Do your own thing, not just the client-paid-for-it thing. That thing isn’t yours, no matter how many hours you wrote it, shot it, retouched the hell out of it. The client paid for it, but it’s not theirs either, it belongs to a brand they’re paid to watch over, and someone called a consumer will buy something with that brand on it because you created something pleasant about it, which is pretty much the whole of it. If your planets align and an award jury blinks, you can even go up on a stage for it, and receive a heavy statue that stays in the lobby of the ad agency that was paying you a salary when you won it, but you can’t take the statue with you because a duplicate costs hundreds of dollars and the extra you order goes to the client’s lobby, not your living room.
There is absolutely nothing unjust about that. Everyone should get their money’s worth. When clients pay for your manhours, they deserve your best work out of those hours.
Then, because you are more than the sum of your manhours, you do your own thing.
Do your own thing, because no one else born at any other time in the world can do what you can do. The world didn’t happen to anyone else the way it happened to you. Oh sure, you and you and you went to the same school, read the same books, listened to the same music. But did the music enter your ears in the exact same way? Did a song about a lonely road one hot summer come on the radio one Saturday afternoon while you were shaking your foot awake, beads of your sweat dappling the pillow, as you watched black ants move slowly across the floor? Did you sleep with a one-eyed teddy bear that smelled of laundry soap and sour milk? When you were twenty years old, did you realize the teddy bear was actually a dog? And if you didn’t write those last three sentences, create them out of the only-ness that is your life, who would have?
You’re a creative professional. You use your creativity to solve other people’s problems. You squeeze your heart dry to give other people something good. There are those who smile and say thank you, let’s make this better together. And there are those who take that goodness and doodle all over it. Change this, change that, this isn’t what I wanted. You’re a chef. You create a salad for a customer. The customer sends back the salad and says, chop the lettuce diagonally, not horizontally. Reduce the dressing by half. Make the tomatoes green, not red. And the plate is too flat. Make it a bowl. When you send out the revised salad, the customer changes her mind and asks for soup.
Day after day after day of that, and one day, you will explode. So do your own thing, and do it soon. It will give you your heart back. Sometimes the heart is so shiny and red and full you don’t even recognize it’s yours. Creativity is the only thing that makes more of itself the more you use it.
Sometimes, what other people make is so powerful, it’s almost as good as doing your own thing. What a breathless book. What a fearless poem. What a complex song. It gives you so much, you think it’s enough. Others do, and have been happy. However, you might, one day, feel what was enough, isn’t. Reading makes you want to write. Listening to music makes you want to paint, or dance, or cook. Someone else’s doing makes you want to do something. Creativity calls to itself.
Doing your own thing is quite possibly the hardest thing ever. If it were easy, everyone in the world would be doing his own thing. Most of the time, you’re doing other people’s things. Their things might not matter all that much to you, but they’re not that bad, and besides, those people have more money than you do, and you need their money to (one fine day) do your own thing. You think that’s fair, and it is, for a while. For years. That kind of work, though, it just takes more from you than it gives back. Why? Because you do it mostly for money, and mostly to give money to those whom you love, so you get back love, but you don’t get back creativity. Only creating for its own sake creates more creativity.
If you don’t get that, you have nothing to worry about.
If you do, here comes the hard part.
Doing your own thing does not equal thinking your own thing. The longer it stays in your head, unresolved, unrealized, the more it eats away at you. Anything that eats you has got to hurt. If you get used to the hurt, you become numb. When you’re numb, you can’t create. The best way to kill creativity is to ignore it until it goes away.
Keep on doing other people’s things, but don’t forget to do your own. What will you get out of it? Sometimes, trouble. Other times, a laugh from a friend. Some days, money. Other days, nothing much. Will you care? Surprise. You won’t. It’s not about the getting. It’s about the doing. So go on. You can’t not do it. You’re the only one who can.