When your long term creative passion is an unpaid side-project, it’s tough to know if you’re moving forwards, treading water or just going round in circles headless-chicken style and never getting any better.
Like a real-life game of snakes and ladders, there are ups and there are downs.
One day you might feel buoyed that things are on a roll – while the next you’re slip-sliding fast and your confidence takes a nose dive – normally when you start comparing yourself to someone else.
Most of us crave external validation of one kind or another – and that’s perfectly normal. It’s rare to find someone who survives on a diet of dogged self-belief alone (and let’s face it, they probably wouldn’t be great company).
Whilst I’ve spent a lifetime avoiding them like the plague, structured workplaces and learning environments work. Hierarchies, grades, incentives, qualifications and all that jazz – they’re all about letting you know how you’re performing. About giving you certainty.
But when you’re working away on a side project, certainties don’t really exist. Is this actually going anywhere? Am I improving at all? Very often, you won’t have a clue.
Of course, there are signs of external validation that creatives can use to keep going. I did two things. I had a writing mentor – a fab experience and something I’ve written about before – and I submitted screenplays to writing competitions. At least two full scripts a year.
Submitting to competitions gave me a deadline, something to work towards, it made me feel accountable and if I won (yep just the once) it gave me the motivation to continue.
But writing competitions like these – probably any kind of competition – are a blunt instrument. Some give great feedback but most are just a zero sum game.
You win, you lose – either way, you don’t learn much.
The right people
Ryan Holiday’s new book Ego Is The Enemy is about how self-importance can get in the way of making good decisions and life choices.
He writes about a method that some boxers use in their training to help them to keep learning and know how well they are progressing whilst keeping any hubris in check.
He calls it the rule of ‘plus-minus-equal’ and it’s a system that creative types can use too to help them know where they’re coming from, where they are now and where they’re heading.
In short, the plus-minus-equal system involves finding three different types of supportive people to keep you moving forward and in the right direction. These are people who you learn from, people who you learn with and people who you give back to.
The power of three
The first set of people form your ‘plus’. These are people who have been there and done that. These are the grasshoppers. The mentors, tutors and experts in their field who can show you how to improve and where you’re going wrong.
Look up to them, listen to them and ignore them at your peril.
Next up are your equals. These are your peers – people who are equally good as you at whatever it is you want to get better at doing.
While your mentors give you direction and hand holding, your peers will challenge you on your on level. In a writing context they’re your writing group. They’ll make you push your creative skills harder – perhaps because you’re trying to match or beat them.
They’ll also give you support and motivation because they understand what you are going through – they’ll keep going because they relate to your challenges.
The third, but by no means least-important element of the support system are your ‘minus’. These are people who you can help and mentor by passing on your own experience and skills.
This third set of people help you grow your confidence and establish and confirm your own knowledge because as everyone knows, one of the best ways to learn is to teach someone else what you know.
All bases covered
Sure, having just one element of the plus-minus-equal system can be useful in terms of your creative progression.
But the real transformative power of this system comes when all three bases are covered and when all three elements work together:
- By learning from mentors you know how far you need to go to improve your practice and you also cultivate humility because you know there’s someone so much better than you are.
- By learning from equals, you’re challenging others and being challenged by people on your level and that way you’re also developing confidence in your own skills.
- By learning through giving back, you understand how far you’ve come and in passing on your own knowledge, learn and grow in the process.