The Discipline of Art

It seems one of the most pernicious misconceptions about an expert, a master at what he does, is that he got that way without effort. When the virtuoso performs, he does so with such aplomb that it seems effortless, and so, wrongly, we might conclude that all this came to him as we suppose, effortlessly.

But as any true professional can tell you, being a master at your craft comes only through intense discipline, countless hours spent perfecting your skills in the dark when no one sees. The master has learned the discipline of art.

This is no less true for whom today we call “the creative,” a person whose profession it is to create art in one form or another. Maybe he’s a painter, a videographer, a writer or a photographer. In any case, this lie of effortlessness is especially deadly to him and those who conceive of his vocation.

When it comes to a mechanic or a lawyer, we rightly conclude that they became skilled through much training and hard work, whereas the artist, we think, lazily stumbled on his supernatural giftedness while playing Xbox and eating Pop-Tarts in, you guessed it, his mother’s basement. Or maybe in a van down by the river. The next day, after an all-night, Mountain-Dew-infused video-game-athon, he woke at 2 p.m., stumbled into a recording studio, threw down some mad beats and sick lyrics, and by day three was atop the Billboard charts with his hit song, “Mama Don’t Get Me.”

In reality, freedom comes through discipline, and as retired Navy SEAL Jocko Willink puts it, if you want to have the freedom to create, you have to discipline yourself. If you want to be witty and funny and have great ideas as a writer, you’ve got to read voraciously and diligently train your intellectual muscles. You’ve got to get up in the morning and discipline yourself to write, to sit down and do the work.

All the wannabe “aspiring writers” and “closet geniuses” just checked out because this all sounds suspiciously like real work. That’s because it is. As Doug Wilson said, “We live in a narcissistic age, which means that many want to have the praise that comes from having read, without the antecedent labor of actually reading” (“Wordsmithy,” 29).

Lots of people want to be a Peyton Manning in their field, but how many people are actually willing to prepare like him? Not many. That’s why guys like him are so rare. That’s why he’s got two rings on his fingers, an NFL career stat sheet that’s bested by no one, and the Cam Newtons of the world are busy flopping on the ground like petulant three-year-olds.

The truth is, much of our generation is lazy, entitled, and undisciplined; that’s the air we breathe. At least half of America thinks it’d be better if someone else worked hard and gave them—they who did nothing—a nice life (Two words: Bernie Sanders). We think creativity sprouts out of nothing, but in truth, fortune favors the bold and good things come to the diligent.

As editor-in-chief at a pretty awesome magazine, which often allows me to travel, hunt, and experience a ton of great adventures, several people have asked me how I landed such a “dream job.” They’re pretty gung-ho about taking the same course themselves, right up until I explain the years of work and pain that went into it. The years writing in obscurity, living below the U.S. poverty line with a family of five, interning in hellholes without pay, moving my family twice across the country, dwelling in moldy apartments and flea infested slum-houses, getting marriage counseling somewhere in between, enduring bosses whose sadistic delight was to make your life an excruciating misery, and on the list goes. The pretenders are exposed by the work they’re unwilling to do, the suck they can’t bring themselves to embrace. Champions rise.

As Steven Pressfield rightly points out, art is war. In his book, “The War of Art,” Pressfield says, “There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write. What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.” His point is that disciplining yourself to write is actually the hardest part of the battle in the war of making art. Without discipline, you’re just a lazy basement dweller with nothing to show for yourself.

Embrace the Suck 

When asked what the key to being a successful Ironman triathlete was—you know, the guys who in a roughly 10-hour span swim 2.4 miles, ride another 112, then finish it off with a leisurely 26.2-mile run—Chris “Macca” McCormack once said it’s about your ability to “embrace the suck.” Not only did he mean the suck of race day, but all the training that led up to it.

As a creative it’s no different—you’ve got to embrace the suck: the hours spent alone in your office writing or drawing, the painting workshops, the design courses, the continual exercising of your creative powers that few will ever see. 

One of the most useful lessons Pressfield learned as a writer came from his time in the Marine Corps.

“The Marine Corps,” Pressfield said, “teaches you how to be miserable. This is invaluable as an artist. Marines love to be miserable. Marines derive a perverse satisfaction in having colder chow, crappier equipment, and higher casualty rates than any outfit of dogfaces, swab jockeys, or flyboys, all of whom they despise. Why? Because these candy-asses don’t know how to be miserable…the artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not. He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation…because this is war, baby. And war is hell” (“The War of Art,” 68).

Sunny Side Up

There’s a sunnier side of all of this, too. There’s a payoff. Discipline produces fruit for the artist, things that fall under the umbrellas of “inspiration” and “creativity.” After thousands of hours of practice, a 300-yard passing game with seven touchdowns through the air. After millions of words written, hundreds of books read, and a wake of brutal life experiences, the masterpiece is born. After thousands of hours editing video in the dark, a documentary that touches hearts and makes a difference arrives at the film festival.

The more dedicated we are at disciplining ourselves—rising early, reading, intensive contemplation in solitude, working toward physical health, and doing the work of our craft—the more fruitful our work will be.

Recounting a response from Somerset Maugham, in which he was asked if he wrote on a schedule or when inspiration struck, Pressfield records, “ I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp” (“War of Art,” 64).

Drawing the lesson out, Pressfield says, “Maugham reckoned another, deeper truth: that by performing the mundane physical act of sitting down and starting to work, he set in motion a mysterious but infallible sequence of events that would produce inspiration, as surely as if the goddess had synchronized her watch with his.”

We have to think about our craft more like a farmer thinks about his crop and less like the wishful think about winning the lottery. If you go on sowing with discipline, doing the work everyday, eventually you get to enjoy the harvest of your labors (Galatians 6:9). In my experience, the harvest is usually sweeter, and yet refreshingly different, than you thought it’d be. So keep on doing good, and don’t give up. Do the work. Embrace the discipline of art.

More resources:

More To Explore

4 thoughts on “The Discipline of Art”

    • What, is that your favorite combination for gaming, “Lightspeed”? Ha ha. I’d make you out as more of a Colt-45-and-Funyuns kind of guy.


Leave a Comment