If there’s one thing creative people fear more than anything else — more than failure, more than “networking events,” more than death — it’s math.
For some, just seeing the word is enough to trigger a cold sweat and induce nausea. And to those who I made ill with the subtitle of this article, I offer my most sincere apologies.
I only mention the subject, because I’ve been thinking a lot about that old stereotype, that creative people are bad at math. Because I don’t think it’s true. I was a pretty good math student. I know a lot of other writers, artists, musicians, and photographers who were too.
The farther away I get from Calc 2 class, and the deeper I get into my creative career, the more I realize the math I learned, the math I was good at, isn’t useful. And not just because I have a genius robot in my pocket 24–7.
It’s not useful because I’ve had to master a new kind of math — one that’s diametrically opposed to what they taught me in school.
To be a successful artist, you have to forget the old arithmetic and master creative math.
Lesson 1: 1 > 100
Last week, as I was planning the launch of my Better Blog Course, I internally freaked out because I had not done what every “launch” article on the Internet recommend — create a spreadsheet of influential creators who could potentially promote my work.
So rather than do anything productive, I hopped on Slack to complain to my friend Jason. I told him I was overwhelmed — how was I going to find and reach out to 100 people?
His response: Why 100? Why not 1?
So simple and profound.
I always advise overwhelmed creatives to break projects down into their smallest parts — a big to-do list item will never get done. But a big one broken down into small pieces can be easily completed one tiny task at a time.
Why did I need to reach out to 100 people? It was just some crazy big number I made up. All I needed to do that day was reach out to one person, and the next day, one more.
When it comes to tackling any big project, 1 is greater than 100.
Lesson 2: 1 + 1 = 3
Do you subscribe to the “lone genius” theory of creation — the belief that an artist must hole up in her studio for years before emerging with a finished masterpiece? It’s a popular one many creative people fall pray to.
In the real world, though, creative people exist within a greater community (what Brian Eno calls a “scenius”) based on a free and open exchange of ideas. Artists need other artists as collaborators and critics to push their projects forward.
Doing a project alone leads to an expected result — 1 = 1. But involving others in the process — whether in ideation, production, feedback, or launch — leads to a situation where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Lesson 3: √4 ≠ 2
If you’ve never watched Ira Glass’ short pep talk on “The Gap” (no, not the clothing store), then now would be a good time.
via Daniel Sax
In it, Glass says:
“Nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish somebody had told this to me — is that all of us who do creative work … we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste — the thing that got you into the game — your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you…”
We all start projects with grand visions of the end result. This delusion is an essential part of the process because it motivates us to dive in and start. But the deeper you get into the process, the more you’ll find that reality does not match expectation. That root of your idea is there, just not in the form you imagined it would be.
That doesn’t mean your work is bad; it’s just different. And it’s how you grow.
Lesson 4: 1 > (5–3) x 2–3
In “real math” (5–3) x 2–3 is equivalent to 1. But in the creative world, these two expressions mean two very different things.
When you’re working on a creative project, more isn’t always more. It’s tempting to load up your app or book or blog post with every little idea or feature you can think up, but all these bells and whistles distract from the simple idea you started with.
In the same way that sitting down to watch Netflix can turn into a 45min scrolling game before finally settling on a movie, adding another feature, sidebar widget, or 1000 words isn’t always the answer.
More ≠ Good.
Just look at both sides of the equation. Which would you prefer?
Lesson 5: 1² = 0
“Hustle” is the new “synergy” — the big, flashy buzzword that’s become so cliché it’s lost all meaning.
Creatives and entrepreneurs are supposed to subscribe to the “hustle lifestyle.” You’re supposed to believe that if you’re not working 20 hours a day — waking up early and going to bed late to get your business off the ground — then you’re a failure.
But you’re only one person. Of course you have to work hard to get what you want, but you need to do it in a way that’s sane and healthy. You need time to rest and recharge your batteries.
If you try to work as hard as two people, you’re going to burn out. You’re going to end up producing 0.
It’s no wonder they say creative people are bad at math. Because creative math is nothing like regular math. If anything, it’s the opposite. But if you can just stomach these five simple equations, you may not ace your next SAT, but you’ll be a much stronger, healthier and more successful creator.