I’ve often written about the power of a launch. However, there’s also a place for self-initiated creative work where students engage in creativity with an “audience of one.” Here, they experience the permission to try experiment and work through multiple iterations. They find their creative voice and embrace their imperfections. While there is still power in the launch, we also need to carve out spaces where students can work on solo passion projects where they pursue their own interests without focusing on an external audience.
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Creating for an Audience of One
For the last month, I’ve been working on projects for myself. These are my personal Genius Hour where I am engaging in creative work for the simple fact that it’s fun to do. No audience. No deeper purpose. Just having fun and learning in the process.
Some of these might go public, like the comic strip with a dog and cat who give advice to humans. Here’s a little preview of the two characters:
My goal is to create at least 30 comic strips and then share them out in January. I’ve actually been playing around with turning the concept into a blended novel / graphic novel for middle school students. I have no idea if it will be successful. But that’s not the point. I just think it will be fun to share it out and see if it resonates.
However, other creative works will remain private; not because they are too personal but because they aren’t really anything anyone would want to see. I created some AI-generated baseball stadiums that exist on every planet. I made a set of 5 food-inspired NFL logos (the Cincinnati Chili and Minnesota Hot Dish). I created them for the sheer joy of creating something new. Similarly, I’m working on a set of “Introvert Merit Badges” with badges like “made small talk with the barber” or “participated in the dreaded ice breaker activity” or “chaperoned a school dance.” Again, I doubt that anyone is going to be asking for introvert badges anytime soon.
Edit: After I published this, lots of folks reached out about the introvert badges, so I figured I would share them out.
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For the first 10 months of the year, I created work that was designed for others. But now, in November and December, it’s my time for a Genius Hour, where I create projects for myself. It’s a reminder that sometimes you have to create work for an audience of one.
5 Reasons to Create for an Audience of One
Nearly a decade ago, I co-wrote about called Launch, which is all about the empathy-driven design process. There’s something powerful that happens when students develop empathy with an audience and it leads to a deeply human creative work. I’ve written before about the need for students to share their work with an authentic audience:
And yet . . .
There is another reality within creative work. Sometimes you simply have to create work that resonates with you, as the artist, author, or maker. I’d like to share 5 key reasons why you might choose to create work for yourself instead of an audience.
1. Creating for Yourself Helps You Find Your Creative Voice
I recently met with an artist who let me tour his studio. While he wasn’t a household name as a painter, he had created a following of passionate fans who loved his work. His prints continued to sell at art shows and he had started to branch out into merchandise. At one point, I saw a canvas with an entirely different subject matter.
“Is that a commission?” I asked.
“No, that’s for me,” he answered.
“As in, you’re not going to sell it?” I asked.
“I have a rule for myself that every tenth painting is one I either create for myself or as a gift to someone close in my life. I’m an artist but also a craftsman. It’s a business. I create the kind of work that others want. I pay close attention to my audience and I try to give them something they would be proud to have in their home. But at some point I realized that I can get so focused on painting for others that I lose my voice. So, I work on a canvas that’s not for a larger audience. It’s not going to be in a museum. It’s focused on whatever I’m interested in,” he pointed out.
When you embark on personal projects, you give yourself the freedom to explore your innermost thoughts, emotions, and perspectives without external influences or constraints. This process of self-expression allows you to unearth the core elements of your creative voice, such as your preferred themes, styles, and the distinctive way you communicate ideas. By nurturing this personal creative space, you reinforce your creative identity. This then allows you to evolve and mature over time.
When you create for yourself, you remain true to your artistic vision rather than conforming to external expectations or trends. This authenticity is the critical ingredient needed to branch out and be different rather than trendy. In other words, you not only find your creative voice but you keep it. As you stay connected to your genuine passions and interests through personal projects, you build a reservoir of creative inspiration.
When we create for ourselves, it’s an opportunity to find our voice and to keep it. The danger in creating for others is that we can slip into a place where we are so empathetic and we are meeting people exactly where they are at but then we lose that unique perspective that make our work original. But by creating for ourselves, we remain grounded in our own identity and consistent in our own voice.
I used to see this with student Genius Hour projects. Students would come in focused on what they needed to do in order to get a good grade. They would focus on what I, as a teacher, wanted from them. But over time, they would branch out. They would lean into their own unique voice. The end result was often more original and quirky and awesome than anything they would have made for me.
2. Creating for Yourself Helps You Develop New Skills
Personal creative work is an opportunity for self-discovery and growth. As you tackle challenges and uncertainties in your personal projects, you gain a deeper understanding of your creative process. This self-awareness can boost your confidence and willingness to take calculated risks. You feel the freedom to try a new approach, the learn a new skill, to pursue a “moonshot idea.”
Over time, these new skills spill over into other domains. Fifteen years ago, I started to get back into drawing. I would doodle during meetings and sketchnote out ideas. What started out as a skill I developed for myself grew into a skill that I started using in my classroom. I added sketches to my slideshows or drew concepts on the board. I later combined the visuals with audio and created sketchnote videos. Even now, I experiment with new cartoon styles (like a simplified flat design style), I am applying these concepts to my public work. You can see it in my latest video writing prompt:
This is why I love seeing students do passion projects like Genius Hour or 20% Time. As they pursue their interests and passions, they gain new skills that transfer into other domains. If you’re curious about Genius Hour, here’s a prompt you can use with students:
When I create a finished work that I share with the world, I am often focused on quality. But when I get a chance to create something new for myself, I’m more focused on trying new things. This novelty fuels innovation and sparks new learning. It feels far less risky. Which leads to my next point . . .
3. Creating for Yourself Allows You to Conquer Your Fears
If launching your to the world is high-stakes and risky, there’s something humble about embracing your imperfections and creating new work from scratch. When you create purely for yourself, without external pressures or expectations, you create a safe space for experimentation. You’re free to explore new ideas, styles, and themes without worrying about criticism or judgment.
I’ve written before about conquering our creative fears and about the notecard I have that reads, “this could fail.”
This is the recognition that fail-ure is permanent but fail-ing is temporary. The lack of an audience means I have the ability to iterate and improve on my work in a space that is private and free of judgment.
This creative freedom allows us to push boundaries and take risks that you might shy away from in more public or professional settings. By embracing these risks, you gradually build resilience to failure and rejection, which are common fears in creative work. This newfound fearlessness can then spill over into your professional projects, making you more open to innovative and daring approaches.
You can think of it as a gradual release approach to launching. You start out small and branch out. You take little steps forward until you’re ready to think bigger. If we think about it with students, it’s the notion of moving outward with projects, starting in a way that’s more private and slowly building up to something bigger:
Eventually, we want students to share their work with an authentic audience. But if they are still developing a new skill or starting to gain creative confidence, this initial phase of “creating for yourself” is an opportunity to take small creative risks and gain confidence which ultimately leads to creative momentum.
But this is also true for people who have experienced significant success in their creative work. You might have a student in a theater class who has done tons of community theater or a gifted artist who has already found an audience. And yet, success often makes people risk-averse. People feel the pressure to live up to their past successes and they take fewer creative risks. This is what happened to Disney animation in the late 1990s. It’s what happened with Blackberry before the iPhone came out. But it’s also what happens to individual artists, singers, engineers, and scientists. When you experience public success, a failure feels inherently riskier.
4. Creating for Yourself Is a Chance to Embrace Your Imperfections
As you conquer your fears and develop new skills, you will inevitably be faced with your own imperfections. But I actually think these imperfections are part of what it means to find your unique voice. I was reminded for this after re-reading, “The Great Automatic Grammatizator.”
It’s a short story by Roald Dahl about a brilliant inventor who creates a machine capable of churning out perfectly written stories and novels, making writers obsolete. The story explores the intersection of creativity and automation, raising questions about the essence of storytelling in an era of machine-learning. I realize that Roald Dahl is a controversial figure but I truly believe this short story is more relevant now than ever before.
It would be fascinating to do a Socratic Seminar with high school students using “The Great Automatic Grammatizator” as an anchor text and see what themes emerge about automation, art, AI, and commerce.
There is one part in the short story where the author chose the machine, not for the money, but because the machine created something better and faster in her own style.
I have felt that way with my illustrations. I am not capable of the quality or the range in styles of the AI. But then I’m reminded that our imperfections are what make art great. It’s why live shows can sound better than studio albums and live drummers can sound better than drum machines. It’s why the quirky illustration style of Peter Reynolds remain so iconic in an age of smooth AI art. It’s why a homemade pie with a few imperfect crimped edges beats a frozen pie from a factory.
In the end, it’s the defiant choice of an artist, fully aware of all imperfections, choosing to push forward, that I find so compelling. And it is within those very imperfections that we can find a work authentic.
5. Sometimes Creating For Yourself Is Exactly What Others Need
Self-initiated creativity can help improve intrinsic motivation. When students engage in creative endeavors born from their own ideas and passions, they tend to feel a greater sense of ownership and intrinsic motivation towards their work. This autonomy strengthens their internal locus of causality, making them more likely to attribute their successes and failures to their own efforts rather than external factors. By valuing and enjoying the process of creation itself, students learn the importance of self-satisfaction and self-expression over external validation. This shift not only bolsters their creative confidence but also nurtures a more authentic and self-fulfilling approach to learning and personal development.
But then something odd happens. This internally driven project becomes the very thing our world needs. Sometimes you have an idea of something you need to create and you have no idea if anyone will even like it. You’re not thinking about an audience. You’re simply asking yourself, “Would I like this?”
When you eventually share it out with the world, there’s often a segment of the population similar to you who will say, “Actually, this is exactly what I needed.”
This happened two years ago when I wrote a blog post called “Miss B Saves Christmas.” I meant it as a silly joke about teachers and handwriting. I then shared it out on a Winter Break and had no idea how many people would like it. Right now, I’m attempting to illustrate it with the hopes of sharing it out as free PDF (and maybe even a picture book).
I still believe in the power of empathy. But I also think that when you create for yourself, it isn’t necessarily selfish. It often comes from a place of humility, where you say, “I don’t know if anyone will like it but here it is.” You feel the freedom to take risks and be quirky. And that quirkiness is precisely what makes your work accessible to others.
What Does This Mean for Students?
It’s important for students to share their work with an authentic audience. When this happens, students gain creative confidence and develop empathy. We can do this with authentic project-based learning centered on design thinking. I call this concept PBL by Design:
At the same time, we can also design Genius Hour projects where students create for an audience of one. Here, they find their creative voice and try new strategies. They engage in divergent thinking as they solve problems in space that is judgment-free.
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