Building your hot air balloon – a metaphor for creative success

Building your hot air balloon – a metaphor for creative success

creative success

Most of the people I know who are working online are selling hot air.

In other words, they fill people with hope, motivation and inspiration. They get them charged up and excited.

They tell them “You can do anything you want, if you just BELIEVE in it!”

They say, “Just follow your passion and the money will take care of itself!”

There was a time I whole-heartedly believed these ideas.

So I spent a decade chasing passions and hobbies and trying to get people to pay attention to me.

It was a lot of work.

I didn’t build a profitable business, so I had to live cheaply and work at jobs I didn’t like.

But I decided I wanted more control and freedom over my life, so I started building businesses.

I started offering services that people valued.

I learned a lot about online marketing and promotion.

I learned how to use design to make my offers more valuable.

I learned copywriting so I could convince people to buy things.

I learned how to position and price my stuff to create desire.


For awhile, I think I have been slightly anti-inspirational, because inspiration – by itself – doesn’t work.

Inspiration is like filling up a balloon with hot air and letting it go: it will just fly around in all directions like crazy and end up going nowhere.

So at the very least I’m cautious about the value of pure inspiration and motivational idealism.


But today I was thinking that creative success is a lot like a hot air balloon.

You need a lot of hot air to keep going and going to your destination.

Sure your balloon is filled with empty space – but it’s those warm, fuzzy feelings that will keep you in the air.

If you run out of air before you reach your deadline you’ll crash and burn.


But you also need a well made basket to hold you; knowledge of wind and air currents; a well constructed vehicle that won’t fall apart in the first storm; a map or plan and a fixed destination you’re trying to reach.

If you just throw a basket together in your back yard because someone said you could fly, you’ll probably spend a bunch of money and make a shoddy hot air balloon and jump in. You might get off the ground at first, but your vehicle will begin falling apart, and even if you keep pumping hot air into it, you still won’t reach the success you’re hoping for.

Personally, I’m a nuts and bolts guy. If you make an air-tight container and a solid basket and put everything together meticulously, and spend months testing and tweaking, and do everything right, staying up in the air should be easy – you can basically just let the wind push you along and enjoy the ride, with very little work.

Likewise, if you build your book, your art, your website or online platforms well, the rest of your journey will be pretty easy. You won’t need to keep refilling on motivation and inspiration – do it once, get everything finished, and watch the scenery. So I focus on the essential, practical, “how-to” type of resources you need but steer clear of “You can do it!” and pats on the back.

I won’t tell you that you’re special, or that you’re talented, or that whatever you create is what the universe meant for you to create (even if no one buys it).

But I’m questioning my value…

I don’t mean that I’m doubting myself or looking for sympathy. I love what I do and I know it’s necessary, because I want to help authors and artists succeed – and I know how it’s done.

There are enough people giving out motivation and inspiration. I want to stand out for offering practical knowledge and guides you can actually use.

But it’s also true that hot air balloon absolutely rely on hot air.

I can’t say “Just build it and you will fly.”

You do have to fill it up with hot air (motivation, inspiration, enthusiasm, excitement, joy, energy).

You should be exuberant. You should be positive. You should believe in yourself.

It gets easier, as you build experience and have a bunch of successes under your belt.

But in the beginning, especially when you’re developing your skills, it’s easy to look at your work and feel awful because you aren’t as good as you want to be.

It’s easy to be scared or overwhelmed.

My friends ask me all the time how they can make money online or start a business and quit their jobs.

I’ll often give them a rock solid business idea, a business plan, and offer to make their websites for free. They could get started in a few days and begin making money. But they don’t.

They have the vehicle, but I’m not going to stand around and keep pumping air into it. I’m not going to do it for them or hold their hand or keep convincing or nagging them to take action.

If they want it bad enough, they should do it themselves.

But while we may have frustration and a desire to change, getting started on something new is scary – and it takes a long time to really feel good about what you’re doing. There’s a lot of confusion and indecision, which leads to avoidance and laziness. Having a plan and all the right tools doesn’t matter if you don’t do the work and build the damn thing.

You do need encouragement.

You need optimism and hope.

Motivation and inspiration are extremely valuable commodities.

You need to believe what you are trying to do is worth doing, that it’s valuable, or else you’ll never get it done.

And as your energy and exuberance dwindle, you’re going to need another book, or course, or podcast, to fill you back up again so that you don’t quit.

You need someone to kick your ass into gear. (That’s what professional coaches are for).

Very few people have that self-starter, entrepreneurial mindset that just keeps plugging away at the same project until it’s done.

It helps to be in a community of positive, optimistic people (who also know a lot of valuable shit – otherwise you’ll feel good but still not get anything done, in which case it might be better to spend more time alone).

So my value proposition is: which is more valuable – the hot air, or the vehicle itself?

I can focus on the nuts and bolts but it’s boring, and you could take a course or something to teach you the same skills.

Even if you learn a lot from me (and build confidence, and produce better quality work) I’m not building the insta-fame and squeals of delight and zealism that often follow the Preachers of Pure Positivity.

I’m like the stern father trying to teach you carpentry and precise measurements and quality craftsmanship so you can make a living, and you just want to whittle and play with toys and be happy.

Creativity is awesome.

You are a creative genius.

You do have the ability to do anything you choose to do with your life.

But if you want to be happy, free, independent, liberated, and have total control of your life (absolute control – as in, you can buy whatever house you want; you can live in any country you want; you can do whatever you want to do each day) then you need to find a way to provide value to other people.

The problem with creativity is that everybody basically assumes it can’t be taught (although there were about 50 new books on creativity in 2013 and 2014). Nobody can tell you how to be a good writer or artist because they are also saying that you need to be totally unique and not let anybody influence your personal style (that’s a load of bull – but try it for 10 years and come back when you’re ready to become a professional).

The truth is 90% of bestselling art and stories fit neatly into already popular categories – this doesn’t happen accidentally; it’s a creative choice. You can choose to create for yourself and view the whole world with disdain, or you can create things for other people – things that they will like and enjoy.

The novelty card works once – like the guy who just raised $40,000 to make potato salad on Kickstarter. It’s successful not because it has any real content of value to others, but because it’s new and different and funny. But novelty isn’t replicable. If I put another campaign and said I wanted to make the perfect bowl of salsa, it probably wouldn’t work, because I would be “just like that potato salad guy.”

And it isn’t sustainable. You may get lucky – and that’s great if you can put something up in an hour and see how it goes, but before you spend hundreds of hours on your book or art, you better figure out whether or not anybody will want it.

Ps) if you were expecting a short article full of cheerful bulletpoints and a glib conclusion tied up in a neat little bow – you’re on the wrong website. I’m not always right. I don’t always know what I’m talking about. Sometimes I just post stuff I’m thinking about even if I haven’t processed it down or come to any firm conclusions yet. Sometimes I’m happy, sometimes I’m not. My beliefs and viewpoints shift and evolve. I learn new things every day. In fact you’re welcome to leave your comments below to continue this conversation.

Air or basket? Inspiration or practicum?


  • Diane Challenor Posted

    Your blog post about hot air, and the vehicle needed to give it lift, intreged me. I discovered your website a few days ago when I was trawling through some “to be read later” posts in my Newsblur reader. The blog post I’d saved, ages ago, was 300+ Fool-Proof Fonts to use for your Book Cover Design. I have several friends who self-publish and I help them out with graphic design / web design advice. The blog about fonts was very helpful so I browsed through your website and was very taken with the clarity of your writing and your generous sharing of information along with the promotion of your product. So I subscribed to your RSS feed. I use Newsblur to read RSS feeds. Newsblur’s reader only allows 64 free rss feeds so I always choose my subscriptions carefully, and mainly choose book bloggers. I wanted you to know that the wisdom you expressed in your Hot Air Balloon blog was absolutely “spot-on”. I hope it reaches a large audience. To help it along I’ll Tweet a link to this blog today. Best wishes for your work! I look forward to reading more blogs. Thank you!

    • Derek Murphy Posted

      Thanks Diane! I appreciate the feedback.

  • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Posted

    I always have thought about the entrepreneurs – like Tony Robbins – offline and on, as rah-rah coaches for nothing.

    Your ‘hot air balloon’ metaphor is perfect. I’m a slow burner. Hot air is exactly the wrong thing for me. I don’t have easy extrovert dreams that involve handwaving and a mike around your neck.

    I’ve figured out what I am: a ramjet. What you use to get to the stars. With a slow start and lots of time and energy picked up as you go. I use ‘aggressive introvert’ as a better descriptor.

    Good post.

    • Derek Murphy Posted

      Thanks! It’s helpful to know what works best for you. It will always be a balance between inspiration and putting in the work.

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