Approximately 70 years ago, a small population of indigenous people witnessed something they had never seen before. At the peak of WWII, they saw vast amounts of cargo flying in to the Allied forces stationed there. Massive cargo planes delivered manufactured clothing, canned food, medicine, weapons and other goods for the soldiers, who shared their bounty with the local people. After the war, the military abandoned their location and stopped dropping cargo.
In the wake of this major technological interaction, cults formed, where leaders promised the people they could bring the goods back to their remote islands. These tribes began mimicking the practises they had seen from soldiers and sailors. They cleared grass and brush from the land, carving runways into the earth so that cargo planes could land. They built towers with palm leaf walls, and lit signal fires. They carved rifles into timber. Many built life-size replicas of airplanes out of straw. They set up all the aesthetics, without any of the knowledge behind each artifact. But of course, no bounty came down from the sky. This phenomenon became known as a Cargo Cult.
Finding Your Creative Work
No matter your craft, whether it be painting, building, writing, making music, cooking, you spent the first few years working on your own without much outside influence. This usually happened while you were a kid. You would create and work on projects simply because you wanted to.
If you were lucky, you’d follow your interest into school and pursue it even further. There, you’d learn about your craft in a more structured environment where you could test your skills and improve faster than if you were learning on your own.
When people reach a point in honing their craft, they enter the industry and something changes: they see people’s talent flourish into skill. Others are creating amazing works of art, writing best-sellers, building billion dollar companies, and becoming rock stars. An extremely high bar is set and it’s easy to get discouraged.
My partner, Matt, is an artist. He began drawing when he was just a kid. When classes in middle school dragged on, he would be drawing characters in his notebooks with a Bic ballpoint. Drawing became so second-nature to him that he decided to pursue it as a career. He spent all his spare time on campus and stayed late after class so he could talk to professors. There was no doubt that this was the work he wanted to do with his life.
In school, the praise from other students and teachers spurred him to be better and he became even more absorbed in his craft. Out of school, no one was telling him how much they loved his work. After he graduated, he went into the video game industry, where he was entering the ranks of professionals. They expected results.
Settling for Mediocrity
To get to the skill level of the industry giants, we mirror what we think they are doing: we build optimized work stations, read the books they read, purchase state-of-the art technology. But when our cargo doesn’t come in, we get frustrated and worry that we’re really not good enough. We become disengaged or let our skill plateau. We put in our hours at work and wait for the weekends to come. We give up before we’ve even begun.
I believe every single human has a creative soul. It does not always manifest itself in the arts we were offered in school. If you have an imagination, you are a Creative.
Seeing how amazing other people can be takes a toll on your creative esteem if you begin to think you’ll never be good enough. When the work gets difficult it feels impossible. And when something feels impossible, it almost makes sense to quit.
You may be one of the lucky people who is working in an industry that you were drawn to as a kid, but even that can be an excuse to not hone your craft and become a master. Matt spends ten hours a day drawing, and so when he comes home at the end of the day, the last thing he wants to do is draw. So he’ll do something else stimulating that only requires consumption, like watching TV or playing a video game.
Getting Out of the Cult
The first step to getting out of mediocrity is getting clear on what you want out of your personal and professional life.
1. Shut your eyes to the rest of the world and open them for your own work, one hour at a time. Don’t think about what someone else did, or how their technique is better. It’s theirs! Your fundamental style can only come from you.
2. Do the work you want to do. Don’t fuss. Don’t stop. It will be rough and it will probably be bad. Before a sculptor can begin his work, he needs a chunky, bulky, mess of marble.
3. Give yourself a million chances. If you set up a regime for yourself, and stop following through by day three, don’t worry about it! Every day is a chance to start again. And personally, I love day one. (I’ve had a lot of them) It tends to be the most optimistic day.
Matt is taking more time for himself. He’s taking life drawing classes, revisiting past work from ten year old sketchbooks, and even teaching me to draw.
Seeing the work of masters is incredibly inspiring and a level to work toward, but not through attempted carbon copy. Your cargo will never be the same as theirs, so make your own rituals, and create, create, create.