[More thoughts from my new book etc.]
PLUS CA CHANGE, PLUS C’EST LA MEME CHOSE
“The more things change, the more they say the same.”
Back when I worked in the advertising business, I spent about a third of the time working on the drawings, and about two thirds of the time working the day job.
Then after many years in the trenches, I managed to quit advertising and ended up being a full-time cartoonist.
Basically, I still spend about a third of the time on the drawings, and the other two thirds taking care of business i.e. working the day job.
So what does this prove?
Basically, that “The Sex & Cash Theory” is alive and well, that the *tense duality* of managing art and commerce is still going strong.
Yes, a lot has changed. But I’m still the same person, with the same flaws, using the same brain, doing my best to hustle.
And that will never change.
The big difference now is, I no longer expect it to.
Plus ca change…
IT’S NOT HOW MUCH, BUT HOW OFTEN.
Powerlifters (i.e. people who practice a certain kind of competitive weightlifting) have a term, “maxing out your gains”.
This means maxing out, i.e. reaching the maximum amount your body is able to lift physically.
When you first start out powerlifting, your gains will increase quickly- often the amount you’re able to lift increases by thirty, forty, even up to a hundred pounds a month.
But after a few months, the gains begin to plateau i.e. they begin to “max out”.
Instead of gaining ten pounds a week in your lifts, you’re lucky to be doing ten pounds a month, ten pounds every three months.
And an experienced powerlifter (say, somebody who’s been training hard regularly for over five years) is lucky to increase his lifts by four or five pounds a year, no matter how hard he trains. Because he has already reached the strength level that nature is ever going to allow his body to have.
“There’s a reason why trees don’t grow up to the sky,” as my friend, Doc Searls likes to say.
And what is true for powerlifting is also true for creativity.
You’re going to max out your gains, i.e. reach “peak creativity” pretty early on, often well before your thirtieth birthday. Picasso and Louis Armstrong reached their peak creativity in the 1930s, yet still stuck around, working away till the 1970s. My biggest breakthrough years were in the 1990s, in my late twenties and early throties; that’s when my cartooning skills got about as good as they were ever going to get. Everything since then has been just continuing to refine the process, not inventing the process from scratch every time.
Yes, it’s a very brief window.
Yet don’t despair when (not if) this happens to you. Though you might not be making any more quantum leaps in your work (whatever that means), the more you continue your practice, the more often you’ll be able to stay at your peak level.
This is what so impressive about top performers like say, the rock band U2. It’s not that “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is world’s greatest song (I certainly don’t think it is, they never were a favorite band of mine), it’s that they can get perform it at their highest level, in front of huge crowds, again and again, night after night, for years on end. And make it look easy.
Ditto with top basketball players or painters. Once you’ve reached your peak, the game changes from how much, to how often. That’s what “Mastery” actually means.
It may not be as sexy as the early breakthroughs, but it’s what allows you to exist and thrive over the long term.
[More thoughts from my new book etc.]
TIME IS ALWAYS THE ENEMY
When you’re just starting out, the big issue is finding enough time to make your art, while still holding down the day job (bartending, waiting tables, working 9-5 in an office etc).
But when you finally great established and start selling your work, then you have a different problem: you still have bills to pay, yet your work still takes *forever* to make.
Your landlord doesn’t care how long it takes. Neither does the bank. Neither does the IRS. Neither does the client who wants it all done by Tuesday.
And the more successful you get, the more people there are, lining up to make demands on you. And because you don’t know how long this good fortune is going to last, it’s hard to say “no” to people.
The trick is to pace yourself, or course. Gunning it at 110% looks sexy at first, but after a few years this will literally start to kill you. This is why so many rock bands crash and burn after only a couple of albums. The full-on, rock star lifestyle just isn’t that healthy or sustainable.
If only artists had more time (to make rent, to finish the project, to do other non-art things, to recharge their batteries etc), our lives would be perfect. Alas.
The big issue of being an artist isn’t the money, it’s time.
This reality will never go away, this will always find a way to bite you in the backside, regardless of how well you succeed, regardless of how badly you fail. Just be ready for it.