Goal-Setting For Creative People

If you are a “Creative Career” person, you probably have goals of some sort. (Or at least things you consider to be goals.) If you don’t, it can be hard to get motivated. You might feel like you are floundering. Why am I doing this? Am I doing enough? What should I be doing right now instead?

Over the past 30 years I’ve released a lot of projects into the world. Some got attention, some didn’t. Some of them had specific goals, and some of them I simply did for the heck of it. As the years go on, I like to consider the goals for each project. Here’s how I think about it. 

I’m going to use “Publishing A Book” as my example here, but it applies to any other type of creative endeavor (like filmmaking, music, art, etc). 

First let’s differentiate between Intrinsic and Extrinsic goals. 

Intrinsic Vs. Extrinsic

Intrinsic goals are about doing things for yourself. “I want to write a book because I’d enjoy the process and it would feel good to have completed it.” It’s totally fine if these are the only goals you want to have.

Extrinsic goals have more to do with the secondary results. “I want my book to make me rich and / or famous, get me dates with models,” etc. (Some argue against having extrinsic goals at all, but I am not one of them.)

There’s nothing wrong with either type of goal, of course. At different times, in different situations, for different projects, we might find ourselves motivated by a mixture of these. 

My Advice

Here’s my advice for setting goals:

1: Be reasonable and specific. Quantify it. For instance, “I want a lot of people to read my book” is too vague, and will probably lead to open-ended anxiety. (Trust me, I spent years in that state. I would do a thing and then feel like something is supposed to happen now, right? Come on, I did a thing! Why isn’t something happening?) So get it clear, write it down. Try to come up with a number, whatever that number ends up being. According to Wikipedia, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos has sold over 5 million copies. The average book (through a traditional publisher) seems to sell between 1,000 and 10,000 copies, depending on who you ask. (That also means that most books are going to sell far less, considering the behemoth bestsellers at the top that sell millions.) Look at comparable books and consider how well they sold. Is there a realistic market for your book? If your subject is obscure, can you expect to sell a lot of books? Maybe yes, maybe no. But this is not something you can actually control. They’re more like expectations or preferences. Instead of focusing on those vague desires, I recommend that you…

2: Set goals you can CONTROL. For instance, you can’t control how many copies of your book will sell. But you CAN do these things: make a book trailer, host virtual events, hold online contests, send your book to press, ask bloggers for reviews, write your own blogs on the topic, make YouTube videos about the book — anything that helps reach your intended audience. These are standard “book publishing activities” you will be expected to do. You can even try something that no one else has done before. And by the way, be specific about those things, too! “I’m going to contact 25 of the top bloggers who write about this subject and send them my book by the end of the week.” Make a spreadsheet. Work through it.

Most importantly, if you’re going the Extrinsic route… think long and hard before you even write a book. Is this a book a lot of people are craving? Is there a pre-existing audience? Are you really helping anyone out there? If not, you’re going to have an uphill battle. (Hat tip to Cal Newport and Seth Godin.) 

Three Primary Things

Extra credit: here are 3 primary things you can control every day. These all happen to be, surprise… Intrinsic Goals! 

1: Your Attention. Don’t waste time and get distracted from your big goals. Avoid video games, social media, news, complaining, and anything else that sucks away hours of your day. Don’t be surprised that you aren’t where you want to be, when you spend 4 or more hours a day on these addictive, waste-of-time activities. That’s equivalent to a part-time job, and you can do the math to realize how much you’re paying to waste time. 

2: Your Effort. Put in the time and energy. Plan your day. Invest in things that pay off: education, practice, research — and plain-old TIME SPENT WORKING. What? WORK? Yes. You should work at least as hard on your creative projects as you would if you had a boss nagging you. 

3: Your Mood. Steve Vai once said, “What you perceive in the outside world is a reflection of how you feel. No exceptions.” I agree that being in a good mood has a massive impact on our creative output (and our life in general). Here are some things that can help your mood: exercising, eating healthy food, hanging out with your family, playing with your pets, going outside, cleaning / organizing, saying affirmations, getting good sleep. If you are not doing those things, delete the other unimportant things on your schedule until you are. 

Steve Vai asks an Important Question…
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One thought on “Goal-Setting For Creative People

  1. I feel like this is generally a “reset” message that a lot of people could relate to/need after so many months of everything not being “normal.” The overall message is extremely valuable. I am guilty of much of what I’m reading about here, and potential is not something that should be wasted.
    Great stuff.
    Thank you for this.

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