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Freedom and Urgency

Posted 09/07/2016 by Stacey Cornelius

As many of us shift gears post-Labour Day (and some of us scrape the dust off our writing practice), I’m reminded of something that happened at the start of a summer, which also meant the start of a busy tourist season.

It was a dirty rotten marketing trick, I suppose, and one of the oldest in the book: say something extreme to get the attention of your audience. It was a workshop for a small group of makers, most of them just starting out. It was a piece of advice that came from experience.

Run your business like your life depends on it.

One participant’s jaw dropped; her gasp almost audible from the other end of the table. There might have been dismay in her eyes, but it dissolved when I explained that kind of do-or-die urgency means you don’t make lazy decisions. I know that because I’ve been there.

“Been there” doesn’t mean the electricity was about to be shut off, but there was a pressing financial need, and a complicated set of circumstances led to one inevitable decision: I had to start a business.

There was pressure. Things had to happen, and happen fast. To make it even more interesting, I had to learn a whole new set of  skills as I went. Not so much the business side of it, that was pretty solid, with some adjustments required. But I had to learn a new medium.

The early work was what you might expect. I hated it, but didn’t stop. Stopping wasn’t an option. There was no room to be paralyzed by fear, or the embarrassment of those first pieces. There were mistakes, too, but there wasn’t much time to fret. Everything had to be turned into a learning experience, fueling forward momentum.

Looking back, I wonder what would have happened if that sense of urgency hadn’t been there. The whole endeavour might have been abandoned.

The contrast between the compelling need to make something happen and the freedom to not-do is telling. When you have a professional creative practice and a second income in your household, it’s easy to let things slide. To try less hard. When there’s no fire under you and things aren’t going so well, it’s easy to retreat to spare yourself discomfort. Life is complicated enough; we don’t need to add to the pile of stuff we have to contend with.

But what happens when we shrug and turn away? What happens to skills, to imagination and ingenuity?

When things are going well and you have as much paid work as you need, it’s easy to coast, to work a little less hard, especially when your chosen medium requires you to come up with something entirely new every time you pick up the tools of your trade (production work may be tedious, but there’s something to be said for the unworried reliability of muscle memory).

That’s not to wail about the hard, hard life of creativity. Work is not a proverbial four-letter word. Improving skills and growing a professional practice is satisfying, even with the certainty of frustrations and setbacks along the way. It’s just that freedom comes with unexpected hazards. A sense of ease can make your focus a little fuzzy. And how many of us have had to race a deadline because we gave ourselves permission to procrastinate?

It’s not just creativity that needs practice. Discipline needs a regular workout, too.

Speaking with a view from both sides of the freedom-urgency divide, urgency is better, even if it’s a small dose. It keeps you from becoming complacent. It keeps your skills sharp, without keeping you awake at night.

It doesn’t matter where you are in your work, if you’re just starting, shifting gears, or a master of your craft. It’s worth asking yourself the question: what would I do next with my art, my business, my practice, if my life depended on it?


Image credit: Unsplash