Do you wish you could create something meaningful? Do you wish you had the time to work on that thing you’ve always wanted to produce—that novel, that piece of art, that passion project?
No need to keep wishing your life away. Based on my experience—i.e., years of procrastination, followed by a couple years of rigorous work, resulting in two personal masterpieces—I’ve written a 16-step guide to get you started on your own masterpiece.
If I could fire up the Delorean and rewind the last decade, this is everything I would tell my 21-year-old self about creating meaningful work. It would have been harsh, but I needed it, and it would have saved me a ton of heartache. Feel free to listen in.
Step 1. Look yourself in the mirror. It’s time for you to be honest with yourself, young Josh. Either you’re accomplishing what you want to accomplish or you’re not. There is no in-between. If it’s the latter, then you must admit to yourself that you are the only person preventing you from pursuing your passion project. Denial is a heartless bitch; so the first step is looking in the mirror and admitting that you haven’t even scratched the surface on creating something meaningful.
Step 2. Kill your distractions. Make a list of everything getting in your way. Surfing the ‘net too much? Get rid of the Internet at home. Are certain people draining all your time? Get rid of your shitty relationships. Are material possessions getting in the way? Get rid of your crap.
Step 3. Make time every day. None of us were born equal. We come from different backgrounds, different cultures, different socioeconomic situations. Suffice it to say, we were not all born on a level playing field. Time is the one exception. The only thing we all have in common is time. We all have the same 24 hours in a day. So, get up at 3:30 a.m. if you have to. Find 30 minutes before you leave for work. Work through your lunch break. Find an hour after work. If you want it bad enough, you’ll find the time. You have the same amount of time as everyone else who has ever created a masterpiece.
Step 4. Stop making excuses. I should do this. I should do that. I should, I should, I should. Too often, we should all over ourselves. You must instead make change a must. I must create a masterpiece! I must make time every day! I must kill my distractions! Those musts sound far more empowering than your shoulds, don’t they?
Step 5. Stop worrying. Most people are going to praise you for what you do—they’ll be proud of your masterpiece once it’s finished—but instead we tend to worry about the naysayers. Guess what: people are going to judge you. Some people are going to think what you’re doing is stupid. Others will think you’ve lost your mind. But what other people think doesn’t matter. They will be dead soon. And so will you and I. So we better get to work.
Step 6. Grow a pair of balls.
Step 7. Take incremental action. Nearly all masterpieces share two commonalities: time and action. Said another way, you have to do the work every day. You won’t create your masterpiece overnight, so don’t try. It’s far more important to work on it each day. In the course of time, your daily actions will add up immensely. Eventually, you’ll look in life’s rearview mirror and everything will be different.
Step 8. Change your physiology. Your brain and your body aren’t standing in opposite corners of the room. If you want to stimulate your mind, you must stimulate your body. So do something physical. Anything: Walk. Run. Hit the gym. Try yoga. Breathe. Exercise for 18 minutes a day. Trek 500 miles. Just do something to get your body moving. Motion creates emotion.
Step 9. Focus. Focus on your masterpiece. Whatever you focus on, you’ll create. Think your project is crappy? Then it will be crappy. Think you’ll get it done no matter the odds? Then you’ll finish it even if you get hit by a bus.
Step 10. Change your beliefs. One of the biggest reasons we don’t accomplish what we set out to accomplish is our limiting beliefs. For years you’ve told yourself that you’ll never be this, you’ll never do that, you’ll never be good enough. But you’re no different than the people who have constructed their masterpieces. The people who create something special—something lasting—aren’t necessarily smarter or funnier or better or more toothsome than you. They simply believed they could do it, and through this belief they didn’t let anything stand in their way.
Step 11. Become obsessed. Half of passion is love; the other half, obsession. Your masterpiece will feed off your obsession, growing mightily the more obsessed you become. Eventually, you’ll wake up thinking about it. You’ll go to bed thinking about it. You’ll think about it in the bathroom stall. This is good. Let your masterpiece become your obsession. Let it take over.
Step 12. Cut the fat. Brevity is the soul of wit. Or perhaps, more accurately, brevity is wit. Julien Smith’s book, The Flinch, is intentionally brief. The entire thing can be tweeted, page by page, line by line. Every line was carefully considered. Same goes for Everything That Remains—years of work, boiled down to a couple hundred pages. Sure, a masterpiece can be longer and more oblique and digressive—but does it need to be? Realize that you too can build something massive and then chisel it down to its essence. Do this and people will find value in your work.
Step 13. Get the old guard out of the way. Are gatekeepers getting in your way? Can’t talk to the person you want to pitch? Can’t find an agent or a publisher willing to give you the time of day? Can’t get on CNN or MTV? So what! Do it yourself. For the first time in history, you don’t need the old guard. We live in an era where the Indians can circumvent the chiefs, taking their masterpieces straight to the tribe.
Step 14. Make it inexpensive. Money was never the goal of your masterpiece, was it? No. You wanted people to hear your album or read your book or view your art—to see, hear, feel, smell, and taste your masterpiece. So remove your boundaries and make it cheap (or give it away). Let it go. It’s no longer yours anyway—it belongs to the world.
Step 15. Breathe. Pause and bask in the glory of your masterpiece. Go ahead: take it all in. Enjoy the moment. You deserve it.
Step 16. Do it again. Return to step one. Get started on your next masterpiece. This lifetime can contain as many masterpieces as you allow. Lather, rinse, repeat.
This essay was inspired by the homework assignment I wrote with my friend, New York Times bestselling author Julien Smith.