The page is blank. The same way it was an hour ago. And an hour before that.
Not that you haven’t written anything. You have. You just keep deleting it. Because it isn’t any good.
Maybe you don’t know what good is anymore. Maybe you’ll never write anything good again.
Maybe it’s time to acknowledge the obvious. Recognize the fact that you just can’t do this. Give up. Move on. And leave the creative work to the creative people.
I mean, some of us just don’t have it, right?
To hell with that.
The Creative Burden
“Luckily for art, life is difficult, hard to understand, useless, and mysterious,” was Grace Paley’s advice to a generation of young writers.
There’s no doubt life can be difficult. It’s often hard to understand. And some parts may be useless while others mysterious.
But why is this so critical for art? Do we really believe that art needs to be borne out of misery? That suffering is synonymous with creativity?
As part of his daily writing routine, Jack Kerouac includes time to “pray to Jesus to preserve my sanity.”
History is littered with suffering artists. And we love these stories. We love to hear of the mental anguish that comes with true artistry. Because it gives the rest of us a pass for staying out of that arena.
If art is the burden of a few great souls, the rest of us can be forgiven by sticking to the safe, familiar path of not creating.
But for every Van Gogh, Plath, and Cobain, there are thousands of others. People who are also struggling to create. And dealing with their own brand of anxiety.
But it doesn’t need to be this way.
In fact, if we’re hoping to build a better world, it can’t be this way.
We often don’t think of engineers and scientists as creative. Or as artists.
But engineering, science, and design are all pursuing the same thing. Creating something new. Developing a unique solution.
In this way, every engineer or scientist who’s looking for answers is battling with the same creative curse.
But engineers and scientists haven’t had the public breakdowns that have plagued authors and musicians.
And I think this gives us an answer to that critical question of how we can continue creating without falling prey to the anxiety that often accompanies these pursuits. Maybe not the only answer but perhaps the start of one.
If we want to create without the mental anguish that’s historically gone hand-in-hand with creativity, maybe we can borrow some lessons that have proven beneficial to engineers.
And make creating a little less of the burden we’ve turned it into.
Embrace the Community
“It helped me realize that the secret to change and growth is not willpower, but positive community.” – Neil Strauss, Tribe of Mentors
One of the main deciding factors in whether people stay with a job is if they like their coworkers.
Salary is quickly normalized. Benefits become standard and expected. And while meaningful work is critical, there will always be days full of frustration.
It’s the support of our friends and coworkers that gets us through those difficult times. Even the toughest problems become manageable when shared with good people.
The most effective engineers work as part of a community. Not just from the diversity of thought that a larger team brings, but because of the daily encouragement and support that comes from working with good people.
When people work as a team, they see the daily struggles. They recognize the constant challenges. And they’re in a position to offer support. To extend an encouraging word. And help out where they can.
As Rachel Solnit recently said in describing our tendency to come together following life’s difficulties, “You have shared an experience with everyone around you, and you often find very direct, but also metaphysical senses of connection to the people you suddenly have something in common with.”
We operate under this pretense that creative work needs to be done alone. That to do it as part of a community cheapens the process.
But it’s ridiculous to turn our backs on this opportunity for support. There are few things any of us will go through that someone else hasn’t already struggled against and come out the other side.
Firefighter and best-selling author Caroline Paul credits the San Francisco Writer’s Grotto for preserving her sanity while she struggled to write her second book. In her words,
“There is no substitute for the support of people who are doing what you are: sweating, crying, tearing their hair out for this thing called a book. Now I have four more published books and I’ve kept my sanity, none of which would have happened if I’d decided to write in isolation.”
Don’t feel you need to struggle alone. Most people do want to help. Find a community. As Austin Kleon encourages in Steal Like an Artist, “You are a mashup of what you let into your life.”
Build a Process
“Real artists ship.” – Steve Jobs
You rarely hear about engineering block. Not that engineers don’t get stuck. They do. They just know what to do when it happens.
They take a guess. And they develop a test to see if their guess is right. And then repeat. Guess, test, repeat.
It’s not an immediate solution. But it turns confusion into action. And with each failed experiment, we’re better set up for the next one.
Pablo Picasso painted more than a thousand of painting. Isaac Asimov wrote over 500 books. In each case, most people only know a handful of their work.
Neither Picasso or Asimov knew which pieces would be masterpieces. So they just kept creating. They kept experimenting. And they kept improving.
While most artists first drafts aren’t masterpieces, few masterpieces are made without those first drafts.
Blogging sensation Bre Pettis covers this perfectly with his Cult of Done Manifesto:
- There are three states of being. Not knowing, action and completion.
- Accept that everything is a draft. It helps to get it done.
- There is no editing stage.
- Pretending you know what you’re doing is almost the same as knowing what you are doing, so accept that you know what you’re doing even if you don’t and do it.
- Banish procrastination. If you wait more than a week to get an idea done, abandon it.
- The point of being done is not to finish but to get other things done.
- Once you’re done you can throw it away.
- Laugh at perfection. It’s boring and keeps you from being done.
- People without dirty hands are wrong. Doing something makes you right.
- Failure counts as done. So do mistakes.
- Destruction is a variant of done.
- If you have an idea and publish it on the Internet, that counts as a ghost of done.
- Done is the engine of more.
As with any product, we rarely improve without some sort of feedback. Real feedback. On real product. From real customers.
So take action. When you’re stuck, take a guess and run an experiment. Put something out there and gain some feedback. As Austin Kleon wrote in Show Your Work,
“Don’t worry about everything you post being perfect…we don’t always know what’s good and what sucks. That why it’s important to get things in front of others and see how they react.”
Give Yourself Permission to be Wrong
“Real science is a revision in progress, always. It proceeds in fits and starts of ignorance.” -Stuart Firestein, Ignorance: How It Drives Science
Few people want to be wrong. Being wrong sucks. So don’t believe anyone who tells you they look forward to failure.
But there’s a difference in not wanting to be wrong and being afraid of it. When we adopt a chronic aversion to the unknown, we’re now hostage to an unsustainable position.
The best scientists and engineers prioritize finding answers over having answers. Isaac Asimov recognized this with this insight from 30 years ago,
“Science does not purvey absolute truth, science is a mechanism. It’s a way of trying to improve your knowledge of nature, it’s a system for testing your thoughts against the universe and seeing whether they match.”
If we’re looking to grow, we will often be wrong. It’s inevitable. And the quicker we can adopt this mindset, the less we’ll stress over a fear of the unfamiliar.
An engineer detaches herself from the answer. She owns the question and the quest for improvement. Not the starting hypothesis.
Jim Coudal captured this idea when he said, “Our number one value isn’t in any of the skills we have. It’s that we’re essentially curious.”
Writer and psychotherapist Philippa Perry’s self-improvement advice in How to Stay Sane cautions us to avoid the trap of “believing that being right is more important than being open to what might be.” She further suggests,
“If we practice detachment from our thoughts we learn to observe them as though we are taking a bird’s eye view of our own thinking. When we do this, we might find that our thinking belongs to an older, and different, story to the one we are now living.”
What is science if not a constant revision of progress. Ignorance is assumed as an inherent part of the process. There’s no reason to fear the unknown. We’re seeking the unknown.
Creation is vulnerability. It is incredibly personal to develop something new and tie any measure of your identity to it.
A feat compounded by the fact that we live in a world with more opportunities than ever before to simultaneously encourage and discourage the artist who invests in creating something new.
But the only solution is to keep creating. And keep pushing forward. As Brene Brown wrote in Daring Greatly,
“The willingness to show up changes us. It makes us a little braver each time.”
Keep creating. Embrace the community. Benefit from the encouragement of others who are fighting in the same arena.
Keep creating. Keep experimenting. Keep improving.
And allow yourself the luxury of being wrong. It helps you grow. And stay sane.
So stay sane. Because we need you to keep creating.