel – draw or make some films.

When you watch a movie – dissect the screenwriting and cinematography afterward with friends.

When you go to a gallery – look closely at the use of colour.

Teach yourself the discipline of being creative, no matter what you do. Make your hobbies and experiences creative, and your work will blossom as a result.

Many people have opinions about creativity

Quite often I find the advice tends toward the ‘hippie’ part of the spectrum. Being ‘open’ to ideas arriving and so on. Meditate. Breathe in the world.

Personally, I take that with a grain of salt.

My approach is more blue collar. Getting down amongst it and sweating it. Because I believe that if it sounds too easy, it’s probably ineffective. It goes for the latest fad diet just as it goes for a career in a creative industry. 

Bottom line. If you want a future as a creative practioner – you’ve got some work to do. And once you stop, you’ll lose your edge unbelievably fast..