Going To War For Your Craft

What if living your best creative life requires, above all else, the willingness to work hard at your craft?

I watched a fascinating documentary this week about pianist Seymour Bernstein. He built a successful career as a concert pianist, then devoted the second half of his life teaching piano to younger students. He lived with a relentless commitment to his craft.

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In one scene, Bernstein discussed his commitment to music with two other concert pianists. One of them told a story about a friend that came up to him after one of his concerts and said, “It is so amazing that you can just sit down and play pieces like this.”

In his mind, the pianist thought, “I didn’t just sit down and play the piece. This concert represented thousands and thousands of hours of me sitting down and practicing, working on my craft.”

Meaningful creativity doesn’t just happen. It requires a process that demands an enormous amount of time, energy, and hard work.

Bernstein explained the work required this way: “The struggle is what makes the art form. I go to war for my art form.”

I love the idea of “going to war” for my art form. Too often we share the perspective of the piano concert attendee: “It’s so amazing that you can just sit down and create like this!”

Too often we want to experience creative breakthrough in our writing, photography, or music, without being willing to struggle for it, without going to war for our art form. The simple truth is that true creative breakthrough requires that we do the work. 

Ira Glass, the creator of the fabulous podcast, “This American Life,” describes the struggle involved in the creative process this way:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap.

For the first couple of years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. 

A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this.

And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. It’s only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” 

This is one of the secrets to living your best creative life. You have to struggle and go to war for your art form. You have to be willing to simply do the work.