Episode 10: Be More Like Leonardo

Creatives don’t like repetition, we want—well, to be creative, to invent, to explore, to experiment. And so we resist the wisdom, and proven effectiveness of specialization, to our own detriment. Is there any way for creatives to adapt or even thrive if we surrender, and take this proven path of narrow positioning? Yes, we can be more like Leonardo…
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Are you ready to take the struggle out of finding new clients?

There’s no denying it, creatives resist the idea of specialization. It’s just not in our DNA. We’d rather trade off on profitability and stability—if we can just keep scratching that creative itch. And we do willingly make that trade, at least until repeated seasons of feast or famine, the treadmill of ineffective marketing, and the tyranny of being captive by bad clients wears us out. And even then most of us would rather close up shop, and get a full time job, than face the alternative of specialization.

But maybe there’s a way to overcome these impulses. Perpetual hardship in business may be enough to get us there, but what if we could get there before completely wearing ourselves out?

There are some ways you can approach this, which, while not making it easy, can make it easier. We can try to be more like Leonardo. Leonardo Da Vinci made the startling claim that “Art lives from constraints and dies from freedom.” That is a different perspective than we have today. But when we think about the truly great masters of art history, they all were masters of their craft. Repeated engagement in one style, in just one medium or two, their rigorous focus resulted in works the world still marvels at today.

The best of the best all had the ingredient of discipline mixed into their creative productivity. Why should we think that it would somehow be different for us? It is harder for us. Our creative forebears needed support from wealthy patrons just to be able to get access to basic materials like paper, canvas, pigments, or blocks of granite. We can get pre-mixed paint delivered to our door overnight. We have computers with access to every font imaginable—not just a few cases of metal type, in 12, 18, or 24 pt. We have instant access to all manner of images, photos, icons, and line art, right at our fingertips. Much of the restraint of limitation that Leonardo knew was baked into the creative process of his day. And so if we’re going to lean into his insight, we’ll need to exercise a lot of self-control.

But if we can start to think of ourselves more like artisans than bohemian explorers, then we might discover a secret that all devoted craftsmen know. When you go deep into one area of expertise, when you lean in and truly master a craft—you don’t get bored. You begin to plumb the depths of your fascination. Below the surface there are intricacies and mysteries to explore that are unknown to those who just skate along the top.

If you’d like to try this feeling on, watch the documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi on Netflix. It’s about an aged Japanese culinary artist who spent his entire life mastering the preparation of Sushi. Just Sushi. His small restaurant seats fewer than a dozen people, and the waiting list stretches out for months. Or check out Crafted, by Morgan Spurlock, on Amazon Prime. It follows the stories of a handful of artisans who have all focused on doing just one thing well. You may need some inspiration like this to help you unlock the artistic pursuit of craftsmanship, in order to undergird your courage for honing a narrow positioning for your creative practice.

And if you do, you’ll discover the compounding benefits and efficiencies this decision provides— particularly as it relates to your marketing efforts. You’ll be able to easily produce meaningful case studies, and other effective content for marketing.

And making your marketing efficient is important, because you have a lot more to manage than just your marketing. And next week we’re going to move on to our next “M,” the subject of Management. Because managing yourself in your business is not easy. You have to wear a lot of hats and balance competing time demands.

So until next week: don’t let the business of creativity overwhelm your creative business.