As creatives, you’re sometimes presented with one of two scenarios: take your time to produce quality work like the giants in your field or produce an ample amount of work that is mediocre at best.
This dichotomy has been a topic of conversation between my photographer friends lately. So last night, I decided to do a bit of reading about it.
It turns out that when it comes to generating ideas quantity is often the best predictor of quality. That is, it’s because you produce a lot of work that you become great. Being prolific is how you achieve success and here’s why:
1. The Numbers Game
A typical image of a creative person is someone who is enraptured by inspiration. An idea hits them, and they dive into it until they finally emerge with something perfect.
In reality, however, most of the individuals who inspire us don’t work that way.
To put it simply: creative success is a numbers game. As you continue to generate work you increase the odds that one of those pieces will touch someone.
That photo you took, which was only one of many that year, could be the image that strikes an unexpected chord with your audience. It may cause a wave of attention that you never expected.
This has definitely happened to me, and there are several historical figures to who this relates to as well. Some individuals who we consider geniuses today have left their mark by simply producing a large number of smaller scratches.
As detailed in Originals by Adam Grant, one such genius is the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso. Picasso’s body of work contains priceless paintings and sculptures, many of which sit in some of the world’s most prestigious museums.
What’s less known is that Picasso’s oeuvre encompasses over 1200 sculptures, 1800 paintings, 2800 ceramics, and 12000 drawings. The pieces we now admire—the ones that have garnered him the most acclaim—represent only a fraction of his total work.
Another fascinating example is the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s list of the 50 most significant pieces of classical music. On that list, you’ll find pieces by Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach.
However, when you look closer at the numbers, as Grant did, you’ll see an interesting pattern emerge.
Mozart composed more than 600 pieces, but only six made the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s greatest 50. Bach, produced over 1,000 pieces in his lifetime, but only three were picked. For Beethoven, it was five out of his total of 650 compositions.
For each of these world-renowned musicians, the vast majority of their work was not considered good enough to stand out amongst other greats. Those single-digit numbers, however, are amongst the world’s best. To have even one listed is an honor only achieved by consistently producing.
One of the reasons for the massive success of these creatives is that being prolific ensures diversity in your work. Unless you’re repetitively creating the same thing, or mining the same inspirational vein, your endeavors will inevitably have different results.
Many of them might fail to garner you any attention, but because you have so much available, one or two may strike a nerve and produce the success you’re aiming for. In this way, your creative output is a lottery ticket. You don’t know which piece will be a winner, but they each provide a chance.
“On average, creative geniuses aren’t qualitatively better in their fields than their peers; they simply produce a greater volume of work which gives them more variation and a higher chance of originality.”—Dean Keith Simonton
2. Constant Creation Leads to Constant Growth
Often our creative passions are driven not only by a need to express ourselves but by a desire to succeed. We want to be able to have our work recognized, and our skills deemed worthy. The desire for success, however, may lead us to be more closed-minded. This may seem counter-intuitive, but let’s look at it from a few different angles.
When your goal is to succeed, you’re less likely to take risks that may not grant you that immediate achievement. This leads to fewer opportunities to grow and explore your creativity. The antidote to this is constant creation.
Diversity in your work pushes you beyond the boundaries drawn by what you think brings reward and forces you to expand your horizons. Originality sometimes comes from trying and failing, and if you only reach for that guaranteed brass ring, you minimize the chances you have to learn.
The desire to be great can be stifling as you stay stuck on particular projects trying to make them perfect. Being prolific allows you to combat the tendency to work and rework a project beyond what’s needed. There is no perfect. By constantly fine-tuning a piece, you may only be stopping yourself from producing the work that will define you.
Steadily building your body of work also allows you to see things from a different perspective. Our focus on that one masterpiece will blind us to other ways of seeing things.
With our attention buried in the details on how to become great, we blind ourselves to the possibilities in the real world. The inspiration for that next novel can be outside your window, but you won’t see it if you won’t let go of what you’re already working on.
When you try to force yourself to produce new works you combat all of the symptoms that come with the obsession to achieve.
You are forced to explore new avenues and open your mind. You’re also more willing to try new things because you’ll have no choice. You’ve done everything you know! You’ll take chances, and your creative output will be better for it.
At some point, if you’re a photographer, you just have to point and shoot. If you’re a writer, you have to put pen to paper. If you’re a painter, you have to grab your brush and work on that canvas. The more you do, the more you’ll be forced to take creative chances that may lead to prominence.
3. Be Critic Proof
The world of creativity can sometimes be very discouraging. You’ve worked from the heart on something and you want to share it with the world. That openness will make any criticism more harshly felt.
Producing more work accelerates you past that fear of judgment and frees you to be inventive without the pressure from naysayers.
To be prolific means you’re producing. You’re working. You’re staying focused on your current project, and then the next one. It provides you with the benefit of a sort of tunnel vision necessary to block out negativity. You won’t have the time to think about criticism. Instead, you’ll be focused on the next breakthrough.
Continuing to create also helps develop a thicker skin. Like growing a callous, your creative spirit will feel the pain of rejection less and less. You’ll absorb what will help you be a better artist and leave behind what doesn’t serve you.
By regularly creating, you build that barrier. You learn that if you fall flat on your face, it’s okay because you can try again.
Criticism will come, but you cannot let that hold up your work. Focusing on creating will help you move forward and in more innovative directions.
“Don’t wait for things to be perfect before you share them with others. Show early and often. It’ll be pretty when we get there, but it won’t be pretty along the way.”—Ed Catmull, From Creativity, Inc.
4. Ideas Bring More Ideas
Inspiration is wonderful. Maybe you’ll be sitting on the beach and watching the sunset. The combination of colors hits your eyes. A composition of shapes and shades fills your thoughts, and you’re off to grab your brush, camera, or pen. Those kinds of creative epiphanies are great. But don’t wait for them.
In reality, inspiration isn’t a daily occurrence. You shouldn’t expect every one of your projects to start on a beach.
Instead, build a habit out of creating and integrate that into your daily routine. As you go through the workings of creating you run into ever-changing challenges that you need to overcome.
Those challenges, be they skill-related or more practical, compels you to come up with new solutions. It’s an organic process in which the creative act itself produces better work and makes you a better creative.
When you wait for inspiration to strike you, it may be hard to get yourself ready to move on it. If you’ve romanticized creativity, you haven’t set up habits to deal with the complications of work.
Creative work is still work; doing it often and regularly helps you develop the processes needed to take advantage of ideas when you have them.
Through trial and error, you can learn where your strengths and weaknesses lie. This will allow you to create better work that plays to those strengths and better develop your weaknesses. Being proficient comes with being prolific.
5. Consistency Is the Key to Creativity
Working constantly build habits that keep your creativity in tune. In general, humans need time and energy to refocus. Producing work regularly keep your subconscious attuned to the needs of your creative work.
By keeping your creativity aroused you’ll find yourself looking at daily events through a creative lens. This makes it effortless for ideas to come. If you’re a photographer, for example, nondescript objects will suddenly be inspiring. You will see potential even in simple daily events.
Allow this process to work for you. Let the friction of ideas in your head spark inspiration. Keep focused, and you’ll find that ideas will come easier every day.
“Work creates a state that connects new ideas… When you’re regularly working on things you enjoy, the walls come down.”—Gregory Ciotti
Don’t Stop Expressing Yourself
Being prolific may sometimes mean letting go of your work and moving on. It also means focusing on the thing you love without distraction. The reward for both, however, is being better at what you do, whatever that may be. Don’t let the need to be perfect hold you back from being great. Leave those fear behind, get started on your work, and never stop.