Srinivas Rao teaches us how to be more creative by helping us be more present, focused, and dedicated to the process. His new book is, ultimately, about how to listen, and getting to work.
An Audience of One: Reclaiming Creativity for Its Own Sake by Srinivas Rao, Portfolio, 224 pages, Hardcover, August 2018, ISBN 9781101981733
Beyond that the fact that the book begins by describing the creative attributes of David Bowie, whom I could read about forever, I didn’t immediately melt into Srinivas Rao’s new book, An Audience of One, as I do most books that I review. That said, there was a slow but steady drip of information that kept my attention engaged, and I’m glad I kept going because there is real insight and creative instruction to be gleaned from its pages, and Rao brings many voices—in addition to his own—to the topic of creativity.
What Rao is hoping to provide is the ability to live a “creative life unhindered by the modern pressure to monetize your art.” And to get there, you must focus on process over product. The struggle to monetize creative output is one artists (who make their living as artists) have always encountered, but it is compounded in today’s economic climate in which creativity is at a premium, and which puts more and more of us into a gig economy that pays by the piece or project—that, in essence, is making working artists of us all. But, as any accomplished creator knows, the quickest way to undermine your art is to make it for someone else. Thus Rao’s most basic instruction:
Work for an audience of one, yourself. When the only person you’re trying to please is yourself, judgments vanish, and in that process we become more present. With presence we achieve flow, reinforcing the cycle of pleasure we derive from our creativity.
With our judgments silenced, we’re able to hear the sound of our own creative voices more clearly—and in the present.
It is, of course, not that easy, which is why the book is 224 pages instead of three sentences.
Simply finding the solitude we need, the silence to hear our own inner voice, is more challenging than ever. There’s an addictive device in every pocket and self-sabotage around every digital corner. The very tools that give us access to an audience are our biggest distraction. And yet most creative professionals find participation on those digital platforms necessary to their business. And, so…
We go through our cycle of checking email, Facebook, and Twitter. Wash, rinse, repeat. Over a long enough time line, harmless check-ins flush creative careers down the toilet.
Rao describes a number of ways to cultivate the solitude we need to break free from that cycle, from meditating to writing longhand in a notebook, but the key is that “[t]he work itself defeats resistance.” To make that work, Rao believes we must learn how to listen—learn how to listen to creativity, how to listen to our own self, how to listen to our environment, and how to listen to others constructively. The book is divided into four main parts, one dedicated to methods for listening to each of those inputs—and, more importantly, how to incorporate them into our creative process and routine to plant the seeds of a more creative life.
He’ll explain why sleep is the most “underrated creative hack” there is, and why good self-care in general—and listening to what your body is telling you—is so important to creativity. I can’t get on board with everything he suggests, like keeping a tidy desk and minimalist space as a sanctuary in which to create. I tend to follow the Tim Harford, Messy school of thought that suggests a messy desk is “full of clues about recent patterns of working, and those clues can help us work effectively,” while a “tidy desk conveys no information at all, and it must be bolstered with the prompt of a to-do list.” But I admit to aspiring to more tidiness.
I also must admit that it is, perhaps, because I have two children under five years of age that both adundent sleep and tidiness seem less attainable, and therefore less important, to me at this moment in my life, while spending more time in nature (which is inherently messy, and another thing Rao suggests enhances creativity), is an approach I subscribe to 100 percent! The suggestions he gives for optimizing our aural environment—from what kind of music matches what kind of task, to investing in a good set of noise cancelling headphones—I can can also stand fully behind. And it is when he turns to how we can be more mindful of the tech environment we construct for ourselves that I started taking immediate action on his suggestions.
According to Rao, we need two fundamental qualities to sustain creative output: “The ability to focus on something that is demanding of our attention for an extended period of time,” and “[t]he ability to remain present while we’re working.” We’ve already touched upon some of ways we can be led astray from those two abilities online, but Rao provides an example that popped up as he was writing:
Just now a message from Medium popped up telling me about the sixty-two—sixty-two!—websites that will make me “incredibly smarter.” I don’t have time to be that smart if I want to be creative.
I also prefer to be credible in the things that I know rather than “incredibly smarter,” but perhaps that’s a matter of semantics. Either way, Rao offers a whole array of solutions to our digital overlord (I mean overload). Some of them are digital solutions to digital problems (like turning our phones to grayscale so they’re less attractive) to apps that turn off notifications and news feeds that too often lead us down rabbit holes that have nothing to do with why we got online in the first place. One of the simplest and most effective solutions is work offline altogether, to “work analog instead of digital.” Read physical books, keep physical notebooks to sketch ideas out, and make working in them a daily practice. It mirrors, in part, Franklin Foer’s call in a World Without Mind for a slow information movement, and, in part, the evidence in Charles Duhigg’s Smarter Faster Better that keeping notes by hand, and working in analog, helps us retain more information than doing so on our devices. It all comes back to deliberate practice, and the reality that doing creative work, and entering the state of mind we need to do it best, is a “more mechanical than magical” process.
Rao also explores what I think is a tragically underappreciated dimension of passion: “Passion emerges from exploration and experimentation, and a willingness to embrace uncertainty,” and “also emerges from sticking with something long enough that we become skilled at it.” That is a far more nuanced, and helpful, bit of advice than simply “follow your passion,” because like the creative process and state of “flow” itself, it is often triggered by simply putting in the work. He explains how, if you had asked him eight years ago if he was passionate about interviewing people, he would have said no. Today, it is his most consistent creative outlet, and realizing that it is his ability to listen that underpins it is what led him to make listening the foundation of the creative process in this book. It seems paradoxical, but:
Passion follows engagement, meaning follows mastery, and flow follows both.
Another paradox is that the work you’ll do, even for that audience of one, can often only be accomplished with the help of others, even teams of others. Who you surround yourself with, and who you work with, is of critical importance. If we don’t work for ourselves, we can’t always choose the people we work with, but we can choose who we set up as our creative network, and who we call on when we’re in need. And digital technology can be useful here, as the internet allows us to set up networks of support and virtual communities (some likely exist in your field already) to help us through our biggest creative challenges. Offline, we can explore different conferences and workshops to reinvigorate our creative lives on an annual basis, many of which can become a community of their own.
In addition to deliberate practice, and being deliberate about whom we surround ourselves with, we must learn to be deliberate about the culture we consume. Don’t be reactive to what’s in front of you online, but proactive about what you want to put in front of you. Make sure it’s coming from a diverse array of perspectives. And don’t just consume the culture; think of how your can contribute to the culture you’re living in. Set up a routine, make it a habit.
“We underestimate what we could do in a year,” Rao insists, “but overestimate what we could do in a day.” That is the paradox of the creative life. The best short-term strategy is to have a long-term vision and goal, and the best long-term strategy is to have a short-term, everyday practice, and to design a routine that allows you work in a focused, deliberate manner. Your overall body of work is built one day, one project at a time, by deliberate practice and dedicating yourself to the process. And that, in the end, is where the joy really lies.
The greatest reward you’ll derive from external success is the opportunity to keep doing your work, and that is the ultimate gift of creativity.
Rao’s writing doesn’t necessarily soar, but that keeps the ideas closer to the surface and easier to appreciate in our daily lives. Rather than a meal to devour, it is more a series of breadcrumbs to pick up as you take a long walk through the topic. Some of those pieces can seem slightly contradictory at first. But the creative life, as we’ve seen, is often paradoxical. You must be in control, yet free of constraints to explore, in tune with your inner life and creative self, yet able to make something that is accessible to others. You must be able to listen to yourself, and able to lose yourself in the work, disappear into the process. Srinivas Rao can teach you how.