Creative Something

“Ideas can’t be stolen, because ideas don’t get smaller when they’re shared, they get bigger.”

Seth Godin explains the big mistake we all make about ideas.

Posted at 6:21 pm by


“I imagine that most people who arrive at writing as a hobby, and then as a craft, and then as a career, begin the journey from a place of buzzing, appreciative idealization….They perceive in literature, in its expression of human hopes and limits, everything they’d like to be, yet they respect it as something beyond their capabilities, something larger and greater than themselves.”

Matthew Wade Jordan shares insights on being a writer

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To be creative you have to destroy

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For many, this is a common phrase, but even if you’re aware of the saying you’re likely to overlook just how valuable it is.

What does it mean exactly, to create is to destroy?

In regards to creativity, it means that, in order to be creative, you have to destroy pre-conceived notions, ideas, or parts of a problem. If you’re going to be creative you have to look at something you believe and make it false (or lesser true) in order to spur creative insights. In essence: a creative thought is one that destroys original thought.

I think this is one reason why it’s easy to shy away from creativity or creative ideas, they often invoke change in our beliefs, and that’s frightening.

No boss wants to hear “there’s a better way to do this thing we’ve been doing for the past few years.” Likewise nobody would like to hear “this thing you thought was so great? It’s not so great after-all” So we shy away from creativity.

But that’s how we innovate and create works that inspire or motivate. Creative ideas shake up what we believe, they destroy known concepts, but what they destroy they replace with something worthwhile. Like the auto company Tesla proving that electrical cars can be sustainable and luxurious, Apple showing the world what a smart phone should be with the iPhone, or Dali demonstrating that artwork can go beyond surrealism.

Therefore, to be creative, you simply need to find something to destroy.

Yet, before we can destroy, we should understand who we know what to destroy.

How we process what exists

I think we often look past this point, that nothing new (or creative) can come about without the old.

We too often find ourselves talking about innovation or creating something inspirational, but we rarely look to what already exists as inspiration for those things. For example, countless times I’ve found myself sitting and thinking about something new I can work on, without considering the fact that nothing new can come about unless it involves the old.

But what is “the old” in this instance? What is it we should destroy in order to create?

The answer: beliefs, or pre-conceived notions.

When we encounter something, certain neurons and networks begin firing in our brain. This is true whether we are experiencing something tangible and real, or something we’re merely imagining; research studies have shown that the brain treats both scenarios the same.

Whichever neurons become the most active are evaluated by others in their neural network (that is: neurons that have previously worked together with the stimulated parts of our brain are activated as well, to some degree). If the proper neural signals are all fired in a certain network, that activity represents some tangible truth.

This is the bayesian network or our brains in action.

So, for example: let’s say your brain suddenly registers the fact that water is falling on you. You can look down at your arm and see a little drop of water. Seeing that droplet signals other areas in your brain, such as: I’m standing outside, I am not under any cover, the sky is cloudy and gray, therefore it must be raining.

The fact that it’s raining, in that example, is a truth you believe because all of the signals in your brain that indicate it’s occurring are activating. You can see the raindrop (which is, in itself, a complex process of signaling in your brain), you can feel the raindrop on your arm, you can look at the cloudy sky, and so on. It’s raining becomes a truth you believe due to associations.

But what happens when we remove some of those associations from the event?

If you feel a water drop hit your arm, you can see it on your arm, but what if you’re indoors? Suddenly you know that it cannot be raining, or that it can be raining and that there’s a hole in the roof. If it’s not raining though, something else must be occurring. At this point you are likely to pursue your curiosity to find the reason why a drop of liquid suddenly appeared on your arm.

This same approach goes to ideas.

Ideas are the result of associations within our brain. We see or think about something and associations with that something are made instantly.

We hear the word “book” and we immediately think of words, series of words, stories, etc.

To be creative is to purposely break the parts of that belief system in order to invoke curiosity.

Say, for example, that you want to write a book.

The facts and beliefs of a book are that they are typically written with words, in an orderly fashion. There’s usually a main character or number of characters that the story revolves around. These characters encounter situations that either cause them to grow and learn a lesson or something happens to them that intrigues the reader. Books can either be false and from the imagination, or true and based on real life.

To be creative we have to destroy what we know about the idea of a writing a book.

So what if, instead of using words in orderly fashion, we write the book one sentence at a time, in a disjointed way? Now we’re onto something.

What if we take that same idea, of writing a story in a disjointed way, and then look at a pre-existing story that we can further destroy? Take the popular child’s story from Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland for example. The story tells of a young girl who, out of boredom, imagines a very illogical and magical world.

To destroy this example story we simply need to break apart one or more pieces of it, essentially destroying the bayesian network that tells us “this is a story of Alice in Wonderland.” Something as simple as removing the main character and instead focusing on the world of Wonderland itself is a start. But could we can go further and remove the world aspect as well?

The result of this exercises it that we have a book written in a disjointed fashion, where one sentence from a chapter is placed into an unrelated section of another chapter, and the topic of the book is the seemingly random occurrences of peculiar characters whom we do not know exist in a fantasy world.

Maybe not the best idea for a book, but you can see how destroying pre-conceived ideas yields way to more creative ones. I guarantee you’ve never read a book quite like the one just described above.

Unfortunately, as I mentioned previously, the reason we often shy away from this approach to creative thinking (even though it’s so fruitful) is because it’s frightening.

Taking something that we believe, or something that has proven to work, and destroying it in peculiar ways in order to see what remains means we’re risking time and, in effect, our very beliefs.

But it’s through the destruction of what we believe (how things are done, what works and what doesn’t, where good work comes from, etc.) that we propel ourselves into a curious place where unique ideas can thrive.

It’s by destroying something old and replacing it with something new, something potentially much better, that the world (and we, as artists and creatives) grow.

In order to be creative, you have to destroy. What ideas or elements of your work can you destroy today?


No more waiting

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When we aspire to do something creative, we often end up waiting more than we should.

We wait for the right time, wait for an insight, wait for access to the right people or tools, we wait until the opportunity is right, or wait for permission.

Results don’t come from waiting though.

All waiting does is put the competition in front of you, invite doubts, and build on the stress of having to wait more or falling behind schedule.

So, starting today, no more waiting. Even doing something as simple as thinking deeply about a project is better than just waiting.

In-fact: if you feel as though you’re waiting for something, spend that time at least thinking on the project. Why? Well, when tackling a new project or problem, the most important aspect of that problem is that it’s going to be poorly defined.

So, while we wait for inspiration or motivation (or the ever-looming deadline) we wind up cutting down our ability to really understand what it is we’re trying to work on; or, worse, we fall into the trap of going with our first instinct or falling back onto what we already know will work, the results being subpar and certainly anything but creative.

When inspiration, motivation, or a deadline finally does strike, we’ve wasted valuable time that could have been spent ideating or further exploring the problem itself, allowing creative ideas to make themselves known.

Research studies have even proven that thinking about a project in-detail before beginning it often produces more creative and fulfilling results. As researchers from the American Institutes for Research, the University of Nebraska, and others demonstrated in their 2010 study Problem Construction and Creativity: The Role of Ability, Cue Consistency, and Active Processing.

After working with 195 students, the researchers concluded that: “problem construction ability was related to higher quality solutions as well as solutions rated as more original. ”

Even though waiting feels like the only thing to do right now, you’re better off taking time to really outline what it is you’re trying to do. You don’t need insights or inspiration to do that, you just need time and somewhere to write or draw out your thoughts.

Starting a new business, getting your paintings into a gallery, writing a full-length novel, becoming a published poet, making it to broadway, and revolutionizing an industry, all require creative solutions. But the absolute best solutions require that you think through the process before you even get started or before inspiration can even strike. The first step of starting then becomes thinking about starting, outlining the details and processes and ideals until you’re sick to your stomach with thought.

A result of defining the project or problem like this, first and foremost, is that inspiration will strike (even while you’re not looking for it). It will strike because you’ll be able to better see the various aspects of what it is you’re trying to do, all of the corners you would have otherwise skimmed over, or all of the interesting bits that everyone else fails to notice because they are still waiting to start on the obvious.

Don’t wait to start with the obvious. Rather than waiting, start now, with what you have. Outline what it is you’re trying to do in as much detail as you possibly can; right now, today. Write it down or draw it out and then expand on what you write or draw, and keep expanding until you have the inspiration, motivation, or full scope to move.

Don’t wait for permission or inspiration to move, even just a little. Start now.


“Shit just takes time, and creative people make time.”

Jason Kottke on the truest description of the creative process ever written.

Posted at 11:31 am by


When should you call it quits?

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I’ve been working on a new project for months now. If you’re a regular reader of Creative Something you’ve heard me complain about it before.

I’m at the point where I don’t know whether I’m wasting my time or if I should keep pressing on towards the finish line; and I think this is a question all of us end up asking ourselves at one point or another.

“Should I scrap this and start something new, or keep going?”

For any creative this moment of questioning is a common occurrence. At some point in the process of working on a long-term project we have to step back and ask ourselves if it’s worth it to keep going along the path we have been taking.

It’s easy to see why we start questioning what we’re working on. As we go, we often encounter other, possibly more-fulfilling routes (or projects) that we could easily diverge onto. We send little previews of our incomplete work out to peers, friends, and mentors, in hopes of receiving positive feedback or helpful criticism.

Sometimes we get words of encouragement, to press on, to see where the road takes us, and that’s enough to keep us motivated at least for a little while. Other times we get unexpected responses, or no response at all, and wind up wondering, more than ever, if we should call it quits.

When should we quit a project that takes up so much of our time?

The sage wisdom is to keep going. To do the work not for what it will result in, but because the process is part of what we enjoy. A painter who doesn’t enjoy painting isn’t much of a painter anyway, is she?

Recently the famed writer Steven Pressfield had an email conversation with a budding writer who had spent the better part of the past two years getting up three hours early every single day to write a 200,000+ word novel.

The writer was considering quitting the project, as no publication houses had shown any interest in publishing the novel and all of the feedback had jumped from positive to less-than-so.

Steven came back with the following advice, which I find immensely motivating in my own situation and hope you’ll find inspirational as well (particularly for those who have been toiling away at something for a set amount of time). Here’s Steven:

  1. Make every effort to break the habit of listening to other people’s opinion of your work. Not one person in a hundred is qualified to give feedback to [you], including me. You will drive yourself crazy listening to people’s comments…Break that habit.
  2. Make every effort to learn to evaluate your work yourself. If you can, find ONE PERSON you trust for feedback. A friend, your wife, whatever. If you have to pay them to read your stuff, pay them. Frankly, I doubt you will find anyone. The skill is just too rare. You have to learn to do it yourself.
  3. Put this project aside for a while. Move on to something fresh. Meanwhile keep getting it out there to…anyone you can. Just don’t listen to their feedback.
  4. After a minimum of three months, read your novel again with fresh eyes. Evaluate it yourself. Make decisions from there.

While the advice Steven gives here is specifically for writers, I think it rings true for any creative worker; artist, dancer, musician, student, entrepreneur, and so on.

It just doesn’t get more powerful than this. Don’t listen to anyone’s feedback, do the work for yourself. This becomes increasingly harder if you began a project in hopes of making a lot of money or becoming famous, in which case you’re better off dropping the project right now.

On the other hand, if you started the project (or career path) because you actually enjoy parts of it, keep going, but distance yourself for a brief time in order to gain perspective. On that note: there are always things you won’t enjoy about what you do, the key is whether or not you can look back at the end of some work and feel good even about the rough parts.

Head on over to Steven Pressfield’s website to read the whole email exchange in context.

Photo by Jessica Cross.