#2: Let doubt or looking dumb stop you from trying
Most people think about creativity as a mystical trait; creativity is something you’re either born with, or not. You have it, or you don’t.
As a close student and practitioner of creativity, in my book Creative Doing and interviews, I constantly debunk this myth. I make the case that everybody is creative, and it needs to be unblocked. While this is true, there’s still a nuance you need to consider:
Unblocking creativity is a skill, and some people practice it better than others.
Often, the best way to unblock creativity is not to add, but to subtract.
If you want to unblock your creativity, focus on removing the obstacles that are getting in the way of your creative flow. Here are three things people who are skilled at practicing their creativity don’t do:
You might think you need clarity, answers, and insights to get started on your creative work; in reality all of this will come to you as you do the work.
It’s good to have a sense of direction and some structure; it’s better to just get started and appreciate that you’ll learn the things you need along the way.
There’s an anecdote of historian Charles Weiner visiting physicist Richard Feynman at his office. Weiner saw Feynman’s notebooks, and expressed his delight at seeing such “wonderful records of Feynman’s thinking.”
“No, no!” Feynman said. “They aren’t a record of my thinking process. They are my thinking process. I actually did the work on the paper.”
“Well,” Weiner replied, “The work was done in your head, but the record of it is still here.”
Feynman wanted to make it clear: for him, writing was not the artifact of thinking, it was the actual thinking process. He re-emphasized his point:
“No, it’s not a record, not really. It’s working. You have to work on paper, and this is the paper.”
This is the same of any modality outside of writing, and all creative work. In Why Architects Still Draw; author Paolo Belardi makes the case that amidst more efficient, tech-driven, methods of putting plans together, drawing by hand is an integral part of the architect’s working process.
You don’t need to have a plan or an expected outcome to get started on your creative work. Paradoxically, you’ll only have a better sense of how to do something or what you even really want to do after you actually do it.
Planning is useful, so long as it doesn’t get in the way of the creative process. There is no right way to do creative work; the only wrong way is not to do anything.
“Many people die with their music still in them. Too often it is because they are always getting ready to live. Before they know it, time runs out.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.
You choose creative work not only because you love it; you also have good taste. Naturally, as you start making creative work, you see the distance between what you call good and what you’re making. The fear dawns on you:
What if you make something bad?
This is the gap between taste and ability that everyone starts with. As broadcaster and producer Ira Glass says, “It’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you’re actually going to catch up and close that gap. The work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.”
The quantity of work is essential. You’ll make mistakes, pretend you know what you’re doing, say the wrong things, imitate people, and find new ways of working that you swore you’d never do. (I’ve done all of these things.)
In the early stages of creative work, you must be willing to look foolish and vulnerable. You must be willing to embarrass yourself, to look silly, and to still try amidst all of those challenges.
Your capacity for moving forward while experiencing doubt will be what sets you apart from other people practicing creativity. As Y Combinator founder Paul Graham writes, “Imagine if we could turn off the fear of making something lame. Imagine how much more we’d do.”
You’re probably going to make something bad. That’s okay. That doesn’t mean you’re untalented or a lost cause; it just means that you’re practicing your early work, and you’re getting your reps in. You’re going to get better.
“The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania, and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh god, they’re on to me! I’m a fraud!’ So you just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud.” — Tina Fey
In the fragile, early, stage of a creative work, you simply have an idea that needs to be expressed. Each field has different names to describe this sort of preliminary creative work:
In writing, a preliminary work is called a “draft.” Anne Lamott captured this beautifully with the essay and phrase, “Shitty first drafts.” She writes, “The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.”In recording arts and software, preliminary work is called a “demo” and often used to demonstrate the artist’s or group’s capabilities and the work’s possibilities.In visual art, preliminary work is called a “sketch,” and used to assist in making the final work.
One of the most fascinating properties of the creative process is, every version of a piece of work can be seen as preliminary work.
While you can finish different versions and variations of a project, there doesn’t have to be a final sense of completion:
Pablo Picasso said, “If it were possible … there would never be a ‘finished’ canvas but just different states of a single painting.”W. H. Auden paraphrased Paul Valéry’s quote, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”Walter Isaacson describes Leonardo da Vinci as reluctant to complete work because, “Relinquishing a work, declaring it finished, froze its evolution. Leonardo did not like to do that. There was always something more to be learned, another stroke to be gleaned from nature that would make a picture closer to perfect.”
Think of everything you make as a demo, a sketch, or a draft.
Remove all ideas of expectations and goals, and focus simply on the process and taking a draft to a state where you declare it finished and acceptable as a working version.
When you’re done, if you feel like it, you can start over again and use the finished work as a preliminary work for your next creative project.
“Anything you do is basically a demo until it comes out, or it’s present. Sometimes even if it comes out, it still can be a demo.” DJ Dahi
Becoming more creative is about removing the things that get in the way of your creativity. Here are three good places to start:
Get started with uncertainty, don’t wait to have a bulletproof plan.
Try even when you feel doubt or scared to look dumb.
See your work as a process, never permanently complete.
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