Section 4: Sharpening Your Creative Mind
How to push through creative blocks and keep the aha moments coming
“Creating for You, and You Alone” Todd Henry
“When was the last time you made something that someone wasn’t paying you for, and looking over your shoulder to make sure you got it right?"
In this essay Henry discusses the benefits of “unnecessary creation” - creating things only for ourselves, for the purpose of growing as artists. Many people working in creative fields want to be creatively fulfilled by their day jobs, but in the U.S. fewer than 20% say they are. This leaves the other 80% feeling frustrated and disconnected from their work. Unnecessary creation is the antidote to this creative frustration. When you create something for yourself, you are free from the pressures of work and can explore new things without having to justify your decisions.
The lettering artist Jessica Hische coined the phrase “procrastiworking” which is a similar idea to “unnecessary creation.” The key take away is that even though you are creating only for yourself (“unnecessary” with respect to your day job) the things that you create are still significant. Many of Hische's “procrastiworking” projects have become some of her most recognizable work.
Creating for yourself also allows you to explore new tools, media, or even career paths outside of the pressure of your day job. When I was working as an architect I was extremely unfulfilled so I threw myself into as many side projects as I could. This lead me to realize that, not only did I hate the architecture industry, I loved graphic design. Knowing that I would inevitably change careers, I used my free time to learn as much as I could about the graphic design industry. Because I was learning these things for myself, it was easier to tackle hard things like the Adobe Creative Suite.
Henry ends this essay with a discussion of comparison and competition in the industry. When we create things for ourselves we are able to explore our own voice and discover the trajectory of our body of work. This helps us to stop comparing ourselves to other people in our industry.
“Training Your Mind to be Ready for Insight” Scott McDowell
“The most successful creative minds consistently lay the groundwork for ideas to germinate and evolve. They are always refining their personal approach to hijacking the brain’s neural pathways, developing a tool kit of tricks to spark the mind like flint on steel."
In this essay, McDowell argues that disengaging from our work at times can help us to be more creative in the long run. Many creative people have found that taking a long, meandering walk has helped them to overcome creative blocks. When I was in graduate school I was constantly forced to stretch myself beyond the limits of my energy and creativity. In those stressful times my (wise beyond his years) fiancee would take me aside and ask “should we go for a walk?”. These middle-of-the-night walks never failed to give me a fresh perspective and new energy.
McDowell also talks about embracing limitations. Some people believe that limitations hinder our ability to be creative, but in fact, the limitations are what allow us to be creative! Art and design is all about facing challenges head on and creating exciting, new solutions to them.
Q & A “Tricking Your Brain into Creativity” Stefan Sagmeister
In this Q&A section, Sagmeister talks about the strategies that he has employed to stay creative and accomplish long term goals. His first piece of advise is to start each day tackling “the hard stuff.” If you busy yourself with emails and other mindless tasks, you won’t have energy left for intense, creative work. When it comes to making time for your long term goals, Sagmeister says that you need to schedule time for your goals and honor it. This could mean not taking calls or meetings on Fridays, or for a specific time period each day. Your schedule and routine are like the jar analogy—you need to prioritize the large, important things first otherwise they will never fit. Most of us are putting the water and sand in first—emails, social media, etc.—when we should be devoting our most productive hours to long term goals. The lettering artist Jessica Hische devotes much of her daytime work hours to side projects because she knows that if she waits until all of her other work is done she won’t have the energy or motivation to work on them.
“Letting Go of Perfectionism” Elizabeth Grace Saunders
“The conscious decision to not let perfectionism control us makes a huge difference in our ability to break through our limits and enjoy the creative process."
In her essay, Saunders talks about the damaging effect that perfectionism can have on our work. When we strive for perfection, more than likely we end up disappointing ourselves. This inevitably leads to stress, anxiety, and worst of all potentially abandoning our creative pursuits. Saunders suggests that we instead adopt the approach of a creative pragmatist—giving ourselves the permission to ask for help, and to be happy with what we have achieved.
“Getting Unstuck” Mark McGuinness
“The next time you experience a creative block, resist the temptation to doubt yourself, or to put in more blind effort. Stop and ask yourself what kind of block you are experiencing. Once you’re clear about the nature of the problem, it will be easier to solve."
In this essay, McGuinness start by saying that not all creative blocks are the same; we need to know which type of block we are suffering from before we can move past it. According to McGuinness there are six primary creative blocks that each have their own solutions:
1. Inspiration Drought
The problem: you no longer feel motivated or inspired by the work that you are doing. You feel like your “creative tank” is running dry.
The solution: step away from the project that is frustrating you, and focus on other things. Taking a break will allow your creative tank to replenish itself and you will return to the original project with fresh energy and perspective.
2. Emotional Barrier
The problem: you are worried that when people see your finished work you will feel exposed or embarrassed.
The solution: creating things can often make you feel extremely vulnerable, but you can’t allow that to hold you back. Remember that the things that you create are private until you choose to share them.
3. Mixed Motivations
The problem: you are feeling the pressure to make money or grow your audience quickly.
The solution: create a “pressure free” workspace where you give yourself permission to simply create. When you enter this space, you should shed all thoughts of money, success, notoriety, etc.
4. Personal Problems
The problem: you are going through difficult things in your personal life.
The solution: When you are going through difficult times, treat your creative work as a refuge from those things.
The problem: you lack the money or resources to accomplish your creative goals.
The solution: just because you are short on resources doesn’t mean that you are out of options. Use your situation as an opportunity to work with what you have. You will surprise yourself with how resourceful you can be!
6. Presentation Problems
The problem: you are struggling to grow your audience or client list.
The solution: take the time to hone your marketing strategy. One of the hardest challenges that creatives face is learning to sell themselves. The bottom line is that if you want to succeed, you need to get out there and tell people who you are.
- When was the last time you made something “just for fun”?
- Do you make time in your day for your long term goals?
- What tricks do you have for replenishing your creativity? Going for a walk? Free writing?
- Are you a “creative perfectionist” or a “creative pragmatist”?
- What type of creative block do you face most often?
- Create something just for fun and just for you
- Practice celebrating your creative limitations
- For the next week, devote one hour a day to your long term goals
- Determine what kind of creative block you are struggling with, and devise some ways to get past it
I have noticed that in the past few months I have been spending less and less time creating things for fun. This next week I am going to spend a few hours watercoloring and I just might send the finished piece to a lucky reader!
Practice your own "unnecessary creation" with this fun coloring book page!