Book Review—The Practice: Shipping Creative Work

Kind of like colourful post-it notes that deliver us short, helpful reminders to stay on track, Seth Godin’s The Practice: Shipping Creative Work (Portfolio/Penguin, 2020) presents quick, and sometimes hard-hitting, notes of motivation and truth about the two most important mindsets needed for creative work: a) the practice of showing up day after day and doing the work, and b) trusting yourself to ship the work.

A creative practice is crucial for writers, thinkers, artists, product designers, and creative entrepreneurs.  What Godin means by practice is the commitment to creative work—that is, showing up day after day, even as our ideas, formats, methods, tastes, or styles change.  For writers, the practice can include writing every day for a given amount of time or producing a certain word count.  Some writers (including Godin) advocate blogging daily.  For artists, the practice is showing up to your studio or workspace and sketching, planning, testing, and experimenting.  The practice grounds us, encourages us to learn, and builds our confidence and trust.

Our practice is also the only thing that we can control.  We can’t control results, outcomes, fickle fans, or social trends.  We can only control coming to the table, letting go of judgement and perfectionism, and deciding to learn, problem-solve, make, and think.  Godin points out, “If you do something creative each day, you’re now a creative person.  Not a blocked person, not a striving person, not an untalented person.  A creative person.  Because creative people create” (Godin, 34).  It’s only by having lots of bad ideas that we get to the good ones; it’s only by building streaks of showing up and working daily that we get inspired and enter a state of flow.  Not the other way around.  Doing is within our control, and doing is what builds trust in ourselves.

When we trust our practice and our work, it gets easier to “ship” our work.  Godin uses the term “shipping” to cover just about anything you do to get your work out into the world.  Sending this article to The Voice is shipping my work.  No boxes, shipping labels, or brown UPS van, as the term might suggest.  For writers, “shipping the work” can be sending out queries or works for consideration, blogging regularly, reading your work out loud to others, or even engaging in regular written correspondence with a fellow writer or two.  Visual artists participate in shows, investigate gallery options, share their work online, or sell at local shops, fairs, and events.  The point Godin makes is that creatives should share their visions, original perspectives, and creations.  Creative work provides new experiences for people.

Many creatives are afraid of sharing and shipping, though.  They may fear failure, rejection, and criticism.  Some fear that audiences will confuse the art with the person and see them differently.  But by not shipping the work, by not entering that show, or not sending out that article, you are “isolating yourself from the circle of people who can cheer you on and challenge you to do more” (47).  It’s only by first building and trusting our practice and ourselves, however, that we can make that leap to trusting an audience.  And we can only learn to trust the audience if we ship.

I like the uncomfortable truths Godin presents in this book.  I appreciate perspectives that shove me out of my excuses and self-pity.  For example, he dedicates a whole section to “There’s no such thing as writer’s block” (153).  We don’t get blocked: we just decide to wait for a better idea or some kind of unknown outside force to help us.  “The magic is that there is no magic,” Godin asserts.  “Start where you are.  Don’t stop” (257).  Some of these truths can separate the “hacks” from the “professionals.”  If we give in to a mood and dodge our practice, we’re a hack.  Showing up and doing the work makes us professional.  Hacks wait for inspiration; professionals show up and work their way into inspiration.  The practice, the commitment, is our “choice to do something for long-term reasons, not because we’re having a tantrum” (149).  Have you ever found yourself envious of another person’s success?  Chances are, that person is succeeding because “they shipped their work, and you hesitated” (203).  Let that one settle in.  Godin’s little truth bombs can destroy some of your favourite excuses.

One area of the book that was not as effective, however, was when Godin talked about finding an audience.   Finding a supportive and paying audience is a really big deal.  After all, creative people need to eat and pay bills just like everyone else and would like to do so without totally selling out.  In raising this issue, Godin recognizes that creatives need to solve this problem, but because his target audience is so wide, and he tries to cover many possible creative fields, his advice isn’t all that specific or helpful.  He tells us that we can’t aim for everyone and that having some good clients is more desirable than having many mediocre ones.  He tells us to start small: “First find ten.  Ten people who care enough about your work to enroll in the journey and then bring others along” (123).  He is not wrong.  It’s just old advice—stale and vague—that many will need to break down into concrete doable steps on their own.

The Practice, Shipping Creative Work is only 260 pages, and it is divided into 219 chapters spread across eight sections.  Some chapters are shorter than ten lines, while others are a page or two.  The chapters are short, clear, and easy to understand.  While you could probably fly through this book quickly, I recommend spreading your reading out.  Take on a couple of chapters at a time and really think about how they apply to your creative work and what you are making and shipping.   While some of Godin’s ideas are repeated throughout the book, I didn’t mind.  Reminders can take a while to work.  Tasks sometimes show up in our to-do lists and on post-it notes for weeks.  I appreciate a bit of repeated advice and guidance.  After all, writing this review had been on my to-do list for several weeks.

Godin, Seth.  2020.  The Practice: Shipping Creative Work.  Penguin Publishing Group.