What if you wanted to become the best in the world?

0. Throw away the idea of “analysis paralysis” and face your fear of being wrong.

You’ve heard the expression before. Especially in the corporate world, many people who loathe unnecessary meetings and red-tape regulations will react to any sign of hesitation with well-practiced disdain. “What you’re doing smells like analysis paralysis. Do something! Move! Faster, faster!”

Many people confuse the concept of procrastination with the notion of “analysis paralysis”. If you’re using the idea of “weighing all the options” as an excuse to avoid taking action, the problem is not that you’re thinking too much.

Thinking is never a bad thing.
Thinking about the wrong ideas can be a very bad thing.
Charging into a topic without thinking is almost equally as bad.

Don’t Wait, Don’t Rush

The real question is, “are you afraid of making mistakes or being wrong?”

If you’re afraid, then charging in won’t help because you’ll tend to use cynical “positive thinking” to ignore mistakes rather than learn from them. This will become a stumbling block, and then a fatal flaw on the path to learning. There are a million ways to make mistakes, and an infinity of excuses to hide behind.

Sitting on the fence and “analyzing” forever (i.e. procrastinating) is also not useful because it prevents the experiences and inevitable mistakes that will ultimately lead to skill.

In essence, this article is about learning to think better in order to do better. The first, critical point is to accept the fact that you’re going to make mistakes and dedicate yourself to improving one step at a time. Your goals will draw near with accelerating speed when you see mistakes as lessons to learn, not shameful evidence of inherent incompetence. To put it plainly, you’ll get better faster after you get over yourself. More about this farther down.

Onward.

1. Name your skill.

Pick an area and be specific. Do you want to be the best jazz musician, the best 3D graffiti artist, or the best maker of boutique designs for stylish artificial limbs?

Your area of expertise can be anything. Even better if you have some sense of aptitude, or general inclination in that area — and can find a niche that may not be the first one that comes to mind. Give yourself time to think, explore and try new options until you’re comfortable enough to know whether or not a particular field or domain is the right one for you.

2. Define A Worthwhile Goal.

Your chances of reaching a worthwhile goal are higher if you make the goal specific.

Do you really want to be the best in the world?

The less ego-driven you are, the better — “the best in the world” is both meaningless and empty.

– How would you know that you were “the best”? More likely, you’ll merely join a club of hypercompetitive narcissists who thrive on the idea of oneupmanship and short-sighted triumph over others.

– What if you became the best? You’d drop dead out of ecstasy at being a “Winner”, or realize that your goal was just egotistical obsession over other peoples’ opinions of your work?

The deepest values lead to the most meaningful goals.

Instead, define your goal in terms of your deepest values. Do you care about other people, or only yourself? One important aspect of real creativity is that creative work is inherently an act of communication. The more you can take the perspective of your audience and care about them in the ways that they care about themselves, the more likely you are to connect to their desires and values. You’ll be able to see the commonalities between what the audience wants, and what you already love to do.

By contrast, a selfish egotist is trapped gazing at his or her own reflection and can only haphazardly assume that the world will think that his or her work is “the best”. Bluster and bluffing can sometimes win in the short-term. Attuning your creative impulses to the desires of your audience will ensure that you never fall too far out of touch.

3. Reduce all distractions.

The impetus for this entry was the question, “how am I better than I was last year around this time?”

Actually, I ask myself this question all the time.

The answer is that I’ve done the reverse of the typical approach. Instead of trying to shoehorn more time into my life, I’ve reduced the amount of time wasted on non-useful activities. One obvious point that everyone strenuously overlooks: use television, movies and other passive media (including aimless web browsing) as treats to be enjoyed only on special occasions. They are mental junk food unless they directly contribute to your creative work; all forms of “junk” (physical, mental, emotional, financial and time-wise) are perfect opportunities to troubleshoot and “take out the trash”, as it were.

Instead of being a good consumerist herd animal and trying to “have it all”, be a smart creative person and learn to do more with less. Life is already too short; train yourself to always strive to do more in less time. Paradoxically, this is the opposite of “multitasking”. This means you may need to get better at doing nothing at all.

4. When you’re “doing nothing”, actually do nothing.

This operationalizes the previous point at its most extreme level.

The essence of distraction is an attempt to get away from something. You might have watched TV and movies to escape from yourself for a while. Drink and drugs often — but not always — have similar purposes, especially in a social context (alcohol is called a “social lubricant” for a reason; it distracts from social anxiety by dampening the stress response).

Creativity: escape or immersion?

Creativity is, in some ways, the perfect escape, in that you’re building a world that doesn’t exist in realty. Creativity is also the opposite of escape, in that you have to focus one-hundred percent of yourself and your energy in order to do your best work. This means that it’s all too easy to almost reach the zone of creativity — and get distracted because your mind wants to escape the necessary intensity of attentional absorption.

Question: How can you reach that intense “flow” state more often?
Answer: Allow yourself to be bored.

Trust that you’re never “doing nothing”. Your so-called “unconscious” mind is always working, even when you consciously draw a blank. While you sleep, you dream. And when you’re bored, your mind is wandering in ways that will lead to your next creative idea.

If you distract yourself with television, movies or other passive media (like most of social media), those quiet whispers of new thoughts are easily drowned out, much like junk food may give you the feeling of being full while leaving you malnourished.

Focus on your creative fascinations when your mind is ready to operate intensely, and be bored while waiting for the next idea.

4. Get better by operationalizing your goals.

This is the most important part of this set of principles.

Do you remember when you just started out? You probably defaulted to the old “I wanna be the best ever” idea.

Then you learned a little more and realized that being the best will take years. There are a lot of fanatically creative people (more likely: desperately insecure people) out there. Contrary to stereotypes, many artists and creatives are willing to work really, really hard, practically all the time.

That’s the ego trap at work.

How do you escape from becoming a slave to the things you love?

One way is to think more about how to get better.

If you want to draw or paint better, you could just draw and paint all the time. Immersion definitely has its value. Jump into the water if you want to learn how to swim.

Or you could ask, “if I wanted to paint on the level of Leonardo da Vinci, what are the most basic skills that I could use to reduce the mistakes I make with every new piece?” The human body, for example, isn’t just a thing of beauty. It’s an object of scientific study. Did you know that you can learn exactly where every bone, muscle, joint, wrinkle and shadow is supposed to be? This is a subject called anatomy. Without in-depth anatomical study, all you have is hours spent guessing. In a fraction of the time, anatomical knowledge can bring precision to every human figure that you draw or paint for the rest of your life.

If you want to learn a language, the same principles are at work. Do you want to learn slowly and painfully as you’re forced to do at school? Or do you want to become a fluent communicator with real people in that language, which involves a completely different combination of structure, rote learning and cultural immersion?

Think of other areas of life where these ideas might apply.

Recap

Remember that creativity is, at its core, about continually getting better at making things that communicate to other people in a valuable way.

Here’s a more concise version that also elaborates on the previous points. Quiz yourself by seeing if you detect the differences:

1. Start from your values.

Why do you want to make these things?
In what ways do your creative impulses communicate something valuable to others?

2. Move beyond egotistical goals.

Instead of racing to be “the best” like a starving rat in pursuit of cheese, create goals that can continue to grow with your skills — always anchored by the intrinsic values that you discovered in step 1. Your skills and goals will self-sustain, getting better and better at an accelerating pace.

Learn to cultivate the “audience mind” without pandering to what’s hot right now or becoming trapped in pop-culture trends and soon-to-be discarded “cool” cliches.

3. Instead of chasing distractions, embrace boredom.

Boredom leads to frustration. Frustration leads to expression. Be ready for your best ideas to tumble out when you least expected them to arrive. Be prepared by keeping your mind open. Being bored will quickly become the most fascinating part of your day, when you realize how hard your mind is working all the time. Give yourself room to work inside the nascent imagined reality that your creativity will soon bring forth in full form for the world outside to enjoy.

4. Operationalze your goals.

Get better at getting better by always looking to learn more about “the skill of skill”. The more you refine your approach, the fewer mistakes you’ll repeat. As you deepen your comprehension and fluency in the fundamentals (which may in themselves be different from what you first assumed), the more possibilities you’ll open in the long term. Be meticulous in refining your grasp of the basics and be creative in giving yourself restrictions in order to force your mind into new ways of seeing, thinking and constructing the questions that you ask about your subject. The answers will soon begin to surprise you in delightfully unexpected ways — and may be your best hope for delighting your audience every time, whoever they may be.

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