Ask John: "How can I be my most creative self?"
To get right to it: I want to be an artist–a great artist, a real artist, an important artist. If I were to be perfectly honest about it, I guess I’d have to admit that what I really want is to be a famously successful artist. Without boring you with the whole story of my life, let me just ask you: What would be your single best piece of advice for someone who wants to be a great artist — or, at least, the best artist they can be? THANK YOU!
How to be the most famous, the greatest, the most successful, and the best artist you can be are four different questions. They’re separate lanes on the Artist’s Freeway. I’d give different advice for each of those goals.
So, my first advice to you would be: Pick a lane.
I’d further advise you to pick the lane Being the Best Artist You Can Be. That’s the right lane. Accordingly, it’s also the slowest. But it’s the only way to go. Those other three lanes are 100% guaranteed to take you nowhere you’d ever want to be. Here’s why:
Being famous. Fame is like cotton candy: It’s got no real substance, it makes you crazed for more of it, and it gets you insanely amped up and jittery just before it causes you to crash. No drug is more addictive or destructive than fame. It’s purely toxic.
Being great. “Great” is so relative it has virtually no meaning. What defines a “great” artist? Great in whose eyes? Great by what measure? By how much money it generates? By its impact on others? By how few dogs care to lick it? Saying you want to be a “great” artist is like saying you want to be a “glimpferious” artist. It means nothing.
Being successful. In this context, “successful” is just like “great”: It actually means nothing. The word only sits there, insisting that you define it for yourself. Good luck wrestling with that slippery blob. Like “great,” “successful” is a word for marketers. And, as a general rule of thumb, one should always avoid words favored by marketers.
And that leaves us with Being the Best Artist You Can Be.
And that is a goal which does means something. It’s a goal valuable enough to base your life upon. Because it’s self-contained; it doesn’t refer to anything outside of you. It’s only about you, your experience, your life.
The life of an artist—which is to say the creative life, which is to say the life of every person alive, since to be alive is to be constantly engaged in a massive, self-generated, intricately creative act—should have nothing whatsoever to do with any comparative values, with how “good” any one artist is compared to another.
To work within the paradigm of success or failure is to work in opposition to the very nature and spirit of creativity. Being creative shouldn’t be about winning, or being great, or being famous, or any of that fleeting, caustic nonsense.
Ultimately, leading a happily creative life is all about process, not results. It’s about the organic pleasure of creating something, not the harried hunger of achieving anything.
In art (in life!) there’s no arrival. There’s only the journey. The journey is the arrival. (Man, if Yoda ever becomes a travel agent, that has got to be his motto.)
Anyway, my single best piece of advice for how to be a great artist is: Ditch the very concept of being a great artist, since, by definition, that entails someone—and, most destructively, you—judging the relative “value” of your art. Screw that noise. The creation of art is supposed to be fun! So have fun!
Always have fun doing whatever the joyously creative genius—which is to say, whatever the child inside of you—wants to do. Put and keep everything else out of your mind. Because that’s all that matters.
From "Ask John," the advice column I wrote for the Asheville Citizen-Times newspaper (part of the USA Today Network) from October 2016 through January 2020.