Subscribe to blog updates via email »

Creative Waste – Love Your Work, Episode 264

September 16 2021 – 07:30am


When Vincent van Gogh began his career as an artist, he had already failed at everything else. He even got fired from his own family’s business in the process.



Listen to the Podcast

Not seeing any alternative, he completely immersed himself in art. In one two-week period, he created 120 drawings.

But exactly none of those drawings are famous today.

What feels like waste is not waste

Last week, I talked about the Iceberg Principle – the idea that any masterpiece you see is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s far more knowledge and experience beneath the surface, giving that masterpiece confidence and grace.

But as you’re adding layer after layer to your iceberg, it doesn’t feel like that’s what you’re doing. It feels like you’re wasting your energy. But you’re not.

After Van Gogh’s frenzied first couple weeks seriously pursuing art, he settled in to a more conservative pace. Instead of 120 drawings in two weeks, he was instead shooting to make just twenty a week. He figured that’s how many he’d have to make to end up with one good piece each week.

“Waste” takes many forms

What feels like “waste” can take many forms:

Creative waste is part of the creative game

Sometimes what feels like “waste,” makes it directly into a current or future project, thus making it clearly not waste. But even the stuff that never becomes a part of your body of work is part of the creative game.

I talked in episode 256 about the Barbell Strategy. To succeed in creative work, put most of your efforts toward “sure bets” that protect your downside and keep you in the game. With the rest of your time and energy, play “wildcards,” that have a chance of big upside.

Creative work happens in Extremistan, not Mediocristan. Success won’t be a steady climb up-and-to-the-right. Instead, it will look more like a poorly-shaved porcupine. Long periods of time where it doesn’t seem like much is happening, punctuated by big spikes that level up your career one at a time.

Yes, you’re showing up every day and putting in the work, but all that is a series of small bets. You hope for one or two or a few to turn into positive Black Swans. Projects that take off, and take on a life of their own.

In the course of playing this strategy, you can’t tell what will be wasted, and what will not. You have to trust that “waste” is part of the process.

Projects will fail, projects will go unfinished, and iterations will burn in the fire. That doesn’t make you a procrastinator or a dilettante – that makes you a creator.

Waste in Van Gogh’s first masterpiece

Vincent van Gogh’s first masterpiece was full of waste. He did not just a sketch, but a small study, a medium study, and a print he could give out to test his idea. This was all before working on the final canvas. And that had many iterations, and four coats of varnish. He left it in his friend’s studio to prevent himself from “spoiling it.” Then he still came back and worked on it some more.

All that waste was on top of the years of work he did leading up to the project. The painting was about peasants, and he wandered around living like a peasant himself, begging people to model for him. And, there was the twenty drawings a week he had done.

And those 120 drawings he did in a two-week period? We don’t even know what they look like, because he destroyed them.

Once this first masterpiece, The Potato Eaters, was done, it must have felt like a waste to Vincent. Everyone hated it. He got in a fight with his brother about it, and he completely cut off a friend who attacked it, viciously.

Vincent van Gogh’s first masterpiece was the result of a lot of waste. Each of those drawings was a failed project, surely many were left unfinished. He did a massive amount of research and preparation, and he was certainly off on timing. The Potato Eaters is regarded as a masterpiece today.

Creative waste adds to the iceberg

You already heard last week about how any masterpiece is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s far more below the surface. So what new do you learn from creative waste?

Sometimes, you can’t see the tip of the iceberg. Sometimes it all just feels like waste. Your projects are failing, and your preparation and planning isn’t getting you anywhere, causing you to leave projects unfinished.

Just remember that other creators have embraced creative waste. I told you last week about how Margaret Mitchell re-wrote nearly every chapter of Gone With the Wind at least twenty times, Jerry Seinfeld says joke-writing is “ninety-five percent re-write,” Meredith Monk’s charts and graphs go to waste and don’t end up in the final performance, and Stephen King reminds you to “kill your darlings.”

Those are all fine when you’re deep in a project and you can see where it’s going, but what do you do when entire projects get scrapped?

Great creators embrace waste

That’s when you need to remind yourself of the approach Picasso took to his paintings. He did one after another. He saw them as like “pages in [his] journal.” He understood that not all his works would be successful. Even once he had a finished piece, he didn’t know its true fate. “The future will chose the pages it prefers,” he said. “It’s not up to me to make the choice.”

Embrace creative waste. No waste, no wins.

Image: Tale of Hoffmann by Paul Klee

Join the Patreon for (new) bonus content!

I've been adding lots of new content to Patreon. Join the Patreon »

Subscribe to Love Your Work

Overcast Apple Stitcher RSS

Listen to the Podcast

Theme music: Dorena “At Sea”, from the album About Everything And More. By Arrangement with Deep Elm Records. Listen on Spotify »

Thinking of
writing a book?

How to Write a Book cover
Download your FREE copy of How to Write a Book »

(for a limited time)

This post is filed under Love Your Work Podcast.