We grow up telling people that we want to be astronauts and fighter pilots (well, not me. When I was six, I genuinely aspired to live with my parents). As we age, there is an inflection point where being an astronaut gets translated to the slightly more realistic being a vet which later turns into a burning aspiration to work for Deloitte.
Before we continue, I need to be really clear about my position. I believe that you should do anything you want as long as you like it and find genuine value in it. I have a friend who is doing medical consulting and loves it, so as much as I joke about consultants, it's a good and necessary profession.
Maybe, though, you don’t want to be a consultant. I’m sure you’ve had the itch to sing or dance or take photos or write comedy. And my guess is that at some point in your life, you have dismissed this passion with the excuse that it’s embarrassing, that no one will like what you do, or that it is not “realistic.”
Look. There are a lot of barriers to creative work. Today, I want to strike down the word “realistic” as one of them.
Here’s my guess about the word “realistic.” I think what we consider realistic is not based in fact, it is based on our values. Let’s break this down:
“Realistic” is not a set thing that exists “out there.” It is a conception that each of us creates.
Our perception of “realistic,” then, needs to come from somewhere. Where might it come from?
My guess is our values. If, for example, you value career stability and wealth, struggling as a comedian for three years going gig to gig, while living in your parents’ basement, is antithetical to those values. You might have a bunch of connections, have a plan, and practice daily. It still doesn’t give you career stability or wealth. But, what if your core values include family time and learning something new every day. Well then, spending a few extra years with your family while you practice comedy actually perfectly aligns with those values. The exact same situation can simultaneously be realistic and unrealistic depending on what you value.
None of these values have to be mutually exclusive. You can value stability and learning something new every day.
It makes sense that we have different values. And it makes sense that we might feel judgment (whether real or imagined) when we think about following unconventional paths. Why would our parents, for example, judge us? Well, most parents of college-age kids grew up pre-internet, when there were more barriers to entry in creative work that do not exist now. For example, I can write this blog and send it to hundreds of people as long as I have access to the internet. Twenty years ago, this was not an option. The beauty of trying creative work in 2022 is that not only can you do it, you can get an audience much easier.
Ok, we’re now interpreting “realistic” as a mental conception aligned with our values. So, let’s say that you already have a well-paying job, you want to try your hand at writing novels, but you haven’t put pen to paper in ten years. I’m not trying to convince you to quit your job on the spot. I am trying to convince you that even if you’re busy, there’s a lot to gain from sneaking in even small doses of things you care about.
Whatever “unrealistic” thing you want to pursue–writing, ventriloquism, dancing– does not have to be a career. Some of the best magicians in the world are amateurs. Stephen King talks about how only around 5% of writers can fully support themselves exclusively with writing. Most also have jobs as college professors or have another income stream. But that isn’t stopping 95% of writers. Why? Because those writers care about what they do.
Setting aside time to work is only half the battle. The other half is deciding that what you are doing is worth your time. Again, this comes back to your values.
It’s no secret that when you care about something, you find ways to do it. Victor Frankl famously said, “those who have a ‘why’ to live can bear almost any ‘how.’” Here’s what I find truly amazing: he had the mental capacity to say that in a concentration camp. And when I feel stressed or overwhelmed, it helps to remind myself that yes, I can work for thirty minutes and work on magic with no consequences if Frankl could maintain that attitude in Auschwitz.
You have the time, however small, if you choose to create it. (An important distinction: when it comes to doing something you care about, you do not find time, you actively create it).
So, we can do the things we want. Now for the clincher: doing what we value is better than doing something because it gives us an external reward, like money. A few things here–First: you can make money in creative work. Yes, it is a grind and less predictable than a normal job (that unpredictability is hard! I struggle with it every day). But it is possible. When you’re just getting started though, I think it’s important to do the creative thing simply because you love it, and worry about monetizing it later.
Second: Doing what we love is good for us. Stephen King talks about how the pleasure he takes from writing contributes to internal clarity and stability. Adam Rubin, a children’s book author, put it beautifully:
“To be able to take what’s inside of you and share it with somebody else, to be able to express your inner world, is a kind of magic.”
Personally, setting aside time to write this this morning provided me with an indescribable amount of joy, stillness, and clarity. I’m not making money from this blog, and you don’t have to monetize your passion. However, you can do the thing.
Finally: Successful people often take unconventional paths. Brené Brown, who has one of the most viewed TED talks of all time, two highly successful podcasts, and has written ten books, didn’t graduate college until her late twenties. Ryan Holiday, another prolific author of more than ten books at age 34, dropped out of college at age 19. Need I tell you whether Steve Jobs graduated college?
These people are outliers–there are plenty of circumstances that aligned to make them successful that were outside of their control–Steve Jobs’ dad, for example, was a car mechanic who taught Steve the value of craftsmanship and finding cheap parts. So yes, it probably helps to go to college. And the large majority of us will never even write a book. Let's think, then, about two unrealistic endeavors that I guarantee almost every person reading this will do or has already done: having kids and/or getting married.
While I don’t have kids, something I hear all the time is that “you’re never ready to have kids. You just do it.” Exactly. If having kids is something you value, you do it in the face of everything else. If I told you that you had the opportunity to get less sleep, spend possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars on someone else (or multiple people), reduce your vacation time, and increase your stress, you’d think I was crazy. But that’s what we do with kids because we usually value having a family over those burdens. Same thing with getting married.
When we truly want to do something, we make it work, even when it’s hard.
I suspect that what stops a lot of people from trying something is self-criticism. And if you get into that rabbit hole, that’s ok. Just ask yourself: is what I’m trying to do more unrealistic than getting married, buying a house, or having a child? Probably not. Unless using Google Docs to write a novel chapter takes 18 years and costs $100,000.
Before I get into personal examples, here’s one more point: don’t let getting paid be the concern. Why? Because not only do we do things we like all the time without getting paid, we actually pay to do the things we like. Ever bought a video game, gone to a movie, or taken a vacation? People regularly drop hundreds or thousands of dollars at a time simply for pleasure. So, try your art for free!
At worst, you get the same amount of money writing a comedy routine or taking pictures as you do scrolling through social media. At best, you find something fulfilling that puts good into the world.
If you’re still thinking to yourself that you can’t do it, that all these other people can make it work but you just can’t, I hear you. Doing creative work is hard and vulnerable. So, here are two examples from my own life. Both are extremely unrealistic. But the upside is enormous.
Example 1: Touring
A few magician friends and I are working on putting together a tour of the U.S. Touring is unrealistic in every conventional sense. It’s hard, it doesn’t guarantee profit, it’s tiring and often unrewarding. But, touring is also an excellent way to establish a national audience, have fun with friends, perform, and learn. I’ll take the latter.
Ultimately, whether something is “realistic” comes down to personal choice: do you see the upside or downside? An essential caveat, though, is that on the granular level, the word realistic is essential. For example, if we do organize a tour, it is realistic to go to cities that we already have audiences in to increase our chances of people showing up. But, if we decide to go to cities that have no idea who we are, that is totally fine, as long as our choices align with our values.
For example, my friends and I value learning through repetition. We want to put ourselves in front of an audience as many times as possible so that we get better at magic. Therefore, going to places where we don’t have to fight for an audience makes sense. That is a realistic way to accomplish our unrealistic goal.
If, however, we valued new audiences and learning from hostile environments, then going to new cities with crowds outside our target audiences would be extremely realistic, and going to Denver (my home town) would not make sense.
And yes, this tour might not work, but that is a lesson in and of itself! Insight follows action. To quote Stephen King again, “you learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.” You can read as many books as you want or take fifteen online classes. None will teach you as much as just doing the thing. Because the reality is, failure only comes from inaction.
In one of my favorite books, The Third Door, Alex Banayan says that success and failures are not opposites. They are the result of the same thing–trying.
Example 2: Everything I Don’t Know the show
In honor of today’s post, I am launching my new show, Everything I Don’t Know. This show is unrealistic TO THE NINES. I’m performing it two days after my thesis is due. I need to fill a 245-seat theater, and even if it sells out, profits will be small. It’s going to be a part-time-job’s worth of work for an event that lasts 75 minutes.
But making a magic show is one of the single most fulfilling things I get the privilege of doing, so it is 100% worth it. If you’ve made it this far in the post, you’re in the DC area on April 23rd, and want to check out what’s going on, grab a ticket! I’d love to see you there.
Until next week, Max
Figuring out where to start is hard. And if you’re feeling lost, know that everyone feels lost all the time. Margaret Atwood, for example, talks about how the fear of the blank page never goes away.
If you need help, I'm linking to four of my favorite books and four podcast episodes about creativity. If you go down the rabbit hole on any of these podcasts or authors, you’ll find a wealth of information. (Many of these people were mentioned above).
Creative Calling by Chase Jarvis: This book completely changed how I thought about creativity. It walks you through concrete steps for how to turn your hobby into a worthwhile passion, and into a job if you choose. My biggest takeaway is that art is not created while you mindlessly watch TV–it requires dedicated time. But, especially if you’re just getting started, it does not have to be a lot of time.
The Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferris: I read this and it inspired me to take a gap semester, go skiing, and perform virtual magic shows as a test drive to see if I wanted to do magic professionally. Hint: it worked. This is so full of actionable advice that will make you want to quit your job on the spot and travel the world (and he tells you, step by step, exactly how to do this).
The Third Door by Alex Banayan: As a college student, he hacked his way onto The Price is Right, used the prize money to buy a sailboat, sold it, and used the money to track down the world’s most successful people (including Bill Gates) and ask them how they “made it.” Banyan’s quote is above in the article. This is a quick, inspiring read, full of advice and stories from a kid who started in college.
On Writing by Steven King: A classic. You can enjoy this even if you feel like you don't have a creative bone in your body.
Adam Rubin on the Daily Stoic Podcast with Ryan Holiday: I quoted him before. Adam reminds us that we let society beat art out of us, and talks about why this is wrong. Adam is particularly inspiring because he does something few people do–write children’s books. He is also a puzzle designer and magician.
James Clear on the Unlocking Us Podcast with Brené Brown: I mentioned Brené Brown above. On the podcast, Clear talks about developing habits that stick. My biggest takeaway is that, to paraphrase, we do not rise to the level of our challenges, we fall to the level of our systems. What does this mean? We need to systematize good habits so that we constantly do them. The best part? Developing a habit is not a gargantuan task. It happens in small, actionable steps that are as short as one minute a day. You can also pick up his book, Atomic Habits. (here is pt. 2 of his interview with Brene Brown).
James Altucher on experimentation: On Chase Jarvis’ podcast, Altucher talks about the value of continuously experimenting on yourself. For example, Altucher tells the story of trying comedy on the New York City subway at rush hour to practice subjecting himself to hecklers when he wanted to learn comedy. It’s great stuff.
Ryan Holiday with Dr. Peter Attia: This isn’t about creativity, it is about a catalyst for creativity: stillness. Ryan Holiday, best-selling author of ten books, talks about how to find stillness in a chaotic world. Of everything here, I recommend this episode the most, because stillness is a universally important topic.