creative confidence

"I just read the greatest script I've ever read in my life," Steven Seagal informed a screenwriter (after arriving forty-five minutes late to their first meeting).

"Really?" the writer replied, understandably aggravated after cooling his heels in Seagal's trailer while Seagal read. "Who wrote it?"

"I did."

As Thelonius Monk once told his fellow jazz musicians, "a genius is the one most like himself." Say what you like about the guy, but who's more Seagal than Seagal? Since Monk would call him a genius, what can we learn from him as a (martial) artist?

"I learn as much from painters about how to write as from writers," Hemingway told an interviewer for the Paris Review. "I should think what one learns from composers and from the study of harmony and counterpoint would be obvious." Hemingway would have appreciated Monk's advice about music, certainly. And, had he lived to see Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, let's be honest: Hemingway would have loved it. (Tell me Ernest wouldn't have been a big Aikido guy back in the 1990s. Today, he'd be pinning Tom Hardy in MMA tournaments.)

To keep the actual screenwriter for your next film waiting in your trailer while you pretend to read your own script—clearly, Steven Seagal understood the importance of creative confidence. The burning question is, must you earn that confidence gradually through, you know, accomplishments? Or is walking into the arena with completely unearned confidence—as with Seagal's in his own writing abilities—actually a prerequisite to creative accomplishment?

The latter. Suspension of disbelief isn't just for audiences. To find your true genius, to discover that authentic gift only you can offer, you have to Get Out There first. Make work and share it long enough for your real gifts to emerge. Put simply, this requires squinting in the mirror until you see someone who can hack it.

Seagal couldn't act, but he convinced himself he could. As a consequence, he unearthed his own unique creative contribution. This genius wasn't for acting, it was for this, but if Seagal had lacked the confidence to act, he'd never have stepped in front of the camera in the first place.

Like Seagal, comic book legend Todd McFarlane exudes stone-cold creative confidence. In stark contrast to the World's Greatest Martial Artist, Putin apologist, and part-time sheriff's deputy, however, the creator of Spawn and co-founder of Image Comics merits that confidence. (McFarlane brought so much hard-earned creative advice, wisdom, and experience to the Tim Ferriss Podcast, he merited a second episode (1, 2).)

McFarlane is the rare creator I've heard who consciously and strategically balances his creative work against the business of that creativity. Though he acknowledges resenting the time spent managing employees, reading contracts, and negotiating with lawyers, he argues—correctly—that the success of his entrepreneurial endeavors in comic books, television, movies, and toys has enabled his creative freedom. He can make the art he wants and do exactly what he wants to do with that art precisely because he doesn't work for Marvel or DC. He runs the show.

(Marvel made the mistake of dictating to McFarlane exactly how violent one could be in killing the Juggernaut. Comics being comics, the Juggernaut got better, but McFarlane's loyalty to Marvel was destroyed forever.)

What strikes me about McFarlane—who is, how to put this, a strong cup of coffee—is that he began his career with confidence.

As a teenager, he waltzed up to Stan Lee at a comic book convention and requested career advice. When Lee welcomed some questions, the young McFarlane planted himself next to the comic giant for four hours while Lee greeted fans. (Years later, the two became very close, a friendship that lasted until Lee's death.)

As a top-selling artist for Marvel, McFarlane convinced some of the most successful creators in the company's stable to join forces with him and form Image Comics. ("Printing is just ink on paper!")

Rather than license his IP to Hasbro, McFarlane decided he could make his own Spawn toys with far greater quality and at much higher prices. ("Toys are just plastic in a mold!")

Time and again, McFarlane decided he could do something well before he knew how to do it, let alone whether what he did would succeed in the marketplace.

Luckily, we're writers, not bridge engineers or surgeons. For us, confidence can—must—come first. Leap before you look.

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