The Horrible, Awful, Terrible Truth About Creativity

I delivered a webinar a couple of weeks ago that was not awesome. It was good, it was competent, it was delivered with workmanlike focus and efficiency, but it was not a shining example of my finest work.

I had hoped it would be amazing. There was every opportunity for it to actually hit that mark. It was on a topic that I cared about, and a previous version of the presentation demonstrated that the content had a lot of promise. I had built on this early foundation, and had produced an outline, content and slide deck that I was really happy with.

But the reality was that it fell short of its potential. I was tired. I had a cold. I wasn’t in my best form. I know that I can do a much better delivery. I have given far superior presentations on content that I wasn’t anywhere near as passionate about. Add to that signifiant technical frustrations (neither of the recordings worked) and it was not a stellar experience.

That wasn’t apparent or obvious to those attending the webinar. I got great feedback, people enjoyed it, and I had comments that it was some of the best content yet that they have seen me deliver. All of that is gratifying, but it doesn’t change the fact that I knew it wasn’t my best work. I know there is a much better presentation in me than the one that was delivered that day.

Ironically, the topic of the presentation was managing creativity. The idea of ‘managing’ creativity is a hard one for many people to grasp. The presumption is often that creativity is a product of diving inspiration, the domain and preserve of tortured artists in lonely garrets, seeking the spark of inspiration at the bottom of a glass.

While the popular perception of struggling artist waiting their muse makes for great movies, plays and stories, the reality for those who truly excel at their craft if very different. Ask someone in a creative role about their process (actually an entirely common subject within most creative milieus) and first, I can pretty much guarantee you will get an answer. Second, it will be a thoughtful, expansive and surprisingly detailed answer. And third, a great deal of it comes down to routine, habit and an astonishing amount of hard work.

Creativity is a slog. It requires effort and it involves on-going persistence and commitment. Whether author, actor or artist, the crafting of an exceptional performance is the result of a committed regimen, discipline and focussed hard work. While inspiration certainly plays a role, the far greater influence is the work of shaping, editing, working through and ripping apart the result until it takes desired form and is ready to be exposed to the world. The fact that the finished product may be brilliant is wonderful; the fact that hours of effort, sweat and toil went into its production is typically hidden from view.

If the best of creative work is the result of a secret, it is this: you have to work hard to make it look easy. On the good days, the result will be exceptional. On the bad days, it will be workmanlike. To many outside observers, the result may still look pretty good. And the practitioner will know that it could have been better.

2 Comments to “The Horrible, Awful, Terrible Truth About Creativity”

  1. Mark? I’m more than familiar with the feeling – we operate on a spectrum of quality and while the audience is never aware of the nuances of that range of performance? We are. Each flub, each point not hammered perfectly, each slight error in timing – sticks out like a sore thumb to us – but to the client? It’s invisible.

    That doesn’t help us sleep any better – less than perfect is terrible – arriving only an hour early is arriving late – unless we’re totally knackered at the end, we didn’t give enough.

    But…. I wouldn’t have it any other way… would you?

    • Mark Mullaly says:

      Peter, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Caring about what I do is why I do it. And if I’m going to do something, I’m going to do want to do it well. To the very best of my abilities. But it highlights a really interesting conundrum about creative work: the best performances look easy and natural, like they were the simplest thing in the world to accomplish. The mistakes ARE invisible (usually, although not always). And they hide the incredibly hard work, effort and discipline that went into making it look easy. And you can’t get the results if you don’t do the work.

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