In 2010, I moved back from UK with my wife and baby. We bought an inexpensive house. We’d both recently graduated and I was trying to make the freelance thing happen. I kid you not, this was the hardest season of my life.
On top of the huge life changes, there were issues like a dead tree I needed to tear down. I didn’t have tools and was trying to save money, but here was a handsaw in my garage. I was sweating my face off before I’d even got an inch into the tree. Then I thought, if I get some leverage I could probably just pull this thing down. I didn’t have a rope, so I grabbed an extension cord, lassoed the tree and called to my wife “Stand back – I’m about to pull this tree down.” Then… BOOM!
Now, “Boom” was not the sound of the tree falling over. “Boom” was the sound of me landing on my ass. Eventually, I went out and bought the right tool. Three chops later the tree was on the ground.
Often in creative commercial careers, we spend the most time and energy trying to secure our position in the market when we don’t actually have the right tool—the actual work—we need to break through. Today we’re going to talk about how to get the right tool—the 3 components of great work:
1. Cultivate Good Taste
The most important component for great work is having a highly developed sense of taste.
Gordon Ramsay was on Jimmy Kimmel and Kimmel asked him what makes the difference between a good chef and a great chef. And Ramsay answered: The one thing that really sets a chef apart is good taste. If he or she doesn’t have a brilliant palate, the ability to taste what’s good and what’s bad and the nuance in between, they’re not going to be able to create nuanced dishes. They’re just going to be working with the bland basics, the sugar and the salt, the lowest common denominator. If they don’t have that highly developed taste, they can’t create highly developed work.
Now, I think all kinds of different tastes work, all kinds of different preferences and styles and niches have merit. But, regardless of your idiosyncratic taste, your taste in the area you’re playing needs to be highly developed.
Often the biggest thing that gets in the way of developing taste is ego and pride. The way to fix that is to humble yourself before some sort of authority: You have to find people and resources in your life who know more than you. And you have to challenge yourself with things that don’t yet make sense. In my life, this has been a game-changer.
In 2011, I was into the contemporary design scene and my friend Andrew Neyer was constantly talking about Matisse, Picasso, Henry Moore et al. We would go to the museum and he would show me different things and I would just be like, I don’t get—it just looks old. That was an important point where my tastes were challenged, but then developed and grew and got better. In fact, the biggest influences on me in the last few years have been Henry Moore and Paul Klee—so that challenge really revolutionized the way I look at my work.
Here’s my challenge to you: Identify the things that that you just don’t “get”. Don’t run away into the comfort zone (your subconscious wants you to do, because it wants you to stay safe – it’s not interested in you becoming a better artist). Instead, lean into the stuff that makes you uncomfortable, that you don’t understand. And be okay in that place of humility, that place of “I don’t get it yet”.
Never lose that ability to stay curious, stay humble and stay teachable.
2. Hone Your Skills
There’s a book called “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” about that point in your career when the things you’ve done to make it this far stop working; when they won’t take you any further. That’s when you need to massively reinvent the way that you approach the problem.
The first half of my career was built on taste alone. But there came a time when taste wasn’t taking me any further. After all, taste is an esoteric skill; hard to pin down, hard to really value and people have a hard time paying for things when the value is very hard to point to. I had a moment where I recognized my work is all taste and no skill. So I set out to stack the “Skill” deck in your favor.
If you’re in a restaurant and you’ve got a good sense of taste but it takes you two hours to cut an onion, you need to learn those knife skills. Similarly, there came a time when I really had to think about my technique and learn new technology. The 10,000 hours weren’t there – Malcolm Gladwell talks about this. But the funny thing about Gladwell’s theory that most people leave out is that it actually has to be the right type of practice.
For me, online classes like Skillshare were dramatically helpful. A few years ago I took some classes about figuring out the pen tool in Illustrator. It was a game-changer, but it took me almost no time, it took me a few hours and dramatically changed my work.
What’s the thing you’ve been putting off because it doesn’t sound fun?
Find Your Innovation
So you’re a chef, you’ve got skills. You can make great dough from scratch. You’ve got great taste: You know the right toppings to combine on the pizza. But if you don’t have innovation, you’re still not going to compete with everybody’s favourite. After all, there’s already a great pizza place in town.
If you’re not innovating, you’re never going to get customers to switch to you. I recently read The Dip by Seth Godin. And it’s about knowing when to quit, knowing when you’re on a path that’s not going to take you where you want to go. He says, if you’re on a path and you’re only going to be second best, you need to stop.
Now, you can be the best at a very specific little tiny thing. So, if you’re going to make your own race, all by yourself, and be No.1 in the world, you’ve got to innovate. How do you do that? There are 3 ways:
1. Always Be Experimenting
If you’re an illustrator, have a sketchbook that’s ugly. Make personal work without an outcome in mind and always continue to do things that may go wrong. That’s the experiment. And sometimes through this process, you’ll stumble upon something that’s totally new.
2. Combine the Unexpected
Creative innovation can also be about making connections; taking two unrelated things and putting them together. Identify those areas of your tastes and skills, those things you love that are seemingly contradictory, and ask yourself: How can you blur the lines between those so that they become a new thing?
For example, I didn’t know of any podcast in the illustration / graphic design world that were monologues about career strategy. So, I took the industry I was familiar with and put them together with ideas about business and marketing world to create something new.
3. Everything That’s Old Can Be New Again
Often, innovation is just about sifting through old stuff and finding relevant things to breathe new life into. Old ideas and approaches can be filtered through your new taste, skills and software and brought it into the “now” by reinvigorating it with freshness.
So, in Summary: Swap the Extension Cord for an Axe
If you find yourself in a place where you’ve plateaued and you’ve tried everything – meeting people, putting your work out there, making lots of stuff, but you’re just not gaining any of that purchase or traction – you might be trying to pull down a tree with an extension cord.
So just stop what you’re doing, bite the bullet and go get the axe. Ask yourself what’s stopping you from developing your skill. Is it that your technique needs honing, or that your taste needs to be challenged. Is it that you’ve lost that spark of innovation in your work?
You never fully arrive. These are the things you’ll keep hammering for the rest of your career. But when you’re firing in taste and skill and innovation, I really don’t think anything can stop you. The sky’s the limit.
About the Author: Andy J. Miller is a commercial artist who breathes life & weirdness into simple shapes. He specializes in brand collaborations, advertising illustration, kids market illustration, editorial illustration, gig posters, album art, hand lettering, mural design, visual development for animation and book design. Listen to his podcast, Creative Pep Talk, here.
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