Learning how to start something creative is more important than learning how to perfect it

Many of my articles on Creative Something are centered around doing anything to move an idea or project forward.

Why not focus more on the importance of perfecting or evolving an idea or project, rather than the repetitive notion of simply getting started?

The reason I insist that we – as artists, writers, entrepreneurs, musicians, and designers – focus more on starting and less on perfection is that starting is undoubtedly the biggest struggle we each face as creative workers.

Even experts and professionals struggle to get their ideas moving. Action is an ongoing battle.

Of course, perfection is a battle too, but one that can only come once there’s something to perfect.

Yes, perfection is something to aim for, but to perfect something you first need to create it, and to create it you need to take those first steps. How can you perfect what doesn’t exist in the first place? How can you know what to change or improve if there’s nothing in front of you?

The challenges we face are primarily in overcoming the fear of failure, of feeling like an impostor, of feeling like our efforts are worthwhile, all at the very beginning of a project. Face those fears, fight the battle of starting something, and you can move onto perfecting it. You’ll learn more about what you’re capable of by starting something than you will of fine-tuning it.

Rather than starting a project with an eye on the center of the target, it’s much more rewarding to start a project with the sole intent of propelling it forward. Movement is key, not orientation.

Worry about getting started, taking the first few steps. It might be just at the start of a project, or it might be every day you sit down to think and create. Only after you’ve moved the needle on starting should you begin to think about improving or perfecting it.

Read this next: All you need is five minutes to do creative work

Photo by John Trainor.

The three types of creative problems

What type of creative problem are you dealing with?

In March of 2012, writer and creative savant Jonah Lehrer wrote in The Wall Street Journal about what it takes to be creative.

What was intriguing about the article wasn’t necessarily all of the various understandings (and misunderstandings) humans have about creative thought, it was Lehrer’s outline of three distinct types of creative problems.

If you know what type of creative problem it is you’re trying to solve or work on, you’ll be able to easily identify what strategies and tactics work best for getting to a solution quicker.

For just that reason, here are the three types of creative problems.

Moment-of-insight problems

The most common creative solutions seem to be the result of some magical insight. You’ve likely experienced it yourself at one point or another.

Sitting toiling away on some work, then momentarily doing something different – taking a walk, doing the dishes, hoping in the shower, having a beer – when an insight suddenly and mysteriously strikes.

“Eureka,” is the most commonly-associated response, as Archimedes once famously shouted when first struck with an insight on how to measure the mass of gold in a crown. Eureka, in Ancient Greek, literally means ”I have found (it)!”

While it used to be that such insights were attributed to a ethereal sources, science is beginning to show that such insights are the result of deep digging and connections made in our subconscious brain.

Lehrer explains:

“Research led by Mark Beeman and John Kounois has identified where that flash probably came from. In the seconds before the insight appears, a brain area called the superior anterior temporal gyrus (aSTG) exhibits a sharp spike in activity.”

For creative problems where the answer is likely buried in our past experiences (or typically the result of a combination of previous knowledge), simply taking a step away – by having a drink, taking a nap, doing the dishes, etc. – will help yield the problem.

Nose-to-the-grindstone problems

Taking a step away from the problem isn’t always the way to solve it, unfortunately.

There are problems that require constant and diligent effort. They’re when we have to bury ourselves in the work in order to see the answers.

Lehrer quotes the great philosopher and crick Nietzsche here by writing: “All great artists and thinkers are great workers.”

Some problems require that we simply keep working and keep thinking about them. The answers lie somewhere in the deep recesses of our brains, and it’s only when we’ve exhausted almost all other possibilities that the right one will make itself evident.

Like the work of Milton Glaser on the iconic “I Love New York” design. That familiar red on white design came about only as a result of Glaser’s habitual work ethic. It was from a taxi car, after already having received approval of a different, initial design for the campaign that the big heart icon and design layout struck Glaser.

How do you know when to stick with a problem versus take a break (per the previous creative problem type)? Lehrer explains that it’s all about intuition:

“Researchers call these intuitions ‘feelings of knowing,’ and they occur when we suspect that we can find the answer, if only we keep on thinking. Numerous studies have demonstrated that, when it comes to problems that don’t require insights, the mind is remarkably adept at assessing the likelihood that a problem can be solved…”

A painter, for example, knows she can find the right strokes for her work simply by continuously working away on different strokes. Her intuition is all she needs, thanks to the years of experience she’s had painting.

A start-up inventor, on the other hand, may need to seek out other types of inspiration in order to move forward on his project due to his inexperience (and therefore lack of intuition) in the field. Which brings us to the next type of creative problems…

Connecting-the-right-material problems

We don’t always have the answer we need. It’s common for the required material (in this case: knowledge) to come from somewhere outside of the scope of what we’re dealing with.

The Wright Brothers, for example, were able to take their knowledge of mechanical work and engineering on bicycles and apply it to aviation. “Their first flying craft was, in many respects, just a bicycle with wings,” Lehrer reminds us.

For these types of creative problems the best thing to do is to have many diverse experiences. Taking up new hobbies, exploring uncharted (for ourselves, anyway) territories, meeting new people, diversifying the knowledge we have to call from when encountering a new type of creative problem.

Why does connecting the right material (often outside of our comfort zone) work? It’s a problem of mental focus more than anything.

When you’ve been staring at the same type of problems for so long the material starts to look the same, breakthroughs become difficult to see. If you’re considered an expert than you may shy away from asking naive questions, but it’s those questions and that child-like mentality that help break focus long enough to see the solution floating just outside your vision – in a way.

To again quote Lehrer: “It’s this ability to attack problems as a beginner, to let go of all preconceptions and fear of failure, that’s the key to creativity.”

Illustration by Chris Potter.

Starting and the fear of breaking things

When I first got into computer programming, over a decade ago, I would take code somebody else had created and then modify it to match my ideas. Often the cycle of copying and then tweaking would break things in the process.

I’d have an idea for an application, something that I needed on my own computer and figured others might enjoy as well, so I’d go scouring around the Internet for free, open-source code that I could copy. I’d have to copy dozens of existing bits of code from all around the web and then modify it to work how I needed it to.

Often I’d have make changes to code without having a full understanding of what it was I was changing. A period or some parenthesis would go missing in the code and suddenly the entire application broke. It wouldn’t run or function the way I wanted it to, so I would go back through all of the code and find the changes I made and figure out what was breaking and why.

And you know what happened? As a result of digging through the code so often, I learned more about programming than any book or class has ever taught me.

When you aren’t afraid to break things, you end up learning a lot more about what it is you’re trying to master than if you simply stuck with textbook tutorials. I took the same mentality of experimenting, breaking, and tweaking, into other areas of my life as well, including web development. Today, I’m now developing websites and online applications for international businesses and indie groups, as well as making best-selling creative iPhone apps.

I’m not sure who came up with this quote exactly, but while reading Anil Dash’s presentation notes from Josh Reich of Simple bank, it stood out for me like gospel. The quote is: “Don’t let your fear of breaking things keep you from trying new experiments, that’s how you learn about the real world.”

Too often we’re afraid of experimenting, of getting our hands dirty or trying something new, because we don’t want to break anything. But it’s through experimenting (and regularly through breaking things) that we learn and grow. How many things have you put off or ignored or let fall away from your to-do list because you didn’t know where to start or were simply afraid of breaking things?

What you’ll find, as you start getting into the work of any project, is that when you do break something it’s usually pretty easy to figure out why it broke and how to fix it. I’m reminded of a similar lesson my Father taught me when I was younger: everything is easier once you start.

Sure, you’ll make some mistakes (all beginners do), and you may break things here and there, but if you want to learn then those opportunities to break things are the best ones you’ve got.

This is a reminder to not let fear get in your way of trying new things and experimenting. It’s ok to get down and dirty in a mess, you can always clean yourself off and learn from what you’ve torn apart.

Everything is easier once you start

My father is a surgeon. And while I imagine performing surgery on a human being is a bit more difficult than performing surgery on an automobile, my father is a professional at doing both.

His ability to take apart any section of nearly any car, find what was causing it problems, fix the problem, then restore the car to its formerly running state never ceased to amaze me.

So when I watched as he took a tire off of the family SUV some years ago, inspecting the breaks and the mechanics that are supposed to make it work, I couldn’t help but raise the question: “How do you know what you’re doing?”

His answer was simply that he had no idea, but that most things are easier than we first imagine.

Whenever someone asks me how I was able to write a book, or become a world-renowned designer, or start a number of companies, or work with some of the most creative people in the world, my answer is similar: I don’t know, I just did.

And you can too.

You can take apart a car and put it back together, or write a book, or become a world-famous painter, or travel the world, or work with those who inspire you every day. You can do the creative work you see in galleries and museums or read about online.

All it takes is the willingness to get your hands dirty, to start.

That’s really it: if you want to do something creative, the only thing you need to dedicate yourself to is starting.

What is something you can start today? What are you waiting for, and do you really need to be waiting?

Photo by Norlando Pobre.