The Creative Excellence Pyramid

Are you dabbling in too many pursuits or are you focusing on your primary strengths?

For creative, multi-talented people who are driven to strive for excellence, it can be very hard to maintain focus. We want to do this…no wait, we want to do that…no wait, we want to that that too! And we want to be good at ALL OF THEM. It’s not acceptable to be merely adequate. And allowing for any semblance of mediocrity is an insult to all notions of common decency.

The problem is simple: there is not enough time, energy, money, and resources available for us to be excellent at many things. It’s hard enough to be excellent at one thing. Some people spend a lifetime achieving true excellence in one field. Why do we think we can achieve that in a few short years with multiple callings? It’s not as straightforward as you might think to be the next da Vinci, try as you might.

What “they” say is true. You’ve got to prioritize.

We overly-ambitious creatives need to learn how to orient ourselves around an actionable system of priorities. Think of it as an “excellence pyramid”. At the top of the pyramid are one, possibly two things that we truly prioritize in our lives and strive to be not just good at, but great at. We might even rise to global prominence with enough effort. These are the things that consume us, that haunt us in the night watches. The vision we have of our future creative potential in these areas is so visceral that it’s hard to believe our dreams haven’t yet become reality.

Below that narrow, top-tier is the larger, middle part of the pyramid which represents our hobbies and side-projects. They help provide a change of pace from our first love(s) and provide an occasional escape into “fun”. We might spend a fair amount of time on these pursuits, possibly even getting quite good at them. They might not ever rise to become a #1 creative priority, and we might not quite be geniuses in these areas, but we nevertheless might achieve a decent amount of success with them.

At the base of the pyramid, which is the largest part, are our many, many “I wish I were good at it” pursuits that will always be just out of reach. We might dabble in one or another of them over the years, but they’ll always be more of an occasional “kicks ‘n’ grins” sort of deal where, if anything, we can laugh at our sheer ineptitude. As I tend to gravitate towards the realm of geekdom, you could easily put most sports in this category. Ahem…

Choose your life. Then stick to it.

The challenge isn’t just to identify which of those few things we can focus on for true excellence, which of those several things we can be reasonably good at, and which of those many things we can dabble in as time and energy permits. The challenge is also to be content with those priorities. I know I often find myself upset that I’m not better at something that I love to do. It can be a major source of frustration until I realize this isn’t a primary focus for my life. What I keep having to tell myself is: it’s OK I’m not that good at it. Maybe way down the road it’ll become more important for me, but for now, I can keep it on the back-burner. Rome wasn’t built in a day, as they say.

It’s taken me quite a number of years to realize that the #1 thing at the top of my creative pyramid is writing. I’ve spun my wheels in so many different pursuits at the expense of my focusing on writing and honing my communication skills. It’s easy to get side-tracked into working on application development, playing around with photography, shooting or editing video, open-source programming, inventing physical objects, landscaping the backyard, composing electronica, designing a bistro (I kid you not…I bought a book on modern café design recently)…and so on and so forth. I’m not equally good at all of that. I’m not even that great at most of it. But I am good at writing. And yes, I am good at music. I am good at web development as well. I need to maintain focus in those key areas. The rest will attend to itself organically.

How about you? What are you absolutely the best at and need to specialize in? What are some things you can perhaps spend less time focusing on, choosing to engage with them now and then just when you need to chill? I’ve love to hear more about it.

Jared White