Creativity and Work Ethic in the Arts and Entrepreneurship

Today at Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings site, Maria has posted about the book Inside the Painter’s Studio, which looks at the creative sources, inspirations, and working environments and regimens of several artists.

She highlights, and I particularly like, the working philosophy of artist Chuck Close.

“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”

Isn’t that a great quote?  While you take a moment to think about how it widely applies to a lot more than just the arts, I’m going to zero in just one other area – entrepreneurship.

Work Ethic Wins in Startups

It rings particularly true today in the world of startups and entrepreneurship.  Showing up and getting to work (versus waiting around for that killer app idea to materialize or that 100-page business plan to be funded) is exactly the difference between entrepreneurs who succeed and those who either fail or never take off.

When I say “work ethic wins” in the startup community, I am not simply referring to hard work (although startup entrepreneurs certainly work hard).  What I am referring to is the startup community’s bias toward stepping in and getting started … i.e. building something.  A business plan without a product or at least a prototype is discounted as a useless old school exercise.

Today’s startups are strongly influenced by the customer development / business model development / lean startup techniques of people like Steve Blank, Alexander Osterwalder, Eric Ries, and many others – all of which depend upon building something and then using that to test product / market fit and business model validity.  The bias toward building something gets kicked up a notch in startup incubators like Y-Combinator and TechStars, where from day one the clock is ticking toward a Demo Day deadline.

Work Ethic Enhances Creativity

Chuck Close continued by saying …

“And the belief that things will grow out of the activity itself and that you will — through work — bump into other possibilities and kick open other doors that you would never have dreamt of if you were just sitting around looking for a great ‘art idea.’”

An initial hunch or bit of creativity may get you started, but it is not sufficient for a robust, deeply valuable product (or work of art).  First of all, you (the entrepreneur) simply do not know everything there is to know about the market.  You have to listen to others who use products in different ways than you, have different needs or wants than you, have different experience levels than you, and so forth.  When you hear a entrepreneur who does know it all, be very afraid. The more people in the market with whom you engage, the more you learn – and the more opportunity you’ll find to understand needs both widely and deeply or crash multiple good ideas together.

When I worked with Ron Sears doing innovation consulting, we would spend anywhere from weeks to months of up front research engaging and listening to a cross section of stakeholders to a product or business before starting ideation or design work.  My experience taught me that intense customer / stakeholder engagement always produces the sorts of insights that drive huge value into the product.

Sometimes Less is More

Building will not only uncover possibilities and open doors, but will also help you shut doors.  The best way to see if an idea will fail is to try it.  This is as true for art as it is for entrepreneurship.

For an entrepreneur, continuing to beat the dead horse of a idea that has no market validation is a cardinal sin.  Customer development / lean startup techniques emphasize quickly moving away from concepts that have no validation, and finding what to throw away can be just as creative as finding what to keep.

Overall, Building Wins

Overall, for both artist and entrepreneur, what wins is action.  Building something.  Without building something you cannot either engage the market or see (hear, touch, taste, smell) the art.  You cannot learn how to bridge from one iteration to the next even-better possibility.  You cannot learn what the market doesn’t like – or what artistic elements just don’t work.

So, the lesson of the day comes from Chuck Close, via Maria Popova – just show up and get to work!