Saturday, April 30, 2011

Staring down a brick wall?

As I explained in the last two posts, to get started on creative work, you need to believe both "I can get this done" and "This will make a difference."

Basically, this means picking a goal that's small enough that you can actually complete it, but important enough that you'll have some enthusiasm for the effort.
Bad news! Those two categories don't always overlap.
Sometimes, I have found myself in an unlucky place where everything that's big enough to matter seems too big for me to tackle today. And everything I can imagine actually getting done today seems so small, it makes me say "what's the point?"
For example, suppose I'm inspired to create some great music that's more or less like the best work of Yes or Genesis. But what I can realistically achieve right now sounds more like rough demos from the roommate of some guy in the local AC/DC tribute band.
Or suppose I have a great idea for a novel. But I know if I sit down and try to start writing, the results will be such poor storytelling that I'll just end up throwing the pages away.

Have you ever been in a situation like this, where the gap between your wishes and your talents seems insurmountably large? It's discouraging! The result is that I do nothing at all. I waste the whole day, and then I feel guilty about it.
Success coaches tell you you can pursue any goal, no matter how large. The theory is that you can break the goal down into pieces, and then break the pieces into pieces, until your reach the level where each piece is small enough that you can tackle it. Frankly, that approach is wrong, and it doesn't work in real life. They missed a key fact: each of those pieces needs to be significant enough on its own that you'll feel it makes a difference to complete it. If tiny piece #1 doesn't pass that test, then you'll be locked out of the creative state of mind, and you won't be able to make any progress at all.
Don't hack your dream into pieces. That's not how real-world successes are made.

If you can think of a piece of your big goal that you can handle today, even it it's a small piece, then go ahead and get started.
But some goals are just too big. Sometimes you have to say, "This is a worthy goal, but clearly it's something I'm not ready for yet." (How do you know you're not ready? Because you're not taking action on that goal!)

What you might look for instead is a goal that you can believe in — something that at least puts you in a stronger position to consider taking on your bigger goal.
For example, I might put that novel aside and sign up for a fiction writing class. By doing the class assignments, I'll improve my writing skills and perhaps become the kind of writer who can realistically tackle big projects like the novel I'm thinking about.

You're a creative person, so apply your creativity to your career strategy. If you find that you're not moving forward, don't keep bruising yourself against an unyielding brick wall.

Who says you have to proceed on a straight-line path to your goal? That doesn't even sound creative! It might turn out that the shortest distance between your two points is some kind of crazy fractal n-dimensional Celtic spiral. Do something that you can do today, even if it might seem like a crazy whim, an irrational side trip. Trust your muse to lead you down the right path, and you'll find yourself in a better spot tomorrow.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Two little beliefs that rule the world

Before creative work can begin, you must have two beliefs in place: you must believe that you can get the work done, and you must believe that it will make a difference.

Let me point out that these two areas of belief have no basis in physical reality.

In reality, the feasibility of a task is unknown until you actually do it. At best, you can make an informed estimate of whether a task is achievable by comparing it to similar tasks that you or someone else completed in the past.

But -- especially in creative work -- each task is unique and brings its own circumstances and surprises. A task that seems impossible may prove to be possible thanks to unexpected help from the universe. A task that seems easy and routine may bring unexpected pitfalls.

The truth is, you don't know whether you will succeed until you actually try. Nevertheless, we hold definite beliefs about what we can and cannot do. If a creative goal falls into the "cannot" category, it's as good as failed, because you will not even get started.

But consider this: You have the power to change your beliefs. If you believe that you can change your beliefs, then anything can be put into the "possible" category. (Wrap your brain around that!)

You can choose to change your beliefs -- but usually the simpler course is to change your goal. Pick a goal that you already believe you can reach, and then you won't have to venture into these mental gymnastics.

(You don't have to repudiate your bigger goal when you switch to another, more believable goal. Just set that bigger goal aside and say that it's not ripe for action today.)

Just as there is no reality beneath "I can," there is no reality behind "makes a difference." It's a judgment based on your own values and perceptions.

Every action has an impact on the physical world. And every action impacts the mental world too! There's no objective measurement to say which of these impacts counts as "makes a different" and which of them count as "it doesn't matter." It's a purely subjective judgment.

You can change what "makes a difference" by changing your perceptions. If you find yourself thinking "What's the point?" that's a sign that your attention is focused on the wrong thing. You can choose what you focus on, and you can keep your eye on the place where your creative work matters. Then you'll be unstuck and able to get started. (More about this in future posts.)

These little beliefs, ghosts of the mental realm, with no solid basis in physical reality, nonetheless rule our lives. Without "yes, I can" and "yes, it will make a difference," you won't take action. But if both of those beliefs are in place, you are free to act. And the difference between action and inaction can make empires rise and fall, can determine the direction of our lives, can change everything.

These two beliefs may have no basis in physical reality, but physical reality is based on these beliefs. Look around you. Everything you see is there because someone believed something was possible and believed that it would make a difference.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

"Yes I can" and "Yes it will"

What elements must be in place for a successful round of creative work? First of all, there are two things that are fundamentally necessary. You must have:
  • An idea or goal, or a problem to solve, an inspiration, a vision, an opportunity, an irritant — something that gives you a direction for your work
  • A set of resources to work with, for example: time, a pencil, a guitar, and your accumulated knowledge of music and rhyme
These two things are so basic that they apply in any realm of human activity. So let's set them aside for now and look at another pair of essential conditions that apply specifically to creative work.
  • You must believe that it's possible for you to complete the work, to reach the goal, to hit the target, whatever it is.
  • You must have hope that the work will make a difference. It's going to matter in some way to someone if you get this done.
To put it another way, you need to have a definite response for each of these doubts:
  • You can't do that.
  • What's the point?
For example, your responses could be:
  • I've done this before, and I can do it again. Just watch me!
  • This song idea won't leave me alone. I need to give it a try and see what happens.
Now, when I say these two things are essential, it's not hyperbole. They are absolutely necessary. You simply won't be able to move forward without them.

Creative work is different from most ordinary activities, where you can go ahead and attempt something even if you are sure you will fail, and where you can take actions even if you feel certain that your efforts are futile.

Life is full of half-hearted efforts and pointless tasks. You can drive to the store even if you know that it's closed. You can donate a dollar to the Save the Theater Fund even if it seems impossible for them to raise enough money by their deadline. You can paint the first third of the wall even if you know there isn't enough paint to do the rest.

But you can't do this in creative work. You can't enter the creative state of consciousness unless you actually believe that you can succeed and that it will make a difference. Without access to the creative state, you can't get your creative work done. You'll sit there with your goal, feeling impatient and frustrated that you aren't starting to work on it. You might try any number of motivational tricks to get yourself moving, but none of them will do any good.

To flip this insight around, we can say that creative work requires a specific kind of self-confidence and optimism. If you feel confident in your abilities and optimistic about your results, the creative state will open up its doors for you, and then you'll be able to get your creative work done — and you will actually have a chance at getting some positive results.

For artists, self-confidence and optimism tend to be self-fulfilling. Confident and optimistic artists are more likely to be successful. If you want to be a creative artist, don't try to be soberly realistic about your prospects; that's a losing strategy. You're actually better off having an inflated sense of your own talents and a rosy view of your successful future. (Just don't quit your day job.)

It will take another dozen blog posts for me to fully explore this important subject. For now, if you find yourself creatively stuck, ask yourself these questions:

Do I really believe that I can complete this work/reach this goal/solve this problem?
If not:
  • What is something that I actually can do, something that will put me in a stronger position to face this main goal?
  • What is a simpler, smaller, or narrower version of this project, one that I would have a better chance of completing?
  • What is the key obstacle that makes this task seem so daunting? Is there a way that I can tackle that one difficult aspect head-on?
  • Are there people around me who are trying to discourage me and undermine my confidence? Am I carrying around negative, self-defeating thoughts?
Do I really feel that completing this work will make a difference?
If not:
  • What would actually make a difference?
  • Can I focus on a different aspect of this work, one where the difference it makes is easier to see and quantify?
  • What if everyone in the world went ahead with efforts like this one? Or what if everyone in the world gave up on efforts like this one? Would that add up to a difference that I would notice?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The non-negotiable importance of yourself

Yesterday I blogged about a special state of consciousness that's required for creative work -- the "creative state." This creative state is a source of vexation for artists, because it's so not under our control -- it's the Unruly Beast in this blog's title.

You can't enter the creative state at will, even if your life depends on it; but it emerges spontaneously whenever the conditions are right and you give yourself an interesting enough problem to solve.

When the creative state hides out on artists, we might feel lost and worried (and other negative emotions). There are plenty of creative chores we can do in our normal states of consciousness, but it's a little painful and unnerving (and usually unsuccessful) when we try to do our primary creative work without benefit of the creative state. We might say, "Crap! I'm no good at this! I'm a phony and a failure as an artist!" Or, if we recognize what's going on, we might say, "I feel blocked. My creative juices are not flowing."

If this happens to you, it should make you feel better to know that this is something that every artist has to deal with at some time or other. It doesn't mean you're a fake or a failure, but it might mean that there's something wrong in your life that needs some attention.

There is one common theme that runs through most of cases of creative blockage. If you find yourself unable to enter the creative state, it might well be that you have negated yourself in some way. You've neglected yourself, left yourself out of the picture.

If you did, it's understandable. Everything in our culture teaches us to negate ourselves. In school our opinions, experiences, and knowledge have no value, and we must temporarily put them aside in favor of whatever the teacher or textbook is presenting. In religion, sports, military, jobs, and even in the "creative and performing arts," the truth is that suppressing or even sacrificing yourself in favor of the team's or institution's goals and values is usually the successful strategy.

But suddenly you arrive at actual creative work, and the rules are different. You can't do it without yourself. Even if you want to sacrifice yourself for the sake of the greater good, to create a glorious work of art, it just doesn't work. You, as the artist, are the vessel in which the miraculous transformation occurs, from base raw materials to golden new creations. If you're not a whole and intact vessel, the magic cannot take place.

It's surely no coincidence that many successful artists are egomaniacs with a greatly exaggerated sense of their own importance. Not that you have to be a jerk to be an artist, thank goodness; there are also plenty of examples of gracious and humble people at the top of every creative field. But having a strong sense of your own value and importance really does help. So don't be embarrassed to put on your superstar cap in private while you're working.

Here are some examples of negating yourself. Any of these things can be the cause of a creative block:
  • Trying to create something for an assignment that doesn't make sense to you. You can't afford to ignore your own doubts about the assignment.
  • Trying to work in a style that you don't understand. If you don't feel that the style belongs to you, you won't be able to create in it.
  • Pretending to be something that really isn't what you are.
  • Trying to create something that will live up to someone else's standards. For example, you can't write a "#1 hit," because the hit charts are beyond your understanding and control.
  • Trying to create something "good enough" that it will magically change some circumstance in your life. For example, if your goal is to write a song so good that your bandmates will have to respect you, you probably won't be able to write anything at all.
The solution, in a general sense, is to find the way to own what you're doing. If you must create for a class assignment that you think is silly, bring that opinion into your creative space, and discover your way of doing the assignment — perhaps sarcastically.

You can use the circumstances of your life as raw material, but not as rules to govern your creative work. Instead, create things that suit your own standards, create in your own style, do it your own way, and please your own ear.

In my next post, I'll talk about two key conditions that are necessary for entering the creative state, and I'll look at some of the common thoughts and attitudes that can interfere with one or both of those keys.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The creative state of consciousness

Creativity — at least for part of the process — requires a special state of consciousness. In this special state, the brain is temporarily reconfigured in a way that allows most of your conscious processing power to be devoted to a single problem or question.

Any worthwhile creative project is a complicated problem that can make good use of this extra brain power. I often say that creative tasks are multidimensional problems, which means that they include several independent variables that interact with each other in nontrivial ways.

This kind of multidimensional problem can tax the capabilities of today's powerful computers, even if the problem can be precisely defined — but how often is your creative challenge precisely defined? Usually its definition is fuzzy, defined in an incomplete and imprecise way. And still, our brilliant minds can tackle these fuzzy multidimensional problems and come up with elegant solutions that are entirely new, never-seen-before creations.

Hopefully you can see why the brain would need to rewire itself temporarily in order to tackle the difficult problems that come up in creative work. In the creative state, the parts of the brain that keep track of people and relationships temporarily turn themselves into extra computational units for your creative work. So do the parts of the brain that keep track of where you are, who you are, what time it is, and the things you have to do.

Obviously, it's not safe or wise or practical to enter this creative state of mind very often. You wouldn't want to wander around unfamiliar woods in a creative state of mind, forgetting where you are, forgetting that bears are dangerous, and forgetting that you should get back home before dark. For very good reasons, evolution has created a bias against the creative state of mind, making it temporary and fragile.

The fragility of the creative state is one thing that makes our work as creative artists so delicate. We need this special, expanded state of mind in order to do our work, but we cannot force it to happen. We can't push our brains into a creative state, no matter how hard we try. And all sorts of perfectly ordinary situations, such as complicated relationships, time pressure, and anxiety about upcoming events, can prevent the creative state from occurring. If you feel time pressure, for example, the part of the brain that keeps track of time can't release itself to become an extra computational unit for your complex multidimensional problem.

After all this bad news about the creative state, I'll leave you with some good news. First of all, you're already above average in your creative capabilities. That's why you're reading this blog about creativity. For most people, this blog would be verging on nonsensical, because they've never experienced the creative state of consciousness that I'm writing about.

The second piece of good news is that you can practice entering the creative state and learn to do it more reliably over time.

And the third piece of good news is that you can actively manage the elements that are necessary for the creative state, and also proactively deal with things that are likely to interfere with the creative state. Those specifics will be the subject of my next few blog posts.