Destroy your work in order to fully explore it

I don’t write to preserve my thoughts or ideas. I write so I can destroy the ideas I produce in their entirety and see what happens as a result.

Artist Oliver Jeffers chooses to “destroy” his beautiful paintings by dipping them in paint in an effort to purposefully hide parts of the artwork beneath a solid layer of color. The result of the destruction is always a secret preserved in vibrant elegance. It’s a result only possible by destruction of the original piece.

“I was fascinated by this idea of hidden variables,” Oliver said in an interview with The Guardian. “When scientists and mathematicians take into account forces at work that they have no idea about… I became really fascinated by that – so I started making art then hiding it in some ways, to push this idea that if people couldn’t see it, was it still a piece of art?”

The dipped part of Oliver’s paintings is permanently covered. Only Oliver and a small handful of people, invited to witness the dipping, ever see what lies beneath the solid barrier.

“The act itself is simple,” writes Hannah Ellis-Petersen, “Jeffers paints a portrait of someone who has suffered loss, then in a small, secret ceremony, half submerged the picture in a vat of enamel paint so most of it is concealed forever. No photographs or records of the portrait are taken; the only people who ever see it in its entirety as the small audience invited to the ceremony. After it is dipped, it exists only in their memories.”

Steve Jobs believed in the power of destruction. In his biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson wrote: “One of Jobs’s business rules was to never be afraid of cannibalizing yourself. ‘If you don’t cannibalize yourself, someone else will,’ he said. So even though an iPhone might cannibalize the sales of an iPod, or an iPad might cannibalize the sales of a laptop, that did not deter him.”

Perhaps we should reserve our frustrations, our fears, around creativity not for the part that involves first taking action. Why destroy an idea that doesn’t yet exist?

Nobody crumbles up a blank sheet of paper, Seth Godin once wrote.

Instead, we should preserve most of our ability to destroy for what comes after we first act or create. We should preserve our energies for the self-editing, the ability to see what you’ve done and tear it apart willingly.

Focus on first acting—getting the ideas into the page or put into the world—then purposefully taking it apart, ruining it, or otherwise destroying it, just to see what happens as a result.

Of course, if the idea of destroying your own work, your own ideas, seems frightening, consider that every act of creation is first an act of destruction. Writing destroys the blank canvas. Invention destroys the status quo.

To really create we must destroy, sometimes that means even destroying what we’ve already created.