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Frustration – the secret to ultra-successful creative business

Frustration – the secret to ultra-successful creative business

Creativity is synonymous with business success. It’s the skill that sets an entrepreneur apart from other business wannabes. That’s why entrepreneurs can learn a lot from observing successful artists, no matter what material or medium either party might use to make their art.

I learned something game-changing about business and creativity, from the most bizarre source imaginable. It was a video of Jack White (of “The White Stripes” fame) playing with his old band The Raconteurs. He was rocking out, playing so hard that the tips of his fingers were smearing blood all over his guitar.

Actually, that alone wasn’t the business lesson. Watching the gig simply had me in awe of his rockstar abilities. The eureka moment happened when I watched Jack talk about his philosophy for making creative music, in the documentary film It Might Get Loud.

As entrepreneurs, we are often confronted with opportunities to exercise our creative mind. We get to dream up innovative solutions to unusual problems or create tangible products. Creativity is an essential part of doing game-changing business.

Most business owners have trained themselves to always look for easy solutions. There are good reasons for this.





… are all achingly hot buzzwords coined to describe the practice of making business easy and cheap. Easy and cheap go together like peas and carrots. Difficult and expensive (even if it’s only costing you precious time) are similarly paired.

When it comes to thinking creatively, the pursuit of “easy” is a mistake.

Last week I helped a client brainstorm ideas for a new product and asked them the ol’ “what would you do if you had a magic wand?” coaching question. Their first thought? They’d wave their magic wand and outsource – they’d get someone else to create the product. It’d be easier.

Many entrepreneurs get caught in this trap – asking themselves desperately: “How can this be easier?”

Easy is a good thing to focus on when you’re managing a business. It makes sense, but if you’re trying to innovate, be creative and build a business, easy is the wrong way to go.

Jack White deliberately plays an ancient guitar filled with cracks and holes. He’s owned it for years.

This guitar is so old and screwed up that it’s difficult to get a good sound out of, yet it’s his favorite guitar. He has this to say about the concept of “easy” creativity:

“Ease-of-use is the disease you have to fight, in any creative field.”

“I keep guitars where the neck is a little bent and it’s a little bit out of tune. I want to work and battle it and conquer it… and make it express what ever attitude I have at that moment. I want it to be a struggle.”

Jack believes that creativity should be a struggle and that producing something worthwhile is never going to be easy.

Knowing this, he embraces challenge openly and forces himself to work within the voluntary constraints of old, half-broken equipment. As an internationally recognized rockstar, he has access to the latest and greatest new gear… but he chooses to work hard to pull tortured blues music out of an ancient guitar.

In business, making things easy cuts cost. To innovate and do something truly worthwhile, we have to struggle.

We have to overcome challenges and operate within self imposed boundaries. Doing this is what makes a difference, since everyone else is focused on making a quick, easy buck.

Companies that limit meetings to 15 minutes, no exceptions, impose a limitation that forces creative problem solving. Solutions get found, fast.

Writing a haiku poem requires sophisticated, intelligent thought because of the 5/7/5 syllable limit. Writing freestyle, without rules, is easy. Good poetry is hard.

Tailors of bespoke suits have known this principal for years… They advertise “hand-stitched” even if machines do the job better, simply because the struggle of hand made, custom tailoring is their competitive advantage.

By seeking out challenge, looking for difficult problems to solve or deliberately creating limits and struggle (where there is none) we can build extraordinary businesses.

  • 37Signals decided to build software with as few features as possible. They’ve gained a reputation for elegant, focused and user-friendly products and are miles ahead of the competition because of that decision.
  • Saddleback Leather go to extraordinary lengths to create leather goods that’ll last for generations. They promote the abuse of their products (literally feeding them to crocodiles) and encourage customers to do the same.
  • Chris Guillebeau publishes a blog post twice a week, every single week, without fail. While loads of bloggers publish regularly, few announce it as a rule. Imposed consistency is another form of forced “difficulty”.
  • Twitter revolutionized social media by doing nothing but limiting users to 140 characters, making “micro blogging” a rule.

Avoiding rules or choosing the “easy way” would have been tempting.

Chris could cut his blog posts back to one a week and have more free time. 37Signals could include every feature their users ask for in their next software release. Saddleback could make stuff that lasts for 50 years, not 100.

It’d be easier and cheaper.

Nevertheless taking the easy-route would, at best, destroy some of the magic that these people and their businesses provide. At worst, customers would see it as a violation of the very principals the company stands for.

Jack White built an international career around his raw, untouched sound. In an era of over-produced, auto-tuned pop music, he keeps it real by releasing rock albums where you can hear the struggle that went into the music. His fans love him for it.

If we, as business owners, focus on doing things the easiest, fastest and cheapest way… we’ll build boring businesses that don’t have anything worthwhile to offer people. No one will pay attention because if it’s that easy, it’s probably been done before.

When an entrepreneur chooses to market themselves in only 140 characters or refuses to include requested (but superfluous) features in their product, they’re forcing themselves to be creative by embracing difficulty. They’re choosing a struggle, or a set of limitations, and are announcing “I will succeed within these boundaries!”

They’re making music with a busted guitar. They’re doing something that is so impressive that everyone wants to hear about it.


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      1. yeah…well…I struggled all right…but not sure I created anything but a mess :s

        …but I guess bloody fingers on old guitar strings WOULD leave quite the mess! When creativity involves F2F service to others, there is a certain amount of control over the process that I give up, people and illness and medicine being what they are. Were the people all served well…most likely. Were they served to the standard I want to create…not likely. And the detritus will take days to clean up, which does not serve ME well. There is no doubt that I can create good experiences for patients, but creating a “flow” state for myself when everyone is convinced their issue is an emergency….ah… THERE’S the art I want to create now!

  1. I kinda, sorta agree and kinda, sorta don’t.

    I think setting out on an endeavour with the expectation of it being a struggle won’t help one bit. You get into that “struggle” mindset that brings along a bunch of stuff that takes away from what you’re doing, and sometimes people think that suffering goes hand in hand with struggling. Suffering and struggling are most certainly 2 different things.

    For me, there are 2 key points here. First is that struggle doesn’t preclude fun. And second is making sure to react deliberately when you find youself in a place of struggle.

    1. @Steve If I may… The Struggle is *exactly* what creates the difference… It is very personal to each of us. Only through this accepted process will the profound appear…

      peace to you,

      1. I agree that struggle is personal to each of us, but I still beg to differ on the role that struggle plays. Do amazing things happen as a result of struggle? Absolutely, yes. Is struggle a prerequisite to amazing things happening? No.

        When a client’s facing adversity and possibly struggling, a useful question is “How can this be easier?”, because it shifts them out of victim mode and into a place where they can make choices. The point isn’t to run away from the struggle or shrink back from it, but to find ways to make it feel easier, more fun, more graceful, more congruent. In that way you’re better able to confidently apply the best of yourself.

        Perhaps it’s semantics, but if we’re talking about “challenge”, then I absolutely agree.

        1. Actually, Steve, your comment reminded me of the post Peter wrote in which he mentioned he had set down his keys, “lost” them, and then couldn’t find them again… despite having passed right over them several times. He didn’t believe they were there, and so they weren’t.

          Likewise, if you believe you’re going to struggle – you will. Kind of sad, that.

          I also like your suggestion of, “How can we make this work, then?” Instead of struggling throught the roadblock and thinking it integral to reaching the goal, realizing there are other ways of going around it is valuable.

          You know… I struggle with my writing sometimes (not at all often these days), and for each time I’ve struggled, I’ve never thought it integral to awesome creativity. I’ve always considered it a symptom of an issue I need to resolve. And once I do, it rarely comes back.

          1. @James — I must circle back around to the importance of The Struggle. We are human. Individuals. As creators, we forge ideas into existence.

            As a songwriter and composer, a melody or groove may easily come as “a gift” because we are: available to hear it. The struggle to complete the song may be a difficult, yet joyous path to creating something profound and sharable beyond “simple” or “easy”. Craftsmanship matters.

            If you’ve ever watched a craftsman work with metal, glass or stone, none of these actions is easy or simple. If it were… it would be mundane.

            When we couple the spiritual aspect of creation with our own physical/environmental restraints– each of us creates something no other person on earth could have ever…


          2. @James ahh, but you DO impose limitations to your writing that you “struggle” within. I know for a fact (cos we’ve discussed it) that you work hard to get your wordcount down sometimes… even when, if “free writing” you might be far far over the 750-1000 wordcount you’re shooting for.

            This is just the same as Jack and his guitars. He could use a brand spanking new Les Paul and get a sweet sweet sound, easily. But he chooses to beat an amazing sound out of a guitar with character.

            You could get your point across just fine (engaging and WELL even!) in 2000 words… but you choose to do it eloquently and tight… in 1000.

            Voluntary limitations. Struggle. Creativity.

            …. it’s all there!

        2. @Steve In a way (cos I’m not sure we’re on the same page here) I think that we’re talking about picking and choosing one’s challenges. When you choose to shoot for a goal that is truly worthwhile, it’s likely to be a challenge because if it were easy… everyone would be doing it.

          Does that make sense? :S 😉

          1. Now that I can agree with!

            Absolutely creativity and innovation and biz success require that we challenge ourselves, that we step outside of what we would label comfortable or easy, but doing so doesn’t have to entail struggle.

            Struggle comes when we’re pushing against something, resisting something…and while that might be the way we’ve been conditioned to view challenges, that doesn’t mean it’s the only, or the best, way. 😉

            Much of the struggle we experience is a result of our thoughts about the challenge.

            When we expect it to be “easy,” when we expect it to be comfortable, and it turns out it’s neither, our minds kick in with thoughts like, “It shouldn’t be this hard” or “It shouldn’t be this scary.” And it’s those very thoughts that then create the struggle.

            Struggle will exist any time we’re trying to tell ourselves that something “should” be other than it really is.

            When we recognize that challenging ourselves to do something new, or create something new is going to feel a little (or a lot) uncomfortable initially, when we get more comfortable with being uncomfortable (I know, quite the dichotomy) rather than feeling like a struggle, it can feel exhilarating and inspiring.

            Like Steve, I may be arguing semantics here, but I think it’s an important distinction. Something being hard or challenging doesn’t, in and of itself, require struggle.

            Great, thought-provoking post, Peter. Thanks!

    2. Hey Steve,

      I think the big difference here (in my metaphorical example) is that Jack White is voluntarily accepting a struggle as a format off “forced creativity”. And yes: Suffering and struggling are two different things – I agree on that 100%

  2. Thanks – this post really motivated me. I’m blogging and writing an ebook in a second language (I write in English, but my native language is German). Sometimes, that can be tough because it means that I have to spend twice as much time on the writing process and I need to have every single post proofread by a native English speaker before I can publish it.

    But now, I have this image of a bleeding guitarplayer in the back of my head, and it kind of makes me feel cool for what I’m doing 😉

    1. Hey Lucas!

      I love your observation – It’s always made me smile when second language english speakers end up surpassing fluency and speaking vastly SUPERIOR english to native speakers like myself. Happens all the time.

      .. perhaps with the extra effort you’re putting into your project, it’ll end up coming out better written than much of what is produced by native english speakers too! 🙂

  3. Peter, thanks for a very valuable post, it’s definitely a strategy everybody should thing about.
    Just a small error, “39Signals decided to build software” The name is 37 not 39.
    Another way to look at it, for 37 Signals to say NO and marketing the concept of minimalist of simplicity is easier and cheaper than building into the software all the features the clients need. 37 signals, by not adding some features and not and integrating and combining i.e. their CRM and Project Management, I think they will end up where Quark is vs. Adobe Indesign. I have nothing against 37 signals just my opinion.

  4. Great post.

    “To innovate and do something truly worthwhile, we have to struggle.”

    It appears there has always been a struggle with our past innovators and work that is truly worthwhile. I wonder if the struggle produces depth to reach heights that make an impact.

    If that’s the case, it’s worth fighting through the struggles to meet the depth in and for others.

    I believe there are some struggles and boundries that are unnecessary. I’m learning they are just distractions.

    Defining the difference is key and can be a struggle.

    Fighting through,

    1. Hi Marcy, thanks for your comment. Like I said in another reply – it’s all about the challenges we choose to accept. Not all struggle is good, but if we pick the battles that COUNT we’ll make a difference. 🙂

  5. Mmmm… I’m going to have to gently step to a semi-opposing side, here.

    I think expecting *anything* to be easy or know it can be done by anyone is a path to lack of improvement or thinking out of the box or even enjoyment of victory. So yes, I expect struggles and am willing to face them.

    But I would be very hard pressed to jump in if someone told me, “You *should* struggle and bleed to be creative.” Sorry… no. (That’s probably not what you’re saying either, but it’s how I read it.)

    I think enjoying what we do first is crucial. Second is accepting we’ll sometimes struggle as we grow, learn and innovate new ways. Third is finding ways to overcome those struggles and eliminate them. If they’re constant, or continually cropping up, then there’s something wrong.

    On a side note, I watched that documentary (on your recommendation, and thank you for that one!) and I remember being shocked when I saw the bloody guitar and the stoned-out zone the player was in at the time. I thought, “Good god, he’s hurting himself!… and is that even music? Sounds like noise…”

    Of course, the state he was in was probably very awesome. Being in the zone where nothing else matters is cool – to a bloodless extent.

    Oh, and the mention of restrictions that limit creativity actually expands creativity? I agree.

    *off for more coffee, rambling comment proves it’s needed*

    1. James, you don’t need to be gentle when you step to an opposing side – do it violently! I can take it 😛

      Seriously though, I’m curious to know what you think about my comments re: writing to a word count. It’s about picking the struggles that matter.

      And yeah… if EVERYTHING was a huge struggle, it wouldn’t be good. If Jack White was struggling to just play ANY guitar, he really would be making nothing but horrible noise.

      Struggle is different to plain ol’ “difficulty”… I think. I’m also hugely aware that this comment section is (unintentionally) turning into one of those semantic debates haha…

  6. The pursuit of “easy” is not the same as the pursuit of “simple.” Simple is a limit that can REALLY spawn creativity.

  7. Threaded comment limit prevents me from posting up above, so I’ll reply here:

    @seanrox – Well, I actually have observed metalsmiths, blacksmiths, glassblowers, woodcrafters and saddlemakers in action. None of them struggled. They all took their time and worked away quietly with inner patience that looked near akin to zen, with a peacefulness I wished I could touch.

    No struggle. And I doubt any of these people that I’ve seen would continue their craft if it was a fight. Most of them akin their craft to love – they have to be tender, gentle and care for it, taking time and patience.

    I respect your beliefs that “The Struggle” is important to you, absolutely. It seems an integral one that’s clearly working for you, so that’s great.

    I just have different beliefs and they include that if you love what you do, no matter how creative it is, it should be something you enjoy and that it should come simply and easily. And thank god for me that mine does 🙂

    1. See I would define metalwork as a huge struggle – man taming metal with physical effort! Bang bang bang with hammers and stuff! Awesome!!

      It’s like a handmade suit – a hand forged sword is awesome because of the struggle that goes into it. It IS struggle – a machine made blade would be a lot EASIER…

      … it’s the struggle that makes hobbyist metalworkers do what they do. It’s the struggle that makes it all worth it. 🙂

    2. @James we should get Adam to weigh in on this from a woodworking point of view. A guy like him? He could easily buy all his furniture from IKEA … but he doesn’t. He chooses to “struggle” to make it himself – holding himself to a far higher standard of craftsmanship.

      He picks a struggle then overcomes it… and gets awesome furniture as a result.

      (I hope all that stuff I just made up is actually true and he agrees with me LOL)

  8. @Peter – I see now from your comments that it’s the use and definition of the word struggle that’s a sticking point, and that there seem to be two messages in this post as opposed to one. So my reply:

    1) I use the dictionary definition of struggle, which is basically “to fight, to have conflict, to extert strenuous force”… all of which imply struggle and very negative connotations to me.

    When you wrapped struggle in quotes and made it “struggle”, I realized that you’ve changed the meaning of the word, and thus… well, we’re talking bananas and oranges. I believe you mean challenge, which implies a stimulating situation that requires some effort to achieve. Totally different.

    2) I’m now lost on whether the post’s message is “limit your creativity and you’ll achieve better results/more innovative results” or whether it’s “creativity should be a “struggle” (in quotes, not literally). If you were suggesting that limitations and restrictions tend to achieve more innovative results, then of course I agree!

  9. Very interesting. I happen to be a bespoke tailor and I can tell you, it is a struggle.

    James, maybe it was a romantic impression, the zen like state etc, but it ain’t. It comes from years and years of deeeeeeep frustration. When you surpass it, like Peter says, you definitely get the zone and the zen, but to get there is hard work.

    I saw a documentary about shao-lin monks. These guys can do amazing things, like stand upside down, on only one finger. Yes this is physically possible. It just requires that you ram your extended hand into a bucket of beans, several hours a day. For years. Obviously, the body will develop muscles so unbelievably strong that in the end a single finger can support the weight of the body.

    Lots of pain during lots of years. And then you get the zone. Now replace ‘pain’ with ‘frustration’. There you go.

  10. Dare I add? Perhaps @James eyes his bliss as motionless and telepathic? 😉 I am truly enjoying this topic, gentleman…

    (…because in recent years, by coupling a more physical/toiling lifestyle into my music, songwriting and brand/web UI, I’ve found a level of kai-zen in each form of creation. As Alan Watts shares: Life is a dance… )

  11. I think we all just view this in different ways, with no right or wrong answer, really. I don’t see the blacksmith’s work, Adam’s work or yes, even Martin’s work as a *struggle*.

    A challenge, yes. Effort required, yes. Patience, determination, application of skills, yes. Struggle?

    *shrugs* If it works for you guys to call it that, then go for it! But I define things differently in my map of the world, and in my creative trade and career, my definitions keep me happy.

    S’what counts, right?

    1. Isn’t that because you’ve not done it though? Or to change views, didn’t you struggle at times to get where you are today? Have you never perspired over a text til your pc shorted?

      By the way, the word theme was frustration, not struggle. I laud your healthy attitude, and I can relate. It can be a super headache to baste a sleeve twenty times and still not get it right. What does a whimp do? Forget about it, finish it, and sell crap. What does a strong mind do? Take a coffee or a good nights’ rest and try again.

      In that sense, frustration really does work as a motivator to get better and solve problems. And as such, the ‘struggle’ is part of learning, but not a problem.

      Hm, I think this is going to go into semantics.

  12. Powerful stuff Pete,

    I think we sometimes believe that creativity is about having “no limits,” but you have eloquently shown us that deliberating creating limits can in fact force us to be more creative. It’s counter-intuitive. I guess by giving ourselves less tools to use, we are motivated to experiment with those same tools in different ways to get better results.

    Great examples. too I also like Jack White’s band The Dead Weather. Very raw and delicious garage rock.

  13. Hi Peter,

    Another great post with strong points and thought. The perfectionist in me thanks you!

    “Quick and convenient” has all too often become the business strategy rallying cry. But, as you point out, that doesn’t always lead to the best outcome.

    “The three greatest essentials to achieve anything worth while are: Hard work, stick-to-itiveness, and common sense.” —Thomas Edison

    Thanks again Peter!

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