The Simple Truth Behind Successful Creative Projects: They Start Small

Image: Raph_PH/Flickr

Sometime after the Tiger King frenzy, and long before the Squid Game one, I happily watched two seasons of Fleabag (amongst what feels like dozens of other shows). For me, experiencing art is only one half of the joy. Learning about the creative process is the other. 

In this case, I was excited to learn that actress, writer, and producer Phoebe Waller-Bridge actually created it originally as a one-woman play in 2013 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. “It started as a challenge from a friend to do a ten-minute slot in her stand-up storytelling night, which is where this whole idea came from of doing it sort of stand-up-y,” Waller-Bridge tells Vulture.

I also discovered that Fleabag is just one example in the dramatic tradition of one-person shows and solo performances. A Bronx Tale, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Patrick Stewart’s A Christmas Carol, all started as one-person shows. 

This spirit is alive and well in other forms as well. For example, as founder David Chang writes in Eat a Peach, when he was setting up the first Momofuku restaurant, the Momofuku Noodlebar, he wanted to make sure that he could operate it as one person, like the ramen shops in Japan. Momofuku has since expanded significantly across the world and into an organization that employs thousands.

“Great oaks from little acorns grow,” the saying goes. Here are some practical takeaways that, hopefully, encourage you to breathe life into that idea your brain has received:

Start By Yourself

If you’ve been waiting around looking for partners before you get started, it’s probably worth considering just temporarily learning it yourself. You won’t be mastering that skill forever or to a degree of excellence; rather, the point is simply to get the project started and off the ground.

Shipping Is the Goal

A project might start small, it doesn’t have to end that way though. The first goal should be to get it out into the world, in whatever size and fidelity it can exist, so that it might be able to find the right people that it needs to support it. Before Virgil Abloh became Louis Vuitton’s menswear designer, he started designing in Photoshop and screen printing T-shirts. When in doubt, think smaller and faster. Try a one-day project.

Separate Yourself from Your Work

Projects like the Foo Fighters, Bon Iver, and Tame Impala, all started with one person making full songs. They could’ve all used their real names—Dave Grohl, Justin Vernon, and Kevin Parker—and they didn’t. It’s a subtle maneuver, one that enables a creator or artist to disconnect from their own identity and practically start a new one. That frees up experimentation and the chaotic energy needed to make creative breakthroughs. 

Do it for Your Work, not Yourself

One idea I really appreciated from Beth Pickens’ Make Your Art No Matter What: Self-promotion is hard, so don’t promote yourself. Promote your work instead. I think it’s worth expanding this beyond promotion: focus on the work itself, and not on yourself. Do your best to be honest—at least with yourself!—when you know something is more about your own ego and self-image than the benefit of the work.

Find Your Supporters

There are people’s whose jobs it is to support your work, even if it’s in a small way. Waller-Bridge may have written and performed the entire show. She didn’t have to actually organize the whole festival though. It’s your job to think similarly: as you start your project, find the people and places that you want to put it so that others can discover it and, hopefully, spread the word.

Why It Works: Small Encourages Doing

You already know this: Everybody has ideas. The value is in the hard work it takes to bring an idea to reality. By thinking smaller, you’re also choosing actions that require less motivation and resources to make it happen. Start with yourself, by yourself, maybe even for yourself.  

If the timing is right, and if the quality of the work is good enough, things will fall into place. If it’s not, then write down what you’ve learned, and try another small project the next time. You won’t have risked anything that you couldn’t lose. You may also appreciate that the days you spent on these small projects are the ones you look back fondly on as the good old days.

If you enjoyed this article, check out my upcoming book, Creative Doing. You’ll also love my Best of Books newsletter, where I send three of the best books to your inbox every month. Thanks for reading.

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