How to Protect a Creative Vision
From Slippage, Sabotage, and Self-Delusion
When you’re building something big — a creative project, business, non-profit, or anything else — it’s hard work to keep your head straight.
People pull you in all directions. Collaborators, contractors, clients, customers, supporters, and trolls will nudge your center of gravity little by little until you don’t know up from down, left from right, north from south.
It won’t happen all at once. But late one night you’ll wake up with a sinking feeling in your chest. Something about your project feels wrong, and its most joyful aspects now only fill you with anxiety.
What will you do when this happens?
If you’re like most creators and entrepreneurs, you’ll stick your head in the sand.
You’ll say to yourself, “Well, my project needs to be flexible,” and you might take pride in making concessions to the wishes and whims of others — even when doing so intensifies your anxiety.
Be wary of this slippage. Because a little flexibility is good, but too much will sink the ship.
Every project needs a leader. Every leader needs a strong vision. And if you’re lucky enough to have other people help bring your vision to life, the fastest way to make them feel demoralized and discouraged is to be too flexible.
You must know what your project is and what it isn’t. Where your vision bends and where it breaks.
And you must embrace, embody, and communicate your project’s points of inflexibility in order to succeed.
My Co-Founder (left, Dave Martell), Lead Animator (far right, Josh Emswiller) and me working on our show.
Juggling complex projects, managing teams, and communicating a vision to other people can be overwhelming.
There are too many small decisions, tasks, documents, posts, and meetings to keep track. Many times I’ve felt my own vision — the reasons why I want to do any of these things — start to slip.
Here’s one way I maintain my sanity:
For every project I write a simple, single-paragraph note about the reasons why I fell in love with something.
I’ve found these “North Star” notes to be priceless insurance policies against against false memories, justifications, and the confusing messiness that comes along with anything you truly care about.
QUESTION: Wait, so like a mission statement?
ANSWER: Not exactly.
Mission statements are outward-facing promises. They’re public declarations of a project’s or company’s values, goals, methods, or objectives. Which means they are forms of PR which are as fragile and spiritually corruptible as a tweet.
North Star notes (as I’ll call them) are inward-facing promises. They should be shared only with a few people, if shared at all.
Their privacy is what makes them powerful.
To drive home the point, imagine if a law was passed which compelled every marriage to have its own website.
And any person could dial up any couples’ “Vows” page…
Imagine how insufferable most peoples’ vows would be.
The pressure of the public record would make them boring, pretentious, and packed with meaningless buzzwords (like most companies’ “Values” pages).
Now stay with me as I stretch the analogy even further. Imagine a married couple who — years after their wedding — now spend most of their time arguing.
They each have forgotten what they loved about the other.
So they pull out their smartphones, google their own names, and bring up that decade-old “Vows” page.
But all they find is a list of hollow platitudes and aphorisms.
Neither wrote anything intimate, specific, or potentially embarrassing; neither wrote anything true.
Or — worse — their dummy vows have come to replace their actual memories and they measure the success of their relationship by the yardstick of meaningless abstractions.
This slippage happens all the time to creators, artists, and founders.
It’s important to recognize your own capacity to forget. Your future self may twist the past in order to meet the needs of the present. And the more you recognize your own aptitude for this trickery, the better a leader you’ll be.
North Star notes stick pins in your vision so nothing slips. Heres how I like to write mine.
1. Capture the Spark
Don’t throw in goals, target metrics, or speculations about your customers or audience. This thing is about your relationship with the project, nothing more.
So focus on your feelings.
When director Christopher Nolan begins a new project, he writes a one-page “précis” as a record of his intentions:
“In preparation for each film, he spends a week or two bashing out a little précis, on the same typewriter his father gave him when he was 21…Often that précis doesn’t even talk much about the plot; it’s supposed to represent the feeling he wants to elicit, the texture of the fable. He keeps it in a file and returns to it from time to time to make sure he hasn’t lost touch with his original idea.”
2. Be Honest
Avoid buzzwords, platitudes, industry jargon, or any words you might use to impress another person. These will only make your future self cringe.
Did you start this project because it would be fun? Because you wanted to make money? Good, write that.
Your reasons don’t have to be commendable.
They just have to be real.
3. Keep It Simple
Short and sweet, no longer than a single page.
You want to capture your feelings in the lowest possible resolution, which will make them very difficult to misinterpret later on.
Assume your future self is an idiot — or a malevolent lawyer — and assume every word that can be twisted will be twisted.
This article was originally published on medium