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.

Impossible as a perspective we keep


We say “when pigs fly” whenever we’re describing something impossible. It’s a way of saying something will never happen, to scoff at over ambition, “yeah right, when pigs fly.”

Pigs may not have wings but these days it’s not out of the realm of possibilities for them to fly. All you have to do is put one on an airplane, or in a hot air balloon.

A thousand years ago the only way to understand the idea of someone or something flying was to think of it within the contexts of magic or godliness.

People didn’t fly, it just wasn’t something that was capable of happening. Whenever people imagined flying back then they did so from the perspective of magic or otherworldliness. Gods flew, birds too, but people or pigs? Never going to happen, impossible.

Today more than 2.5 million people fly every day within the United States alone. 45,000 ft in the air, 250 meters a second, millions and millions of miles traveled a day. But if you were to travel back in time and repeat those numbers to someone they’d have a hard time comprehending what you were saying. To those who lived a thousand years ago flying was impossible, not only for pigs but for people too.

Yet here we are: millions of people doing the impossible every day.

It turns out impossible isn’t as precise as its description implies: “something unable to occur or exist.” Something that’s impossible from one perspective or frame of understanding is normal in another. As humans we may be incapable of flying without the gravity-defying support of an airplane, but we are flying nonetheless every time we travel in one. Flying therefore is no longer impossible. Pigs can fly every day now.

”It always seems impossible until it’s done.” — Nelson Mandela

In order to provoke creative thinking we often need to change the lens we use when looking at a problem or statement. What’s impossible here and now, with our current understanding or perspective, may be entirely possible if all we do is change the way we’re looking at it: if we flip it around, change the context, introduce a new technology or facet, remove a piece, or put the thing into something else—like a pig into an airplane.

"The ability to see an idea, or a thing, from many different perspectives is among the greatest assets a thinking person can have." — Scott Berkun in his book The Dance of the Possible

Another way to invoke that unique lens or perspective is to talk to someone else, or read a book. What’s impossible or far-fetched to you may be an everyday occurrence for someone else. The person who lived a thousand years ago spent every day talking about how pigs or people could never fly, but today we know that’s not only possible, but a regular thing.

What else might we think is limited, only to find it’s not when we change the contexts? Who might know? You won’t get answers just thinking about these things: you have to imagine alternatives, go out and try to create things, and talk to those who may have a different perspective.

The inspiration around us

“All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions.” – Leonardo da Vinci.

There’s a favorite story of mine that belonged to a friend I knew while growing up.

At the time of this story, my friend’s father had just started a small advertising design studio out of Provo, Utah. With the help of a business partner, the studio began to swell and grow almost immediately.

But there was a problem with the studio, they had no name and, more importantly for a design studio, no logo.

For weeks the partners of the company ran through drawings of potential logos. They stayed up late at night trying to come up with a logo that would represent their company perfectly, but none of the ideas they came up with were good enough.

Until one day while getting out of his car, my friend’s father accidentally spilled a drink onto the warm concrete outside of the office.

When he looked down at the spill it immediately struck him. The spill had somehow splashed in a way that resembled the appearance of a wise old man, with his hands placed against his forehead as if in deep thought.

“Aha!” the father thought to himself. The spill resembled everything that the design agency wanted to portray, of knowledge and wisdom and the effort it takes to creatively work on great design. The logo that the design studio uses to this day is that of a wise old man with hands placed against his forehead as if in deep thought.

Leonardo da Vinci was right when he said that all of our knowledge (and inspiration, for that matter) begin with our perceptions. “Almost with apology, since it seemed so obvious to him, [Leonardo] advised people to contemplate the walls, clouds, pavements, etc., with the idea of looking for patterns and images to conceptually blend with your thoughts.” writes Michael Michalko on da Vinci.

Everything we see, taste, touch, smell, and hear, has the ability to inspire us. Everything from the walls around us, to the clouds in the sky, to an accidental drink spilled onto the ground, everything has the ability to inspire us, if we only make an effort to look.

Today, try seeking out inspiration in everything around you. Make an active effort to touch, smell, taste, see, and hear, at least one or two new things today. See what’s around you that you perhaps haven’t taken the time to see before, because that’s where you’ll undoubtedly find new inspiration.

Illustration by Andres Ramos.

Why you need to broaden your perspective

If you were tasked with putting a 100-piece puzzle together with only being able to see two of the pieces at a time and without a full picture of the completed puzzle, do you think you could do it?

You wouldn’t be able to see the complete picture, so you ultimately wouldn’t know where any piece correctly goes. You wouldn’t stand a chance. In the business world your job is a lot like putting a puzzle together using only two random pieces at a time. Fortunately, in the corporate world, you have other people helping you with their pieces as well.

But you’re missing the picture if you stick to just the pieces you’ve been given to work with.

Imagine how much easier putting together the puzzle would be if you took a step back and saw the whole picture.

Creativity is a lot like that: your ability to come up with new ideas and solve problems works best when you broaden your perspective, when you step away from what you’re currently focusing on and let everything around you become clearer in vision.

Why would you continue to struggle putting a puzzle together if you couldn’t see the whole picture? It’s easy to avoid the same problem in work, in relationships, and in struggles or problems by broadening your scope.

Step back, broaden your perspective, realize that there is more to everything than what you’re focusing and seeing now; there always is.

Gaining perspective through travel

If you want to be creative you need to have an understanding of the idea that there are countless different ways to see and interpret the world.

This is why we travel, or so claims Jonah Lehrer in his article Why we travel. Jonah explains:

“Seasoned travellers are alive to ambiguity, more willing to realise that there are different (and equally valid) ways of interpreting the world. This in turn allows them to expand the circumference of their “cognitive inputs”, as they refuse to settle for their first answers and initial guesses… . We don’t spend 10 hours lost in the Louvre because we like it, and the view from the top of Machu Picchu probably doesn’t make up for the hassle of lost luggage…We travel because we need to, because distance and difference are the secret tonic of creativity. When we get home, home is still the same. But something in our mind has been changed, and that changes everything.”

Looking at the world from a different perspective can open your mind to new possibilities. Traveling to a far off beach or city allows you to ‒ quite literally ‒ take a step back and see your problems or concerns from a distance.

When was the last time you took a vacation? Even if it’s just to a neighboring city for the weekend, getting away from your usual environment can be very rewarding. Do yourself and your creativity a favor and plan a trip to another place.