Don’t steal habits from the greats, steal their rationale

A whole industry has cropped up around the habits of great artists, entrepreneurs, and other successful people. Are they morning people or late-night workers? Are they vegetarian? Do they drink their coffee black or opt for green tea? All these questions and more can be answered in a myriad of books and blogs designed to help you get to the next level by doing what other people do.

Now, I enjoy a biography every now and then, even though they are some of the most anti-historical histories. They are far too generous, but enjoyable to read. Like most humans, I seek heroes and their myths to latch my own hopes upon.

We have to be careful when we start doing data analyses on the habits of greatness. If its not obvious by now, greatness is not determined by your sleep-awake cycle.

When I was younger, I loved the classic artists like Michelangelo or Leonardo Da Vinci. I saw them as creative builders and employable (hah.) After studying many more artists, my preferences diluted and I can’t say I have a favorite anymore, but Van Gogh has always stood out to me for one reason: output. Despite being the least employable great artist of Europe, Van Gogh created more work in 10 years than most artists make in a lifetime.

When people discuss increasing your output as a creator, Van Gogh’s habits are not revered. No one in their right mind can suggest that eating your own paint, substance abuse, and self-harm will turn you into a great artist. Some people will say Van Gogh was just crazy and his success was a fluke. My inspiration and kinship with Van Gogh has always stemmed from my admiration for his self-help through making art. He wasn’t looking to make more art in 10 years than most artists make in their lifetime. I am 100% sure that was never his goal. He was trying to survive, to feel, to express what was inexpressible in order to feel like it was worth living. So perhaps the lesson we can take from Van Gogh is: if you want to increase your output, your output needs to be crucial to your survival. Finding a crucial purpose for your work seems a lot harder than waking up at 5am and drinking green tea to get your creative juices flowing, isnt it?

You thought you could be a great world-changing entrepreneur by just mimicking Bezos’ morning routine, right? It sounds insane when I put it that way, but that’s the idea these books and bloggers are selling.

So take a different approach – look at the greats you admire and think about the challenges they met every step of the way. What was their rationale behind certain decisions? What was their rationale behind developing certain habits? If you used the same rationale – what kind of life and habits would you have?

Remember that the “greats” have the privilege of being biographized by their superfans. They are human, after all, as flawed as you. There are also plenty of other greats that never became famous or perhaps fell out of favor with historians and nobody teaches about them anymore.

In conclusion, I do think there is value in studying and having role models. My criticism of the “habits” obsession is that it doesn’t go deep enough. Think about your role models as real human beings, and accept that if you are to achieve what they have achieved, you will have to feel similarly to what they felt. Pressured, lost, self-confident, innovative, brave, isolated, self-defining and/or rebellious. There are no short-cuts.

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