The Creative Process

The Creative Process

Jonathan Fields

By Steven Pressfield | Published: May 12, 2010

Jonathan Fields is a “doer.” He doesn’t just “talk the walk.” He lives it. Jonathan is a lifestyle-entrepreneur, a blogger at JonathanFields.com and TribalAuthor.com, a marketing consultant, a speaker and the author of Career Renegade: How to Make a Great Living Doing What You Love.

SP: This series is about the creative process: how an artist works and what techniques he or she uses to tap into that mysterious flow. For a writer of fiction, say, that process is (probably) internal and takes place in isolation. What about an entrepreneurial thinker and doer like yourself? Do you find your ideas being generated more collectively, in collaboration with others, or is the process internal and self-contained for you too? Where do your ideas come from?

JF: My ideas often come from my own experience in the world. At least, that’s how they begin. Instead of forming characters around them as some fiction writers do, though, I tend to see problems or gaps and look for ways to solve or fill them. Sometimes it’s with a tangible business solution. Other times, it’s through creating some vehicle to share knowledge, which often takes the form of a blog post, a lecture, an article or a book.

My process tends to germinate in solitude, but once gifted with momentum, varies it’s path based on what I’m creating. For example, when I’m blogging, that entire process, from idea to publication, comes from me. Push that to a book and ideas and stories come from me and from those I interview, but the final creation is shaped by the editors, designers and even the early input from major booksellers. When I paint, that’s all me. But, when I write music, the hook or the chorus or the words might come from me, but then the entire piece takes shape in a more collaborative jam session. And, it’s that way for the businesses I’ve built, too. I create the essence, the idea, but it takes a team to not only execute, but shape the final output.

Fun, grueling, all-consuming, soaring, spinning, crashing, burning; it’s all part of the mix. When I’m working in solitude and really in a groove, it’s like nothing else though. Time fugues and—thankfully—because I work at home, I have my family to pull me back out and remind me of all the other amazing people to be played with and things to be done.

SP: In your book Career Renegade, you urge salaried workers to find their inner renegade—the person they’d love to be, the work they’d love to do—and go for it. Quit that cubicle! Follow your bliss! My question is: what percentage of people have that elusive entrepreneurial gene? Are some people just more comfortable working nine-to-five? How can a person tell if they’re cut out for walking the high wire?

JF: One of the questions I’ve been asked a lot since Career Renegade came out is: “Could you ever see yourself working for someone else?” And, to the surprise of many (after more than a decade as an entrepreneur), my answer is yes. Because it’s not so much about being an entrepreneur, it’s about having certain essential qualities present in whatever I do.

I actually listed those qualities in a blog post titled, “The Renegade Employee: Coming Alive with a J-O-B” a few months back. What most people don’t know is, I wrote that post because, at the time, I was being pursued fairly aggressively by a company that seemed to have some real synergies and I needed to revisit what I really cared about.

So, it’s not about whether you should or shouldn’t be an entrepreneur, it’s about your willingness to identify your own essential working qualities and experiences, the ones that allow you to come alive, then integrate them into anything you do.

No doubt, that’s easier to pull off as an entrepreneur because you have more control. If you’re more comfortable working within the culture and structure provided by an employer, though, your task becomes to find a company with the greatest possible alignment with your essential qualities. Or, if you’re already in a job, look to find the gaps between the qualities that make you come alive and the qualities that define your current job and see if you can begin to systematically close those gaps.

SP: In The Fire Fly Manifesto, you cite a wonderful quote from Kierkegaard: “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” What do you mean by that—and how does it apply to aspiring writers, artists and entrepreneurs?

JF: Many Eastern philosophies look at life as some form of suffering, but when you dig deeper, you often find it’s not so much life, but rather life defined by the quest for certainty. And, I tend to agree. We’re more or less organically drawn to seek certainty or, to use another word, security. But certainty can never be had. Ever. It’s one of the few universal truths. A life chasing something that can never be had, then, often leads to a lot of suffering.
What Kierkegaard, and many Eastern teachings, were saying is that embracing uncertainty is a key element to not only relieving suffering, but freeing up a certain amount of mental, emotional and spiritual energy to bring more of what makes life truly juicy into each day.

He’s saying free-will brings uncertainty, which leads to anxiety—and that’s not a bad thing.

Most people strive to squash the anxiety, the uncertainty, but when you do that, you also smother a certain amount of freedom and creation. Buddhists, and I’m guessing Kierkegaard, would say, rather than kill freedom in a quest for certainty, learn to dance with it.

How does this apply to aspiring writers, artists and entrepreneurs? It’s at the core of what we do. Being driven by the process of creation is by definition pushing into the realm of the unknown in a quest to give life to something that didn’t exist before. You never know if it will work or not until you do it. You can try to plan, to protect, to take steps to minimize uncertainty, but you never completely eliminate it. Living with that is just one of the costs of creating.

Which leaves the question, “how to you dance with uncertainty? How do you get comfortable with it?” My biggest breakthroughs, best lines, greatest imagery have come when I’ve struggled with a challenge, worked really hard, then stepped away and gave my subconscious mind the space to “let the answer come.”

So I’ll go workout, walk or ride in the woods, play my guitar or switch to another activity that allows me to leave the task completely behind. The more I let go, the faster the answers come.

A lot of creatives would be exceptionally well served by developing some kind of stilling practice, be it mindfulness, meditation, solo walks in the woods. Over time, these practices help us breathe through the anxiety of creation more easily.

SP: There’s another terrific, very short section in The Fire Fly Manifesto, called “Master Your Mind.” You’re speaking there, if I understand you correctly, about the attributes of self-discipline and self-command that an artist or entrepreneur needs to succeed in the big, bad world of Being On Your Own. I know that you, Jonathan, have been a yoga instructor and have a background in fitness and personal training. What “mastering your mind” wisdom can you impart to us from those disciplines? Can you expand a little on this subject?

JF: Part of it is about what you talk about in The War of Art—sitting down and committing to be a professional, to moving into and working though, rather than running from your Resistance. The other part is what I was talking about in my answer to your question about anxiety and freedom—building a series of daily practices into your day that set you up to function on a higher level.

On my blog, I’m actually one post into a three-part series called “Going Renegade: Daily Practices That Fuel Epic Journeys,” which explores these daily practices. But, the short version is that small changes in the way we set up our days compound over time to yield profound improvements in not only our ability to create, but to live well in the world.

Meditation or, for that matter, any kind of stillness-oriented, relaxation-response practice, doesn’t just calm your mind while you’re “in it.” There’s now a significant volume of research that shows it also improves cognitive function, problem solving and creativity throughout the day. And it reduces something called “attentional blink,” having the net effect of literally allowing you to see what others miss.

It’s not easy to bring practices like this into your daily routine. Not because you don’t have the time, we all do. Rather, because they’re hard to master and the benefits are not immediate. And most people have a hard time owning practices built on a foundation of delayed gratification. Fact is, mindset practices are a bit like playing an instrument or learning to paint or write. We all suck at first. We’re meant to. And much of the early work isn’t fun. But, we’re not in it for the early work. We’re in it for where it’s leading us.

I make a daily commitment. It’s different for each project. But, because my Resistance tends to come in the form of distraction, when it comes time to create in earnest, I’ll often find a place without a Wi-Fi signal, leave my broadband card and my phone behind and set aside time to create.
This is especially important, because though I tend to be very disciplined, over the last few years as a blogger and social media person, I’ve developed a near addiction to the connection. It’s like a digital umbilical cord. And, that’s actually something that’s begun to bother me. At some point, I’ll probably do a bunch of ePruning. But, for now, changing my physical environment to eliminate the temptation of distraction works pretty well.

SP: Like Seth Godin, you have a great feel and terrific knowledge about the new web-and-tribe way of book marketing—and you used it to great effect marketing your own book, Career Renegade. People think it’s easy, but it isn’t, is it? It requires a helluva lot of work behind the scenes. Can you tell us a little about that? It isn’t just cleverness and web-savvy-ness, is it?

JF: You’re right, it takes a boatload of work. I run Tribal Author Camps that teach authors and aspiring authors how to market their books in a world that’s changing almost too quickly to keep up with. And, on the info-page, I’m very up front about the effort it takes to do it well. In fact, I flat out say:

If you’re looking for a quick-n-easy, work-free fix, go away. This will take some serious time and some serious work (though, it’ll cost you very little)…If all you want to do is write, then step aside and let your publisher do all the marketing without being “troubled” to hustle like crazy to make your book a success…stay far, far away. In fact, you may also want to hone your table-waiting skills while you’re at it. Like it or not, the simple fact is the publishing industry has changed in a huge way. And, if you’re not willing to participate in marketing your book, don’t expect anyone else to step up, either.

Writers love to write. I get that, I’m one of them. Though, I’m also that odd bird who loves to market, because marketing is really just the psychology of action and persuasion and I’m fascinated by what makes people tick and act.

And, here’s where Seth and I are very much on the same page, too: Marketing isn’t about writing a “decent” book, then hustling and spending to make it sell. Marketing starts from the moment you write your first word on your first page. It begins with a commitment to create something mind-blowing, remarkable and impactful. That burden terrifies some people, but it is what it is.

The more remarkable you make your final work, the easier it’ll be to light a match, then fan the flames a bit and watch it roar. The less remarkable your work, the more you’ll have to stand over it with a flamethrower and keep refilling the tank…and even then, it may snuff itself out the moment you step away.

More about Jonathan Fields

Jonathan Fields is also a former NYC private equity attorney, who has launched, built and sold two fitness companies, his last being one of the top-ranked yoga studios in NYC. Jonathan has been featured in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, FastCompany, Entrepreneur, USA Today, People, CNBC, The Today Show, FoxBusiness, CBS Radio and a ton of other places, and in 2009, SmallBizTrends.com named Career Renegade one of the top-10 small business books of the year. BusinessWeek also named him one of the 20 people entrepreneurs need to follow on twitter (@jonathanfields). And, just this week, Career Renegade was featured by MSNBC among its “Top Five: Small Biz Summer Reads.” Jonathan always offers great advice!

Posted in The Creative Process

4 Responses to “Jonathan Fields”

  1. May 13, 2010 at 1:09 am

    So good to hear someone else talking about “the big, bad world of Being On Your Own.” :))

    Very inspiring interview…now I go back to work,,Resistance makes me wanna read more..

  2. May 17, 2010 at 7:45 am

    What a great interview! I’ve been on the fringes of Jonathan’s influence for a while now. Loosely following his influence online, but after this interview it’s obvious I’m missing out.

    The ‘drive for certainty’ dialogue is completely true, and although it’s something I talk to my athlete clients about – I always see it popping up in my own life, as well.

    Thanks for sharing.

  3. May 23, 2010 at 5:28 pm

    Great Post and I have also been on the fringes yet now I am bookmarking and researching the Tribal Author’s Camp! Certianty is a legitimate human requirement yet only when you generate it on your own and re-create it regularly! Thanks so much for the inspiration.

  4. May 23, 2010 at 9:10 pm

    could not have articulated my creative process as well as not, not even light years near, but it’s how the muse connects to me. collectivechange.com