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Stepping back from creativity to move forward with it

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Stress hinders creativity by using available brain energy for non-creative tasks, like worrying or uncontrollably eating a pint of ice cream.

Because it signals to the brain that there’s danger nearby, stress restricts our focus by releasing tense-inducing biochemicals and reverting processes from one are to another (think: fight or flight, not fight and flight).

Focused on the things causing us stress, we lose our ability to produce creative output. Occasionally the stress can provide a much-needed break from the work, but more often than not stress makes it hard to be creative.

An article in The New York Times explains what happens in the brains of rats who fall victim to stress, and how it damages their ability to problem solve:

On the one hand, regions of the brain associated with executive decision-making and goal-directed behaviors had shriveled, while, conversely, brain sectors linked to habit formation had bloomed…Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist who studies stress at Stanford University School of Medicine, said, ‘This is a great model for understanding why we end up in a rut, and then dig ourselves deeper and deeper into that rut.’

Scientific studies on humans have also confirmed this, stress kills creativity.

Unfortunately studies have also shown that common stress-relieving techniques (like meditation, imagining positive scenarios, or yoga) don’t boost creativity.

To get back in a creative state then requires a more controlled approach: we have to limit, reduce, and remove stress from our lives.

The best way to break away from stress? According to research: take a break.

A prolonged vacation – either physical or simply away from a project – can be the much-needed boost our brains need to stretch themselves back into a more flexible, open, and ultimately creative mind.

For creative individuals, it’s vitally important that we learn when to take a break and when not to; finding the balance in our thinking.

Not stepping away from the work can ultimately hurt us more than pausing and coming back to our craft later.

Photo by R. Nial Bradshaw.

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“Because that’s where the quality is. It’s in the practice, the process, the struggle and repetition. It’s in the hours of contemplation at work, in the park, the shower and the Mexican restaurant around the corner. Creativity is not to be rudely shoved into being–”

James Victore talks in this video about speed versus quality

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The importance of confidence in creativity

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Confidence is part of creativity that often gets ignored. Yet it’s confidence that allows creative exploration and insights to occur in the first place.

An artist who sits down to paint but is thoroughly convinced that she “isn’t really a painter” is already heading down a path where options for creation are limited. At the end of the day, she’s more inclined to wind up with a blank canvas and a headache than an inspirational piece of artwork.

Many of us who have a powerful creative drive refuse to let it become more than just a few occasional day dreams not because we lack creative capabilities, but because we lack the creative confidence necessary to do the work. We think to ourselves: “I can’t write a novel, I’m not a writer” or similar thoughts. The result is that we end up fulfilling the prophecy. We don’t feel like a writer, so we don’t write, which ensures that we don’t become a writer.

It’s not just creative career moves that a lack of creative confidence hinders too.

A lack of confidence in our abilities or ideas can equate to a complete avoidance of creative ideas or the vital act of experimenting.

Like the amateur who only dreams of being a creative writer, someone who doesn’t believe they have what it takes to truly be creative avoids generating original ideas. As a result, they fulfill that prophecy too: they don’t come up with creative ideas, they remain uncreative.

An essential part of creativity is then to “fake it ‘till you make it.” Belief is a crucial part of being receptive to the insights and inspiration that propel creativity.

You need confidence to be truly creative.

To quote Tom and David Kelley from their book “Creative Confidence”.

Creativity, far from requiring rare gifts and skulls, depends on what you believe you can do with the talents and skills you already have.

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When can you call yourself creative?

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Calling yourself “creative” is certainly a popular thing to do.

Creativity is – after-all – a much-needed resource.

But when everyone believes they’re creative, the word becomes diluted. Confusion sets in. What does it truly mean to be creative?

Is it enough to be a designer or musician? If I pickup a marker and write some fancy words, will that make more a creative? Is the man who doodles sketches in his notebook during boring meetings more or less creative than the team of engineers who produce revolutionary rechargeable car batteries? Whose to say?

Ultimately being “creative” requires that you produce ideas that are original and valuable, of course. But when nothing is original and when we’re forced to ask: “valuable for who?” calling yourself creative becomes muddy water.

So, is it fair to call yourself a creative if you haven’t invented a new standard for tech production? Can a starving artist who sells only one painting a year (for just a few bucks, nonetheless) still be considered creative? What about the amateur writer without a book deal, or even really a completed chapter, is she creative too?

I’m going to say yes, as long as the thinking is there.

Steve Jobs was right all along: creativity isn’t about revolutionizing the world, it’s about thinking different. If you just so happen to invent something world-changing or create a masterpiece that sells for millions of dollars, that’s just icing on the cake.

But if you have the guts to pursue the path least followed, to ask questions nobody is asking, to daydream and doodle and sing and design like nobody else is, go ahead and call yourself creative. If that’s the case, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Of course you’re creative.

Photo by James Victore. Follow him on Instagram.

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A solution to feeling uncreative

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“I don’t feel very creative.”

Whenever I hear someone say that (or when I catch myself thinking it) I ask the question: what are you working on that allows you to be creative?

If you’re not tackling a creativity-invoking project at work or on the side – or if you’re not attempting to do something out of the ordinary as a hobby or out of sheer tinkering – then you’re not going to feel creative. We call this “routine.”

There’s unfortunately a common confusion between not being creative and not having something to creatively explore.

The former is a fallacy anyway, of course you’re creative. Anyone with a healthy mind has the capacity to be creative under the right circumstances.

Not having something that allows you to express yourself creatively is typically what causes us to feel uncreative, even though it’s not true.

The solution to feeling uncreative is straightforward enough: find something new to work on.

It can be anything. Big or small, a project at work or school or a side project. Something for money or fame or simply to scratch a childish itch of wonder.

The old saying from Picasso makes a lot of sense in this context: “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”

Find something new to work on, something you can really explore, and you’ll discover you had a lot of creative potential wound-up inside of you anyway, you simply didn’t have any way to express it.

Don’t wait for the right project either, start now with your next idea (or a past one).

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“In all creative work, there is a balance between what you want to give the world and what the world needs: if you’re lucky, your work is in the middle.”

The always great Austin Kleon in his interview with The Great Discontent.

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