Do you struggle with keeping a consistent creative practice? Do you have passionate ideas you want to share with the world, yet something always seems to get in the way? Do you start multiple projects with excitement and energy, but lose focus and finish none of them? Are you frustrated and even a little depressed by how much you want to create, but can’t seem to execute? Do you feel your dreams of living a creative life are slipping away?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, then this post is for you! And I’ll start with some good news: you are not alone in feeling this way!
As a lifelong Creative, I’ve dabbled in writing, photography, videography, and podcasting and sometimes I find myself stuck in harmful patterns of thought and inaction that sabotage my productivity goals.
As I am continually looking to improve myself and to fix the constant loop of start, stop, fail, I decided to reflect on the reasons why. I did a little reading about it, a little research and ended up discovering a list of repetitive issues that derail my creative output.
Since understanding and embracing the 5 Creativity Killers I share below, I’ve been able to build a much more consistent creative practice. Over the past year of actively trying my best to combat these hurdles, I have regularly shot photos, made videos, recorded podcasts and even made time to write.
Am I happy with my output?
No, if I’m honest. I’m still not producing at the level I desire, but I’m not a full-time creator either, so I need to be realistic. Like most people, my career takes up 40+ hours per week and as I enjoy my job and it supports my family, I can’t and won’t complain.
But regardless of being blessed by my work and family situation, there is still a nagging itch in the back of my mind that taunts me to do more. And sometimes I rise to the occasion and get shit done, and other times I spend hours looking at funny memes, wishing I was so smart. Why do I waste hours, days, years? Why aren’t I toiling away, creating content as if my life depended on it?
As I delved into these questions last year, I arrived at a Top 5 list of behaviors and beliefs that consistently derail me.
I call them my Creativity Killers.
#1: Self Doubt
There is a great non-fiction book by novelist Steve Pressfield that explains, renames and then destroys the concept of Self-Doubt. The War of Art (not to be confused with the ancient text “Art of War” by Sun Tzu) analyzes this regular human practice of questioning our own talents but gives it a mighty new name: Resistance.
“Resistance is not a peripheral opponent. Resistance arises from within.”
“The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield
Pressfield spends the content of the book shining a light on Resistance, this invisible force that is within each of us. But what is Resistance?
“Resistance will tell you anything to keep you from doing your work. It will perjure, fabricate, falsify; seduce, bully, cajole. Resistance is protean. It will assume any form if that’s what it takes to deceive you.”
“The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield
In simple, short chapters Pressfield lays out his case against Resistance and how it not only kills our creative endeavors but how it eats away at the internal spark we all have within us. It silences our authentic voice and replaces it with a much more sinister (though strangely compelling) version that if listened to, will slowly destroy all of your dreams.
“The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.”
“The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield
It’s the voice that tells us we aren’t smart enough, rich enough, talented enough. The voice that complains we don’t have enough time, I’m too busy, this work sucks, my books are terrible, my film is crap.
Resistance, Pressfield argues, is present in everyone’s brain and the only way to conquer it is to “Turn Pro.” What he means by this is, a creative pursuit is no different than your 9-5 job. You must show up. You can’t call in sick. You must be professional in all aspects of pursuing your Art, just like that dead-end office job you despise and want to escape from.
“But that doesn’t sound romantic. Isn’t creating art about inspiration? What if I don’t feel inspired to create today?’
Well… Pressfield would probably say, “That’s the Resistance talking!”
None of us have to feel the muse to go to work right? We’d all be fired by our employers if we just laid in bed and waited to feel like going to work. Pressfield argues that by doing your chosen creative pursuit, no matter what, no matter how sick you are, no matter how tired, busy, poor, untalented, whatever, if you just show up, like a professional, every day, the muse knows where you’ll be and will eventually show up and guide your hand.
So with this in mind, how can you really doubt yourself? Self-doubt is a myth; internal chatter designed to keep us from achieving our highest expression of self.
Don’t listen. Ignore it.
Instead, sit down at your desk and get to work.
#2: Loving the GEAR more than the ART
I REALLY struggle with this… I love new gadgets and pretty much just like buying new stuff in general. I’m also a productivity junkie, so I love the idea of some new sparkly gizmo saving me time or making my life easier.
Large chunks of my day will go by as I research a new lens or a new camera. I’ve spent hours on the RED Cinema Camera website, building my ultimate rig and having the daydream shattered only when I notice the shopping cart total is nearing $80,000. As if I will EVER have 80K to drop on a camera! So what the hell am I doing?
“But my creative pursuits will be better with better stuff, right? I mean, that $2500 lens will blow out the background just perfect and give me that creamy bokeh I just NEED. TO. HAVE.”
Well, sometimes it can be true, but what I mean is: Shakespeare didn’t have the newest MacBook Pro.
Maybe he had the world’s fastest quill and ink set, who knows, but I’ll bet he really didn’t care. He got to work, wrote 37 plays, 4 poems and a lengthy collection of sonnets because I’m assuming he loved the art more than the gear.
It’s easier (and sometimes more fun) to go shopping for the equipment you’ll need to create than it is to sit down and do the actual creating. I’ll share a quick story to highlight this.
See, I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Ever since childhood. My love of reading eventually caused me to wonder about the authors of the books I enjoyed and then finally on the creative Art of writing itself. I was wrapped up in the romantic vision of the life of a famous writer and didn’t really consider the amount of hard work it would take to make that life a reality.
That is until I actually sat down to write something and verified that:
“Yep, this shit is tough. So, of course, I need something that will make the work easier, because my God I don’t dare slow down the genius pouring out of my once-in-a-generation mind by using–GASP!–pen and paper!! A prodigy like me needs the newest, most powerful laptop to catch the world-changing tome I have rolling around in my precious noggin. Right?
That’s the logic I employed to talk my Mom into buying me my first computer. I used this same tactic to justify an even newer version to an ex-girlfriend a few years later when she questioned why I needed a $3000 laptop to write a novel. If I had been self-aware enough at the time, I would’ve responded:
“I don’t. But because I am riddled with Self-doubt, I need this machine to hide behind. It’s Resistance. Haven’t you read Pressfield?”
As stated above, I still suffer from this, and I’m in no way cured. I always buy way too much gear. Some of it I need, most of it I don’t. But now, at least I realize what’s going on when I crave a new camera. I’m less deluded and less apt to make an impulsive purchase.
Let’s call this one a work in progress.
#3: Thinking of your ART as a mere HOBBY
One of the biggest mistakes we Creatives make sometimes (if not most of the time) is seeing our Art as a hobby; something to be indulged in when we have free time or when we retire.
“I’m gonna write the Great American Novel! But I’m not going to start today… Well, when I have the time of course! Maybe this weekend. No, Sophia has dance class, and we have that thing at that place after… Let me think… OK, then I’ll start the weekend after. Nope, that won’t do either… Hmmmm… Oh! I’ll begin on our next holiday, sitting by the pool, sipping a Mai Tai–my creative juices will really be flowing then!… But what if the laptop gets splashed on…? Not to mention the glare off the glass screen…”
I am convinced Creativity is a muscle and you have to use it. The more you use it, the easier it becomes to flex and apply strength.
If I don’t write for a few weeks, months or (and I hate to admit this next word…) years, I feel slow, unbalanced and pathetic. The words don’t come out smoothly, and I fight to get into that state of flow every artist craves. But after a few days of consistent content creation, it comes back.
And I have even more good news for you: it comes back faster than your bench press ever will.
I’m not sure why this is (probably a bunch of science stuff), but the brain snaps back into fighting shape with just a few days of rigorous work. Unfortunately, this doesn’t apply to other body parts–my man boobs still quiver when I raise my arms above my head from a workout over a week ago.
Just like fitness, if you want to see results in your artistic endeavors, you must put in the effort.
I am really good at my chosen profession for one fundamental reason: I’ve been doing it for twenty-five years. People regularly seek my advice and wisdom at work. I am a mentor to many. But what most of them don’t realize is, the only difference between them and me is I’ve spent decades in the arena taking punches. That’s it. I put in the time, with intention, and now I’m pretty good at it. I mention this only to underscore one thing:
Creating Art is no different.
Clock-in. Put in focused work.
Make stuff and share it with the world regularly.
And you will get better.
#4: Lack of PATIENCE
We now live in a world where even instant gratification seems too slow.
We can stream a Netflix movie instantly to a device we hold in our hands. Detergent and groceries appear on our doorstep, automatically sent from our Amazon account. We routinely ask our phones questions we used to thumb through encyclopedias to answer. My watch tells me my heart rate, how far I walked, reminds me of calendar events, plays my favorite playlists, calls for help if I fall and can now even detect irregular heartbeats with an ECG function. All, pretty much in real time.
To me, this is a kind of magic.
I remember when Netflix had to send you the movies in the mail. Like, a real life DVD in a red envelope, waiting for you in your mailbox… Do you remember that?
Due in large part to the constant and predictable increase in microchip speeds, much of our everyday observable world is moving like Usain Bolt on amphetamines. We are experiencing significant increases in speed and access to services, some of which used to take days, if not weeks or months. And now much of it is instantaneous.
While there are undeniable benefits to this reality, the psychological effects aren’t fully understood yet. And I’ll argue, as a Creative, this “right now” world we live in can distort our expectations around the rapidity of achieving our own success. This lightning-paced technological world lulls us into thinking that this velocity MUST apply to everything. Like our career as an artist or our discoverability online.
We get frustrated when we stall out at a few hundred followers, made up of mostly our family, co-workers and old high school classmates. Or we struggle to get our book published or our photography business off the ground. And we feel defeated or depressed, and some of us give up.
We are getting so used to the warp-speed of progress that we expect this same haste to apply to our careers or artistic pursuits. We forget that most of the “overnight sensations” we see in the media were actually years, if not decades in the making. We need to employ patience and combine this with diligent effort. That’s how people make it in creative industries. They grind for years, with very little compensation or notoriety.
I am convinced of this.
Because patience is so hard to practice in today’s day and age, some of us don’t get the chance to quit… because we never get started in the first place! We take a long, hard look at the challenge–the mountain to climb– and mentally run the odds.
“Nope. That’ll never happen… I’m not good enough, and the market is too saturated. I’ll stay in my lane.”
We opt-out of the climb before we even lace up our boots.
I guess if you aren’t really that passionate about the chosen creative pursuit, then quitting is probably the right choice. But if it’s burning in you and you can’t imagine a happy future without creating and sharing this Art bottled up inside, then just start. Even if the odds are long and the mountain is crazy steep.
JK Rowling was rejected by twelve publishers. She was a single mother, nearly homeless and struggling with severe depression. But Rowling kept going because the story had to get out. She felt compelled to share it. And she’s now the first writer (by some estimates) to have a net worth of $1 billion.
Stephen King had thrown his manuscript for “Carrie” into the trash after being rejected by thirty publishers. If it weren’t for his wife retrieving it from the rubbish bin and encouraging him to keep trying the world may never have enjoyed his brilliance.
Big goals are achievable. No one is born a bestselling writer or MoMA worthy sculptor. If one person has done it, then you can too. I believe that if you just keeping showing up, putting in the effort to get better and better, then at some point, you will be successful.
And I have some excellent news for you: Crazy big goals are actually easier to achieve than modest goals.
Bear with me… Here’s my thinking: weirdly, going after a crazy goal is actually easier to achieve than a far more readily attainable one. Because so many people talk themselves out of beginning an arduous pursuit or quit when they’re half-way there, competition for the prize is actually less than you might think.
You need to consistently produce artistic content, upping the quality with each iteration and keep at it until you outlast the resolve of your competition. That’s it. That’s the basic formula.
Will you be the next JK Rowling or Stephen King? Probably not, to be honest. But is it realistic to think you could make a living from your creative pursuits? Absolutely. But you need to start. Today. Right now.
For me, I haven’t achieved the success I envision yet. But I never stop trying. I create something every day.
Will I ever make a living off of my art?
I believe I will, at some point.
#5: PERFECTION Obsession
The pursuit and expectation of perfection is a major killer of your creativity.
Writers stare at the blank page and freeze, searching for the perfect first word or sentence. Painters contemplate the blank canvas and are paralyzed; afraid their first brush stroke will be less than genius. Cameras remain on the shelf, battery dead, memory card empty. Guitars sit in the corner, silent.
Give yourself the freedom to be terrible. Embarrassing. Lame even.
By accepting the fact that no famous writer, dancer or filmmaker was born readymade, understand that there were times in their backstory when even they produced garbage.
It’s natural, and I’ll argue, it’s needed. We must produce shit to eventually produce beauty. If there is no bad, how do we know what good looks like?
Don’t wait to create until you have a great idea. Take an idea, any idea, and work your ass to make it better. Pound it. Shape it. Mold it. Tear pieces off and add something new until it is indeed, great.
The pressure we heap upon ourselves to achieve this greatness can quickly become debilitating. I know this feeling intimately as I have a petrifying fear of finishing. My hard drive is full of aborted attempts at that “Great American Novel” mentioned above.
Right now, as we speak, I have a completed novel, pretty much ready to go, if I could just force myself to sit down long enough to finish the final edit. Yes, that’s right… I’ve been staring at a 99.9% finished novel for over a year. Waiting for inspiration to complete the edit.
See, I like starting projects; there is nothing better than the rush of excitement when a new idea arrives in my mind. I love that part. The best portion of any of my written work is usually the first half. After that, well, it gets difficult.
There is no doubt, finishing is the hardest part of the creative process, but it is essential. By finishing a project, even if it’s terrible tells your subconscious brain that it will be easier next time. You have a confidence that you didn’t have before. Art doesn’t exist without finishing.
Even if it’s not perfect, we must eventually put down the brush and declare it done.
This year, I’ve sworn a solemn oath that I will finally take all of the advice above and conquer my Creativity Killers. I’ve been moving in this direction for the past three years, and 2019 feels like the breakthrough year for me. Not necessarily in terms of financial success with my Art, but by getting out of my own way and seeing clearly the roadblocks I put up that impede my progress.
Living a creative life is scary at times. It takes bravery to face down the blank page or the silent audio track and fill it with the magic of our own creativity. It’s frightening. But it’s also a fantastic way to live.
Now, let’s go get to work.