Why the best creatives are often makers too

When you look at what differentiates many creative thinkers from everyone else, one common thing is their craftiness. That is: their ability to not merely have ideas, but to execute on them too. Unequivocally, the most diligent creatives are also builders.

The best creative thinkers build things, either as part of their creative work or in their free time. They build businesses, apps, websites, books, artwork, jewelry, groups or conferences, toys, furniture, clothing, you name it.

Look out at any of the most prolific creatives of history and you'll see the point is true: each was not merely someone who had good ideas, but someone who built ideas into real, tangible things too.

But why? Why are so many creatives also makers? One reason is simply that it’s hard to critique something that doesn’t exist yet. To determine whether an idea is really any good or not you have to get it out of your head. Ideas are useless until we get them out of our heads, to see what they can do. You have to build the ideas in order to effectively evaluate them.

When you have an idea it exists as a volatile connection of neurons in your brain, little else. And because an idea exists entirely within the brain, it's possible to do anything with it. You can imagine an idea as being remarkable, or useless. You can imagine it being difficult to execute and build, or you can imagine it being effortless. You can imagine the idea exactly as it should be with little to no regard for how it may actually work.

Until the idea gets out of your head, its value is going to be difficult to accurately measure. You have to know how to get ideas out into the world in order to better gauge them when they occur.

Creatives are also makers because making gives us an additional layer of thinking about the world around us. And this is important: to understand what ideas we might build, we must have a better understanding of how things get built in the first place.

Instead of seeing something simply for what it is, the creative maker can view the object as many different parts, each with its own history, attributes, and modifiable values. This sense that can only be developed by making. It’s hard to know what goes into making anything if you’ve never built something.

Harvard researchers are beginning to study this notion—that learning to build enables more creative thinking—by looking at schools which teach making over more traditional, classroom-based learning. As Director of DesignME program at Park Day School puts it:

“In my experience with the kids, [building] allows them to more quickly gain a deeper understanding of what makes up that object and its purposes and its complexities... As kids try to express their understanding in three dimensions it adds so much more to how they engage with a concept and wrap their mind around it."

Having a better understanding of what it takes to build something also helps explain why so many creatives tend to be artistic or entrepreneurial: because those are the exercises with which they learn to look, adjust perspective, make do with what is available or be resourceful, and try things before evaluating them.

It's a common behavior to critique an idea before we've had sufficient time to ruminate on it. We tend to be our own biggest obstacles to creative thinking. But by learning to be makers—learning to get ideas out of the cloudy space within our heads—we can develop better habits for identifying which ideas are worthwhile and which may not be.

If you want to be more creative: learn to make. A painting, a draft of a novel, a ceramic bowl, a piece of jewelry, a video, a photographic print, a picture frame, anything that can help you grasp the process of turning an idea into something real and tangible. Also surround yourself by creatives who make. You never know what insight they might share or perspective they can help you see from.

The creator or the critic

The best way to change anything is to do something about it. The advice is mostly obvious, yet how often do we find ourselves complaining or wishing for things without taking action?

We want to make more money but find ourselves paralyzed at the thought of doing more work. We want to be more creative but regularly stick with routine or fail to surround ourselves with anything inspiring. We want to turn our hobbies into more fulfilling careers but never dedicate enough time to turning them into our livelihood.

There’s a great way of thinking about this stuff I’ve tried to keep in mind through my own life: if something is important enough, you’ll make time for it.

Generating new ideas, working on side projects, becoming a better creator, writing, meditator, or artist, all require time investments. If you can’t find a book out there you think is worth reading, you should write one that is. If you’re not finding the type of inspiring work in the world you feel you need most, create it. If you’re not happy with your work, start taking steps toward doing different work.

These things aren’t going to happen through wishful thinking or complaining on the Internet. And there isn’t a shortcut to these things happening either, no matter how many self-help books are out there with titles like: “The Secret to Being More Creative Overnight.” If we want these things to occur in our lives, the only shortcut is knowing there is no shortcut.

Dedicating just a few brief moments of our time to the things we want changed can make a tremendous difference. Just five minutes can go a long way.

Five minutes is enough time to strengthen or break apart our assumptions about the work itself. It’s enough time to plan the next series of five minutes in the future. It’s enough time to reach out for help, to gather the necessary tools, or create a formula for how to get from the world of today to the one you’re imagining. Small steps toward big impact. That’s how things happen in the real world.

But nothing happens if you don’t first start. Nothing happens if all you do is send a tweet or rant to a friend.

Of course the critic needs no more time than a minute to construct their argument. The creator often needs all the time in the world just to get an idea put onto the page. One exists in the past while the other presses toward the future, shaping it to fit her vision.

Here’s the thing: if you’re not one, you’re the other. There is no in-between.

You either spend your time wishing you had more time to change things, or you spend it doing whatever you can to make change.

To be creative you have to destroy


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?

A note on creating something imperfect


Does what you create have to be perfect?

Perhaps. But it’s better to have created something imperfect than to not have created anything at all, right?

Of course imperfection comes with a price. Flaws can make you look like an amateur. Typos and grammatical errors turn even the most elegant writer into an ambitious sophomore. Any idea that begins to crumble under the lightest of critique can have it thrown out in a heartbeat.

From there, the damage of something imperfect scales infinitely. Imperfection can cost you a shot at that dream job or a place at the local art gallery. It can damage your career, ruin relationships, and make you look like a complete dolt.

It doesn’t matter whether the imperfection came as a result of simply overlooking something or whether you knew better or not. An imperfection means you messed up.

Critics like to spot the imperfections in anything. These days anyone can readily critique work, thanks in part to the Internet and the ability to consume more art, more writing, photographers, music, etc. than ever before. We’re all masterful critics now, able to effortless spot what makes a Monet great and a sixth-grade class project terrible. Or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jestcompared to a blog post by a stay-at-home mom. Models in magazines and people at Walmart. We see imperfection everywhere because we have so many things to compare it with, so we feel empowered and justified when we spot imperfections and call them out.

Hours, days, months, or years can go into a work of art, and all it takes to make it evident that it’s from an amateur is the imperfections caused by a misplaced apostrophe, an accidental brush stroke, or a fraction of a delay in rhythm.

The cost of imperfection becomes a reason to not create. Worrying that what we end up with will be imperfect – even only slightly – is enough to ensure that we never pick up the brush, start typing the words, or move our feet.

Why work on something that might end up as crap anyway?

Billions of people around the world are asking themselves the exact same question: why put in the potentially countless hours of work to create something if it ends up being incomparable to the work of professionals or historic masters? Often the answer to this question is to not move. Those who ask it often end up not creating. In many instances, those same people don’t even like to think, they are content to be mindless critics. They exist to critique and contribute nothing to the world, because the cost of criticizing and judging is nothing.

Everyone can criticize.

What everyone can’t do is overcome the daunting fear of creating something imperfect. Of knowing that what they’re about to paint, write, play, invent, dance, or create may be terrible, but doing it anyway.

I say it’s better to create something imperfect than not create at all, because not everyone has what it takes to create. Creating anything means taking a risk to add something to the world, while critiquing adds nothing and costs nothing.

The critics will certainly come once that thing you create is out there in the world. If what they have to say about the imperfections can improve your work, that’s good, take the feedback and continue creating. If what they have to say is just gibberish or hateful, use it to remind you of what makes you valuable: you proactively create. This is important for us to remember:, because that’s all that critics can do: spot the imperfections. They can’t do what you’ve done when you press “publish” or hang your work in a gallery.

The cost of imperfection can be high, but the reward of creating anything at all is unfathomably higher. People who create stand out from the thoughtless masses. Creating opens new opportunities, gets you attention, helps you shape the world, and can inspire or motivate.

Create, even if it means making something imperfect.

Photo by Mark Patterson.

Quality work is a result of balance

There isn’t a person who can create quality work non-stop. I assure you it’s impossible.

Maybe consistently, but not non-stop.

The artist who puts out a dozen drawings every week has to sacrifice a lot in order to find the time not only to do the work, but to think about it too. She sacrifices her sleep schedule, a social life, and – more importantly for our intents – future quality.

Yes, a sculptor could build a thousand unique pieces in a month, but they sacrifice quality and consistency in their style as a result too.

On the other hand is the creative who balances everything non-creative (going out to the bar or to a movie, visiting museums, lazily watching television during a weeknight), with their creative work.

The person who balances their creativity with rest, or by stepping away from the work to do some other activity, is going to be rewarded with an intense quality in their work.

It’s not complicated to explain why this is the case.

When we dedicate ourselves solely to repetitively doing the task at hand – painting, drawing, dancing, writing, performing – we don’t give ourselves time to reflect, to contemplate where we could improve, to ask: “What could be next?”

This is true both of our creative potential as it is for our neurological well-being, as scientists have recently discovered more evidence that indicates sleep helps replenish brain cells.

But if you’re constantly slaving away at the work, day-in and day-out, when will you have time to replenish your ideas? To evaluate what you’ve done?

In the end, creating 1,000 works can end up producing one good one, but only if you’re taking the time to step back and look at the 999 that came before.

This type of advice can seem counterintuitive or even hypocritical, but it’s not. All it comes down to is balancing the amount of work you do with the amount of time you step back from it to think on it.

It’s not a matter of balancing laziness or procrastination, it’s a matter of balancing the action with the rest.