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To Be Confident, Learn to Walk Away


The most important lesson I’ve learned about creativity didn’t come from something I read, but rather something I saw.

I was watching a profile on Christoph Niemann, the artist with the most covers gracing The New Yorker. Suddenly, his office clock struck six and without hesitation, he stopped what he was doing, grabbed his jacket — and within seconds — was breathing in the cold Berlin air.

Just like that, the clock made a ding and he stopped working. I was so surprised by his action I nearly woke up my newborn son to ask him if he’d seen it also.

“Why did he do that?

“Wasn’t clock watching only for people who hated their jobs?”

“Wasn’t he in his flow?”

“What if he couldn’t find his rhythm tomorrow?

This silent move made me question everything I’ve been taught about growing my creative muscle — the importance of pushing through and fighting the resistance.

Christoph’s discipline got me thinking about also how important it is to have the confidence to say to yourself every day when the clock makes noise — “Today, I’ve done enough!

Is what you are working on today going to be better or worse if you walk away?

Having the courage to know the answer to this question is tomorrow is the silent confidence that separates the true creatives from those who constantly doubt their abilities.

My wife. My kids. My friends. Good conversation. Green grass. Tall trees. A run. A book. Life. These are the things that spur my best ideas.

Yet every evening when my energy is running down, and what I am working on will be better tomorrow, my wife still has to call my name three times before I finally sit down to eat a cold dinner that was once warm.

Your job is to experience life

Christoph’s actions taught me that the best creatives don’t only ask themselves — “What have I learned that’s going to make this perfect?” They also ask themselves, “What have I not learned yet?” Then they allow life to slowly reveal to them the answers.

Over the years, I’ve pushed through to find what I was looking for. I wrote in order to find what I was trying to say. And I’m glad that I did — constant creating has led to some of my best creations.

What I was lacking though, and what I think separates the best from the rest, was balance.

I’ve shouted from the rooftops the words made famous by Jocko Willink — “Discipline equals freedom.” But I’ve failed to realize developing the discipline to stop is just as important as finding the motivation to start.

Rarely do I have the confidence to trust myself enough to say, “Today I have done enough, and tomorrow I’ll finish what I’m working on and it’ll be better for it.”

The more I study the creative process, the more I realize a perfect one doesn’t exist.

There are times when I should indeed push through. When my body and mind are working in sync and I can tell I’m one keystroke away from great.

There are also times though when life is the key to unearthing the next word.

And if I’m ever going to be a confident creator I need to trust this process. I need to give in when my body and mind say enough. I need to cultivate the confidence to understand that the experiences of tomorrow are the key to making my work better today.

God knows there will be days when I tell my wife, “Just one more minute.” 

But Christoph taught me the value and necessity of sometimes not waiting for my name to be called.

Knowing when to stop is just as important as motivating yourself to start.

This isn’t easy — but confidence never comes cheap.