Creativity: Discipline Is Not a Bad Word, Part 2

OK--here's the rest of my post about self-discipline--thanks for coming back. Many people have told me that they have no self-discipline, but it can't be true. Not if you have a job that you actually go to and show up for on time. Not if you have responsibilities and chores and regular maintenance that you somehow manage to take care of, day after day, month after month. The key is to realize that the self-discipline that keeps you clothed and fed is the same self-discipline you can harness to accomplish anything else that's important to you. First, you have to decide what it is that you want to accomplish. Let's say you want to learn to make jewelry. First, you learn the skills (see previous posts). Then you get the tools and materials. And then you work at it. Melissa Manley, in my book Destination: Creativity (to be released in September) talks about learning to use a jeweler's saw. It takes practice; you don't just sit down one day and start sawing sterling silver into gorgeous, intricate shapes like these:

"Galatea's Bracelet," by Melissa Manley, photo by Robert Diamante

Rather than think to yourself, "I have to practice sawing this metal," Melissa says, you think, "I *get* to practice sawing this metal." You realize that this is something you want to do. You chose this artform, and you want to get really good at the techniques so you can create the things you imagine. You've learned the skills; now you need to practice, putting in those 10,000 hours. (Or, OK, 5,000. Or however many you need until you know you're capable of doing the things you want to do. Don't hyperventilate on me here.) You relax into it, leaning into the Zen of sawing metal. (If you ever get a chance to take a workshop with Melissa, it's worth it just to hear her talk about relaxing into the sawing--you suddenly understand that you don't have to fight the tools. It's a magical moment.)

OK, I know some of you are saying, "But, HOW? How do I start?" So let's look at how you can learn discipline if maybe it's not one of your strongest traits already. Let's say you want to make metal jewelry. You've taken some workshops, and you know how to saw metal, theoretically. You have the tools. What you want to do, though, is still light years away from what you've done so far. If you want to make a bracelet like the one above, you don't start out trying to make that bracelet. You start out making something that will let you hone the skills you need in order to make the bracelet but without tripping over the huge learning curve that's going to make you whimper in frustration. On the other hand, you don't want to spend 10,000 hours sawing scrap metal, right? So you invent a project that's just beyond your current level of skill, something that won't be too frustrating but that will require attention and will allow you to practice the skills you want to perfect. Maybe some shaped metal pendants: like dog tags, but cut into shapes, with a hole drilled into the top so each one can be worn on a ball chain. Maybe with words stamped into the metal! You set yourself the goal of making, say, three dozen of these, or 50, all different sawed shapes, progressing from something simple to more complex cuts, with interior cuts and intricate little bits. Animal shapes, maybe? You decide you'll have these ready to give as gifts, or to put in your Etsy shop, by a certain date, and you make a chart. As you create each one and are satisfied with it, you cross it off on your chart.

Some of us need rewards beyond just being productive. For me, the productivity and seeing the finished work is reward enough, but you might want to give yourself a little something. In this case, I'd suggest this: if you create these pendants from brass or bronze and are satisfied with your progress, reward yourself with a sheet of silver to work with. Not only are you giving yourself something shiny--always nice!--but you're setting yourself a further challenge: working with precious metal, moving closer to your goals.

There is no way to overstate the importance of learning this kind of discipline. Once you've discovered that you can do it, that it's in you to follow through, to stick with it, you realize it will transfer to everything else. You'll use that discipline to balance the books if you decide to pursue this as an actual career. You'll use it when you keep taking less-than-perfect photos of your work and have to re-shoot, over and over. You'll need it when you receive the inevitable rejections when you submit to shows and galleries. You realize, in short, that you can do what you want to do. With slow, steady work and the deep-to-the-core knowledge that you have what it takes to get there--the will, the drive, the belief in your own potential--so many more things will be possible, you'll be amazed. We're not born with self-discipline. We have to learn it. If we're lucky, skillful parents teach us, gently and steadily, as we're growing up. But we can also teach ourselves, whether we're 16 or 25 or 79 or 102. Next time, we'll talk about the fun stuff:  inspiration and where to find it.
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