Thoughts on Done

In Creativity and Inspiration, Pep Talks, The Life Creative, Vision Is Better by David14 Comments

I sat earlier this week around the coffee table in my loft with three very close friends, all of them thinkers and artists and several margaritas into the evening. We talked, as photographers and storytellers do, about our art and the art of others, and the struggle we all love enough that we keep doing it. One of the things our conversation settled on was the idea of Done.

We love done (and so we should). Our egos thrive on done (enjoy that feeling). You can brag about done and show others what you’ve done. Accolades, if they come, come when you’re done. Getting done is not easy, but being done sure is. There’s no risk in being done, or close to it. It’s why post-production can be a little too addictive if we’re not careful. It’s polishing what’s done, and there’s no risk there. I can polish all day long, labouring over an open Photoshop window under the delusion that I’m doing my work. And in a small way, I am. But usually I’m just putting off the real work, which is shipping this thing, putting it to rest, and beginning again. Starting the next thing.

Seth Godin says real artists ship. They get the work out there. But they don’t sit around once they’ve shipped. Steven Pressfield, in the War of Art, talks about finishing a novel and telling a friend, “I don’t know what to do now that I’m done.” His friend says, “Start the next one. Tomorrow. Don’t wait.” Finish. Enjoy being done. Then begin something new. Probably the one you’re most afraid of.

Stay moving. It’s too easy to get cozy, resting on what we’ve done. It’s easy to polish. And it’s way too easy to put out a Box-set and a Best of rather than stepping into the unknown and the uncertainty of the What If…? that necessarily accompanies the creative life.

One of my favourite authors, Chaim Potok, begins one of his novels (In the Beginning) with this line: All beginnings are hard…especially a beginning that you make for yourself. That’s the hardest beginning of all.”

But what if we fell in love with the beginnings and the heady rush of discovery? What if we were as hungry for the exploration and seeing the birth of that new work, whatever it is, as we are for the end of the creative process? Would we make work that took more courage? Would we make make more mistakes and thereby open the door to more eureka moments?

Done has its own challenges. There’s something to be said for perseverance. It’s as easy to get distracted from our current work by the thrill of something new, as it is to be polish our work so often that we never ship it. But Michelangelo was a chronic starter who left a vast body of unfinished work, and while the argument can be made that it’s a shame he never finished, I wonder if we’d be impoverished of his true masterpieces by his completion of the others. We can only create so much. Sometimes you have to abandon good to begin – and complete – great.

Whatever that new project is. Begin. Don’t wait until you’ve got it all figured out – that’s what beginning is for. Just start. Now. Genius is overrated. So is inspiration. Inertia kills the muse.


  1. Pingback: Just Start | Steven Johnson Photography

  2. Pingback: New! | J. T. Pedersen

  3. Enjoyed your piece David. You are continually eloquent in your writing and a joy to read.

    Per this topic, I really can appreciate Chaim Potok’s comment about the beginnings we make for ourselves being hardest of all. I would submit that, as we mature and life’s demands increase (e.g. children, spouse, and all the rest), that the new beginnings become ever harder.

    My latest new beginning, a substantial course adjustment, was launching Torben Photography this year. Fortunately I have a lot of support, something important to new beginnings as well.


  4. What a great read to start off a Friday!
    I totally relate to this. I often sit in my studio and collectively make note to all the started paintings I have and not enough of them finished. I have come to realize it is part of my process. I work on many at once and some get finished quickly, some take what seems like forever and some I simply choose to walk away from. And all of the is okay!
    These are OUR creative avenue and no matter which one we choose they are still OUR own and we get to make the rules. Beginnings are amazing. It’s the start of an idea.
    “Inspiration exists, but it must find us working” Pablo Picasso
    Great Read, David. I’m a big fan.
    Happy Friday!

  5. Usually I have several projects going on, at different stages. A couple are just ideas or preliminary attempts, others are almost completed. Or in between. The idea to be done with one of them is somehow scaring…sometimes the “done” projects are the starting point for a new ideas, new interpretation, or a different editing for a different audience. But sometimes they just need to be closed. And sometimes I need to open a real new blank page in my book. It depends…

  6. Done… Such an interesting topic to think about, especially as a photographer. Yes, we should finish our work, print it, ship it, whatever – but isn’t that one of the great “push and pulls” of photography? We yearn to capture moments, to hold on to them forever… yet the real life subject of our work is never done. It keeps on, always. Marching forward – the natural world changes, our subjects age, we ourselves learn more and grow and (hopefully) get better.

  7. Funny how “Done” can relate to anyone’s life, project or whatever…I am not “done”…looking for that image, method or better solution. Retire?…No I am not “Done”… are you ever really “Done”? Not so sure…that “done” really is “done. Awesome conversation..thanks David!

  8. I feel the exact opposite in most cases. I love the thrill of starting something new. Of sinking my teeth and wrangling something I don’t even fully know the shape of.

    My struggle is when I feel I understand the problems and can see a clear path to finish. I get bored. It no longer feels challenging. Just tedious.

  9. David,

    I couldn’t agree more, yet, I am so guilty of this on so many levels. I am always quite taken back how much you get done. But fact of the matter is, I envy the time you have to work towards being done with much. Yeah, you are so right, I have wanted to begin so many projects, write a book, tell someone’s story through images; I have only started [began] a couple. Beginning is, for the most part, my most enjoyable part of working towards being done and now that you mention it, as far as my photography goes, I haven’t gotten much done…

    Damn you for being inspiring. 😉

    With Much Respect,

    Doug van Kampen

  10. Art is never finished, only abandoned.
    ~ Leonardo da Vinci

    To finish a work? To finish a picture? What nonsense! To finish it means to be through with it, to kill it, to rid it of its soul, to give it its final blow the coup de grace for the painter as well as for the picture.
    ~ Pablo Picasso

    Leonard Cohen never seems to be finished with his songs, revises them again and again, often with wonderful results.

    Personally, I never consider a work finished until I print it, and then I will often change something on the next print. I don’t want to abandon a work that I like, but eventually I do just let it be and move on, feeling my best work is yet to come!

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