What we give up by being creative

There’s a high cost to being a maker or creative.

Of course I’m talking about the cost of diving into the unknown, of taking something comfortable or familiar and throwing it away.

To create is to destroy: the empty canvas, the blank page, the solid stone, or perception or even beliefs. The pursuit of new and different requires us to abandon—at least temporarily—the old and familiar.

What happens when the new isn’t as good or reliable as the old? What do we do when what we create doesn’t feel worthy of the destruction? How do we know when we’ve succeeded or fulfilled our purpose as a creative? How do we know when more (or better) ideas and projects on the horizon, or if we’ve reached our peak?

I don’t know the answers. What I do know is that the adventure into figuring out the answers for yourself is almost always worthwhile.

The reality is that the journey of a creative—of someone who imagines an alternate way forward or who asks what might happen when something gets made—is one fraught with uncertainty, dead ends, and many nights of discouraged restlessness.

When you begin to embrace curiosity and creation, when you open yourself to newness, you will never be the same. It’s like walking through a door you can’t go back through. Once you’re through, you’ll see things or feel things or have things you didn’t before.

But what we trade-off for all this is something we can’t get any other way: a different tomorrow. Something tangible that wasn’t there yesterday. A new book or blog post. A sculpture. A photograph or video, or conference, or document that proves “I was here, I made this.” A different perspective, or a more clarified one. A more vivid idea of what’s possible or why things are the way they are.

Even when the work isn’t up to snuff—when what we make doesn’t match what was in our head, of compared to what someone else made before us—we still learn, we still will have made something that wasn’t there yesterday.

And the result of any creative endeavor is this: a guiding light or inspiration to others, and a reminder for ourselves. A difference big or small in the way you think or feel or see. And that difference is what creativity is all about. Not accepting the status quo for what it is. Not looking around you and believing it doesn’t get better. We must appreciate everything around us that is beautiful and unique and valuable, but we must also remember that what often makes those things so is that they are impermanent.

There’s always the great unknown just around the corner. And when we go out to face it we give up a lot, but gain a lot too.

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.

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.

What does a creative life look like?

“To live a creative life we must lose our fear of being wrong.”

That’s one of my favorite quotes from author Joseph Chilton Pearce. And while Joseph’s wisdom doesn’t necessarily tell us exactly what it means to life a creatively fulfilled life, he does give us a hint at what it might entail.

If we view creativity as the mental processes involved with coming up with new and valuable ideas, then to live a creative life means fulfilling the conditions required for making those processes possible. Not only enabling ourselves to think creatively, but for our creativity and imagination to thrive.

What, then, does a creative life look like?

I imagine it entails a lot of reasonable risk taking. Whether that’s risks we face in critical moments of our lives, or within the decisions we make every day—like starting a business, investing in yourself, trying to sell your work, or starting the work in the first place—or in risks we take in the work itself. Risk is an inherent part of the creative process because it means we’re facing uncertainty, the previously unknown, gaps in our knowledge.

Through exploration we can uncover new insights, new ideas, and new ways of combining what we know with what we are only just discovering.

Part of a creative life is taking risks. The most creative individuals among us develop habits of risk-taking, in the form of both small gambles or large ones. We rarely ever hear about the small gambles because they don’t seem worthy of our attention, but it’s the small gambles which help us learn how to approach the big ones.

Another part of a creative life is accepting that the risks we take may result in failure, disappointment, or other negative consequences, but looking at the opportunity to take the risk as one that is worthwhile anyway.

In the world of creative research, this acceptance is commonly referred to as openness to experience, which is a trait many believe to be the most telling of creative potential. Openness to experience means acknowledging the risk but having the confidence to approach it anyway.

A creative life is one filled not only with risk, but with the courage to face it in any form.

One way to build that creative confidence in yourself is by utilizing play and experimentationmore in your life. By turning even the most mundane activities into a chance to try something new or different; something as simple as brushing your teeth with the opposite hand, trying a new food, or taking a different path than you normally take to school or work.

It’s not uncommon for highly creative individuals to dabble in many different things: from art and music, to filmmaking, bird watching, wood carving, playwriting, computer programming, mixology, book binding, auto repair, cinematography, and anything else you can think of. The reason they tend to dabble: because experimenting with things that aren’t your profession allows you to embrace making mistakes and discover new ways to learn different things. As Facebook designer Jasmine Friedl puts it:

“Experimenting through small things gives us an opportunity to validate everything we think we know.”

A creative life, then, is one filled with play and experimentation, risk taking, and the courage to see it through. Are those things you see in yourself, in the life your living? If not: what’s one small risk, one thing you can experiment with today? What about tomorrow?