The Best Advice I Know for Creative Success: Put in the Work


Lately, I’ve been bombarded with ads on YouTube featuring people who want to sell me the secret to wealth and success.

A great example is Tai Lopez, who puts on a facade of a modest, yet uber-successful entrepreneur who possesses the secret to becoming wealthy. (His latest sales tactic: humblebragging about his supposed million-dollar home as he gives you a tour.)

Tai Lopez in front of a mansion

His successful marketing tactics have inspired both satire and copy-cat marketers (like the guy below):


Who are these marketers targeting? People who want to be more successful, live a better lifestyle, go viral online, and/or build a business around their passions. People who want to be in the middle of this diagram:


Image credit: Eskimon

Finding this intersection between a lucrative career and doing what you love is difficult and unpredictable, so these marketers do their best to convince you that a) success is completely formulaic and reproducible, and b) they are the ones who know the formula better than anyone else. In other words, these people are getting rich by selling you the secret to getting rich.

Thankfully, the internet is also packed with artists, entrepreneurs, and creative professionals who publish their work without trying to sell you a magic formula. They focus on perfecting their craft and adding value to the world through their hard work. If you pay attention to the advice they give out, you hear a different story about success.

One such artist is Darius Kazemi. Having published over one hundred creative projects on the web since 2013, Kazemi has seen many of his most ambitious projects stay in obscurity and many of his silly projects go viral quickly. From this experience, Kazemi believes that internet success is a lot like winning the lottery.

“I believe that beyond a certain level of work you put into your project, success is entirely out of your hands,” he says on stage during his 2014 talk at XOXO Festival in Portland, Oregon. “Conceiving of a creative project and building it, that’s buying a lottery ticket.”

In other words, hard work, perseverance, and the right kind of promotion all improve your chances (i.e. earn you more lottery tickets), but there’s no guaranteed formula for success.


Some people may find this advice fatalist and demotivating, but I disagree. Ignoring fame and financial success in favor of execution and skill in the short run may actually improve your chance of success in the long run.

For example, Rick Rubin, the former co-president of Columbia Records, has said that when an artist is first starting out, “any commercial considerations usually get in the way.” In other words, a premature focus on money and fame can distract and misguide.

Kazemi concludes his talk by advising us to ignore those who claim to have the secret to winning the lottery, i.e. the magic formula to go viral or make more money online:

“There are two kinds of creative advice that I think you can get from creative people. The first is how to buy more lottery tickets and the second is how to win the lottery. I think the former can be extremely useful and I think the latter is nonsense.”

Since snake oil salesmen aren’t going anywhere any time soon, it’s up to us to choose who we pay attention to. My personal rule of thumb: the more confident someone is that they have an ironclad formula for success, the less likely they’re worth paying attention to.

“If there was a secret formula for becoming known, I would give it to you,” writes Austin Kleon, artist and author of Steal Like an Artist, “But there’s only one not-so-secret formula that I know: Do good work and share it with people.”


Recommended reading:

How to Maintain Your Gratitude Journaling Habit Once and for All

Practicing gratitude can make us healthier, happier, and more enjoyable to be around. But I’ve found both gratitude letters and journaling to be a pain.

Gratitude letters are hard to make time for – writing a genuine letter to someone is not a quick, five-minute task. The gratitude apps I saw on the app store were clunky or ridden with ads.

Solutions like The Five Minute Journal worked well for me, but I hated carrying it around with me everywhere. On days when I was traveling, if I didn’t bring my journal in my bag, my journaling habit fell apart. The lack of consistency drove me mad.

That’s why I was so glad to see that the creators of The Five Minute Journal finally created a mobile app. At first, I was a bit turned by the price tag, but given that the hardcover version was ~$20 for a few hundred pages, paying $5 for an app that allowed for unlimited entries and PDF exports seemed totally worth it.

In short, the app is phenomenal. Not only is it significantly easier to do my journaling through my phone on the morning commute, but by allowing photos to be associated with each entry, it encourages me to be more mindful of capturing something great about each day. Continue Reading…

How to Use Gamification to Break Our Addiction to Our Phones

At a party I went to last month — comprised of 20- and 30-somethings — roughly 10% of the attendees could be found huddled over their phones at any given moment, completely withdrawn from the social scene.

I hate to admit it, but at this particular party I was one of those people. Like many, I sometimes struggle to stay present in social situations when my phone beckons with a stream of notifications.

Addiction to technology is nothing new, and rituals such as placing phones face down in the center of the dinner table have emerged to help combat the temptation to use technology at inappropriate times. But it’s not enough — the problem seems to be growing.

Nir Eyal, an expert on what makes technology so addictive, implores us to adjust our social norms to prevent this kind of withdrawn behavior. For example, on the topic of friends who use their phones when they should be present with the group, Nir advises, “The goal is to snap the offender out of the phone zone, and to give him two options: either excuse himself to attend to whatever crisis is happening, or put away the tech.”

In an ideal world, we’d live in a society that has developed such norms and traditions that discourage excessive phone use at inappropriate times. Perhaps some day we’ll get there — but why wait?

Perhaps there’s something we could do today to incentivize ourselves to be more present with our friends, loved ones, and the limited amount of time we have left on this planet?

Enter Forest.

Forest is a handy little app that works like the pomodoro technique, but with a small, gamified twist. As you accomplish 25 minute bursts of work (or any duration you wish), you earn trees that you can plant in a digital forest. If you open a notification or close the Forest app for any reason while the timer is running, your tree dies and you have to start over.

This little bit of gamification goes a long way. By far, Forest has been the most effective app I’ve used to date (and I’ve tried dozens) to keep my phone habits at bay.forestapp

I mostly use Forest for maintaining deep focus when I’m writing, coding, or learning. But Forest has a useful secondary purpose: social situations.

Because Forest works by preventing you from checking notifications or opening apps on your phone for a length of time, it works amazingly well for social gatherings.

I recently attended a meetup where this came in handy. I was one of the first to arrive; I didn’t know the early attendees very well. When this happens, I often fall into the trap of playing around on my phone until people I know arrive to help break the ice. But this time around, before entering the event, I set a Forest timer for 45 minutes. Even though it’s technically just a silly game where the goal is to grow trees in your forest, it was the intention I set by using Forest that made all the difference.

By explicitly setting my intention before entering the event, Forest acted as a reminder to stay mindful of my urges to escape into my phone. With that reminder in place, I had nothing left to do but take a deep breath and start introducing myself to the people in the room. Because of this, the night was significantly more enjoyable.

In both our work and social lives, our phones are sapping us of our presentness. While focus apps aren’t a silver bullet, I’ve found that some apps (like Forest) give enough of a nudge to make a noticeable difference. And in the fight to reclaim our lives as they’re happening, every ally counts.

Jon’s Note: What do you think? How can we use small incentives and useful apps to keep us in the present moment amongst friends and loved ones? *Please share this post if you found it interesting.*

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When a Gratitude Journal Fails: How to Stay Happy in the Face of Suffering


The following is a cross-over post from my other blog, On that blog, I write about topics I consider very personal, but in the case of today’s post, it was applicable to Living for Improvement as well. The topic? The interplay of attachment and gratitude, and how one doesn’t work without the other. If you’ve ever tried gratitude journals before, you’ll appreciate this post. Enjoy!


In your first few minutes of reading about positive psychology, you’ll likely come across the recommendation to start a gratitude journal.

There’s strong research demonstrating the power of gratitude. Anyone serious about improving his or her happiness should be looking into ways to express more gratitude throughout the day.

However, like anything that deals with emotions, gratitude can be tricky. When I started out, I would write three things I was grateful for each morning. I’d express gratitude for my youth, my relatively good health, the health of my friends and family, the ability to afford things that make me happy, and more.

After a few weeks, it dawned on me: I had an easier time seeing the positive in my day. For me that’s huge, and all it took was a few minutes each morning. Talk about a win!

However, things took a turn for the worse… Continue Reading…