Why We All Need to Act More Like Artists

This past week, I spoke at an event for a group of local business leaders on the importance of art in society. It made me wonder, “Why do we need art?” In a world that seems to more and more focused on “work works,” is there still a place for beauty? Do artists matter anymore? I think they do.

Why We All Need to Act More Like Artists

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The truth is that art has always played an important role in this great and wonderful experiment called humanity. In fact, there is archaeological evidence that the oldest implements used by premodern people were not farming tools or weapons but, in fact, art-making pieces.

My experience as a creative person is that art and creativity have always been a source of comfort to me. They have been my constant companions, this work of making things and sharing them. In fact, my creativity helped me realize my dream of playing professional music, it got me my first job as a writer working for a nonprofit, and it allowed me to start my own business which has generated millions of dollars over the years. I believe that now is the best time to be creative.

When I wrote this in Real Artists Don’t Starve, I believed it. In fact, I argued that the only thing keeping you from becoming a “Thriving Artist” is your mindset, the belief that people don’t care about art or “you can’t make any money doing that.” It’s just not true.

Every year, I meet more and more creative individuals who make up what I call the New Renaissance, a growing movement of artists, musicians, writers, photographers, and makers who are taking their craft seriously and sharing it with the world in a way that makes for profitable and meaningful work.

In fact, I think we have quite a lot to learn from this group of people. Whether we think of what we do as art or not, we all could benefit from treating our work as a form of art. Because to be an artist means to approach your work in a particular way. It means to take it seriously and not settle for anything less than your best.

Why do we all need to think and act more like artists? Three reasons.

An artist has a calling.

Adrian Cardenas grew up playing piano and playing baseball. When he was signed to a major league baseball team, his creative side fell to the wayside, but he always missed it.

That first year of playing with Chicago Cubs, after receiving a signing bonus of a million dollars and earning somewhere in the ballpark of $500,000 a year, Adrian felt discontented. Some nights, he was playing in stadiums packed with 40,000 people.

And he thought, “Anyone can do this. But what I really want to be doing is making things.” As a Cuban-American, he remembered his parents’ story of escaping the rule of Fidel Castro, fleeing the country while fearing for their lives, and moving to America. It was a powerful story of love and art and human determination. And though he was living a childhood dream of playing baseball for a living, there was something inside of him that knew he was betraying his true calling.

Surely, not anyone can get signed for the major league, but he knew that no one else in the world could tell his parents’ story the way that he could, with exacting detail and emotion. That was a task reserved solely for him.

The truth is we all have these nudges in life. We all have moments when we turn down the big job or walk away from the perfect relationship. It makes no sense to the outside eye, but deep down we know it is right. When we do this, we are paying attention to what Parker Palmer calls “the Inner Teacher.” Other words people use for it are intuition or God. But anyone who has ever endeavored to do creative work has likely heard that voice whispering in their ear, telling them that this is not the path. There is something better.

An artist has a sense of calling, which often begins with some deep feeling of dissatisfaction, that what you’re doing in the world right now is not what you’re meant to do, maybe not even what you want to do. And sure, you could keep doing it. But you’d be settling. And perhaps no one would know but you.

Eventually, this gnawing, however, eats a person up, consuming them. And they either escape that feeling of discomfort with drugs, sex, or binge-buying everything they think will make them happy. Or, if they’re lucky, they do the hard work of walking away from the sure thing and doing what feels right, as crazy as it sounds.

And that’s just what Adrian Cardenas did. He quit baseball, joined film school, and started working on the documentary about his parents. He is quite happy in his new life as a filmmaker and also grateful for all the lessons baseball taught him; it helped him find his vocation as an artist.

This is the Rule of Re-creation, which says that at any point you can change the story you’re living and create a new one. Often, before you can create your great work, you must first create yourself. An artist understands this better than most, but the truth is we can all benefit from the skill of constant reinvention. The gig economy almost requires that you no longer be a jack of all trades but become a master of some. And so, learning to hone this skill of being able to re-create yourself throughout your life, as Picasso did, moving from realism to cubism and beyond, you will do well for yourself.

The artist understands his entire life is a great work that he is creating. He embraces the challenges and confusion that come with such an endeavor and finds ways to keep seeking new edges to better become himself.

An artist has a code.

A code is a work ethic. It is the standard to which you hold yourself that nobody else notices. Of course, it is apparent in the quality of your work. It shines through in your reputation. Eventually, people understand that there is some hidden set of rules guiding you to consistent greatness.

All artists start out as students. Whether they go to art school or undertake a formal apprenticeship or simply study the great influences in their space, every great maker knows that they have a lot of learning to do.

When Hemingway moved to Paris in the 1920s, he seemed to have an intuitive understanding of this. After all, he was moving there because, as he had been told by an author whom he admired, “it’s where the world’s most interesting people” lived. To become great at what we do, we first have to find a scene that fits the kind of work that we want to do. Then we need to get around the kind of people we can learn from.

True apprenticeship is more of a mindset than a program. The best artists always act like apprentices. They give credit where credit is due and honor the greats who came before them. They learn from the masters and then carry what they learn in their own practice.

The challenge with a concept like apprenticeship is we lack anything like it in our world today. With very few exceptions, most professionals don’t spend ten years living with a master of their craft before endeavoring to do it on their own. They don’t belong to professional guilds that are constantly scrutinizing their work, debating the quality and integrity of it, and challenge them to get better.

And yet, we love the idea of mastery. It seems today that we live in an age where everyone wants to be a master but no one’s willing to be an apprentice. We all need to act more like artists, which is to say we need to become lifelong apprentices in our respective crafts. We need to become someone’s student, even if only from afar, study their work, mimic it, and try to live up to the standards set by those who have come before us.

Many people want a mentor these days, but the truth is that the best way to find a teacher is to become a student now. I have a framework for this called the Case Study Strategy, by which you reach out to people whose work you follow and simply thank them for what they’ve taught you, explaining how you’ve already applied it, then ask your question. This sort of approach goes so much farther than asking someone to mentor you. It also helps you build a network of people who care about your work and want to help it spread.

This is, in fact, what Hemingway did in Paris in the 1920s. He landed there with a new wife, a job with a newspaper, and zero reputation as a writer. But he seemed to understand that if he immersed himself in the scene, acted like an apprentice, and soaked up all that he could learn there, that he would, indeed, emerge a master. And, of course, he did just that. But how?

Well, he exchanged boxing lessons with Ezra Pound for writing tutorials.

He spent many a drunken night in the home of Gertrude Stein, listening to her stories, endearing himself to her, and letting her introduce him to many of her well-connected friends in the world of publishing.

During that six-year apprenticeship, he also met F. Scott Fitzgerald, who inspired him to transition from writing short stories to working on novels. Shortly after that meeting, he went on a trip to Pamplona, Spain, an experience that inspired him to write The Sun Also Rises over the course of six weeks. The book was published and became an immediate hit, thanks to the education he’d received in Paris and the network he’d established there. This is what happens when you act like an apprentice. You become a master.

An artist has an audience.

For all the discussion of art for art’s sake and creating for the love of it, the truth is that every great artist knows she has an audience. And if she is truly adept at sharing her work with the world, she knows that audience intimately.

Today, we call this marketing—the ability to understand who your work is for and what is required to help it spread. But whatever name you give it, having an audience is an essential part of any great work. Because if it’s not for someone else, then who is it for?

Often in writing seminars and workshops, a writer will tell me that they deplore the idea of marketing and self-promotion and just want to create for the love of it. In fact, one time, I had a writer stand up in the middle of a talk I was giving at a blogging conference, and she said, “I don’t know. I just think social media is narcissistic.” I could empathize because I’d had similar thoughts.

“That’s interesting,” I said. “And I get it. Trust me. But tell me: what do you think is more narcissistic: taking time to earn the attention of an audience before you ask them to buy your book, spending months, if not years, serving and listening to them before asking them to give you money; or just writing whatever you want and expecting people to pay you for it?”

She smiled, nodded, and quietly sat down. That’s what marketing is. It’s not narcissism. At least it doesn’t have to be. It’s not selfish or evil. Marketing—at least good marketing that will last a long time and help you build something meaningful—is about caring and listening and paying attention. Seth Godin calls it “radical empathy” and I rather like that.

When Picasso started painting, he moved to Barcelona and spent most days hanging out in a bar called Els Quatre Gats (The Four Cats). In those days, and still today in many European cities, the menu was not a piece of laminated paper you were handed by a server; it was a chalkboard or huge sign you saw as soon as you walked in. The young Pablo offered to paint the menu, to essentially redesign it in a more beautiful and creative way. This was, as far as I know, Picasso’s first real commission, a work for which he was not paid.

Why did he do it? Because he was a master marketer. He understood something that every street musician and public performer who’s ever taken a gig for free understands: When you put your work on display for all to see, that can help you.

Now, by no means do I think we should always do our best work for free. But when we are starting any new thing—a restaurant, a copywriting practice, a new electric car company—the greatest resource we lack is attention. And one of the best things we can do is, well, anything to get it. Maybe you go out into the community and offer free samples of your new protein bar. Maybe you stand on a street corner and play your songs. Maybe you redesign a menu that hundreds of people every day will see and ask about.

This is called “Practicing in Public,” and whenever you want to break into a new space, start a new vocation, and get known for something, you’re going to have to do it. The benefit is you get to work, you get to show someone what you can do, and you get better as a result. And if you’re lucky, you start to get noticed. Don’t do this all the time and forever, because you don’t want to be known for undervaluing your work. But if it’s a good enough way for a genius like Picasso to begin, maybe it’s good enough for us, too.

He would, by the way, continue to do this kind of work for quite some time, including painting Gertrude Stein for a portrait the took something close to 100 sessions to get just right. That painting hung in Ms. Stein’s salon for many of the most well-connected and influential art patrons in Paris at the time. She was an integral part of his becoming the Picasso we know today; and it began with his willingness to build an audience, which always starts with one person and a willingness to practice in public.

So, yes. We need more art. But not just that. We need more artists. We need to think and act like the creative geniuses who have come before us and that still surround us today, making up the New Renaissance. I hope you’ll consider joining them.