Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

Three Ways to Avoid Mediocrity in Art and Work

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Todd Henry, the author of Die Empty and The Accidental Creative. He writes at toddhenry.com and accidentalcreative.com. In his new book, Todd tells how to do your best work each day and how to avoid the forces that lead to mediocrity. I asked him to share some advice that would be especially helpful to writers.

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.

About Todd Henry

Todd is the author of Die Empty and The Accidental Creative. He writes at toddhenry.com and accidentalcreative.com. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHenry.

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  • http://www.mattmcwilliams.com/ Matt McWilliams

    Todd, I love this. And I love your podcast. And I love RadioLab. It’s like you wrote this just for me. Seriously…did you?

    For me, I avoid mediocrity by doing one simple thing: I do the hard stuff.

    I’ve found that, for me, the most challenging, scary, high-risk stuff is the most likely to result in greatness. So I do it.

    I’ve also found that the first hundred times were hard. They required grit and determination. They required a conscious effort. They required pep talks. They, in a sense, required giving up and failing.

    But then it got easier. Over time (a long time) I found myself easily choosing to do the hard things. And I did them faster. With less pomp and circumstance.

    And less failure.

    That’s what I’ve done.

    • http://www.accidentalcreative.com Todd Henry

      Matt – you found me out. I’ve been following you around… :) I love your notion of going headstrong in the direction of your fear. My friend Brian once said that “fear is often the smell of opportunity”, and I completely agree.

      • Marci Hafemeister

        Very nice!

      • http://www.mattmcwilliams.com/ Matt McWilliams

        I totally just tweeted that quote. Love it!

        That being said…I do with fear sometimes smelled like maple bacon.

    • Marci Hafemeister

      Very good strategy, I’m adopting this. Thank you!

      • http://www.mattmcwilliams.com/ Matt McWilliams

        Awesome Marci! I wish you the best with it.

      • Brianna Wasson

        Yes, it is great strategy. Scary too. ;) “The most challenging, scary, high-risk stuff is the most likely to result in greatness.” I’m with Marci. Thanks for this.

  • http://susannahill.blogspot.com/ Susanna Leonard Hill

    I love the analogy of the cat – creating “hunting trails” to put yourself in the right place at the right time. Thanks for a thought-provoking and helpful post!

  • http://www.toodarnhappy.com/ Kim Hall

    I love it when someone puts two words together to create something even larger that resonates with a big BOOM in my heart. I am a huge fan and cheerleader of curiosity, both for keeping life interesting and to keep from getting angry (you can’t be both at the same time). However, “applied curiosity” adds another whole level of meaning, and turns casual curiosity into an active pursuit of the deeply delicious in our lives. Thanks for that nudge!

    • http://www.accidentalcreative.com Todd Henry

      So glad it resonated, Kim! Fierce, applied curiosity is critical. I believe that we should always be replacing our questions for new and better ones as we act, learn, and grow.

  • http://www.tracyline.com/ Tracy L

    Great post. All three points have merit but I especially like your third point. It’s so easy to get lost along the way, to over-think what we “should” be writing about. Always good to get back to what got your writing in the first place-our personal thoughts and observations.

    • http://www.accidentalcreative.com Todd Henry

      This is true. Nothing can replace a deep, sustained well of productive passion.

  • http://www.jonstallings.com/ Jon Stallings

    Thanks Todd for the encouragement to not settle. We so caught up in the the stuff we have to do in the world the challenge to creative can seem like work. However, we can’t settle for the norm. Beyond the daily stuff of life is something greater. And who want to be mediocre?

  • http://www.danerickson.net/ Dan Erickson

    You mention death a couple of times in this post. As I get older, I’m 50 now, death becomes more real. But this actually helps to drive me to write. I know I have many books left in me, and hundreds of poems and songs. I want to be sure to write the material that will be most likely to impact others. That means I have to be committed to writing my best work now.

    • http://www.escapingdodge.com/ Ree Klein

      I can relate, Dan…

    • http://www.accidentalcreative.com Todd Henry

      Outstanding, Dan! Agreed that knowing there’s a bookend to your life can be tremendous motivation to act on what matters.

    • Marci Hafemeister

      Hoarding. I have so many book ideas and notes. Urgency is our friend. You are blessed to be aware of all we have is now. It is good to plan but it is God who decides. I lost my husband suddenly at 36. I was spending spare time with older family members. Assuming I would have my husband another 50 years, wrong. Life is in our relationships and living in the present.

      • http://www.danerickson.net/ Dan Erickson

        I agree that I can only do as much as God allows.

  • Stephanie

    I don’t usually leave comments but this post really resonated. I’m currently so stuck in mediocrity I wouldn’t know passion if it hit me in the face. Perhaps I should go hunting :)

    • http://www.accidentalcreative.com Todd Henry

      Definitely – it’s been one of my most effective strategies… thanks to Bella!

  • http://www.escapingdodge.com/ Ree Klein

    This line is something I’ve been pondering lately:

    “…it was like a “pointing arrow placed there by your future self that says ‘follow me’.”

    I think trusting your deepest inner voice is so important. First we have to learn to hear it and recognize that it is our voice, then we need to act even when others are telling us its a stupid thing to do. The best thing that can happen is you make something that matters; the worst thing is that you won’t live with regret for not trying. Sounds like a win to me either way!

    Thank you for the awesome post…I’ll have to read some of you material, Todd!

  • http://www.annbevans.com/ Ann Bevans

    Nice post, Todd. There’s a paradox in here that I really like. “Avoid the Danger of Comfort” and “Establish ‘hunting trails.'” One could argue that Bella’s hunting trail is a source of comfort, but the way she approaches her routine – with intensity and curiosity – is what makes it so bountiful. Well done!

  • Susan Bailey

    Brilliant and insightful post, definitely a keeper for me. I just yesterday decided it was okay to work on two projects at once even though each one is all encompassing. I realized I valued comfort over doing what needed to be done. It’s uncomfortable switching your mindset from one passion to another but it can be done and the two projects can complement each other in the end. I dislike juggling but sometimes it’s necessary. The “pain” involved in making those switches in mindset will undoubtedly keep me awake and sharp. Thanks for this, it confirms my decision.

  • http://www.laurenphelpscoaching.com/ Lauren Phelps

    I clicked on this post because of the cat picture. I’m one of those people :) I definitely need to commit to a hunting trail. In the past, having a steady routine has helped my productivity. I just need to get refocused!

  • Marci Hafemeister

    Brilliant, spoke to me. I work with people dealing with death and dying. These questions can help me and them avoid regrets. Thank you!

  • Angel @ Finding The Inspiring

    This post is like an arrow. An arrow pointed straight to the heart of my complacency. I say that because even though I feel a sense of urgency, I falter in the completion of things I want to accomplish because I get overwhelmed. I lose focus. Get off track. Thanks for sharing this concept of the hunting trails. I hope it helps me to be full of intentionality so that, in the end, I will be “empty of regret.”

  • Chad R. Allen

    I picked up a different lesson from Todd Henry that helps me avoid mediocrity. When i have something coming up that requires some insight or creativity, I keep it in front of me in the form of a question. This works in my personal as well as my professional life. So recently the question I kept in front of me for a few weeks was “What’s something cool I can do for my wife for our 11th wedding anniversary?” A professional example might be “What story can I tell at this meeting that will help my colleagues and I frame our current objectives?

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      I like that idea, Chad, of dwelling on a problem/question over time until a solution presents itself. A little bit of perspiration side of inspiration, eh?

    • Eric Davis

      Chad,

      Brilliant idea. Thanks for sharing your insight.

    • http://www.accidentalcreative.com Todd Henry

      Chad – this is awesome. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.compassionatehealer.org/ Edith Pont LMFT

    Great post Todd! Thanks for the reminder. I struggle sometimes as I juggle all of life’s responsibilities. I constantly strive to find balance.

  • Brianna Wasson

    For me the comfortable is so tempting. I really love the idea of choosing to do the right thing even when it’s uncomfortable. That’s how great work happens. I have a question, though… How do we establish “hunting trails” while avoiding the mediocre comfortable? It seems to be a fine balance that’s maybe difficult to find…

    • http://www.accidentalcreative.com Todd Henry

      Great question! The hunting trails are the routes where serendipity was more likely to happen, but Bella was FIERCELY focused on any small movement that looked like prey. Her hunting trails were the places most likely, but she still had to do the work of paying attention for small nuances, incongruences, and dissonance in the environment. Similarly, it’s possible to go back to the same wells of inspiration so often that we’re numb to them. The problem may not be the sources, it may be that our mindset is lacking fierce curiosity.

  • RVM45

    Jeff,

    When Todd talks about his cat’s Hunting Patterns…

    Almost twenty years ago I was unemployed, out of Shape, 150 Pounds or more too heavy and all but unemployable.

    My solution was to go walking at night. Just to keep things interesting, I carried a medicine bottle for the Pennies that I found and a leather drawstring bag for silver coins.

    At night, on a shopping center parking lot under sodium lamps a coin has a certain “Sheen”.

    Yeah, sometimes a washer, button or bottle cap would fool me—but I could spot a coin 30 or 40 yards away. I learned where people frequently drop money and where the wind tends to blow dropped bills…

    And I got up to about twelve miles per night and averaged several dollars per day…

    So I know about Hunting and Hunting Routes…

    Just wish that my back and legs were strong enough to do it again.

    …..RVM45

  • http://tangiblefreedom.com/ Ragnar

    Yeah I have to say comfort is a warning sign. If it doesn’t hurt a little bit to drag it out, force it onto the paper and share.. a lot of the time it’s not worth sharing.

    My hunting train consists of reading what better writers write(current post included) and letting myself fall slowly into the right mindset. Every now and then an idea will emerge.. and every now and then it’s an actually good one.

    I’m not sure I always manage to steer clear of mediocrity, but I always try to make sure I’m taking a unique angle, or adding some perspective that makes it worthwhile reading my shit.

  • http://www.twitter.com/erikjfisher/ Erik Fisher

    I wonder if it makes sense to create some comfortable habits with which to create some stability for the purpose of reserving energy to use in the creative process?

    • http://www.accidentalcreative.com Todd Henry

      Erik, this is a great point and I think you’re right. Having some stability in some areas of your life is what allows you to make small bets in others. (I think that’s one reason why overhead and financial uncertainty are often a killer of creative output. When uncertainty is swirling on every front, it’s difficult to face the uncertainty of the work itself.)

  • kathunsworth

    Todd and Jeff I Loved every piece of this post! I am an observer of the most simplistic happenings in life. I try to think outside the square, offer a new angle on whatever I am working on. Now I will watch for new hunting trails, opportunities if you will and blindly step off the trail and follow my heart. Thanks.

  • http://www.parafriv.net/ Para Friv

    Nice post, Todd. Thanks for the reminder. I struggle sometimes as I juggle all of life’s responsibilities. I constantly strive to find balance. Thank you so much.

  • http://www.tammyhelfrich.com/ Tammy Helfrich

    Loved this, Todd! So true.

  • Penelope Silvers

    Hi Todd, I loved the analogy of the cat. Are you sure that’s not our gray one? ;)

    As you will see, I am a list maker.

    I have one huge notebook of “dreams.” Everything I want to accomplish. I then have a smaller “master list” notebook that I continue to update as I check things off. Then I break it down into three items per day on a weekly planner. Only the most important three goals for the day go on that list. Those items are what are imperative to work on to move forward towards my goal of publishing more books, etc.

    I have found that if you follow the “hunting trails” you will also create momentum for where you want to go. Keep following those trails and in turn the arrows that pop up as you follow. Oh, and keep a list as you go or if you’re like me, you’ll forget them!

  • Sue Neal

    I really enjoyed this post, and especially loved the analogy of the cat. Your point about not ignoring the obvious reminds me of the amazing response I’ve received to some blog posts, in which I’ve just been highlighting things that seemed very obvious to me, but which really touched a nerve with some readers.

  • http://www.bigboldimpact.com/ David Hooper

    To answer your question, I think mediocrity takes care of itself. People remember the very good and very bad, but the middle always gets forgotten.

    How to deal with your own mediocrity is something a bit more complicated… :)

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Love it.

  • Karen Taylor

    Life sometimes gets in the way. When it throws me for a loop,all I can focus on are my problems. I get sidetracked from my writing goals and because I am caught in a negative spiral, I tell myself that I can’t share what’s consuming me–the anger, resentment, fear, sadness that assails me. Then the days and weeks past and I start to think of giving up this blogging thing. How can someone like me who internalizes so much of my negative experiences turn the negative into the positive?I feel very vulnerable when I think of putting my life out there. I felt that your post was written for me, except my issue is worse than just mediocrity. I’ve stopped producing because I feel that I shouldn’t put negative out.

    • http://www.mikejwilliams.com/ Mike Williams

      I know this is much easier to say than do, but try to focus on the positives. Things like how can I use my strengths, instead of how can I fix my weaknesses. And, tell your self you can… all the time. Talk to yourself, about all that you can do and want to do, as if you are already there.

      Ask a different question when negative stuff happens. Instead of asking why me, or why did this happen?, ask what can I learn from this? Or how can I get stronger from this? How can I use this to grow?

      • Karen Taylor

        Thanks for your helpful advice, Mike. I will try the approach you’ve suggested. It sounds workable.

    • Eeva Mäkelä

      Sometimes you can let yourself be blue. It is part of life. Letting yourself be sad can already help because refusing the negative emotions only tends to make them stronger. Have you ever tried NOt to think about something? The result was probably the opposite..

  • http://www.mikejwilliams.com/ Mike Williams

    Todd, Tanks for the encouragement. It is so easy to fall back to the comfort zone and take shortcuts. I especially liked the Bella the cat analogy.