Study the Greats

“You’re blocked because you have nothing to say. Your talent didn’t abandon you. If you had something to say, you couldn’t stop yourself from writing. You can’t kill your talent, but can starve it into a coma through ignorance. For no matter how talented, the ignorant cannot write. Talent must be stimulated by facts and ideas. Do research. Feed your talent. Research not only wins the war on cliché, it’s the key to victory over fear, and its cousin, depression.”

Robert McKee – “Story”

For most people, the problem is simple – they just don’t show up.

They’re a writer who doesn’t write. A composer who doesn’t composer. A feminist whose sole contribution to the cause is tweeting the words “I’m a feminist” sometimes.

Every single day these people – ordinary people who are like you and me – wake up with a burning desire to do something brilliant. To make something. Or change something. Or be something. And every single day these people find a new excuse to avoid actually having to do it.

Sadly, most of them never go any further, and whatever it was they burned with desire for dies with them. They are not bad people, but they are tragic people, because they live a whole life without any real idea of what they’re truly made of.

But for some people, it’s different. Some people do evolve past this point. Some people do reach a point where they can get themselves to consistently show up, day after day, to do their work, whatever the hell it might be. They thrash and they flail and no matter how much they don’t feel like it some days, they keep getting back in the ring.

If you’ve ever reached this point, then I take my hat off to you. That’s huge. You’ve reached a level that most people don’t in an entire lifetime. You’ve slayed one of the scariest dragons imaginable – the one that will do anything to stop you doing your work.

Before you reach this point, then – looking from the outside-in – you might imagine that once you get there, it’s all gravy from then on. That once you can get your bum in your seat for a few hours every day, genius will pour forth from you every single time. That – depending on which version of the famous quote you’ve read – “between 50% and 99% of success is just showing up.”

Well, as somebody who does show up every day, and has been doing for some time, let me tell you what a rude awakening it is when you realise that there’s a little more to it than that. Because you can show up every day. You can write. You can play. You can try to create change in the world. But if that’s all you do, you’re screwed.

For if you don’t actively feed your mind with the right ingredients, you make it impossible for anything beautiful to grow there. It’s impossible for me to tell you what those right ingredients are – they’re a combination as unique as you are – but the closest thing I’ve found to a short-cut is this:

STUDY THE GREATS.

Once you figure out what your thing is – what you should be showing up every day to work on – then make a point of keeping yourself fed and watered, so to speak. When you don’t feel 100% inspired, go look for the people who have already done an incredible job at what you’re trying to do, and learn from them. Pick their work apart like a vulture on a fresh carcass. Spend a few hours bathing in their mastery.

But don’t be passive. Make this as active as possible. If you want to write a book, for example, don’t just read a book you think is great – grab a pen and annotate the shit out of every single page. If you want to write songs, don’t just listen to your favourite song. Write out the lyrics by hand. Write out the structure and the exact number of seconds each verse lasts for.

In my experience, when I’m feeling particularly blocked and nothingy, just one session like this – forgetting about my own shitty work and diving deep into something I think is brilliant – is more than enough to make me feel creative again.

The best part? It’s really fun.

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