Ever gotten exactly what you wanted and realized it was way different than what you thought it would be? That happened to me recently, and it just might help you in your creative journey.
In 2008, I read a book that stretched my brain, turned it inside out, and smacked it up against the wall. The Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss described a life where you, the reader, could set up an online business that operated automatically on your behalf, printing money 24/7. This would allow you to do things like randomly move to Tokyo for 6 months to learn Japanese, then pop back to the US for a few weeks to say “konnichiwa” to your now-jealous friends and family, then throw a dart at the map, prompting you to move to Buenos Aires because you think it might be cool to learn the tango.
Ever since then, I’ve been building online business in one form or another. The idea has always been to use the things I’m really good at to provide huge value to people who in turn give my company money. This then bankrolls my life instead of being boxed into the one main income source that virtually everyone relies on: exchanging hours for dollars via paychecks.
The desired result of all this?
Freedom. The freedom to spend my time the way I choose, instead of being beholden to bosses who expect me to show up for a 10+-hour shift, expertly crafting their material and getting paid only once.
Well, I recently made it to “freedom”.
But I didn’t get there the way I expected, and being “free” definitely did not feel the way I expected.
First, it happened because, frankly, I couldn’t find a job for a while. Like most TV editors here in Los Angeles, I’m a freelance gun for hire. Sometimes a gig lasts a week, sometimes it lasts for half a year, and then you move on to the next gig. For the last decade-plus, I’ve worked an average 48 out of 52 weeks in the year.
But at the beginning of this year, I booked a long-term gig to start the end of March and could not for the life of me lock in suitable editing work until then.
So after a really cool gig in January didn’t extend like I thought it might, I found myself… “free.”
My wife and I ran the numbers and saw that we would be ok until those next paychecks started coming in, so neither of us were freaking out about me not working – because let’s face it, facing a defined income gap is very different than facing an income gap that stretches out into the undetermined future.
That’s some freaky stuff there.
I did my due diligence looking for ways to close the gap sooner, and nothing firmed up (turns out that the same thing was happening to a LOT of editors in LA too at the beginning of this year, but that’s a whole separate conversation). The question then became, how do I choose to use these next three months?
Well, I already knew from past experience that if I just get up in the morning and do absolutely nothing all day, I can only take about a day or two of that before I get downright crabby and my wife tells me to stop whining and go do something productive.
I made some choices and started pursuing them. Along the way I learned a number of things. Here are two of the big ones that I hope help you along your creative path:
“Freedom” Lesson #1: External accountability is a much bigger driver of productivity and discipline than I realized.
To be blunt, I am not nearly as self-disciplined as I thought. Not even close.
Within recent years, I’ve built some daily habits that help me drink more water, stay active throughout the day, give my eyes and wrists a breaks through the day, train myself to focus in set periods of time, that sort of thing.
When I’m on an editing gig, I get into enough of a routine that I assume those things are just naturally what I do, and those will continue when I’m at home during the week.
Heck, left to myself I don’t even get out of bed at the same time, never mind do regular sets of pull-ups or crunches like I do otherwise.
And I certainly don’t get regular prayer and writing in the same way I do when I’m sitting for a specific amount of time on a commuter train that continues down into the city whether I get to the train station on time or not.
Does this mean I’m not disciplined at all? Nope. Lots of folks will tell you that I am. Having said that, this three-month stretch of “freedom” has also shown me that accountability outside myself plays a huge part in being consistent, and, well… disciplined.
Here’s the crazy part – my entire working life, I’ve cringed at the idea of bosses who tap their watches and bark at people for showing up at 9:02 instead of 9:00 sharp. For crying out loud, stop micromanaging me and give me a project with a deadline, and I’ll make it happen.
I still don’t like clockwatching, but you know what? Even a clockwatching producer is external accountability. That means I’m more likely to be consistent with my schedule if I know someone’s gonna ding me for being inconsistent.
So I can either whine and complain about how lame it is to be under the evil, controlling thumb of a clockwatcher… or I can choose to lean into it and take it as a challenge to hold myself to a higher standard.
In these three months of “freedom,” I had no set schedule or clockwatchers breathing down my neck. That accountability disappeared, and so did a lot of my personal consistency that I thought I was magically maintaining by myself.
Well, that’s humbling.
“Freedom” Lesson #2: Limits are far more likely to encourage creativity than they are to stifle it.
Expanding on the external accountability thing then – those external elements bring limits to the table.
A lot of people don’t like limits. They say, “Hey, HEEEYYY!! Don’t you dare limit me in my creative pursuits!!”
Guess what? These three months of “freedom” have strongly reinforced the benefits of limits ENCOURAGING creativity. Specifically, having limits on my time.
Because when I woke up in the morning and said, “What should I do today?” and there was nothing on the calendar, nothing that had to be done… my brain said, “Uh, we can do anything we want. Crap. There are a million options, and I have no idea which way to go first.”
It’s like the guy who walks into a Hallmark store and is told, “Pick out the perfect greeting card! You can pick anything you want!”
Guy thinks, “How on earth am I gonna do that? There are literally thousands of cards in here.”
But when you limit the choices, everything changes. Tell him to pick out the perfect card for his aunt, expressing sympathy on the passing of her beloved-yet-senile-and-occasionally-vicious pet poodle, and we’ve got ourselves a way forward.
Not only do limits give us boundaries that focus our creative thinking, they also keep us from wasting brain power on choices that don’t matter.
Think of it like this: your brain is like a muscle at the gym. You can keep using it and using it, but eventually it gets tired. In the brain’s case, one rep isn’t one curl or one squat – one rep is one decision, one little choice.
And what do we do when we’re editing? We’re making choices. That’s what editing IS, and if you’re editing all day long, you’re making thousands upon thousands of decisions every single day.
Is it any wonder that I’m completely fried when I get home after a day of editing? Decision Fatigue is quite simply an occupational hazard of editing.
It’s the exact thing I wrote about some time ago talking about why Steve Jobs wore the same kind of outfit every day. He was running Apple, for crying out loud. He didn’t want to lose his focus by even something as simple as choosing what to wear. So he stuck with what worked and turned his considerable attention to the stuff that really mattered.
Putting yourself under specific limits means that you can focus creative power more clearly… instead of running around wasting your precious, limited brain-power on stuff that at the end of the day is plain meaningless.
Three months off regular editing was not financially profitable for my family or businesses. But like I said, we knew we’d be ok.
And I realized all these years later, I was literally living out one of the main scenarios from The Four Hour Work Week: instead of delaying gratification your entire life to enjoy yourself during retirement, spread semi-retirements throughout your life while you’re more able to enjoy it.
Having that defined time off – to spend with my wife and son, to develop new business relationships, to work on new projects – was priceless.
If you ever get the chance to do something like that, don’t think twice. Just do it.