The Creative Process and Loss of Balance
Remember the expression that you must lose something in order to gain something? You are about to see how this plays out when we create.
In our last discussion, I explained that before we embark on any kind of creative endeavor, we must be inspired to do so. Authentic inspiration is coupled with a sense of purpose, drive, and enthusiasm. A big YES to what needs to be done.
But, no sooner have we said Yes in Step One: Inspiration than we are thrust into Step Two: Frustration. Why? Because wanting to create something and knowing how we are going to make it happen are not the same thing.
Questions begin to arise: How am I going to do this? Where do I begin? What materials and support do I need? How long will this take? What obstacles do I have to overcome? How much will this cost?
Not only do the questions mount, but an overwhelming number of possible solutions arise. On top of that, as creators, we are required to interrogate the problem and experiment with solutions before the final one can be discovered.
At a minimum, this uncertainty knocks us off balance. At the extreme we can feel like we are descending into full scale chaos. Either way, this process quickly becomes more frustrating than inspired. What makes this loss of balance tolerable is the ability to acknowledge the ambiguity in the situation and to embrace it.
DEALING WITH AMBIGUITY
Ambiguity means there is more than one way to resolve this creative problem, and we must live with uncertainty until the best solution presents itself. Tolerating ambiguity is a huge part of successfully navigating the creative process. By the same token, the inability to tolerate ambiguity is the number one reason most creative projects end before they really begin. What keeps us from developing a healthy threshold for ambiguity?
BLOCKS TO CREATIVITY
1) Fear of Failure: There isn’t a person among us who has not suffered the blow of a loss after making our best effort to nail it. The higher the stakes, the deeper the wound. Shame rears its ugly head, resilience feels overrated, and we would give anything to disappear for a while. Avoiding a repeat can become a dominant motive for some people.
2) Fear of the Unknown: Creativity means we are making something that has never existed before. We must dare the darkness, let go of control, and be open to unseen possibilities. Maybe this is what people mean when they talk about taking a deep dive into the world of a problem. I liken it to mentally spelunking – exploring deep, dark caves, which is scary. Why does anyone willingly let go of control?
3) Over certainty: Believing that we have all answers before even commencing on a project. This belief usually arises from Block #4 –
4) Customs: While we need to honor the values and traditions of the past, they are, like all of nature/culture, in a state of flux. When this is not recognized, these traditions become frozen in their original form, blocking any development of consciousness.
Fear of rejection or isolation has kept creativity suppressed for years.
METHODS FOR OVERCOMING BLOCKS TO CREATIVITY
1) Acceptance: Frustration and ambiguity are valid, important components of making something new. (In today’s parlance,) an inevitable consequence of DISRUPTION.
2) Resist the compulsion to be original: It’s alright to borrow or piggy back on another’s ideas. When an idea works, use it. But remember: It’s not alright to copy.
3) Put your emphasis on process, not product: Early in the creative process it is essential that we try out as many ideas that pop into our consciousness as possible. Some of these ideas barely make it out the gate before we let them go, others start to gain traction but something isn’t “right,” so we dig up another possibility. It can feel like we are blindly working our way through a maze of ideas, hitting one wall after another – while it might be fun at first, ultimately, it’s exhausting. BUT, and let me make this perfectly clear, there is no shortcut – I repeat: for authentic creativity to take place, no short cuts allowed.
4) Fail Faster, Fail Better. Beyond its applications to startups in Silicon Valley, this mantra applies to all of us on a creative venture. But here’s the thing about so-called failure early in the creative process: it’s really no failure. There should never be shame and embarrassment in working “the process.” Once we can put blips, bumps, and do-overs in context of experimentation, what may look like failures to the naked eye are necessary steps in arriving at the elegant solution.
HOW DO WE PROMOTE THE IMPORTANCE OF GRAPPLING WITH UNKNOWING AT WORK?
1) Name uncertainty for what it is: Get outside your comfort zone and search for new ways of being and doing in the world.
2) Support coworkers and employees: When tussling with Step 2, assure each other that it’s okay not to know instantly. In fact, it’s brave.
3) Advocate for adequate time devoted to experimenting with possibilities: Quick solutions may appear to be time and cost effective in the short term, but when it comes to dealing with substantial change and innovation - get the gatekeepers out of the way for a while. Anarchy will not erupt.
When I taught at the university, some of my best “wins” came when I counselled anxious students that it was okay not to know the answer so long as a sincere effort was underway to find it. As a matter of fact, I said, it was my job to support and assist the student in their quest for answers that surpassed the norm. For some, that became a real game changer. This kind of support and coaching can find its way into the workplace.
We’ve heard stories of authors who took a decade to complete a novel, a composer who worked on a song for years, an inventor who devoted the better of their life to one outcome. Conversely, we’ve heard stories of the novel that wrote itself within days, or the song that sung itself one night in a dream, or the inventor who came up with something so astonishing, even they did not recognize what they had done. These scenarios are extremes on the creativity continuum and most of us grapple in the middle.
Here’s the good news: because this wrestling in darkness, uncertainty, lack of closure is physically and mentally exhausting, the time will come when you need to simply step away from the project. That’s right, leave it on the table. Put the cake in the oven. Take a break. You have done all that you can consciously do. Now it is time for Step Three: Incubation.
This blog is part of the curriculum I use in my training workshops. Please check out my website: getcreativia.com.
Acknowledgement: Much of this content is built on the work of artist and activist, Lois Robbins, who mentored me personally and shared her book publicly, Waking Up in the Age of Creativity. (Bear & Company, 1985). Thanks Lois.