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Magic and Meaningful Work: Purpose for the Modern Creative

It’s not hard to start something. It’s hard to sustain it.

You start with an idea. It might be a book you want to write, a business you want to start, a program you want to design. It's good to have ideas. But ideas, for all their value, were always free—and having an idea isn’t the first step to anything. Taking a step is the first step.

Ideas are like acorns. Every acorn has the potential to become a tree—and, sure enough, every beautiful oak tree had to start as an acorn. But the first step in growing a tree is not having an acorn; it’s planting the acorn. By choosing to make an idea real, you multiply the work for yourself; the simple matter of “planting a tree” unpacks to numerous smaller tasks like scouting a location, buying a shovel, digging a hole, and burying the acorn. (If that's what planting an oak tree is like.)

Ambition follows this pattern of tedium. Anyone who owns or manages a business can tell you that there are tons of tiny, sometimes annoying details that consume their routines. But tedium isn't all bad; sometimes it means that real goals are being broken into chunks. Those chunks of work require your management, but you don't often have trouble understanding the pieces as they come.

Likewise at the beginning—it may be tedious to open a business, but the steps aren't difficult. Last we checked, for a simple business structure like a single-member LLC, you just need (1) an EIN from the IRS (you can apply online), (2) business registration with your state and local government (also online, in many cases), and (3) a bank account, either your personal account slightly modified or a new account with the business’s name (you’ll be in the branch for about an hour, maybe less). You can finish all of this in a single afternoon, and by evening you will have become, however nominally, a business owner. Give yourself whatever titles you want. You’re the CEO, you’re the president, you’re the king. And you’re open for business. 

But what then? The questions and challenges you face start getting bigger. One of the matters you have to address is your unique value proposition (often just called a “value prop”). In thirty seconds or less, why should anyone care about your work? Why would they give you attention or money instead of giving it to someone else? What is special and valuable about what you do? You may think you can do better work than your competition, but it’s conceit to think that careful work and force of will make you competitive.

This applies most literally for businesses, sure. But no matter what you do, every public venture is a business venture in some way. Even if you’re a painter, a designer, or a writer, your work only has public merit by public standards. Every type of creative faces the challenge of earning the right attention; everyone has a need (and want) of money and a reluctance to give it to you; everyone has a finite amount of time and, consciously or not, a need to ignore you if you’re not relevant to them. It follows that the business mantras of “offering value” and “competing for customers” kind of apply to everyone. 

You ask lots of “how” questions when you're starting something new. The useful “how” questions are procedural questions—how to register a business, say, or (on the other end of the spectrum) how to waltz. Anyone who has the information can answer your question, and you will have gotten smarter just by asking. But any time people go looking for reasons, “how” is never the right question—it’s always “why.” You can ask how to start a successful business, but you won't understand the person's story, their struggles, and their eventual success without asking them why they started the business. Ask a graceful couple how they waltz, and they might teach you the steps, but you won't understand their grace until you understand why they choose to dance together. 

So, as another example, someone might ask: “How do I write a book people will want to read?” That’s a big question with lots to unpack, and there are plenty of procedural and contextual details worth knowing. So it’s fine to ask. But the how only explains how you get things done; it doesn’t explain any of the magic we find in good books.

Truman Capote once remarked of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” Wit being duly noted, you could say Capote knew literally how On the Road was written, but that he didn’t understand why Kerouac had written it. There was an uncrossable psychic gap from Capote’s mind to Kerouac’s writing, even though both authors are now considered American canon.

So it’s not entirely useful to ask “how to interest someone in my work.” Sometimes it’s just not gonna happen. The better question becomes—for any sort of venture—why will people be interested in your work, whoever they are? What about it will arouse their curiosity or suspicion? In what ways will it make them happier? Why will your work have meaning in their lives?

It’s the “meaningful” part that gets tricky. But that’s also where the magic happens. If you figure out the meaningful parts, you figure out how to make real connections to people through your work, and that's when you can truly change the world. The last, best question requires you to ask yourself: why do I want to do this? Why am I here? Why am I willing to endure certain sufferings? What in the world will bring me true happiness or, at least, a lasting peace?

As usual, there are no right answers until you figure them out. You might want freedom, however you define it. Maybe you want to master certain skills and enjoyable talents, to earn respect or wealth by doing what you love. Maybe there’s a way you’d love to serve the world. It doesn’t matter—the only way you fail this test is by failing to turn it in. Lots of people still fail it.

Just remember that your work, by its end, doesn’t belong to you. One way or another, you will leave it behind, just like the acorn that you buried in the ground. Creations are meant to be shared, and in that regard, time corrects what the people don’t. To twist someone else’s phrase, we sit in the shade of trees planted by great men and women of the past. This is the reason you have to ask yourself why you do what you do: if you know the answer, it becomes easier to find and remember every other answer you need. That’s certainly an advantage.

A sense of purpose also gives you the energy to be patient and persistent, to sustain the efforts. If we've learned anything in the last few years, it’s that the world rarely moves at the speed of ambition. Like we said, it's not hard to start things; it is hard to sustain them. If you can love that journey despite its difficulties, just imagine how it must feel when it pays off in the end. 

Next week on Ampersand, the Code&Quill blogwe'll dive into time management and the power of habit for creative professionals. (Last week, we gave our rundown of good, semi-futuristic productivity solutions, so click here to take a look if you missed it.) If you’d like highlights from the blog, plus brand-new info about upcoming products and promotions, feel free to join our email newsletter at the foot of the page. 

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