Editor’s note: In his excellent book The Accidental Creative: How to Be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice, Todd Henry—whose website’s tagline is “Create fiercely, love well, and die empty”—gives intensely practical and personable advice to those whose vocations require them to be consistently turning out great ideas. Henry challenges his readers to do great work but also pursue a healthy lifestyle, with strong relationships and space for contemplation and growth. The book was helpful to me, so I was happy to be able to catch up with Todd and ask him some questions.

In The Accidental Creative, you introduce people who must consistently produce and then follow through on excellent ideas to a series of highly practical disciplines that will help them do their best work. How did you develop these disciplines?

There was a point several years ago when I was leading a growing team, raising a small family, launching an adoption-related non-profit with my wife, and writing, and I was in the beginning stages of launching my business. I realized that if something didn’t change, I was going to lead all of these efforts straight over a cliff. I was prolific, and I was doing great work, but I wasn’t going to be able to sustain it all over the long-term if something didn’t change.

I began to look into how to develop practices that could make me (and my team) better positioned to be effective rather than just efficient, and in the course of my research I began implementing many of these practices in my own life and with my team to great effect. As I began sharing them with others, they eventually distilled into five areas—Focus, Relationships, Energy, Stimuli, and Hours—and I discovered that each area seemed to work with the others to better position me and those I worked with to have the focus, time, and energy needed to perform when it counted most.

What’s the single most valuable thing that someone who wants to begin to develop a healthy creative life could do today?

Begin to be purposeful and build a sense of rhythm into your days, weeks, and months. Make certan that you are defining your work (Focus) each day rather than drifting from day to day. Schedule healthy conversations (Relationships) that help you stay engaged, self-aware, and stimulated. Manage your engagement (Energy) by regularly pruning ideas and projects that are good, but not appropriate right now given your available resources. Funnel resources into your life (Stimuli) that challenge you, cause you to think in new ways, and prod you to see the world through a different lens. Finally, make certain that you are leveraging your time (Hours) for effectiveness, not just efficiency. Do things that will help you add value over the long-term, not just the tasks that will give you the ping of immediate productivity.

You also say that “fear of success is often more destructive than fear of failure.” Have you found that this fear can get in the way of you keeping up with these disciplines in your own life? 

Yes, without question. I think that sometimes, as much as we are afraid of how we aren’t capable of, we’re equally afraid of what we might truly be capable of. For many creative pros I’ve worked with, this means a fear of what success might mean to our personal life, to our ability to sustain, and to the perceptions of others.

It sounds almost ridiculous, but I’ve witnessed teams self-limiting out of a fear of what might be over the next horizon and a concern that they won’t be able to keep up with the pace of their own success. Add to this some of the inherent uncertainty (and insecurity) that’s baked into any kind of work where you’re turning your thoughts into value, and it’s a potential recipe for disengagement.

One of the concepts you introduce is the “stimulus queue”—a list of experiences and things to read that help feed our creativity. What’s in your stimulus queue right now?

I have an entire system that would be too mind-numbing and granular to go into detail about, but most of my daily stimuli come from a group of websites that I follow on topics ranging from particle physics to business strategy. I funnel these articles, videos, and more into the RSS reader on my Mac for perusal in the evening before I go to bed, and I throw interesting-looking items into Instapaper to read during my morning study time. I go through these in sequence on my iPad, and I then shuffle articles I want to process further into a notebook in Evernote or into a series of folders in Instapaper for social sharing by our team or on our site.

Additionally, these days I’ve been doing a ton of study about the nature of lifelong effectiveness for my next book, so I have a stack of library books about four feet tall sitting next to the sofa in my home office. I’m working my way through these two to three at a time, and also listening to about an audiobook a week from Audible.

For more, check out the Accidental Creative website, where you can buy the book or listen to the podcast.

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One Response to Sustaining Great Creative Work: Q&A with Accidental Creative’s Todd Henry

  1. Die Empty says:

    […] and have been using it with my senior thesis students this semester. I liked it so much that I interviewed Todd for Fieldnotes a little over a year ago. The book helped me tremendously – I need to revisit it! – with thinking about creative […]