If you work on your own – in your office or studio, or your bedroom or at your kitchen table – it can feel like no one is watching. So it doesn’t matter whether you show up.
If you skipped a day on your novel, who would know?
If you didn’t go to the studio today, who would know?
It’s not like anyone is watching, is it?
The same goes for how you show up.
If you stayed out partying last night, you’re probably not going to be at your best this morning.
Even if you’re well-behaved on weeknights, what kind of presence are you bringing to your work each day?
What did you put into your mind before you got down to work?
Were you doomscrolling endless bad news?
Were you sharing outrage on social media?
Were you emailing back and forth about things that could wait till later?
And what kind of emotions did all of that stir up?
And how will that affect the quality of attention you bring to your work?
But again, no one is watching, are they?
Actually, they are.
Because whatever you put on the page or the screen or the canvas or into a microphone today, is precisely what your reader or viewer or listener will pick up whenever they encounter your work.
It’s as though space and time have collapsed, and they are right with you as you write, as you paint, as you compose or speak or sing. Right this moment.
Deep down, you know this, from your own encounters with artworks you love.
That poem that speaks to you as if the poet were in the room.
That novel that is always fresh, always vivid, always humming with life, each time you open it.
That painting that takes your breath away each time you stand before it.
That music you feel in your heart, in your gut, whenever you stop and really listen to it.
Each time you encounter a work like this, you are in the presence of a great performance.
Because the power of a work of art is a result of the presence and intention of its creator, while they were working on it.
If they had phoned it in, you would never have heard of them. You’d be reading someone else’s book or looking at someone else’s art.
Because a true work of art is the result of the artist’s fullest attention, their deepest intention, their greatest performance.
In other words, all arts are performing arts.
So we need to prepare like performers.
I’m lucky enough to have coached quite a few top stage performers – actors, singers, musicians, DJs, comedians and public speakers.
I’ve learned about their pre-performance rituals, which actually extend, very often, to the whole day of a performance.
They are very particular about how they spend that day. They have rules and routines covering their diet, exercise, meditation or other mental preparation, rehearsal or warmup time.
Quite a few of them have an interest or discipline that helps them use their time well, rather than getting into trouble. Yoga. Reading. Learning a language or playing a game. Having a healthy distraction like this can also stop them overthinking their performance.
They all have horror stories to tell about mistakes that led to bad performances – going out the night before, or getting into an argument in the afternoon, or receiving bad news just before walking on stage.
So they do everything they can to minimise disturbance and distractions – anything that would detract from their presence on stage.
Because they know the audience is unforgiving. The audience notices every wobble, every hesitation, every fluffed line, every wrong note.
And they know the audience deserves their best.
It’s a tough regime. But in a way, stage performers are lucky.
Because they are eyeball to eyeball with their public. They are under no illusions that they are being watched and judged. And when the lights go on, there is absolutely no excuse, so they have to show up.
But when you’re sitting there on your own, it’s easy to have illusions.
It’s easy to pretend that no one is watching.
It’s easy to tell yourself it doesn’t matter if you skip today.
Or if you ‘just’ check your email or ‘just’ take a look at Facebook.
Or if you just do your 2 hours or your thousand words or whatever goal you’ve set yourself, but without really showing up, without putting your heart and soul into it. Without risking anything.
But all of these illusions melt away when you realise that your art is a performing art, just as much as Ian McKellen’s or Lady Gaga’s.
When you realise that if you want someone to look at your art or read your book or listen to your album, then you need to show up as if they were in the room with you, watching or reading or listening over your shoulder.
When you realise that, then you start to prepare like a performer.
You think about your pre-performance ritual.
You think about the day – and the night – before your performance.
You put in routines and habits that will prepare you – physically, mentally, emotionally – to show up like a top performer.
Maybe you join the gym or take up tai chi.
Maybe you meditate or listen to something motivational or calming.
Maybe you start learning Spanish or juggling, so you have a way of filling your downtime without getting into trouble.
Before you start work, you avoid anything – news, social media, email, paying bills, meetings – that could break your single-minded focus on your work.
If all of this sounds like too much discipline, too much self-denial, on top of the work itself, then you haven’t quite grasped the implications of what I’m saying.
Because if you’ve ever performed on a stage yourself, you’ll know that yes, it’s scary, and yes, it takes a lot of preparation, but it can also be utterly thrilling.
When you’re on stage and in the zone, when you feel the connection with the audience, and you’re channeling your work, it’s pure joy.
And that joy, that excitement, can be there for you every day you show up for work. Even if it’s just you in the studio or at your desk.
As long as you treat your art like a performing art.