Three Ways to Avoid Mediocrity in Art and Work
We writers traffic in uncertainty every day. Charged with turning our thoughts into life-giving words, we weave together experiences, aspirations, and the needs of our audience into something (hopefully) meaningful.
However, there are certain forces that inhibit our ability to engage and can cause us to compromise what we do. If left unchecked, these subtle forces can rob us of days, weeks, and even years of valuable engagement, causing us to take our best work to the grave with us.
We need to be careful. Here are three warnings worth heeding that will lead to producing better work — before you die:
Avoid the danger of comfort
I know all too well how easy it is to slip into the comfort of routine.
Once we’ve experienced a measure of success, routines become reinforced and it’s easier to default to whatever’s easiest or most comfortable. But this is quite damaging to the quality of work we do.
You cannot pursue comfort and great work at the same time. You may experience comfort along the way, of course, but at some point you will probably have to choose between the two.
Brilliant work is done by those who consistently choose to do the right thing even when it’s uncomfortable. [Tweet that]
Where in your life and writing are you falling into comfortable habits that are inhibiting you from making something remarkable?
Establish “hunting trails”
There’s a cat in our neighborhood that makes an appearance around the same time each day outside my office window. She has a routine that looks something like this:
She paces slowly to the edge of the woods, then carefully along the edge of the woods, and back down the side where there’s some wild grass area. Next, she slowly stalks along the back of our storage shed, around the side, and makes a beeline to the back of our house. Finally, she walks all around our deck and the bushes, then she’s off.
This happens two to three times each day. I call it her “hunting trail.”
Bella is not hurting for food. She’s catching lots and lots and lots of prey. I’ve witnessed it a few times, and she’s tenacious. When she is walking this trail, she is intense, instinctively looking for a break in the norm as she goes about her routine. When she sees a disruption — some unlucky creature jumping out of the grass — she pounces.
She knows how to put herself in the right place at the right time to have the best chance for success.
Just like Bella, we each need “hunting trails” — daily routines and practices that put us in a position where we’re likely to experience creative insights. Many people don’t build these kinds of hunting trails. Instead, they wander aimlessly, waiting for an opportunity, some “mouse” to simply wander across their path.
You need to identify your hunting trails and commit to walking them often, paying attention to what you observe and preparing to pounce.
This is what applied curiosity looks like. It’s intense, hopeful searching for answers to your most pressing questions. It’s knowing where to go for inspiration, then doing it consistently.
Follow the arrows
I love the story of how the incredibly popular NPR show RadioLab found its “voice.”
One night, co-host Jad Abumrad was toying around with audio files and happened upon a particular combination of edits that resonated deeply. He says it was like a “pointing arrow placed there by your future self that says ‘follow me’.”
That arrow led to more arrows, and over time RadioLab evolved into the unique, celebrated show it is today.
There are several arrows we can follow to help us unlock the motivation for our own best work. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
- What wrecks you? What angers you, or causes you to feel mobilized to action when you experience it?
- What makes you cry? Emotional response is a key indicator of passion. Are there any connections between the events, stories, and experiences that move you emotionally?
- What’s obvious? The things that are obvious to you are not obvious to everyone. Pay attention to the things that others come to you for that seem obvious, but that others are amazed by.
We need you to contribute. There is something you offer the world that will never be seen if you don’t make the effort to get it out of you each day.
Don’t fall prey to the forces that lead to stagnancy and mediocrity, and refuse to take your best work to the grave with you. Be intentional, be aggressive in how you approach your life and work, and die empty of regret.
How do you avoid mediocrity? Share in the comments.