The Seven Creative Agreements
Okay, we're gonna move into our first craft hacks section. We've talked about the cost. So let's talk about hacking the craft of creativity. And as I said, we're gonna approach this from one level up 'cause a lot of us are in very, very, very different careers. We're creative in different ways. So these are seven agreements, essentially, that I think are fundamental to a long creative career. Again, this class is about the long game. It's how you stay creative over the course of a career. So a lot of these are more general things that kind of apply across the board. And here's the first one, keep your word. And I mean this in two ways. The first thing I mean is you've seen, we saw the both/and of the creative personality type, right? One of the by-products of the both/and, that naivete of the fantastical stuff, is creatives are flaky, all the time. It happens all the time. They think deadlines are loose. They think the rules don't apply. All those things might be true, but not if you a...
ctually want a career. One of the things that is fundamental to a long, creative career, because there is no such thing as a solo creative career, you work with lots of other people. Books, which seem to be the most private, solitary, every one of my books is a collaboration. Even where it just says Steven Kotler on the cover and I don't have a writing partner, they're all collaborations. There's a ton of people behind the scenes, and I have to keep my word to them, and they have to keep their words to me. Bosses, editors, your word has to be, more importantly, more importantly, maybe the most fundamental thing I'm going to tell you today, you have to learn to keep your word to yourself no matter what. 'Cause a lot of the things that we're gonna be talking about today are things that you have to institute on a daily basis. And you have to wake up in the morning and say I'm gonna do these things, and you have to do them no matter what. So you have to keep your word, no matter how you feel inside. We're gonna learn with creativity that we cannot privilege our emotions. We cannot indulge our emotions in the way that a lot of people can, not if you're gonna do this for a long period of time. And you have to learn to keep your word to yourself. It's fundamentally critical. Know your job. This is a strange one. As many know, if you're familiar with me at all of my work, I got very, very sick. I spent three years in bed with Lyme disease. There's where a lot of this flow work came from. So before I got sick, I spent 10 years becoming a staff writer at GQ magazine. It was unbelievably important to me. I was trained as a new journalist. So Joan Didion, John McPhee, Hunter Thompson, those kinds of writers. Those are known as new journalists. GQ in the '90s, where the best new journalists in the world were, I wanted to be on staff there more than I wanted anything. It took me a decade to get that job. I got Lyme disease, I lost that job. I was nearly, I bankrupted myself. The woman I was gonna marry, the house, I lost everything, all of it was gone. And I desperately needed more work. And a guy named Adam Fisher, from WIRED magazine, sort of stepped in. And the other thing I need to tell you is at GQ, GQ was run by a guy named Art Cooper, who was a legend in the journalism business, just like the last lion of journalism before he passed away. And he loved my work. He loved, he used to say, I tried to branch out and do slightly different things, he'd be like, "Yeah, this is good, "but where's that Steven Kotler thing?" And so I got, 10 years getting this job, then Art Cooper, this lion, is like, "Ah, that Steven Kotler thing, we need." My ego was huge. Then I lost everything. And I took a job at WIRED. And when WIRED brought me in, they too, I had learned how to write about science, science writing in a very different way, and that's what they told me they wanted me to do. And my first assignment for WIRED was on the Everglades restoration project. Let's just say I spent three months living in a swamp to report this story. I then spent three months writing this story. It was about 8,000 words long. Turned it into Adam. Called me up like two days later. "Steven, Steven, there's just one thing I don't understand." And I'm sitting there and I'm thinking, oh my God. I gave you 8,000 words and you've got one question. Cool, man. What don't you understand? "Every motherfucking word you wrote." (audience chuckles) Is what he said to me. And in that moment I realized something. I realized that my job was not to write the best Steven Kotler story I could write. That was not my job. My job actually was to make my editor's life easier. He was busy as fuck. My job was to make his life easier. From that realization, I became the most successful freelance journalist in America. I've written for more publications, and I was writing for more publications at once than any other person. Why? I always knew my job. My job was to make my editor's life easier. It was not to be Steven Kotler, the creative genius. That was not what I was getting paid for. You have to know your job in this field. You have to check your ego at the door and know your job. Act your phase. So this is a different thing. And this is not hard and fast, but as a general rule, the life cycle of creatives, there are three stages. Stage one is you are making a name for yourself. You are coming up, it is all about ego. It is about finding your own Steven Kotler thing, right? Whatever it is that you do, it is getting better at your style than anything else in the world. That's phase one, and that's the game you're playing when you're trying to learn to make money as a creative, right? When you're coming up and you're beginning to start making money, you're making a name for yourself based on your individuality. That's what you're doing. Your second phase in your job is what happened to me with Adam, right? You level up, you've made your name for yourself. Second phase, which is when you think you've worked so goddamn hard and finally you're gonna be free to be you and me, not at all, not gonna happen. The second phase is you're going to be creative inside other people's boxes. And it doesn't matter what field you're in. Could be magazine journalism. I've seen this as an entrepreneur. I've seen this across the boards. Entrepreneurs come up with with great ideas. It's fantastic, it's this is my thing, and then they raise a whole bunch of money and suddenly they are somebody's bitch, phase two. Welcome to phase two. And a lot of incredibly, incredibly, a friend of mine who will go unnamed, who was a fairly well-known television star got famous for doing their thing. Got to the second phase of their career where they had a huge show with a huge network, and the network was running the show, and he couldn't believe it. He's like, they don't want me to do my thing. I don't, I'm not being myself, yeah well, welcome to part two. This part two of a creative career is about learning, loving being successful inside of other people's boxes. Really fundamental. And it's actually probably the most fun you're gonna have 'cause you're gonna find yourself doing stuff that you would never normally do. So it is going to really widen you as a creative professionally. It is gonna be unpleasant. The third phase, wait, let's go back. The third phase is what happens after you make it through that second phase and you actually finally get to be who you wanna be, you get to do the creativity you want to be doing in the world your way. Most people think, okay, I got here. I'm gonna make it. I've made it, finally. The truth of the matter is that third phase, the amount of responsibility that comes with it, the amount of other people who are depending upon your creativity to make a living, it gets heavy, it gets long, it brings a lot of responsibility. And a lot of people get to this phase and they get into it and they absolutely freak out 'cause you spent your entire life trying to get here and you think it's gonna be fun and free, and it actually weighs more than any other step along the way. And the weight is not gonna go away. But knowing where you are in this process helps you navigate a little bit more 'cause otherwise your ego, which is so necessary, right, to be a successful creative, it's really fundamental to have that ego, but it's gonna get in the way. Pride is gonna get in the way here. Act your phase. Have a strategy. And what I mean by this is creatives get successful a lot of different ways. For me, in all honesty, I just kind of assumed that I was going to one way or another, I was gonna have to get famous enough for people to be able to keep buying my books so I could do what I want. It didn't matter, just have a strategy. Know how you're gonna get from point A to point B. Doesn't matter what it is. But just when things get really confusing, you start needing to make decisions about your career, have that strategy in place, just so you know. Protect your day. So this is fundamental and we're gonna be talking a lot about this. One of the main goals of anybody who's a professional creative, own your own time. If you don't own your time right now, there's gonna be a lot of stuff I'm talking about today that's gonna piss you off. You'll be like, I can't do this, I can't fit it in my life, it's nothing going to, fine. Understand the things we're talking about today, at some point if you're gonna really do this over a long career, you have to do. Every successful creative ends up protecting their day, owning their time. You can work for a big company, own your time, right? Just establish that in the beginning. It's really fiercely important. And what I mean by protect your day, so one of the things I saw coming up, and I saw it in a lot of different fields, but I'll just talk about it in journalism, is a lot of people got scared by the money thing. A lot of writers get scared by the money thing 'cause it's too hard. Somebody offers them an editing job. Oh great, I get to edit for a living and I'll write on, you don't write on the side. You're now an editor. You're now not doing what you love. You're doing somebody else's job. You're doing a different job. Which is one of the reasons magazine journalism is so hard and so ruthless 'cause everybody I was working for is a frustrated writer. They would have rather had my job and they're a little pissed that I have my job and they have their job. And that's kind of fundamental. You see it in film. A lot of the people behind the cameras want to be in a different job. It comes up and up over and over again, and you have to defend your day. One of the reasons I'm successful is 'cause I said no to so many different jobs along the way. And I mean I said no to jobs at times I couldn't feed myself or pay my rent, and I'm still turning down jobs because I knew I wanted to write my books and it had to be more important. Sharpen your arrows. So this is probably the best piece of creative advice that I was given. And I was given it in grad school. I was lucky enough to study under a guy named John Barth. John Barth is kind of known as the godfather of American metafiction. Metafiction was made famous in the '70s and '80s. There's writers like Thomas Pynchon. David Foster Wallace is a descendant of that. Really complicated things with language is what defined metafiction, really complicated things. And we were talking about Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, which is my favorite book, huge book. It's 800 pages long. There's like 800 characters in it. It's extremely confusing. Other than James Joyce's Ulysses, it's often considered the most difficult book of the 20th century, right? I loved it. I was meeting with him and he said, "Yeah, I agree with you, but the central plot, "the central theme, the emotional center of that book," it's a 50 page chunk in the middle of the book, "it's written in absolutely plain English." A kindergartner could read it. And this is the most complicated book. His point was if you're going to be successful, you have to know how to write in any style. He said so you have to have as many arrows in your quiver as possible, you have to surround your job. It goes beyond that. And he also taught me this, he's like look, whatever it is, if you think your job is just writing, that's not your job. There's a whole PR component to being a creative and you have to practice that too. I remember, this is a lesson, and this is where it sort of got driven home to me. My first book came out. My very first public reading was in Cleveland, Ohio. I have a wonderful Jewish mother, who managed to get a 150 of her friends to drive through a blizzard to a bookstore to hear me read. And I'm standing on stage and I'm reading my book and I sorta look up and people are falling asleep. They're bored out of their frickin' minds, and I'm thinking to myself, well they don't even like me. Most of these people, I scared them when I was growing up. Like they just remember me as this dangerous, wild kid that they told their children not to play with, and yet they were nice enough to drive through a blizzard to come hear me yap and I was boring them. And at was at that moment, I was like oh my God, I've got to do this for the rest of my, this is part of my job too. And I have to be excellent at this, I have to be great at this. So not only do you have to become great at all the things around your field, not just one style, all the styles, right? We're conservators of traditions. You have to get good at all of it. And I will tell you over the course of, as a writer, even by the time I was already very, very successful, there were periods, valleys, where I was doing things like writing grants to survive. Or writing social responsibility reports for corporations, to survive. I've written everything you could possibly imagine writing over the course of my career. And I've had a career because I kept sharpening those arrows. And I had no pride. Like if I was gonna go in this direction to do this and it felt humiliating, great, well I was gonna learn how to write something differently and I could check my ego at the door. But it's fundamental to surround your career and know and practice it. Okay, so there's two fives and a seven. (audience chuckles) So the math still has not gotten... Multiple streams of income. I'm not gonna talk a lot about making a living as a creative. I am just going to tell you fundamentally, multiple streams of income. Unless you work for one company and you love it, and you're gonna stay with that job, if you are freelance at any level, do not trust your career. As a journalist, the entire industry I worked for has gone away twice. I have been bankrupt twice 'cause the bottom dropped out. Not anything I did, on my industry. In the 2007 recession, new journalism, the thing I was best at in the world, went away. Doesn't exist anymore. I spent 20 years becoming best in the world and it's gone. And the way I learned to make a living was completely erased. And with technology moving as fast as it's moving, creative careers are more like that than less like that. So if you're going to be successful over the long haul, multiple streams of income. Figure out lots of different monetary flows. They can be little, but you need 'em, right? If this means that you're going to do your art and babysit on the side, fine. Just get a bunch of different babysitting jobs, not one.