Start something small…
“It should be noted that I have no idea what I’m doing. I don’t know the right words to say or the right ideas to solve your problem. But I have some years of experience and I do have a lot of ideas, so — the theory goes — if I splatter enough paint on the canvas, maybe something will stand out for you.”
Me, just now
On my drive into the office this morning, I passed a man riding a unicycle on the street.
In addition to balancing on the single-wheeled mechanism, his arms stretched out wide so that the bright blue sleeves of his button-up shirt poked out from his coat jacket, the man was carrying a briefcase in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other.
I imagine many people would reaction to the scene with slight awe and some humor.
But I felt neither of those things because, some year ago, my father decided (notably on a weekend whim) to learn to ride a unicycle himself.
I had almost forgotten him, leaning against our then-white garage door, attempting to seat himself on his unicycle all-the-while laughing gleefully at how incredibly difficult it is to even get atop a unicycle, until I saw the unicycle man this morning.
A unicycle is a very difficult thing to learn to ride.
The trick, my father and I would quickly learn, isn’t to set the unicycle upright and attempt to “jump” onto it as you might a bicycle. If you jump onto it, the unicycle would simply roll back or forward from your momentum, resulting in a very quick fall one way or the other. Instead, to mount a unicycle, you must move forward with it ” the seat firmly between your legs while the wheel rests out in front of you on the ground – so that the momentum of your body moving upright propels the wheel itself forward, rather than the seat post.
What does any of this have to do with creativity exactly?
Well, my father never fully learned to ride the unicycle. He did eventually ride it, but not very well. Within a few days of his triumphant rolling forward, he got rid of the unicycle, or tucked it so far deep into that garage that us kids never saw it again.
But that was my father for you. One weekend he would decide to install a new water pipeline around the house, without having ever worked with water lines in his life. He built things with his hands, repaired everything on his own, took-up new and wild hobbies sporadically. His reasoning was always everything is easier once you start.
And this is where I believe I got much of my own drive to be creative.
Years into my teenage life my father decided, again on a weekend whim, that he would build a modern home on his own, from scratch. It took him many, many months (some of which involved battling with city agents to approve the legitimacy of the electrical or gas work). But he did it. The house was built in a rural part of Mississippi, which was eventually blasted by a devil of a hurricane, only years after the home was completed.
Unlike my father’s interest in riding a unicycle, the house survived.
And with it my father learned how to build a home. Not just any-old home, but a very elegant and strong home. I remember him telling me, one afternoon while we sat out on the humid porch, how he had designed the concrete of the porch to be ever-so-slightly slanted, unnoticeably so. His reasoning was that, whenever the porch would get dirty he could simply hose it off. The water and grime would run right off. Clean-up was a breeze. “That’s a benefit to doing it yourself,” he would tell me, “you can make it however you want into whatever you want.”
Like my father, his father before him built a home a dozen decades ago. I believe that’s where my father got his own drive to pursue weekend projects like this, to learn new and random hobbies, to do and make and believe that he could do it without guidance or any previously know-how.
It’s this belief in oneself that I see again and again in the creative greats.
To be powerfully creative you have to first believe that you can be.
The artists who not only paint, but put on gallery shows, who travel to New York to mingle with MoMA curators. The writers who don’t stop writing in the face of great criticism or when publishers repeatedly decline to publish their years of hard work. They do these things not because they have any idea what they’re doing, but because they have a drive to do, to try, to build their life however they can, into whatever they can.
Great creativity requires that we believe we can do it all, and that we build our interest in exploring and creating.
Whether it’s a weekend whim to learn to ride a unicycle, or a year we dedicate to building a home, writing a book, learning to program, contacting every gallery in Manhattan to hang our art, or something similar. The more we take-up new and interesting things, the more fuel we give our brains for creativity.
I’m reminded of this excellent quote from Todd Henry’s book The Accidental Creative. Henry writes:
The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table.
What parts are you putting on the table for your ideas? Metaphorically or literally.
The first part of the process of adding more parts to the table is believing you can do almost anything if you put your mind to it. The second part is finding something to be interested in, then pursuing it to the best of your ability. Put knowledge and experience into your mind as you would individual parts on a table. The more you add, the more you have to play with.
Sure, my father never learned to efficiently ride a unicycle, but the day he got up and rode it a few feet in front of our house, that was all he needed to know what it was like and prove to himself (and perhaps us kids) that he could do it. From then on out he knew he could do it.
You can do it too. But it’s not going to be easy, it will take time, and ultimately nobody can be there to do it for you. You have to start.
Photo by Eric Franklin.
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“Learning is hard. Building something great is hard. Writing a book is hard. A marriage is hard. Running an ultramarathon is hard. All are amazing. If you get good at this, you can do anything…How do you get good at this? Do things now that are uncomfortable and hard, on purpose. But start with small doses.”
“It takes an extreme amount of hard work and confusion, and sometimes suffering a bit, to realize what you want. Our lives are not meant to be comfortable. In the end, if it’s really what you want, you’ll come out with all your scars and have something to show for it.”
New York illustrator Ping Zhu, from the always great The Great Discontent (have you signed-up for their first print magazine yet?)