Picture this: An injured Japanese Samurai warrior finds himself in search of a place of rest in a quiet bamboo forest. He quietly steps over any fallen branches, fearing that the noise would attract unwanted visitors. Despite his careful footing, he trips and catches his fall on a large bamboo trunk and thus makes a noise loud enough that it weaves and traverses through the woods. As the echo leaves, a new noise returns. Sounds of pacing footsteps and heavy armour start to make their way toward him.
Enemies have become aware of the lonely warrior’s presence.
The samurai now has a detrimental problem on his hands. He must act fast, utilising any available means. What he cannot do, is lament the possibilities of what he could have carried with him. During the battle that leads to this very moment, the warrior had injured himself badly and even lost his only sword to a lethal opposition. Thinking about how he could have defended himself with the sword which he no longer possessed, would be pointless. He would become stuck in a kind of paralysis that would only bring him a sense of loss and a lack of confidence in his next decision.
Luckily, the warrior instead ignores this ephemeral thought and gets to work: grabbing a fallen branch to tie any loose possessions he was carrying onto his back, the warrior began to climb one of the wider trunks. Despite struggling, at this point, the noise was not a concern for the samurai as he knew the approaching soldiers were making more in their charge, meaning that they would likely not notice his climb.
Now, much higher up and out of sight, the warrior slings his bag around the tree and uses it as a means to tie himself to the wood – providing himself with more time up that very tree. He let the impatient, opposing samurai that were searching the forest in hopes of slashing the heads off any remaining fighters – to pass by. The warrior was now safe.
The wisdom learnt from a story like this would echo for years as writers such as Bryan Golden would point out that, ‘wishing for something one doesn’t have wastes time while accomplishing nothing’. To understand why this kind of thinking is paramount to avoid, you must first educate yourself on the importance of your ability to work with what you have.
Our world thrives in moments when the individuals who occupy it are useful.
Defined mainly by creations that provide higher meaning and value to humanity; usefulness seems like an obvious goal for you to have in mind. Instead, subtle yet devastating distractions may snatch ambition and desire away from you; leaving you dependent on things which present very little in meaning or fulfilment.
Your dependency, however, is not to things which are in your immediate grasp. It is instead to the theoretical, a realm of ideas in which you exercise your thinking but refuse give power to move you into useful action. This dependency also brings with it dangers which may leave you powerless: unable to control the path in which you will travel on, through life.
Those who are most formidable in life, who have built great businesses, art and legacies of usefulness, are those who have utterly mastered the art of self-reliance. This art is one that you must aim to deeply immerse yourself in.
Self-reliance brings with it the power to do great things. Self-reliance provides true confidence, leadership and a lack of compromising dependencies. Whilst there are many means to amplify this self-reliance, one to immediately develop is to learn to work with what you have.
American athlete, Arthur Ashe famously stated that you should ‘start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.’ And whilst this may seem at first read, to be blindly optimistic – it is in fact, extremely practical advice. There are plentiful examples of those who have used what is within their means, utilising time, creativity and an intense acceptance for reality, in order to create and achieve. They let go of any dependencies they had and understood that, as Bryan Golden elegantly wrote: ‘opportunities are missed due to inaction… inaction results from waiting for ideal conditions’.
Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can. - Arthur Ashe
Throughout life, you must look to these opportunities and must do so by cleverly using what tools you have in your grasp; rather than leaving your hands open, expecting your equipment to change. Think of the following stories as examples of the necessary steps to move you toward this way of creativity and self-reliance.
Use time wisely
David Goggins is considered to be one of the most elite endurance athletes in the world. In his many achievements, a stand out feat for Goggins would be his triumphant completion of the Badwater Ultra Marathon. This particular marathon demands a gruelling 135 miles from each runner. Not only does it require this unimaginable distance, but it drags those who brave the run through the sweltering and soul-torturing desert of Death Valley, California.
Goggins crossed the finish line of Badwater Ultra Marathon at the time of 25:49:40.
Due to his prolific notoriety, many of those who follow Goggins’ efforts already know this staggering statistic and achievement. Despite this, many do not know that David Goggins actually set out to start running Ultramarathons at a point in his life when he had never run before. Ignoring the more standard choice of slowly progressing up in distances, Goggins threw himself into the deep end. Upon choosing between whether to sink or swim; Goggins designed, what would later become, his daily running routine.
His routine was (and still is) as follows:
Each morning Goggins arises at 3 am, allowing for a bursting start with a run of between 10-15 miles. Riding this energetic start, he hops onto his bicycle for a 25-mile commute to work. It’s lunchtime. Goggins finds time for another run. Here, he sneaks in 5-8 miles. Following a hard day’s work; Goggins finds himself locked in a commitment, previously made on his commute to work, as he is demanded to cycle another 25 miles back home.
But David Goggins doesn’t stop there. He refuses for tiredness to seep into his routine and proceeds to allow his will to drive him back out and onto a final 3-5 mile run.
When thinking about fitting in work to pursue a passion or work on a side-project, those who have full-time jobs may utter such phrases such as ‘if only I had more time’ or ‘I am always so busy’, but Goggins, whilst running his countless miles every day – also maintained a full-time career. When working with what you have, you must make sure to use the most precious resource you have, wisely. Seneca wrote in his prolific text, On the Shortness of Life, how ‘it is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much’.
Another example you should look to, to understand how time can be mastered, comes from the legendary story of the wandering samurai warrior: Miyamoto Musashi. Known mainly for his intense dedication to the craft of swordsmanship, Musashi’s status places him among the greatest warriors who have ever lived. Besides his mastery of the sword, the lone fighter was a devoted student of strategy and in his later life, wrote his book on the art of strategy: The Book of Five Rings. Amongst the many strategies that Musashi would take advantage of, one stands out to those who wish to utilise time effectively.
For most Shugyou-Sho (lone-wondering fighters), ‘borrowing the battlefield’ meant flocking to any major battle in an attempt to be noticed by either a Shogun or Daimyo in hopes to be granted the respected status of a Samurai.
But what Musashi saw in this strategy, was a deeper, more powerful underlying opportunity. One that may not have paid him the economic rewards or stature in the short-term, but instead would have provided him with incredibly intense and real practice for the art of swordsmanship.
The Battle of Sekigahara was a conflict that saw the last military dictatorship of Japan being established. The battle took place two years following the death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who had previously succeeded in unifying Japan without having to become Shogun. This left the country under rule of his five-year-old son. Musashi fought on the side of the Ashikaga Clan against the oncoming army of Ieyasu Tokugawa. However, he and the army he had tied himself to, lost and many of the army were even massacred following the fight. Musashi, luckily, managed to survive.
Now of course, it cannot be denied that this was presenting the 17-year-old, unemployed warrior with the opportunity to be noticed by those higher up the rank; but this was not Musashi’s sole intention. His main motivation was having the opportunity to practice the craft of swordsmanship in an environment where the stakes were of life and death and the enemies were in plentiful supply. And whilst the potential benefits of being noticed did appeal to the fighter; it did not distract young Musashi, and in fact, acted more so as an increase in the already high-demanding benchmark for success.
Miyamoto Musashi lived his art – and his immense dedication should not be taken lightly. ‘There is nothing outside of yourself that can ever enable you to get better, stronger, richer, quicker, or smarter. Everything is within. Seek nothing outside of yourself.’ These words prove that Musashi clearly mastered the art and realisation of self-reliance. This desire to excel in his craft came from within. If Musashi were borrowing the battlefield with only the desire to be granted the title of Samurai, Musashi may not have excelled in the same way.
There is nothing outside of yourself that can ever enable you to get better, stronger, richer, quicker, or smarter. Everything is within. Seek nothing outside of yourself.
For you, borrowing the battlefield is a powerful strategy. Working for a company that doesn’t hold the values you respect in a workplace very highly, the 40 hours a week you devote to that very company may be a gruelling truth you consistently tackle with. But as Musashi did on during the Battle of Sekigahara, you must search inward and find your motivation to see the powerful positives of your situation. Despite the company not having values that you align with, you may actually be in a unique position which grants you close interaction with the CEO of the company. Use that time: study the means in which businesses can scale. Learn to take on more responsibility. Learn to develop managerial skills. Learn to take on tasks that will push your mind to think creatively in a way it had not previously done so. From here, you will make momentous progress and would have even geared yourself with the skills and tools which will come to be of great use as you step out of the company and even start your own. Start with where you are and what you have, and from here, build the foundations for your future.
Accept your reality
In a previous essay, I have written about the approach that Jazz musicians, creative writers and actors use to overcome and thrive from life’s (often obtrusive) reality shifts. This is a technique I refer to as the ‘Improv Strategy‘. I noted that this strategy comes from first accepting the truest form of this new found reality. And only from this acceptance, can momentous progression be made.
See, acceptance is the missing puzzle piece which allows you finish and move onto the next, more interesting and exciting puzzle. Beyond acceptance, the Improv Strategy shows its colours; transforming the beholder’s existence from mere participation to a thriving mastery.
And whilst this essay hinted at reality shifts such as losing a job, a relationship falling apart or even an opportunity closing off a previously accepted avenue; there are varying degrees of life’s alterations. Some may prove to be far more difficult to apply the Improv Strategy to.
Take Helen Keller: at only the age of 18 months, young Keller became both blind and deaf. Whilst she was examined by inventor and teacher of the deaf: Alexander Graham Bell and was then trained and taught by the Perkins Institution for the Blind’s Anne Sullivan Macy until her own death; Keller had to truly accept her reality herself in order to progress with training and further development.
Remarkably, Keller learnt to lip-read. At ten years old, Helen became aware of a girl in Norway who, like her, was deaf and blind. But this girl, located in the Horace Mann School for Deaf, had been taught to speak. On the hope that Helen too would be able to communicate in an ordinary manner, Anna Sullivan took her to meet the girl in Norway – Sarah Fuller. Driven by Helen’s unparalleled determination to learn, Sarah to place Helen’s hands on her own lips, tongue, face and throat whilst she spoke. From here, Helen would be able to distinguish sounds and then words from the position and of Sarah’s lips and tongue and would cognitively combine this with the vibrations Helen could feel from Sarah’s throat.
The tremendous amount of effort required from Helen exhausted her. But within a few days, Helen uttered her first sentence.
“It’s too warm here”.
Years later, Helen Keller would do what seemed to be the impossible. In a time when very few women were even attending university, she would graduate.
Beyond this, Keller would even write 6 books whilst also co-founding the American Civil Liberties Union; where her focused efforts would lead to the improvement of treatment of the deaf, as well as the removing of disabled from asylums.
Helen Keller thrived through her accomplishments but only did so by first accepting her reality. Anyone that aims to achieve anything on a similar degree must take this radical approach. Whilst reaching the heights that Keller did, does require a lot of grit, courage, dedication and creativity; without acceptance, resistance will replace it and will ultimately grant the ephemeral reality shifts, far too much power over you.
Resistance traps you into revisiting your reality shifts regularly, preventing you from completely moving on and putting your mind to new and more important challenges that will ultimately reward you with the accomplishments you deserve to achieve.
Acceptance may seem obvious, but in some industries, even the most talented creatives allow resistance to overthrow any ambition they may have previously carried with them.
Take the filmmaking industry. Hollywood, although it seemed as though pretty much everyone headed to Hollywood to make it at one time, very few ever made it. And whilst the mesmerising lights and wild dreams of becoming a star were the burning desires of many young individuals, the truth was that Hollywood very much had its doors tightly shut.
But, since the birth of the Netflix era and even the production of high-quality content getting viral attention; having a profession in the filmmaking industry has become very obtainable and has placed countless talented creatives in the limelight.
Despite this, many still allow their dreams to be tarnished and pushed down their life priorities due to concerns such as not having the right connections or the ‘industry-standard’ equipment.
As a creative: if you are held back by such matters, allow yourself the opportunity to see that there are so many ways in which you can work with what you have in order to progress and put your work out and for it to have impact.
You cannot suffer in your anxiety of not having the connections that you perceive to be so important to your success. Tim Ferriss, 5x New York Times Bestselling author, spoke in an interview that he would respond to naive questions along the lines of ‘who should I meet to promote my book later?’ with an approach that he personally uses for his own creative work which is ‘how do I need to work on my book, in order to meet these interesting people?’. Tim never relied on a network in order to sell his work, but rather built a network from what he had, which was his ideas and the medium to which he could communicate them best – his books.
For a lack ‘proper equipment’ or budget, look to Sean Baker and his movie: Tangerine. The film was a tremendous success. In 2015, it premiered at the Sundance film festival and extremely well-received. Whilst many would suggest that filmmakers need the best ‘gear’ in order to make a great film like this; Sean Baker actually took hold of his tight budget and shot his film on three iPhones. Radium Cheung (Director of Photography for Tangerine), pointed out in an interview, that all they had were these three iPhones and, after reaching out to an early stage Kickstarter, crowd-funded company, they got their hands on an incomplete prototype of an anamorphic adapter that would go on the iPhone to give the camera a slightly wider angle. Sean Baker and Radium Cheung worked with what they had.
They radically accepted their reality: with a tight budget and a small scale plan for release, Sean looked to his past experience of having worked with the iPhone camera to make short films on the internet platform, Vimeo, and decided to use the smartphone as a replacement for having to spend potentially over $100,000 in the ‘industry standard equipment’. But it was actually from accepting their reality, they were able to not only move on but were able to learn a lot from the process and to push into new territories of filmmaking. A feature film having been produced on an iPhone would seem like a publicity stunt or clever marketing ploy, but it was not even announced that Tangerine was produced with smartphones until after the film was premiered.
Imagine if Helen Keller spent the time she had, learning to lip-read and educating herself at university, worrying instead about her inability to see or hear and dreaming of a life with sight and sound. Imagine where Sean Baker would be if he had waited around for someone to randomly make him responsible for a larger film budget. Dreams can be a powerful source of inspiration, but it cannot practically move you in the way acceptance can. Author Robert Greene wrote in his book, Mastery, that ‘while others may find beauty in endless dreams, warriors find it in reality, in awareness of limits, in making the most of what they have’. Working with what you have, means evaluating and being contempt with what you have – and it is only from accepting what you have that you can really start to make progress with what you have.
Be creative with your tools
Jon Oringer was a professional software developer and an amateur photographer. For many, turning a hobby into a profession is an influential dream; and Jon Oringer may have had this same burning desire for his photography – but what he eventually did overshoot any previous ambition to take photos and get directly paid by a client to do so.
Shutterstock is a platform where businesses and creatives around the world pay to have rights to use photography that is available on the site. This stock photo service is not a unique business model, yet it has triumphantly dominated its market and is currently worth $2 Billion.
Shutterstock is Jon Oringer’s creation and in October 2012, his business had only just been made available to be publicly traded. The following seven days proved that his original vision was one of great potential as Shutterstock’s shares surged 44% netting more than $135 million in Oringer’s personal net worth. Nine months and another $600 million later, Oringer became New York City’s tech-focused billionaire.
What is most impressive here is, however, the fact that Shutterstock actually came about in 2003. It was born out of Jon Oringer’s frustration of always having to struggle to find quality art and photographs to use in his marketing literature and on his websites at a reasonable price. Jon didn’t allow his frustrations to live with him forever, however. He looked to his personal photo library and began a site that would display these and make them available for a low licensing cost. The 30,000 photos that first populated the site quickly became a small portion of photos that became available on the platform.
It was Oringer’s creative analysis of his frustrations and his personal resources that he had available that allowed him to build a billion-dollar company. Oringer has expressed in many interviews his belief in starting from what you have: teaching other budding entrepreneurs to ‘try to put raising capital off for as long as possible… you’re going to learn a lot more about the different aspects of your business. You’ll be spending every penny like your own, and I think that builds a long-term business in the right way.’
Look to resources you have, use them creatively and (much like Sean Baker taught the creatives working in the filmmaking industry), don’t believe you need mass funding to get started.
A great example of creativity at its finest execution, that impresses in simply its art rather than requiring figures of dollars earned or share price statistics, is the work of Christoph Niemann.
Drawing on windows in the New Yorker office was a behaviour that became a particular highlight moment for me when watching the Netflix documentary about him whilst researching his work. The documentary actually takes place over the process of ideation to completion for a New Yorker magazine cover feature and focuses mainly on the exploration of ideas that come from the project. But it is in a small moment when Niemann has submitted and shown his work to an editor of the New Yorker and begins to draw, with a whiteboard marker, on the windows of the office – using real-life views of downtown New York to interact with his small illustrations.
First, he draws a rowing boat made of the very floating mass of Liberty Island. Then Niemann draws a man with lanky, wide-reaching arms, positioned cleverly to look as though he was holding two opposing skyscrapers up. And lastly, Neimann draws an expansive, long-winding ferry traversing through the busy streets of downtown New York, proving to be an alternative means of travel during rush hour.
Neimann creatively reacts to what he has to work with and adds small drawings to make powerful pieces of art. But this is not something Neimann does as a one-off. He is consistently exercising his creative muscle and nowhere is this more evident than in his incredible Instagram project: Sunday Sketches.
In this series, Niemann takes often small, ordinary objects and adds them cleverly to illustrations to make a complete piece. Whether a highlighter, fork, sock, tea bag, ink pot or even a piece of bread – Niemann finds an interesting take on the object and how it could be seen in a radically new perspective with the addition of a simple illustration.
Like Niemann, you too should seek to look at the obvious in different angles. When analysing your tools, you should be as creative as you can – finding possibilities and incredible potential in things you have always possessed but previously felt you did not have. You may have already done this in the past and now, by intentionally doing so, you’ll make momentous leaps in your career and in the creation of your art.
Work with what you have, but look to have more
Rapper Nipsey Hussle’s first studio album, Victory Lap, released with record label Atlantic Records in 2018. However, Nipsey Hussle had already amassed a huge following for his work and had already been incredibly successful in building his net worth long before 2018. Nipsey has been independently releasing mixtapes since 2005 with his first release, Slauson Boy Volume 1.
A notorious moment which dramatically developed Nipsey’s fame and fortune was the release of his mixtape: Crenshaw. This was a physical CD mixtape that Nipsey distributed from a pop-up shop set up in Los Angeles, CA. What set apart this mixtape, however, was the fact that each physical CD was priced at a never-before-seen: $100. A promotional poster boasts that as part of purchasing one of these limited CDs, you would ‘be a part of history’. Never having done before, there was no evidence that this home-cooked mixtape would actually draw in any crowds, let alone pitch well against any competing releases with studio-backed marketing campaigns.
As Nipsey Hussle had hoped, Crenshaw was a huge hit. Industry-giant, Jay-Z, even made an appearance and purchased 100 copies, transferring $10,000 straight into Nipsey’s bank account – accompanied by a tremendous compliment that ‘Hov respects the move’.
Nipsey Hussle has always been an incredibly smart strategist, always looking for means to secure the success of his future. Even the fact that his first mixtape included the term ‘Volume 1’ puts a light on his intrinsically forward-thinking nature. It is, of course, important to note Nipsey’s ability to think creatively about his resources, even to ambitiously push into new areas of a competitive industry, but what is also extremely important to be aware of is the fact that Nipsey doesn’t simply work with the resources he has – he finds means to have more. For Nipsey, access to resources has been a power that he has leveraged greatly. What is the best evidence of the use of this power? Nipsey’s 2018 released studio album.
Victory Lap was an album, the west coast rapper had in mind for a long period of time. You can find mentions of the album title in lyrics of songs in Nipsey’s previous mixtapes. Having the album released as his first studio album was most probably a very intention and pre-meditated decision. Having an album being released with a record label has many great advantages. Firstly, by simply being associated with a large record label with an unparalleled reputation and extremely talented artists can elevate the perception of an artists work by fans and others who work in the music industry – providing more resources in the way of presented opportunities and deals. It could also place a lot more money into funding a marketing and advertising campaign, making the artists more famous by name – providing leverage for brand deals and future partnership work. Despite this upside, however, Nipsey refused to sign simply as an artist to Atlantic Records or to any record label for that matter.
Nipsey Hussle worked with what he had, but he also saw what he didn’t yet have and the means to get what he didn’t have. Nipsey saw that if he were to amass a fan base large enough, he could use this as leverage to get a partnership deal with the label rather than a standard masters ownership deal that most record labels usually provide. This way, Nipsey Hussle could share sales with the record label whilst still owning 100% of the intellectual property of his work. Nipsey had this in mind and set out to do so years before even beginning to make what Victory Lap is as a creative project today.
This doesn’t now mean that you should ignore what you have, as Nipsey would, of course, you what he had to get to those future resources, but it should light a flame under the most ambitious side of your nature to think beyond the means which you currently have and to strategically place yourself on the right path to later gain the resources you set out to make use of down the line.
Your power lies in your ability to work with what you have and to be utterly self-reliant in your pursuit of unleashing the potential of this power. From this, you will be able to create incredible pieces of art, build market dominating businesses, thrash seemingly impossible physical challenges, change the behaviour and treatment of the disadvantaged, have complete ownership of your work whilst still reaching a large audience and survive any possible threat to your unparalleled human existence.
All it takes is to use your time wisely, accept your reality and be creative with your available tools to work with what you have, as well as create more resources to work from and from there, the world cannot help but thrive from this new found source of use. You.