Welcome to “Dear James,” our weekly advice column by writer and entrepreneur James Altucher. You can read about the genesis of the column here: If You Don’t Run Towards The Light, You Run Towards The Dark, and Other Reasons Life Is A Clusterf*ck.
Dear James, I feel like I am stuck in a rut. I want to be creative and productive. I want to do what I love. What should I do right now to start this?
Barbara Cartland broke the world record—in 1983, she wrote 23 novels. She was 82 years old. Two novels a month that year.
Altogether she wrote 723 published novels. Her last at age 97. When she died a year later there were 160 unpublished novels still waiting to be published.
Did people like her work? Depending on what estimate you use, she sold between 600,000,000 and 2,000,000,000 books. Most of her books were romance novels.
Was she creative? Was she an artist? I don’t know if those questions matter.
She loved doing it else she would not have done it. And people loved her work else she would not have sold around a billion or so books. Is Art a question or an answer?
Picasso might know. He said, “The less Art there is in painting, the more painting there is.”
In other words, just do it. Leave behind everyone else’s definitions or else you will drown in them.
Why listen to him? He made 50,000 works of art in his life. On average two per day.
Is being prolific a requirement of being creative? No, not at all. Many great writers and artists have their master works and then they are done. Other…more prolific.
Jimi Hendrix made around 70 albums before he died at age 27. Mozart composed over 600 pieces in his lifetime. Charles Schulz made 17,897 Charlie Brown strips before he passed.
I want to be like them. The cruelest thing is that blank page each morning. To create something that never existed before out of complete nothing.
People say, “Everything has already been written”. Everything has already been said.
But that’s a lie.
I think every outline has already been written. But each human has a unique fingerprint.
Just putting that fingerprint on an outline makes it yours, different, unique. And through practice and vulnerability, you make that fingerprint something others want to see.
I don’t know if there is such a thing as rules of creativity. I look back on the past 15 years. I’ve published 17 books and maybe 2000 to 3000 articles. And today I sit here and can’t think of any “rules.”
Fortunately I can steal some rules and splash my own pompous interpretation on them.
So I’ll turn to Picasso and see what he has to say.
A. “Unless your work gives you trouble, it is no good.”
I love this quote. “Trouble” means so many things. Maybe people will not like you. Maybe you are experimenting too much. Maybe the trouble is for you—is what you are doing too new?
How could Barbara Cartland write 700 romance novels? They are all formulaic. But that is where the trouble begins.
In all 700 books, two lovers meet. But a problem happens that keeps them apart. Cartland had to come up with 700 different problems to keep her lovers apart. And then solve them.
In every thriller, John Grisham is required to have a scene where the hero is completely at the mercy of the villain. In every James Bond movie, Bond is tied up and about to die at the hands of the bad guy.
If they solve the problem in the same way each time then they lose their creativity. The “trouble” is: the artist has to solve the problem in a new way, different than any solution before it.
The bigger the trouble, usually the better the outcome.
I lost a lot of money earlier this year when a business I was involved in failed. It was big trouble.
So I poured myself into other projects that I would’ve forgotten about or not cared about. So far, the outcomes are incredible. Thank you, bad company, for that horrendous loss.=
Am I getting into enough trouble with this article?
The trouble with THIS article is that it is egotistical to write on creativity. Since what do I know? I know nothing.
So I solve it by passing the buck to Picasso and Barbara Cartland and Mozart and try to piece together the clues on creativity they left us.
I am the student. They can be my teachers.
B. “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
Kurt Vonnegut did nothing correct in his novels. His peers before him would have elaborate plots, floral descriptions, deep characters.
In Vonnegut’s classic, Slaughterhouse Five, the hero is wimpy guy who goes in and out of time and space and in the middle of it all, experiences the slaughter of Dresden.
Despite time travel and space travel, Slaughterhouse Five is ultimately a memoir that breaks all the rules.
But Vonnegut said, “You can’t break the rules of grammar until you know the rules of grammar.”
He only wrote the book after many years of following the traditional “rules” of science fiction and then more traditional fiction writing.
As Shawn Coyne wrote in The Story Grid, every genre has its obligatory scenes. Don’t break them. Be creative around them.
When Luke was at the mercy of Darth Vader…BAM!—”I. Am. Your father.”
But is that art then? If we follow a formula? Shawn makes the point that Steve Jobs followed the very strict genre of the phone before making an iPhone, a work of art.
Elon Musk followed the genre of the car before making his first Tesla.
There’s magic in taking what’s been done a billion times before and doing it your way.
C. “Action is the foundational key to all success.”
I know too many people who have an idea for a book, or a show, or a business who succumb to “when I have time” or “it’s too late for me,” ignoring that Barbara Cartland wrote 23 books in her 82nd year.
The one thing in common from anyone of these prolific creatives is that they wrote every single day. It’s hard to sit down every day and…sit. Blank paper. Blank canvas. Blankness.
And then, if you do do something, it might suck. It might be the worst thing you ever do.
Kobe Bryant, one of the greatest basketball players of all time, has an incredible world record: he’s missed more shots in professional basketball than any other player. He’s missed over 13,000 shots.
So taking action is more important than anything else.
Nothing => Thinking => Doing => Finishing => Repeat
That is the forumula, the daily practice, for…I don’t know. But I hope I can do it every day.
D. “To copy others is necessary, but to copy oneself is pathetic.”
I wrestle with this. People ask me, “What is a problem for me?” This is a problem.
Sometimes I look back at a post and think, “People liked that. I should do that style again.”
I hate that feeling.
I need to do “D” more often. Every time Picasso felt comfortable, he changed styles completely. His “blue period” is nothing like “cubism” which is nothing like his “Surrealism” (see “Drawing for Guernica”).
I’m sure each period borrows from the others. But he was not a lone genius.
While Picasso may be the father of cubism, he was standing on the shoulders of Cezanne and Matisse, both competing with them and trying to outdo what they had done before.
He copied them, and left his old style behind, forming a new meld which became what we now think of as Cubism. And then he left that behind, never to return to it.
To be fair, Barbara Cartland perhaps did copy herself too much. The last two decades of her life, while prolific, resulted in less sales. But who can say? She loved what she did and wanted to keep doing it.
On the same topic, Picasso once said, “Success is dangerous. One begins to copy oneself, and to copy oneself is more dangerous than to copy others. It leads to sterility.”
I need to figure out what to do next. Maybe that’s why I’m exploring all of these masters of reinvention.
Reinvention is scary. And it’s risky. But it is unavoidable. I’m scared right now.
E. “The chief enemy of creativity is good taste.”
When 50 Shades of Grey was on its way to selling 40,000,000 copies, everyone hated it.
I wrote an article about why it was a great work of literature. I received emails that said, “This is why America is falling apart—people with no education are liking drivel like this.”
And yet 40,000,000 people thought reading it would make their lives better. And the average sales for this year’s National Book Award finalists is 5,000 copies.
Sales aren’t everything. I get it. And sometimes a work of art can be intended for the few and not the many.
But the arbiters of taste are all using the past as their metrics. The future is still a blank slate.
Else we’d be there.
F. “Everything you can imagine is real.”
Elon Musk wants to die on Mars. “Just not on impact,” he says.
Maybe he will and maybe he won’t. But he made a rocket that can get him there—the first advance in rocket technology in 40 years.
He’s making batteries and solar cells that can fuel the rocket. He’s launched rockets into space and electric cars that can go from zero to 60 in 3.2 seconds.
One time I wanted to pitch an idea directly to the CEO of HBO. On the way there, I ran into a friend of mine and told her where I was going.
She said, “You can’t do that!” I can’t just go over my boss and his boss and his boss and his boss and his boss.
But I did.
And he said, “Yes.”
Most of the time, people say, “No.” In almost everything I’ve done, I’ve gotten 20 nos for every yes.
Is this good or bad? Maybe I should try to get more yesses. Okay. I’ll try. Maybe it will happen.
Picasso also says, “I am always doing things I can’t do, that’s how I get to do them.”
My daughter lost a tennis match the other day with her school.
I asked her, “What did you learn?”
She said, “What do you mean? I was disappointed.”
If she always sticks to only what she can do (a safe, consistent serve instead of a harder one that will miss more) then she will never get better at what, right now, she can’t do.
It’s the can’ts that add up to a win or a loss. The “cans” just keep you in the box of what was safe.
In 1953, Picasso gave up painting. He thought forever. For the first time in his life, he started writing poetry. Then singing.
Was he good? Probably not. He went back to painting. But turned a “can’t” into an “I did it.”
G. “Accidents, try to change them—it’s impossible. The accidental reveals man.”
Real life is not in a self-help book. Or in an article on the “10 ways to be a leader.”
It’s the accidents that allow you to measure who you are as a person. Or as a creator. It’s when betrayal and disappointment visit you that you can test what you are made of, process it, transform it.
I wonder sometimes, “Can people change?” Because normally I don’t like people who do things that I find dishonest.
But I’ve been dishonest. I’ve been despicable. I hope I can change.
How to put these quotes to work? How to be creative?
For me: I have my daily routine.
I wake up and I’m grateful. I try to think every day of new things to be grateful for.
I sleep well, exercise, and try to eat well.
I try to love the people in my life. It’s hard. There are “accidents”. But maybe it gets easier with practice.
I try to be creative.
I bow down and surrender to what I can’t control.
And then at each of these things, I try to improve one percent—which means nothing—what is the math of gratitude?
But here’s the math. Compounding one percent a day in X, makes X 38 times better in a year.
Because this one percent gets me in that scary void of “can’t.” How to be most grateful when a business fails. Or someone sends me hatemail. Or Claudia is upset at me (I’m not good at any of the above).
And then I sit here. And I try to find a new vein to bleed from. Or I take everything in my house and throw it away. Sometimes that works also.
- The Four Golden Keys to Art and Happiness
- James Altucher Show Podcast: PJ O’Rourke – Thrown Under the Omnibus!
- Ask Altucher Podcast: Ep 365: Chris Brogan – What’s the Real Value of Podcasting?
For anyone who has questions, please write me at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject “Dear James.” Or you can even text me at my phone number at (203) 512-2161.
I will try to answer whatever questions I can. Thank you for reading this—thank you for even this smallest of connection between you and me.