Hardcore History’s Dan Carlin Explains His Creative Process

Ervin SinclairCreativityLeave a Comment

If you’ve never listened to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, you’re missing out on an entertaining and enlightening presentation of some of history’s most important events. Carlin’s unique style makes his storytelling engaging and seemingly effortless.

In a recent episode (episodes range from 90 minutes to over 4 hours), Carlin added a postscript where he lamented over his dissatisfaction with the way the episode turned out. It was yet another reminder that creativity is hard work, and that what seems effortless often isn’t.

It’s worth quoting his reflections at length, followed by some observations.

I don’t think our ideas and expectations of what we were hoping to achieve [with this podcast] had really crystalized during the early shows, so [it was] hard for us to determine whether we were really proud or less proud of what we put out back in those days. But I think I can say, having heard the program you just heard, that I’m probably less satisfied with the way this show turned out than any show I can remember. I think the reasons, having dissected it, that I feel that way, are perhaps more interesting than anything we dealt with in the show.

First of all, it’s worth pointing out to those of you…who have been waiting patiently for this [show] to come out…that it took an extremely long time. Well, what perhaps you don’t know is that we did an entire four-hour show on this already, and we threw it away, which we never do. But it’s like painting a picture, a little bit, what we’re doing here. And you decide, “I really want to paint this landscape. I think this landscape would be a wonderful painting once it’s done.” And you sit down to paint it, and occasionally, as with this show, it gets finished and you look at it and you go, “I’m not sure I really like that picture as much as I thought I would.”

But then you’re committed to it. you don’t have time to pick another location. You don’t have time to do all the research and scope it out and design the template and all that. You think to yourself, “well, I can do a better job painting this picture. I just didn’t bring out all the color and all the nuance in this picture. I’ll sit down and do it again.” And we did: another four-hour show, from scratch; I’m not sure I like it any better than the last time we did it. And so I started analyzing why….

[Carlin then gets into some details of the episode specifically.]

If I was the person painting that landscape, I thought it might take me a day to paint that landscape, and a month later I’m still working on that landscape and I’m not that happy with the way it looks. I told my wife about this, and she said, “well, listen, when people write books they have their favorite books and the ones they really like and the ones that they’re not as happy with. And the funny thing about both these podcasts and any books you might want to write is that sometimes you’ll have people who like your work…but some people find weird little shows that most people didn’t care for and those are their favorites. So you never know.”

I love this quote, because it teaches so many lessons about the creative process.

1. Sometimes we don’t know where we’re going

I don’t think our ideas and expectations of what we were hoping to achieve [with this podcast] had really crystalized during the early shows

Usually we begin a project with the shadow of an idea in mind. As we work through the creative process, we gain a clearer outline of what we’re trying to achieve.

2. It’s going to take longer than you think

First of all, it’s worth pointing out to those of you…who have been waiting patiently for this [show] to come out…that it took an extremely long time

This sounds obvious, but how many times do we look at a finished project and think, “it took me two weeks to create that?!” Part of the creative process involves trying out many ideas that don’t work until we find the one that does.

3. Expectations often differ from realizations

I’m not sure I really like that picture as much as I thought I would.

Once we’ve finished a project, it might not live up to our expectations. That’s because, if we haven’t put in the practice, our tastes for what is good outweigh our skills to achieve it.

4. It’s okay to start over

…we did an entire four-hour show on this already, and we threw it away, which we never do.

Starting a project over is only a bad thing if you forget about everything you’ve learned. If you think you’ve failed, take note of why and make necessary corrections when you try again.

5. Share it anyway

…some people find weird little shows that most people didn’t care for and those are their favorites. So you never know.

You never know what ideas are going to touch people. Sharing your work (even your less favorite work) can help you connect with new audiences.

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