I have cracked the habits to become a famous artist.
Get drunk a lot. Make sure you are in a state of constant physical pain. Be wretchedly unhappy. Feel lonely to the bone. Bleed out your emotions, twice a day. Die.
Someday after you are gone, your work will be discovered, introduced to the world you resented so much, and you will be famous. But you would’ve never guessed what’d happen next.
People will want to live the life you did. And they’ll do that by following your habits.
Habits, routines, and rituals (which I will use interchangeably here) are the plastic behind self-help’s latest face-lift. They have given the voyeurism inherent to self-improvement a High Definition option.
Now all you have to do is wake up at 5:00 AM, post a picture with your toilet-paper on Instagram (#morninginspiration #blessed), run up a small mountain while listening to a podcast, drink a protein smoothie from a flower vase, journal about something personal like your lack of sex drive, rub ice-cubes all over your body, open your guided meditation app and make love to the interstellar corners of the universe and you are now ready to begin your day. Repeat until death.
When I first heard about habits, I went bats. I pored through the routines and habits of people, dead and alive. Impoverished and wealthy, in that order. Miserable and maniacal, no particular order. Now I had my own morning routine. And it seeped into everything I did. Until my entire day became a routine.
Imagine a book that only had the table of contents, over and over again — front to back. That’s what my life looked like.
Reading became more about taking notes and less about the emotions I felt. Meditation was a 20-minute chore I had to strike off a checklist. Writing went from something I enjoyed doing for leisure to something I did so can I can hate myself at a specific time every day until I reached a word count target that would convince me I was on my way to becoming a famous artist.
While habits made me feel I had better control of time, it was time that was controlling me and everything I did. Thanks to routines, I was now a dancer in time’s concubine. The structure of my day which was meant to give me an edge — was dismantling the structure of my living which started to resemble a Toyota Production System. I was a machine and I was feeling great about it.
Routines are productivity’s goon squad. You think your habits are out there to protect you but the moment you take it easy and begin doing things which need some imagination – anything creative – the guilt of doing something unplanned waterboards you with a sense of purposelessness and remorse. You now have no choice but to return to your routines and stifle your creative pursuit within it. Your life folds into time’s vast expanse, another indistinguishable cog robbed of its purpose in its quest to fit into the wheel of eternal fame.
Routines have become propaganda for success. For every buffy the vampire slayer that wakes up at 5:00 AM and has some buttery morning ritual, there is someone that routinely gets plastered, doesn’t wake up till noon, eats cheap crap all day, goes on to live well into their 70’s and become successful. Let me throw in some bonus content while we are at it: Mark Zuckerberg’s morning routine is checking Facebook.
What bothers me is that routines and habits are now becoming factors that determine not just success, but even belonging within creative pursuits. What makes someone a writer, a poet, a musician, an artist is not the structure of his days as much as the structure of his spirit. It’s not making art every day for a specific number of hours but about being open to life, all the time.
It’s ironic how imitating a combination of weird shit that worked for people who became successful as a consequence of their freaky originality is now going to determine whether or not you will become successful. The truth is you don’t want to go through what those people went through and you know that. You only want what they have (/had). Even your starvation is planned.
Habits and routines exist to give your time a safe place to work, learn, play; even heal. Their rigidity and monotony can be helpful to overcome your lack of purpose, a loss, or just give you a head-start toward a goal. You lean on them when you are losing balance, but if they become your crutch to get through life, no matter how successful you get, you will be left with no emotions to feel it. Your brain’s deadened by your fixed response to life. Although you could try blocking time on your calendar to feel happy and see how it goes.
The foundations of habits, rituals, and routines are consistency, focus, patience. And freedom. These are the fundamentals. And they apply to your days as much as they apply to the people who make up those days. These are what you won’t see in your next listicle on becoming a billionaire. Because they are vapid and uninspiring compared to the daily routine of drinking dolphin urea every morning.
The fundamentals are the everyday choices you make not because someone famous told you to do so, but because they are an appropriate response to your days. That’s how you spot miracles. It’s what most art is.
Artists become known because their work frees us. Because they risk their emotions. They go all-in. They bring out all the very things we use routines to escape from.
Self-help gave us goals, but habits give us a system. And that was enough to bring back our hard-on for success. A freakin’ name change. That’s a classic self-help move. It’s why habits are getting rebranded as rituals. But the system is the same: you are promised control, but what you get is conditioning. You know, the same setup Pavlov used on his dogs. It’s why we salivate at every new routine. Routines make you efficient by making you numb to boredom.
This essay has been a difficult one for me to write because of the amount of phoniness I have had to overcome in writing it. Whenever I have been unsure about the direction of my life, routines and habits are where I start. Not that they helped me arrive at some grand destination, but they were the guideposts I needed to go about my days without the fear that I will be lost again.
It took me a few years to see how this obsession for routines can become problematic. It turns into a codependent relationship. You add more and more routines expecting they will get you to your destination faster but your preoccupation with them is what’s preventing you from getting there in the first place. It makes you feel secure because there’s no getting lost anymore. Which also means there’s nothing left to find. You are done. You never planned for arrival, only movement.
Habits, routines, and rituals lend an outline to the book of your life. But the content will always remain one of adventure, creativity, and mystery. You don’t become successful because your outlines made sure you always knew where you were going. You become successful because your book is worth reading.