Creativity often comes from discomfort


Creativity comes to those who want or need it. Those who are hungry for change, something different, a shake up.

Comfort is debilitating when it comes to creative thinking. The act of creativity thrives in moments of tension, when there is struggle there is an opening for creativity.

You cannot merely will creativity. You cannot "try harder" to cause it to occur. It requires a gap, some type of discomfort, or another type of provocation to occur.

Consider your appetite for food. It’s hard to see the appeal of food when you’ve just eaten a large meal. No matter how much you might enjoy food, it can be hard to stomach another bite after you’ve over indulged. The appeal of a really good meal is partially in the hunger for it. The same is true of creativity.

If you don’t see a need to break from routine or change your thinking, the notion of creativity will not only seem unappealing, it will become difficult to realize. Why question the status quo if it’s giving you what you want? Why push boundaries if their confines are comfortable? Even if you don’t know things could be better, it’s easy to convince yourself good enough is... well, good enough.

It’s those who feel an itch to change things in their life, those who are unsatisfied with their work or processes or other aspects of life are more likely to experience a creative breakthrough. The ones who dare to look out and ask: “What if this were different?” are the ones who often make it so.

We call this perspective “openness to new experiences” and it’s one of the primary attributes that determine whether or not someone is creative. Associate director of the Center for Values in Medicine, Science, and Technology at the University of Texas at Dallas, Magdalena G. Grohman believes openness to experiences is the single most defining trait that makes creative success possible.

This helps explain why boredom is so valuable to creativity: it instigates exploration, it creates an opening for novelty. It also explains why those who travel or read diverse content and expose themselves to different ways of thinking are the ones who tend to produce more creative ideas and work.

Perhaps one reason some of the most creative artists and musicians in history are also the most troubled: the struggle they encounter in life is what pushes them to try new and different things.

If you want to be more creative, embrace the uncomfortable feeling brought about by peeking outside your routine and asking: “What else is out there?”

What to do when you’re just starting out as a creative

If you’re just starting out: your only job is to try things, explore, gain diverse perspectives, and find the things that work for you.

Today there's more noise than sound when it comes to advice on how to get anywhere as a creative. You don’t need to look much further than the surface level of Twitter, Facebook, or Google, to find a surplus of people who know what they’re talking about or at least pretend to.

For new and budding creatives this creates a bit of a dilemma: who do you listen to and who do you ignore? Where is the right place to look for answers or insights? How do you gauge whether or not someone knows what they’re talking about? Where should you even start looking for a path to creative success? The best answer to all of these questions is going to depend.

If you aren’t yet sure of who you want to be, you’ll need to find out for yourself. Your only job in the beginning is to pursue as many different possible options as possible until something sticks. To quote author Rebecca Solnit: “Wandering is your real work."

And even when you find something that really feels good and promising you have to be willing to change course. If you do your job well—if you give yourself time and space to wander—you'll avoid the impact trap: working hard in a single direction only to discover there were bigger or better opportunities you could have been working toward all along.

When you put so much time into the work of one path you're much more likely to lock yourself into it. When you make progress in one direction it can be really frightening—and hard—to change course at any point. Put in the time up-front to get a feel for what options are out there, what potential ideas might flourish or pull at you, where you might be able to tinker and explore the most as an individual.

As Andrew Bosworth, Facebook VP of Advertising, puts it in his article The Impact Trap:

"If we aren’t willing to take risks then we are relying entirely on having picked the right hill to begin with. That is a tall order given that we pick our starting position when we have the least information about the landscape."

When you're just starting out (or re-starting) your journey, your entire job is first to wander, to feel out the landscape. Only once you've done a reasonable job at exploring should you start hiking in any particular direction.

As they say: when you don't know which road to take, any road will get you where you need to go.

The creative path is the one discovered along the way

What often differentiates the artist and designer from the analytical thinker or engineer is their ability to think through their work as they're working on it.

The analytical thinker is analyzing information before anything's begun, then re-assessing after-the-fact. The engineer creates a blueprint, prepares resources based on the blueprint, then builds the bridge to spec. There isn't much wiggle room for sudden or dramatic change when you're in the middle of constructing a bridge, so the plans get made and the work gets done according to the plan.

But for artists or creatives, the work is constantly evolving, always in a state of change. There is still planning and reflection, but it's more fluid and the work influences the plan just as much as the plan influences the work.

I was recently reminded of this point when reading John Maeda's Redesigning Leadership. John puts the point elegantly:

"Artists don’t distinguish between the act of making something and the act of thinking about it—thinking and making evolve together in an emergent, concurrent fashion. As a result, when approaching a project, an artist often doesn’t seem to plan it out. She just goes ahead and begins, all the while collecting data that inform how she will continue.
A large part of what drives [the artist’s] confidence is her faith in her ability to course correct and improvise as she goes."

Making matters for the artist because it’s how she learns. She could spend a lot of time up-front doing what analysts, engineers, and managers do: addressing what’s known, diving into existing variables, and gambling on the outcome or marching forward over—or under—prepared. Or she can jump into the work and rely on her ability to adapt and change course as she goes.

One approach isn’t any better than the other for anything in particular, but the latter method—of making and thinking along the way—allows for more creative exploration by default.

By making and allowing yourself to adapt as you go, you free yourself up to do just that: to make things up as you go. To change course, alter the goal, modify the expected outcome, throw white all over the canvas and start again. When you set things like vision and goals up-front you limit what’s possible. Vision and goals are you saying you know where it is you want to go, but creativity is about just starting and figuring out where it is you're going by getting there.