Why starting helps get us unstuck

The hardest thing about writing a draft is starting.

Looking at a blank page can leave you feeling as though anything is possible, the words can go in any direction. The limits are boundless, so we procrastinate. We tell ourselves we’ll start writing once the right idea strikes, once we have a more vivid direction to go in. We often look to the internet for inspiration or direction but get distracted instead. The work waits for us, but we’re off pretending we’re waiting for the work to tell us what to do.

The blank page sits there because that’s all a blank page can do: wait.

If you’re trying to create—to write or paint or code— for fun or as a new habit or hobby, the pressure is even worse than if you’re doing those things professionally. That blank page isn’t just a blank page to the free-writer, it’s a choice. You could start writing, but there are so many other, more important or pressing things to get to, you’re better off waiting for inspiration to strike. So you’ll focus your attention on more important things like checking email, getting caught-up on your favorite tv shows, fiddling with an old project.

Of course with this mentality the writing or painting or coding rarely comes, and when it does: it’s slow and painful and often feels like a bit of wasted time. We try to convince ourselves we’re wasting effort by saying things like: “This is crap” or “I shouldn’t waste my time since I don’t know really know what it is I’m trying to make.”

Yet once we’ve begun creating, once the opportunity and pressure of the blank page have been corralled, the act becomes a little bit easier. Surprisingly, it’s easier to end a sentence than begin one. It’s easier to add ink to an already wet canvas. It’s easier to cross out a line, move the code around, or tinker with colors, once the work is already in front of us.

The reason for this is simple psychology: our minds need direction—some clear guidance—on what to think about at all. And we each tend to feel like: unless we have some guidance, we’re better off doing something else. The internet is always willing to think for us, so we tend to turn there first for inspiration. If we don’t feel the jab of inspiration, the clear signpost on which way to go, we don’t budge.

Of course once we start moving in a direction, we realize moving isn’t all that hard. The only motivation we often need is the direction we give ourselves.

When we pause for clarity we’re often fooling ourselves. We don’t need inspiration to start tackling a blank page, we simply need to start. With whatever thought comes to mind first. With whatever we’re feeling in the moment.

Capturing whatever you’re thinking or feeling the moment you encounter the blank page is a good way to get a direction clear in your mind. What you’ll find is as you start putting things down, they will surprise you. Things you write or paint or code will be things you weren’t really aware you were thinking or feeling or considering. Putting these feelings and thoughts down gives them clarity. The act turns our thoughts from mushy, cloudy things into tangible words and images you can not only see but now edit too.

Once you’ve begun, the rest of the work becomes a little bit easier. And when you have a few bits on the page, you can hone in on what resonates or calls to you and edit or remove what doesn’t. The spark of inspiration is often best found in the work itself: all you need to do is start. To fake it if you have to, but start.

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”

Creative isn’t something you become

It’s a process you learn to develop over time.

This distinction is important, particularly if you’re coming at creativity from a place of having been turned off from it: working or living in a culture or place that promotes routine and answers over the unknown and question seeking.

If you believe creativity is a state of being—that it’s on or off, something people have or don’t, something you must be empowered to flip on—you’re much more likely to accept excuses for why you can or cannot use it.

The common fallacy tends to be: “I can’t be creative because my boss/parent/partner won’t let me.” Of course creativity scoffs in the face of constraints. True creativity says: “they” won’t let us do things one way, so we’ll try another.

So what’s preventing you from being more creative here and now? What if it’s just your perception that creativity is a switch, or something to become or a state to achieve? How might we change the perception of creativity as being something you don’t turn on or off and instead being something you develop as a skill? Something that can work around any constraints? A skill that gets better over time, not worse?

Creativity—the ability to think of ideas which are both novel and valuable—is a skill anyone can learn. Much like math, science, writing, or a foreign language.

I remember thinking I’d never be able to do math, even of the basic variety. I grew up thinking mathematics were something you were either good at or not. I watched in school as students who excelled at math breezed past problems I could hardly understand, let alone solve.

But over time I learned math is a learnable skill: it was just the ways I was being taught that weren’t right for me.

I found “tricks” for solving problems, visual approaches that aligned more with my way of thinking. I learned when terminology and labels mattered and when they were just for show. I learned how to break the problems down into manageable chunks rather than trying to solve large problems at once. And I realized just how important it is to approach a problem with confidence, without which my mind wouldn’t even begin to view a problem as something I could solve.

The same attributes are all true of creativity. Creativity is a skill which can be learned by anyone and developed over time.

To do it requires learning small tricks for utilizing it: flipping a problem around, changing perspective, asking silly questions, finding a partner, or any of the other hundreds of thinking tricks.

Developing creativity also requires a clear perspective of what it is and what it isn’t, how it differs from innovation or imagination.

If you want to develop your creativity you too must improve your confidence of doing so. Without which it won’t matter how capable you are, you’ll find your mind simply don’t even want to try.

Creativity is a skill like any other, in that you can develop and improve it. It’s not a switch to be turned on or a trait you’re either born with or not. When you realize this, many more options for how to utilize your creativity become apparent.

What to do with your imagination

“Imagination is the source of every form of human achievement.” — Sir Ken Robinson.

You have an imagination, it’s whether or not you choose to use it that matters.

If I were to ask you right now to close your eyes and briefly imagine a small, green ball, you could do it. The details of your imagined ball may look different than mine—your ball may have a different texture, exist within a different environment, or be of a relatively different size—but you can imagine it without struggling much to do so.

And if I were to tell you to now imagine that same green ball as changing color to red, or blue, or purple, you could do that too. If I told you to imagine the ball floating in the sky, you might imagine it softly floating a lot like a balloon through clouds or through an orange sunset or foggy rain. Or if I told you to turn the ball into a heavy metal, you'd have no trouble imagining it dropping to the ground with some heft.

You are capable of imagination even without instruction on how to do it. Nobody has to tell you exactly how to imagine something, you simply close your eyes and there you are.

This is the power of imagination: because what you envision and sense and witness exists entirely within your head, you can do a lot with it, without any instruction or tutorial beforehand. Imagination is as natural as breathing for us humans.

Of course the limits of what you can imagine are entirely contained within your memories and experiences. If you didn’t know what a “ball” was you would absolutely have a hard time imagining it, how are you supposed to imagine something you have never seen before? It's akin to me asking you to imagine a drilous harbitoot: you can't do it, because I just made that up.

As Oliver Sacks writes in his book The River of Consciousness:

"Intelligence, imagination, talent, and creativity will get nowhere without a basis of knowledge and skills."

When we talk about creatives using their imagination—to dream-up wild and wonderful new things—what we’re really talking about is the ability to take a number of existing concepts and change known attributes of them in order to imagine things differently. That famous Apple motto of the late 1990s harks true: think differently.

Of course imagining things to be differently isn't a behavior reserved only to highly intelligent and capable geniuses: imagining a different world is a favorite practice in the shower, of children on the playground, of the workplace daydreamer. You’re imaginative every time you imagine anything at all, creative or not.

By improving your imaginative capabilities you improve your ability to think creatively: to dream of new possibilities.

Steve Jobs had to imagine what the first personal computer might look and feel like before it existed. Michelangelo had to imagine each statue he crafted before he began sculpting any clay or hammering any marble. In each case what came as a result was influenced by something that had come before: the large closet-sized computers of the 1980s or the cast statues of ancient times.

To improve your imagination you must first give it fuel—through experiencing new things—then identify patterns or models for modifying what you can imagine. But tread carefully: the knowledge we give ourselves can often blind us to possibilities. We may become so accustomed to how things are, or how we experience things, we fail to see things any other way. As Bruce Nussbaum explains in his book Creative Intelligence:

"We’re often so accustomed to seeing things in a certain way that we become blind to the possibility of something we can’t yet imagine. Often the way to create something wildly different is to step back and look at what stories we’ve taken for absolute truth."

When it comes to imagination, it's not enough to merely gain new knowledge and experience, we must step back and question things often too.

One of the best ways to do that is through cognitive conflict: giving yourself improbable or silly scenarios to imagine. How might a led balloon float? What would a marble statue of a mountain look like? Where is the tallest place on earth and what might happen if the tallest person jumped up on top of it?

It's only by gaining experience and information, then thinking critically—or playfully—about it that we can really begin to empower and do more with our imaginations.

Ideas are for sharing, not sheltering

Too often we hide our ideas out of fear they might break or be torn apart before they’ve had a chance to shine. We want our ideas to be perfectly polished before we share them with anyone, before we line them up in front of what could very well be a firing squad. We fear criticism and judgement and the possibility that our ideas aren’t as great as we want them to.

Where does this fear come from and is it possible the feeling of wanting to shelter our ideas is not entirely rational?

If we think of our ideas as reflections of ourselves—our capabilities, our beliefs, our IQ—then of course it’s going to be scary to expose them to others. The last thing any of us want is to be told we’re not capable, that our beliefs are wrong, or that we overlooked something obvious. We don’t want to be dumb or wrong, so we shelter our ideas until we’ve had a chance to ensure they’re “good enough.”

The trick is that ideas are never good enough until they face the light of other perspectives and opinions. Any idea can be viewed as good if it exists only within your head. It’s when the idea gets let loose in the world that it has a chance to grow, strengthen, and evolve.

When we step back and see our ideas as being their own objects, not pieces of ourselves or our intelligence, it becomes easier to share them.

And sharing our ideas matters because, despite what our fears may make us believe, when ideas are hammered and cut and torn apart they inevitably end up becoming stronger, not weaker.

The reality is that our ideas can never be destroyed, every idea you have is nearly indestructible. Once you’ve had a really good idea, it isn’t going to go anywhere. The idea will stay with you in some form or another, in the recesses of the complex biological machine that is your brain.

Our ideas simply cannot be destroyed. Just ask anyone with a strong political or religious idea, or consider the last time a catchy song got stuck in your head. Once an idea takes hold in your mind, it’s hard to get rid of it.

What happens when we expose our ideas is they don’t get destroyed, they evolve. That evolution is the process that makes ideas worthwhile, real, not merely imaginary beliefs sheltered within the confines of our imaginations.

When we expose our ideas to criticism and feedback the ideas don’t really get destroyed or damaged, they strengthen and grow. What can happen is ideas change, shaped by the opinions and information we get from others. And these changes may weaken *our* initial perspective or vision of an idea, but the fundamental idea will still be there in the foundation of whatever new or different ideas come from the feedback we get. Better, faster, bigger, stronger. If we’re open to the feedback.

And, of course, we have to remember that the feedback we get on our ideas isn’t feedback on us. We are not our ideas; our ideas are our ideas. And they need the ability to distance themselves from us if they’re to really grow.

Nothing happens with your ideas if you shelter them. If you wait for perfection you’ll be waiting your whole life. Instead: speed up the process of improving your ideas by getting them out into the world where they’ll have a chance to improve and expand based on the feedback they incur.

Why pursue creative ideas, even when you’re bound to be wrong

We tend celebrate the creative thinkers among us not merely for their successful ideas, but for their courage.

Any time someone has the guts to question the status quo, to propose an alternative way forward, or to create in the wake of destruction, they’re doing so at cost. Cost to their reputation, or well-being, or way of life.

When they turn out to be right we celebrate whatever it is they’ve unlocked: a new idea, a new way of seeing, a new object of creation. Their struggle and courage often falls behind the wayside, overshadowed by the result of their efforts.

When they’re wrong the creative person still has a tremendous impact on the world, but one that is quietly valued rather than openly and loudly celebrated. If you want to be a creative thinker this is an important lesson to be mindful of.

Sometimes, for a few of us, the courage to press forward and try something new and different is enough to captivate an audience. Even if just an audience of one, they watch by the sidelines as we struggle and climb and destroy and create endlessly. And sometimes that’s enough; to keep going, to keep trying, to keep creating.

Because what we often find when we push through in-spite of a lack of any victory, is things change. We make an impact merely by trying. As my friend Deb once told me:

“If you win, you lead. If you lose, you guide.”

Meaning: if your idea or creation or whatever works out, you end up leading others; to use your creation, to follow your way of thinking, to do or see things differently. And if your work ends up failing, you’re still adding value to those paying attention. You show them where not to go, how not to think, what not to try. If your idea or creation wins, you lead. If it fails, you guide. Both are important and necessary in the world we live in.

After more than 10 years I still blog about creativity. Not for the esteem or celebration or whatever else. I write on creativity because no matter what happens I’m influencing and inspiring others.

Even those who don’t agree with everything I write are impacted by what they read. Maybe they feel motivated to prove me wrong, or to write their own arguments, or to share and chastise. Others are inspired, moved to action, given a few moments for reflection. Either way: these small, uncelebrated ideas have an affect on those who come across them.

By putting the words out into the world I’m shaping it. And you can too. All it takes is the courage to start: writing a post, sharing an idea, recording a video or podcast, drawing and sharing what you doodle on Instagram, you name it.

When we step up to not only have ideas, but also have the courage to share them and put them to the test, we’re saying: “I want to see where this goes and anyone who’s paying attention is welcome to come along for the ride.” And that, I think, is enough to celebrate for ourselves.