One of the main things you have is your point of view. Your particular point of view is what fuels your work. If you’re just working on something because you have the skills to do it and it’s not triggering your point of view, the work can only rise to a certain level. So even as a career strategy, if the work only rises to a certain level, you’ll be thought of as a utility player, not as a superstar. –Brian Koppelman
Your Point of View: Finding it, Respecting it, Trusting it, and Making it a Part of Your Work
In this interview with Todd Henry of the Accidental Creative podcast, Brian Koppelman shares his insights on how to be more creative, doing work you love, the value of daily rituals, and the power of persistence.
Speaking on the passion he has for his work, Koppelman expresses sentiments that echoes Joseph Campbell’s advice to “follow your bliss.”
I don’t even think of it as a side project. I just think of it as this thing that I love to do and that I’m so lucky and happy to do. It’s a huge highlight of my week and it’s something that I really look forward to. I only have people on the show who really fascinate me. There has to be something about the way they live their live, the choices that they’ve made, the creative risks that they’ve taken that lights me up and that raises questions in me or else I won’t book them on the show.
I look at these conversations I get to have as amplified versions of conversations I try to have in my life generally with these people. One of the great benefits of having become a working artist with some body of work that other people have responded to, is that I’m able to reach out to people I admire, and people about whom I have curiosity, or people I want to be mentors to me, or people who I think have an angle on a certain aspect on life or the creative life I want to know more about.
It’s really just an amplification or reflection of what I am and who I am as a person. These are conversations I have with my kids, and my wife, and with sort of everyone in my life. The microphone gives me almost an excuse to go deeper, to get into territory that might be a little uncomfortable at dinner…
Work that makes you truly come alive is experienced as an investment of one’s energy rather than an expenditure. The adage, “when you find what you love, you’ll never work another day in your life,” isn’t a false promise of a life free from discipline and demand, but rather an invitation to a kind of work that gives back. For those who manage to find their life’s calling, work is experienced as a reciprocating force. The energy one pours into it is reflected by to the worker in various forms. Koppelman’s relationship to work is reminder that the so-called “daily grind” or “rat race” can be a deep source of nourishment when we work harder at building a healthy relationship to our work than we do at just showing up to our jobs.
Addressing the issue of doing what you love versus doing things for the money, Koppelman offers the following two cents:
Only you can make that choice from a priority standpoint, but I know that I now won’t just take a job or an opportunity because there’s more money in that place. I haven’t for years. To me, the level of pain associated with that is to great. I don’t feel like I’m tapping into my best self and I put a primacy on that. I put a primacy on being able to go home at night and be really good to the people that I love. And I think that if you’re blocked creatively, you become toxic to yourself and I think that toxicity spreads.
At one point in the interview, Koppelman shares the story of how Gene Simmons from Kiss discovered the band, Van Halen, early on in their music career. Excited about their potential, Simmons helped them produce high quality demos (demos including songs that would later perform well on their first three albums) and attempted to help them get signed with his manager. When the band met with his manager, he rejected them and said their music wasn’t commercial enough. Van Halen was devastated by the rejection and taken aback by the surprising criticisms of their music. Later on, Simmons’ manager admitted that their primary concern was making sure Simmons didn’t get distracted from his music obligations, given the success of Kiss, by devoting too much attention to trying to manage a new band. So they decided that they would be critical of Van Halen’s music no matter how it sounded.
The lesson Koppelman extracts from this story is a powerful one:
You’re going to hear the “no,” probably, in the way that’s least empowering to you because we’re all still, in some sort of way, that kid in the art class. So you’re going to hear the “no” as confirmation that you’re worthless when, in fact, it may have nothing to do with the work you’ve put in front of the buyer, or the agent, or the authority figure. That person may be under pressures and employing strategies that you have no way to know about. So I’ve always cataloged these stories for myself and held on to them to prod me forward when I know in my bones that some pursuit is worthwhile.
Koppelman cautions listeners against being too quick to surrender their judgment to gatekeepers and experts:
If you have a really strong sense that your project is worth doing, and you know yourself…if a little secret voice that’s not insecurity, that’s reality says “this one’s not great,” listen to it. But if that voice doesn’t show up, keep working on it. [I’ve had] material that I knew was right that was passed on at various times, but then by continuing to focus on it and work on it, I ended up getting a “yes” and finding out those people were wrong and I was right to believe in it. I have a real skepticism about gatekeepers and supposed experts and their ability to judge the value of something.
The Universality of Fear and the Will to Create
Describing the anxiety and self-doubt she felt regarding her capacity to do justice to her dream project, authoring a fiction novel centered around comic book icon Lois Lane, Gwenda Bond serves as an inspiring counterexample to our tendency to assume that our personal feelings of unworthiness are a strange and unique phenomenon.
With a side helping of terror and secret worries that I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. Because, truth is, I adore Lois Lane (and Superman) and always have. This was a dream project, dropping from the sky into my lap at the exact perfect moment when I could say yes and get started right away. But . . . what if I screwed it up? Well, you can’t be so afraid to screw up that you aren’t willing to try.
I had to channel my inner Lois and be determined to do my best, while developing the superpower of shutting out the worries about being the person who screwed up a showcase for one of the greatest characters ever created, one known around the entire world. I think, though, that this lesson is applicable beyond this specific book—at least, I plan to treat it that way. If we’re not challenging ourselves to do something a little or a lot terrifying as writers, where failure is possible and has consequences, then we probably should be making bolder choices. That mix of terror and determination is where good writing lives.
Nervousness and insecurity, while often interpreted as evidence that we’re out of our league, can actually be a confirmation of the exact opposite conclusion. The process of becoming superior versions of ourselves must inevitably lead to an unsettling confrontation between our attachment to the cozy nest of familiarity and the demanding possibilities of who we know we’re capable of becoming. Our true self is so much more magnificent than the ordinary roles we settle for playing, that when we catch even the slightest glimpse of it, we can feel paralyzed by a sense of overwhelm. Steven Pressfield , author of the War of Art, contends that the resistance we feel towards creative endeavor is nothing less than a confirmation sign that we’re on the right road:
If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), “Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?” chances are you are. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.
Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.
Bond’s experience and Pressfield’s advice is a call to nothing less than fearless creating. We must all find a way to dig deeply enough into the well of our creative potential until we find that which is more substantial than our doubt: the will to create, the power to convert uncomfortable feelings and unnerving emotions into creative energy, the determination to not run from our darker and more unpredictable psychological sensations, but to channel them along constructive lines.
Reflections on the Meaning of Art
Maria Popova demonstrates her usual curative brilliance by sharing a plethora of insights from various creators and thinkers about the nature of art. Below are my personal highlights from her list of favorites quotes and quips about the aesthetic enterprise.
Charles Eames, cited in the fantastic 100 Quotes by Charles Eames:
Art resides in the quality of doing; process is not magic.
This particular understanding demystifies the creative process and offers many an aspiring artist the opportunity to think about art in terms of what they actually do rather than in terms of how they feel or what they think of themselves. “I’m not creative,” “I’m not a writer,” or “I’m not the artsy-type,” are reasons offered by many who’ve abandoned their creative dreams because they didn’t see themselves in accordance some stereotypical or mystical image of what an artist should be. Sometimes we feel good and sometimes we feel bad. Sometimes we feel inspired and sometimes we feel unmoved. Sometimes we feel confident and sometimes we feel insecure. Sometimes the process of creating things makes us feel magical and alive, while sometimes the process of creating things seems somewhat neutral. Either way, our artistry is defined by the results we choose to create. After all the mystical experiences have transpired (or failed to transpire), the art of creating will still be about creating.
Francis Ford Coppola in a recent interview:
An essential element of any art is risk. If you don’t take a risk then how are you going to make something really beautiful, that hasn’t been seen before? I always like to say that cinema without risk is like having no sex and expecting to have a baby. You have to take a risk.
Zig Ziglar once wrote, “You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great.” As I wrote in Preparation is What Happens While You Work,
Waiting for epiphanies, paradigm-shifts, irresistible sparks of inspiration, or whisperings from an exotic muse is nothing more than a mystical version of self-stultifying procrastination. If you want new beliefs, you have to explore new experiences by beginning new practices. The way to become the best version of yourself is by doing important, challenging, and noble work even when you don’t feel certain that you’re ready, worthy, or qualified to do so.
Michelangelo Pistoletto in Art’s Responsibility:
Above all, artists must not be only in art galleries or museums — they must be present in all possible activities. The artist must be the sponsor of thought in whatever endeavor people take on, at every level.
One of our world’s greatest needs is for people who their art as worth creating whether they’re rewarded with fame and fortune or not. Creating is not the special privilege of a select few. To be human is to create and the more we do it, the more humane our world becomes. As Maria Popova concludes in her own words,
This is the power of art: The power to transcend our own self-interest, our solipsistic zoom-lens on life, and relate to the world and each other with more integrity, more curiosity, more wholeheartedness.
The above reflections and notes are part of my personal development project for 2015. This post is my entry for (What I’m Learning: Day 23/365). To see the spreadsheet documenting all the activities I complete every week, click here.