Taylor Swift performed a rare solo set on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Series. While the performance itself is great, her commentary in between songs is TED Talk material. She showcases the songs the way they were written and talks about her creative process. While she doesn’t share any tips for having a hit single, she has a lot to offer about writing singular songs. Taylor talks about something every professional can relate to: showing up, doing the work, and shipping finished product.
As professionals, we all have procedural and creative elements of our work. There’s the daily “stuff” that just has to get done, and then there are the variations on individual cases that require our creative input. Most of us are not crafting pop anthems, but there’s quite a bit to relate to here. We don’t get lucky breaks unless we’re shipping our work in the first place. We don’t finish our work unless we show up to do it. We don’t get better at our craft over time unless we make it a habit – the kind we do on good and bad days. Taylor writes hits, but she also writes duds. The key is: Taylor Swift writes songs.
Taylor says one of the scariest questions she’s regularly asked is how she’ll write sad songs if she gets happy someday? In other words, is her creative output tied to her own emotional state? Now that she has found work she likes, what happens if it goes away? What if her happiness is based on her unhappiness? It’s an existential crisis in a short question. This is based on the same principle that keeps most people from even trying in the first place: putting effort into something only to have it taken away sucks. So, are we willing to put the effort in at all? Again, on the good and bad days? Her answer is brilliant.
Taylor started writing songs when she was 12. She wrote about heartbreak and breakups with the knowledge of someone who… was still only 12. How? Movies, books, and imagination. Her realization was that if she was inspired at 12 when she was a relatively happy kid without personal source material, she’d be happy later too – maybe especially without the personal source material. While writing her most recent album, she surprised herself when stories from friends inspired some of the new breakup songs. She didn’t have to fill the proverbial well she draws from, she just had to show up to draw the water.
It’s never just about the output. It’s always about the process. Our finished product is a function of the habit we make to show up, do the work, and ship. If we only do procedural jobs and don’t invest a piece of ourselves into the decisions that are made, we are at the mercy of the industries and companies we work for. If, instead, we make our habits based on creatively attacking the problems at hand, we will always be able to find work to do. It takes risking a piece of ourselves, on the good and the bad days, to win. That’s the power of persistence and curiosity.
Taylor Swift may not be the first person most of us think of when we’re looking for professional inspiration, but she is worth paying attention to. She does her job and she does it well. And, as this stripped-down performance reminds us, she’s just another person with an instrument and a voice. Show up, do the work, ship finished product. We’ll never know what could happen unless we start there.