We all hit points where we are stuck. We are creatively drained, we don’t know where to go next, or we feel that what we are doing is derivative, reductive or at worst irrelevant.
When we compare our approach, output or work to others, and we feel that we aren’t measuring up. We see other people contributing great ideas, and we’re flailing when we simply try to compose a coherent sentence. Others are doing amazing work, and we’re struggling to put together a deliverable that we have done a hundred times before and should be finding easy. Except it’s not. Rather than tapping into a depth of expertise and insight, we feel we’re plumbing the bottom of a well and coming up dry. We fire up Word, and that little cursor taunts at us, laughing, mocking, deriding our inability to put one word in front of the other.
Rest assured, these feelings are normal. Predictable. To be expected. We can’t be 100% on, in-the-zone and productive every hour of every day. The challenge is that—for many of us—that is the pressure that we feel.
I unquestionably write a great deal. I write a weekly article here that of late has been tapping out at around 1,800 words. I typically write three or four other articles per month. I produce two or three presentations. The deliverables I create in a year are measurable in linear feet.
That’s not to say that I’m ever at a loss. I often don’t know what I’m going to write until I start writing it. Even when I know the topic—or at least have a working title—the article may take me in different and unintended directions by the time that I am done. Writing for me is not simply how I communicate what I already know; it is actually a vehicle for working through what I actually think about a topic. That’s not fixed, and it’s not defined in advance. It tends to be extraordinarily evolutionary. And what comes out when I finally put metaphorical pen to virtual paper may be very different than what I expected.
I actually love that this is the case. If I believed the same thing today that I believed in my 20s, for example, I think I would be an incredibly boring person. There would be no progress, no evolution, no growth or development. Thoughts, insights, perspectives, and even beliefs and values are all open to exploration and evolution.
At the same time, there are times that we don’t know what we think. We don’t know what to think. We aren’t entirely sure where we are, and we don’t have a hot clue of where we are going. This is actually the downside of the pressure that deadlines, procrastination and stress can provide. On good days, the challenge to deliver can inspire some pretty awesome creativity. And on bad days, when we simply lack the energy and inspiration to move forward, it can drive us nearly to—or even past—the point of despair.
This article is a perfect example of this. Establishing a personal goal of a weekly article—and imposing a personal deadline of Monday—is a high bar to clear on a regular basis. There are easy weeks, of course, but there are also difficult weeks. This was one of the difficult ones. As I write, it is Monday at 6:46pm. I’ve been wrestling with what my topic would be for this article since about Friday. I had a couple of ideas, but they are both a little to fresh and raw to entertain writing about. They deal with events of just last week, and a little distance will provide greater and more meaningful insight for all of us.
About an hour ago, I finally opened up my writing program. I still didn’t know what I was going to write about, but I figured I needed to start somewhere. The cursor taunted me for a while. I went back through old notes, looked at a list of topics that I could write about, surfed social media for a while, all of the usual suspects… nothing. Right up until I realized that my experience is pretty universal, and writing about the challenge of not knowing what to write would be a really great focus for an article (not to mention being awfully meta).
What is most important to recognize is that there is nothing so intimidating to anyone—and I do mean anyone—as a truly blank canvas. I don’t care whether you are Van Gogh or Val Gibson, whether you are Ludwig Beethoven or Lennie Burton, if you start with absolutely nothing then that is pretty much guaranteed to be exactly where you are going to stay: with nothing.
Creativity is in fact a boundary phenomenon. It exists at the hard edge between possibly and constraint. It is most potent when there is something that we want to do, and we are confronting limitations on our ability to do it. That’s when innovation shifts into high gear, and we often do our best work: when we are throwing what we know and who we are at the problem of what we are trying to do and what we are finding limiting.
What that means is that there are at least two—and I would argue three—things that are necessary preconditions for creativity to be possible. First, there needs to be something you are actually trying to do. There has to be some specific problem or opportunity or focus or outcome that you are trying to create. And by specific, I don’t mean “write yet another weekly article of approximately 1,800 words by the general vicinity of Monday night.” I mean that there needs to be a specific and concrete outcome that you are trying to create, a message that you are trying to convey or a problem you are trying to solve.
Secondly, there has to be some kind of boundary and constraint you are needing to tackle. The boundaries themselves can be meaningful or meaningless; you actually have a lot of room to work with here. They can be as simple as word count. Deadlines certainly do count. Tense or topic or tone of voice may be a source of constraint as well. You may choose to write your sentences strictly in the meter normally reserved for haiku. Or without benefit of the letter ‘e.’ Or limiting yourself to words of one syllable. Or two. Or three. Boundaries can be serious, but they can also be playful.
At some point this year, for example, I plan on doing a webinar presented strictly using images of that I have personally photographed. I’m actually working on one right now that will borrow from the black-and-white vs. technicolour aesthetic of the original Wizard of Oz movie, mostly because it will help reinforce the content but also partly because it amuses me to do so.
The third and arguably most necessary ingredient for creation is having the energy and passion to create. We have to want to do something. We need to be inspired, or angered, or energized or envious enough to want to bring something new into the world. There needs to be enough inspiration—or enough friction—that we are driven to produce. When our energy declines, we can push along for a little while. We can dig deep for a period, work past physical constraints for a time, or rely heavily on caffeine (or other chemical supplements) to get us through. Once we hit a point where we begin to flag, though, the writing is on the wall (and it’s not going to be in the word processor). You are ultimately going to crash and burn.
Here’s the thing that I have learned the hard way: problems of output are actually problems of input.
In other words, when I struggle to produce it’s because I haven’t invested in my capacity to produce. I’ve been drawing down on my energy and inspiration, without doing anything to build them back up again. Worse, I’ve been withdrawing from my reserves to such a degree that I’m running an overdraft that only a loan-shark would love.
Sometimes, this state of affairs is necessary, inevitable and unavoidable. Deadlines loom, personal issues arise and relationships get challenging. Or worse, we hit a magical intersection of all of this and more, all at the same time. Our capacity to cope gets challenged, and we simply do the best we can with what we’ve got, for as long as we reasonably can sustain things.
The greater challenge is when we cultivate this state of affairs. We start to push the boundaries of what we can reasonably accomplish, seeking greater levels of productivity, impact and output. In these circumstances, we compromise sleep, we take relationships for granted and we pare back everything that keeps us from focussing on what is immediate, important and imminent. We develop strategies and structures that try to maximize output. What we don’t necessarily appreciate at the time is that our reserves are not bottomless, and our capacity to engage at this level is perilously finite.
This is where we start to encounter the extremely counter-intuitive advice that if we want to go fast, then we need to go slow. If we are struggling to produce, then we should step away. That if we can’t move forward, that we should step back. And that our failure to keep running means that we should probably go take a walk instead.
What the greatest artists, choreographers, dancers, performers and writers all learn—often the hard way—is that production by sheer force of will is certainly possible, but it’s not sustainable. Eventually we get tired, run down and worn out. Maintaining a level of productive creativity requires maintaining and nurturing our capacity to create. What that means is that we need to take the time to recharge, to relax and to replenish ourselves.
How we get to reinvigoration is as broadly diverse as it is deeply personal. It may be reading, watching movies, going to plays or simply watching TV. It may genuinely be a product of ‘Netflix and chill.’ Or it may be about getting out of our bodies and ourselves: exercising, going for a walk, working out, scaling a cliff or climbing a mountain. It could be as simple as sitting in the sun, eyes closed, phone off, absorbing our surroundings and letting the weak but essential messages of our conscious burble to the surface.
Production requires energy. Sustainable output requires consistent input. The ability to give ourselves to our work, our customer and our colleagues depends upon our willingness to invest in ourselves. If we aren’t taking the time to take care of ourselves and replenish our capacity to produce, then we are going to be—in time—of no use to anyone else. It’s a hard reality to appreciate, particularly because the influences of cause and effect are separated over time.
If you love to create, then take the time to appreciate others’ creativity. If you want to inspire, then invest in being inspired. IF you want to sustain your ability to delivery value, then sustain your investment in maintaining your ability. Inspiration is not an accident. It is the result of deliberate, careful and on-going nurturing and development of our potential so that when inspiration is necessary, we have the reserves required to hit critical mass.