One of my least favorite quotes on creativity comes courtesy of ad man George Lois:
You can be Cautious or you can be Creative (but there’s no such thing as a Cautious Creative).
I hate this quote for two reasons:
I think the word “Creative” should never be used as a noun
I am one of the more cautious people I know
A few months ago, a reporter said to me in the middle of an interview, “It seems like you haven’t made any bad choices.” I stammered for a bit and mumbled something about how I’ve been very lucky, but then I told the truth: I’m not a big risk-taker.
When people see you out on your own, making your art, doing your thing, they somehow assume that it took great courage for you to get to where you are.
For example: Despite having a whole section in my book called “Keep Your Day Job,” I get a lot of email from people who want to quit their jobs. In fact, here are two sentences from one that just landed in my inbox:
I’m someone who is eager (itching!) to make the jump from corporate dude to creative/self-sufficient and -employed dude. Meaning: I look up to you and think you are awesome and brave for having done the move yourself.
Believe me, when I quit my day job almost two years ago, it was not an act of bravery, and if it was a risk, it was an extremely calculated one. Here were the factors involved:
I had a wife who was pregnant, yes, but who got good health insurance through the university where she was a student employee
I had no debt except for a cheap mortgage and my wife’s student loans
I had made half of my copywriter’s salary the previous year selling artwork while working my day job
I had a decent chunk of change in the bank thanks to the advance for the book I wrote while working my day job
I had a publisher willing to send me on a 20-city book tour to promote my book
the agency I worked at was up for sale
Add all that up together, and it wasn’t much of a leap at all. (I even asked my agency if I could take 2 months unpaid leave to do the tour. Lucky for me, they said no.) It was, in some sense, riskier to not quit the job. Yeah, it could’ve all gone wrong, the book could’ve flopped, but the worst that could happen was I would’ve been back on the street looking for a new job. I had a huge safety net in place.
The quote on creativity I have tacked above my desk is from Gustave Flaubert:
Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.
What I’m trying to do is this: take less risks (or more calculated risks) in my life so that I can take more risks in my work.
Risk in life is shooting heroin to see if it’ll make you more like Lou Reed. Risk in life is blowing your savings on an apartment in Paris so you can write The Great American Novel. Risk in life is quitting your job and losing your health insurance just so you can live some Mythical Art Life.
Risk in work, on the other hand, is risking humiliation—risking putting your work out there, risking being wrong, risking being laughed at. Risk in work is writing something that scares the shit out of you, something that might make your mother not speak to you for three years. Risk in the work is following your whims to wherever they take you, to risk not knowing where you’re going, and risking that you’ll lose members of your audience along the way.
These, I think, are the risks worth taking for art.
“I don’t get in a position to be frightened,” said novelist Elmore Leonard. “I don’t do anything dangerous and I always pay my bills.”
Be cautious. Be smart. Save danger for the work.