The Great Discontent recently relaunched its website. It’s a magazine and blog that interviews creative professionals who are making the work that is (usually very quietly) setting the American standard for design, writing, and culture. Reading these interviews after a few solid days of BuzzFeed and Gizmodo articles is like someone dropped a bucket of cold water on your head and the part of your brain that takes in written information screams at you yes this is why you do what you do, these people understand what makes creativity work, why don’t you read this kind of inspiring writing all the time you lazy asshole.
Although each of the interviews on the site read as complete and distinctive conversations about creative growth and personal success, a few common questions are repeated: Did you have any mentors along the way? What kind of legacy do you hope to leave? and the titular question, Are you satisfied creatively? Because the interviewees are often authors and illustrators, many of them aren’t used to answering personal questions, and the results are charmingly straightforward; as you read down the answers, you can often point exactly to the interviewee’s exact thought process as they were formulating their responses. The format is poignant, self-aware, refreshing, and honest.
I haven’t had much to do at work over the course of the last few days, so I’ve been reading quite a few of TGD’s back catalogue. The interviews are equal parts optimistically motivational and emotionally destructive to read as a young creative who is sitting at a desk with nothing to do. Many of the interviewees stress working as hard as you can while you’re young, producing work that personally satisfies you even if you have to work a long day job that doesn’t give you much creative contentment.
During my commute and before bed, I’ve been chipping away at Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, a book about that magic moment when your goals, interests, and opportunities magically align and you find yourself in a state of being where time is irrelevant and every piece of the creative process feels like it’s perfectly laid out in front of you. Flow emphasizes that (1) creating scenarios in which we, as humans, are happy and satisfied is hard work, (2) everyone describes the feeling of happiness while accomplishing an engaging task—an “optimal experience”—in almost the exact same words, and (3) because the world is not built to make you happy, you have to shift your worldview to make happiness more easily attainable.
While working my way through interviews with Dana Tanamachi, Oliver Jeffers, Frank Chimero, and Roxane Gay on The Great Discontent, I kept stumbling across parallels with Csikszentmihalyi’s book. These people affirm that yes, finding work that personally satisfies you is incredibly lucky and worthwhile, but that you have to be focused on those goals and know what to sacrifice at the right time. Ellen Lupton (one of my design heroes) hit me over the head with a giant fucking bag of hammers when she said in her interview,
“You have to be prepared to give creative work 150%. I hear a lot of young people talking about life/work balance, which I think is great when you’re in your 30s. If you’re in your 20s and already talking about that, I don’t think you will achieve your goals.”
When I’ve been the most creatively successful, when I’ve produced some of my best work, I was staying up until 3 AM to work on projects that I thought were meaningful or funny or personal or rewarding. Jumping into that extra gear that gives you 150% is hard, but it’s worth it—Ellen told me so, and it resonated with my personal experience.
Because Csikszentmihalyi surveyed thousands of real people about their optimal experiences and happiness in order to write his book, both Flow and The Great Discontent are aggregate summaries of how successful people put themselves in the right situations at the right time in order to create work that was more meaningful than they previously thought possible. Reading both while sitting at a mostly-empty desk at one of the biggest ad agencies in America is the closest I’ve come to an angel floating down from on high to whisper in my ear, “hey dude, get on your horse and do what you love.” I promise not to fuck this one up, Saint Lupton.