Hugh MacLeod: Ignore Everybody

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As he began finding success as a cartoonist, marketer and Web pundit, Hugh MacLeod posted a list of 40 "keys to creativity" on his popular blog, His breezy advice for aspiring artists — wisdom such as "Dying young is overrated" and "Selling out is harder than it looks" — found a hungry audience and was downloaded more than a million times. MacLeod has assembled his observations into a book, Ignore Everybody and 39 Other Keys to Creativity, and spoke with TIME about nurturing the inner artist inside all of us.

TIME: Where did the idea for this book come from?
MacLeod: It's advice I wish I had when I was in my early 20s that I learned the hard way after many years. I had just finished college and I had a creative bug, but I had no way to make a living doing it. It's addressed to anyone in that position — what do you do if you're working in a cube in some big office building and you want to write a novel?

You chose a provocative title. Why should people "ignore everybody"?
Because nobody else can tell you whether your idea is worthwhile. People can give you advice, but at the end of the day, it's your decision. The more original an idea, the less helpful the advice is going to be.

There seem to be two paradoxical messages in your book. On the one hand, you've written a can-do guide to success as an artist. Yet you repeatedly warn how competitive and frustrating the creative marketplace can be.
I wanted to say, "This is going to be tough, but that's O.K." I don't know a single successful artist who has an easy time of it, because it's so bloody hard. But at the same time, they have the satisfaction of doing something remarkable. I'm not trying to scare these kids off, it's just all about talent, discipline and stamina. They're all really hard to have.

Let's go over more of your advice. You say it's important to "sing in your own voice" and not be discouraged by your weaknesses. For instance, Bob Dylan's not known for being a great singer.
No, he's not, but he has a way of circumventing his limitations. All artists have limitations, and the best way to circumvent them is to not worry about them too much. If you try to do everything, you're going to imitate somebody else.

You also say the best way to get approval is to not need it.
If you have confidence in your work, you send out a different vibe than if you don't. If you're someone who's supremely gifted in what you do, like John Coltrane, you don't need approval. That confidence in yourself has to be built up organically.

Some people naturally have a "pissed-off gene," you say, which makes them generally dissatisfied with their lives. Do creative people need that gene to be successful?
All the people I know who are successful and talented have it. There's a certain kind of itch to them that makes them willing to work 16-hour days.

Because they're pissed off?
Not necessarily angry, but restless, itchy. I'm suggesting that [gene] is a good thing, because that's what gets us out of bed in the morning.

Living in New York City had a huge effect on you, but you left 10 years ago and now live in a small town in Texas. Why did you move?
I love New York — I had a really good time there. But how many cocktail parties do you really need to go to before you stop learning from that experience? As you get older, you need more peace and quiet to think. Also, New York is really expensive in terms of money and energy. What you need is a place that's somewhat cheap, so you don't have to stress about money and can focus on your work.

You're an American, but your dad is Scottish and you spend a lot of time in Britain. What are some differences you see between the U.K. and the U.S.?
I think the life of a typical creative over there is much more grim. There are a lot fewer business opportunities, so they struggle a lot more. [Americans] have it great, because there's so much more business. The Internet makes it much easier for good ideas to breathe, so there's a demand for creative ideas that didn't exist even 10 years ago. It's an exciting time — it's never been easier or cheaper to put an idea out there and watch it spread.