I very often have people tell me that they could never be freelance like me, and that I clearly have a great deal of discipline to be able to sit at home and actually get work done (as opposed to, say, hunkering down in front of the TV with a container of ice cream leafing through glossy glam magazines). And it is true that for whatever reason, I don’t find it difficult to focus on my work. That is not to say that I don’t get creatively stuck, I do. But I simply move on to another project while my subconscious comes up with a plan, and then I return to it. I don’t waste a lot of time when working on things that have to be done. Sometimes I will take time out from direct work to learn about some new technique or design strategy, but even these are really in the service of my work and becoming better at it, and they usually relate to a current project. I remember many years ago (long about 1999), when I had my first experience with freelancing. I was an almost total failure at it, and this was largely due to my inability to stay focused on the task at hand. Back then, I never missed an opportunity to leave my workstation, and I had a great deal of trouble getting motivated to do my work, even though I had just as much economic incentive (the need to eat and pay rent) to do so as I do today.
I have often thought about why things are so much different today. What has changed in the intervening years that allows me to be so much more motivated and productive? I have a number of theories:
1. Age – The mere fact of getting older has changed the way I view a lot of things in the world, and in some unexpected ways has made me more focused and disciplined. Being more at ease with the general flow of life has helped to not always jump at every distraction.
2. Deeper knowledge – Interestingly, the more I learn about the areas of my work, and the better I get at making things, the easier it is to stay focused on them. I think this is easily as important (if not more) than number one above (age). The more I am able to express my creativity with the tools at my disposal, the less likely I am to become blocked and give up in frustration. The combination of better tools to do my job (constantly improving technology) and the greater experience I have with those tools keeps me much more engaged. It is the case that the distance between what I can conceive in my mind and what I can realize in my work or personal projects is shrinking with each passing day. This is highly motivating.
I am incredibly lucky I was not born 40 years earlier. I would have been trapped in a world very much at odds with my personality type. I could never have been someone who worked at the same job for 40 years at the same place. The skills that I use and the things that I excel at would have been mostly useless back then. Or at least they would have gone unrecognized, and I would not have had the same opportunities to chart my own course. Not only because of technologies (like the internet) but because of the more rigid social structures I would have found myself in. The globe-trotting, career-changing, self-taught person I am would not have been able to exist unless I had been given some very large trust fund.
Ultimately, I think the key to unlocking everyone’s potential lies in shortening the distance between what they can conceive of and what they can realize. There are many ways to do this, but they involve a huge array of changes in cultural norms, societal structures, and tools and technologies. Many of these are underway, and many seem hopelessly stuck and unmovable. But it is so worthwhile to push ourselves and our world in this direction, because in unlocking people’s creative potential, we open doors to their happiness.