Thirty-two. That’s the number of sticky notes in my copy of “The Practice”. For a book that’s 250 pages long, that number clearly shows I found Seth Godin’s book pretty damn relevant.
It’s a read designed to help creators and professionals come to terms with the peculiarities of a world where our best work is original and, as such, prone to mistakes and failures. The book will remind you that creative work is essential, fear is not, and your calling can only be realized if you do the job and trust the process.
At first, it seems like “The Practice” is written for artists, but the truth is it works for any type of creative professional – including, but not limited to, marketers. In fact, creative work is just “the generous act of making things better by doing something that might not work.”
Because of the 32 sticky notes, this will be a pretty long book recap. But you will quickly see that it’s worth going through it all.
The Practice – Basics
Practice vs. flow
The industrial system we all live in is outcome-based. This creates a focus on results when we should focus our attention on simply doing the work. This is what the practice is all about.
A practice means you’re working on your thing daily, and doing the work is what you’re interested in – not the outcome. The outcome you can’t control, but doing the work is a choice you can make on your own. And the more you do, the more you can trust your process and your practice. “When we begin to distrust our own commitment to the practice, we’re left with nothing but fear. When we require outcomes as proof of our worth, we become brittle, unable to persist in the face of inevitable failure on our way to making a contribution.”
The practice is all about following a creative process and finding creativity through that creation. “We become creative when we ship the work.” It may sound easy but it isn’t – mainly because we’ve been told all sorts of stories about creativity that are simply bogus.
Take flow, for example. It gets taunted like this great hallmark of creative genius, but it’s a fluke at best. What we need to do is learn to be creative even if there’s no flow in sight. “If we condition ourselves to work without flow, it’s more likely to arrive,” Seth explains. “We do the work, whether we feel like it or not, and then, without warning flow can arise. Flow is a symptom of the work we’re doing, not the cause of it.”
This focus on the myth of flow is ongoing throughout the book. it features consistent reminders that you just need to start doing to get inspired – not to wait to get inspired to start doing the work. “We don’t write because we feel like it. We feel like it because we write.”
“Flow is the result of effort. The muse shows up when we do the work. Not the other way around. Set up your tools, turn off the internet, and go back to work.”
And that constant process of working and shipping is what builds confidence. “The time we spend worrying is actually time we’re spending trying to control something that is out of our control. Time invested in something that is within our control is called work. That’s where our most productive focus lies.” Instead of seeking reassurance which will never be enough, we may better work and ship. Making that choice is empowering.
“We need an infinite amount of reassurance, delivered daily, to build up our confidence. There will never be enough. Instead of seeking reassurance and buttressing it with worry, we could make the choice to go back to work instead.”
Seth’s main point here is to trust yourself and your practice. This is not about being cocky – it’s only about a healthy dose of confidence: “Trusting yourself doesn’t require delusional self-confidence. Trusting yourself has little to do with the outcome. Instead, we can learn to trust the process. This is at the heart of our practice.”
Genre is the box we push against
Original work can be challenging because we’re constantly inventing something new. And the myth here is that we don’t need and shouldn’t accept any common base for our work. According to Seth, that’s not the case. Genre – that common starting point – is helpful for both you as a creator and the people you seek to serve.
If there is no genre, people might not be able to understand your work. “It’s too difficult to figure out what you are doing and for whom, so we walk away.” Being edgy for the sake of being edgy is a useless hurdle you’re putting in front of your audience.
The other fear creators have is that genres are limiting by nature. Not true, Seth is quick to explain: “But genre permits us to be original. It gives us a framework to push against. […] The limits of the genre are the place where you can do your idiosyncratic work. To make change happen, the artist must bend one of those boundaries, one of those edges. Generic is a trap, but genre is a lever.”
If anything, genre allows for a framework to push against. We creatively use the constraints to build something familiar enough to be understandable and different enough to be original. “That’s because it’s constraints that enable us to create art. Art solves problems in a novel way, and problems always have constraints.”
You’ve heard about thinking outside the box – Seth doesn’t recommend it and proposes a different way: “It’s dark and cold outside the box. But the edge of the box? The edge of the box gives you leverage. When you find the edge of the box, you’re in the place that has scared away those that came before you. It’s from this edge that you can turn the constraint into an advantage, instead of an excuse.”
On being a better boss
Creatives are their harshest critic and their worst boss. Think for a moment about your internal dialogue. If it’s anything like mine, then you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who would talk to you like that in real life. If you have a boss like that, you’ll be right to quit immediately. So you need to be mindful and try to be a better boss to yourself. “We need a boss who trusts us. Someone who doesn’t panic, doesn’t seek external validation at every turn.”
Finding the audience
Your audience is at the core of your practice.
“We seek to create a change for the people we serve.”
We can’t please everyone – nor should we try to. Because pleasing everyone means you’re creating something safe and boring.
“Our desire to please the masses interferes with our need to make something that matters. The masses want mass entertainment, normal experiences, and the pleasure of easy group dynamics. The masses want what the masses want. We already have plenty of stuff that pleases the masses.”
Instead, we need to find our special someone and bring value tailored to that someone. “The practice demands that we seek to make an impact on someone, not on everyone.”
Once we find that someone, we’ll be able to say “It’s not for you!” to everyone else.
The great thing is that you don’t necessarily need a huge audience to start – you need a few passionate enough: “First, find ten. Ten people who care enough about your work to enroll in the journey and then to bring others along.”
And getting that audience is all about approaching things with empathy. No matter who your people are, you need to strive to see the world through their eyes.
“The process of shipping creative work demands that we truly hear and see the dreams and desires of those we seek to serve.”
Great clients are essential
A great professional is born out of the work with great clients. And if you want to have your work, you need to do the work of finding great clients. “You don’t do that by doing better work for lousy clients.”
What do great clients look like?
“Better clients are demanding. They demand more rigorous deadlines, but they also pay more. They demand extraordinary work, but they’re more respectful. And they demand work they can proudly share with others.”
If you don’t get great clients, guess who’s to blame? “The commitment to be a great expert also requires the professionalism to do the hard work of getting better clients. […] You earn better clients by becoming the sort of professional that better clients want.”
Find a cohort
While Seth talks mostly about client and audience relationships, he mentions another critical group: your cohort. These are the other creatives you can speak to, work with, and get support from. But it’s also the creative tribe that will push you to do more and do better.
It’s why painters and poets gathered in specific European cities and why Ivy League schools are a thing. It’s all about the high achievement culture they create: “Cultural standards and normalization have enormous power over whether we choose a practice and how we find the guts to commit to our work. […] When you’re surrounded by respected peers, it’s more likely you’ll do the work you set out to do. And if you’re not, consider finding some.”
Generosity as a way to reframe your practice
Great work is never selfish- it exists for the benefit of someone else.
“Our work exists to change the recipient for the better. That’s at the core of the practice.”
Thinking about your work in these terms is not a selfless act – it actually has benefits for the professional. “Generosity subverts resistance by focusing the work on someone else. Generosity means that we don’t have to seek reassurance for the self, but can instead concentrate on serving others.”
Saying “No” is important
Seth talks a lot about generosity and helping others, but he makes a key remark: generosity doesn’t mean saying yes all the time. “It might be that the most generous thing to do is to disappoint someone in the short run.”
Saying yes to the wrong things leaves everyone worse off. It will delay the work you’re destined to do. It will leave your audience without the value you could bring them. And it will give the person you said yes to a product without a true heart.
So next time you say yes, think about what you’re sacrificing. This is especially important for small-scale tasks that might look like no effort at all. Think about quick email replies. They are easy enough. But they take your attention off of more important things. Or, as Seth says, “if you spend all day hitting the ball back, you’ll never end up serving?”
“Generous doesn’t always mean saying yes to the urgent or failing to prioritize. Generous means choosing to focus on the change we seek to make.”
Generous work doesn’t need to be free
“Generous doesn’t require us to reduce friction by making things free. It requires us to bring bravery and passion and empathy to the people we seek to serve.”
Money is a tricky subject, especially if you’re at the start of your practice and unsure what people will be willing to pay. But as long as you’re creating value, asking to get paid is not asking too much: “Money supports our commitment to the practice. Money permits us to turn professional, to focus our energy and our time on the work, creating more impact and more connection, not less.”
Authenticity is a trap
“You don’t want an authentic heart surgeon,” Seth says. His point is that authenticity means you’re doing what you feel like rather than doing the work to hone your practice and serve your audience.
In contrast, your audience is looking for a consistent professional: “What we seek out is someone who sees us and consistently keeps their promises to bring us the magic we were hoping for. Someone who has committed to rhyming with what they did yesterday.”
Consistency is the way forward, the mark of a true professional. It may sound dull at first, but it’s not. Consistency is not pure repetition. “Simply work that rhymes. That sounds like you. We make a promise and we keep it.”
Great work, then, is by definition inauthentic because it’s consistent. “It’s hard to authentically show up day after day, working hour after hour, when there’s probably something else you’d rather be doing. It’s difficult to encounter a dangerous situation without blinking, to patiently persist in the face of criticism, or even to merely show up on a regular basis. But that difficult work is all inauthentic. It’s work we do precisely because we don’t feel like it in the short run. It’s the choice to do something for long-term reasons, not because we’re having a tantrum. Inauthentic means effective, reasoned, intentional.”
On mistakes and fear
When you focus on the process and ship constantly, you start seeing that mistakes are not to be feared. “A bug isn’t personal. It’s another bit of data. Adjust the code and repeat.” This is the primary way to stop seeing failure as something terrible – it is, in fact, just part of the practice.
But the fear can stop us in our tracks. It makes us stop and hide and not ask for feedback because we fear we’ll have to start again. Which, in turn, is based on the sunk cost fallacy. After all, we’ve done so much already – what if they don’t like it and we need to start again?
According to Seth, sunk costs and the regret they cause are expected, but they should not be a deterrent: “If the practice you’ve developed isn’t getting you what you are after, you can politely walk away from it. If the audience you’ve worked so hard to build trust with is making it clear that your vision doesn’t match theirs, you can move on. It’s fine to experience regret when we abandon a sunk cost. It’s a mistake to stick with one simply because we can’t bear the regret.”
“It’s hard to be open to feedback, to be flexible, and to stay unblocked when you’re busy defending the work you’ve already done.” Embracing sunk costs makes us more open to feedback from the people we seek to serve.
“Sunk costs are real, but sunk costs must be ignored.”
At the end of the day, we need to accept that mistakes and failures are just a footnote along the way: “Every creator who has engaged in the practice has a long, nearly infinite string of failures. All the ways not to start a novel, not to invent the light bulb, not to transform a relationship. Again and again, creative leaders fail. It is the foundation of our work. We fail and then we edit and then we do it again.”
“Everyone who creates feels resistance. Everyone who is seriously engaged in the deep effort of inventing and shipping original work feels the fear. That’s not the question. The question is: where do you put the fear?”
Creative blocks are a common byproduct of fear. And it’s invented, just like flow. “So is a fear of spiders, a belief in astrology, or the confidence we feel before giving a speech. We know this because it changes. It changes from person to person and from day to day. It’s a story. […] And stories can change. If your story isn’t working for you, you can find a better one to take its place.”
The solution is in the process itself, in doing the work:
“It’s hard to get blocked when you’re moving. Even if you’re not moving in the direction that you had in mind that morning.”
“Desirable difficulty is the hard work of doing hard work. Setting ourselves up for things that cause a struggle, because we know that after the struggle, we’ll be at a new level.” This concept is the opposite of fear – it’s fear-seeking to the highest degree.
But it’s not just chaotic – it’s pushing through the flow myth to get you to new levels of expertise. And it means incompetence is just part of the deal. “Learning almost always involves incompetence. Shortly before we get to the next level, we realize that we’re not yet at that level and we feel insufficient. The difficulty is real, and it’s desirable. […] When we intentionally avoid desirable difficulty, our practice suffers, because we’re only coasting. The commitment, then, is to sign up for days, weeks, or years of serial incompetence and occasional frustration.”
And this is how we level up – not by being authentic.
The point of following the practice is to become great at what you do: not because you’ll charge more, but because you’ll feel more fulfilled and you’ll make the life of others better. “Ultimately, the goal is to become the best in the world at being you. To bring useful idiosyncrasy to the people you seek to change, and to earn a reputation for what you do and how you do it. The peculiar version of you, your assertions, your art. To announce and earn a superpower, one that’s worth waiting for, seeking out, and yes, paying for.”
“The path forward is about curiosity, generosity, and connection.”
And through constant practice, empathy with your audience, and trust in your self, you’ll get where you need to be. Have a pleasant journey!
If you want to hear more, here are two of the best interviews of Seth talking about The Practice. I highly recommend both: