Tuesday, May 10, 2011

What's stopping me?

If you're a creative artist, but you spend too much of your time not creating anything and feeling stuck, take heart! You're not alone. Most creative artists are stuck most of the time — which is a sorry state of things!

It's not that we're weak-willed; will power has nothing to do with it. It's not that we lack discipline — though discipline might help out in the long run. And in most cases it's not that we're not trying hard enough. Many of us run ourselves into the ground with an excess of hit-or-miss effort.

Our fault, if anything, is in neglecting ourselves. We artists are subtle and complex instruments that require careful tuning and alignment for best results. We need to learn to play our creative selves with the same skill and attention that we play our musical instruments, to wield ourselves with the same finesse that we bring to a pen or paintbrush.

Back in February, I signed up for the February Album Writing Month challenge — to write 14 new songs in 28 days. Writing that much material that quickly is indeed a challenge, but, as I pointed out at the time, it's an opportunity to purge your creative process of the difficulties that slow you down. You can set realistic standards based on the limitations of the game, and find new ways to collect creative ideas and make quick decisions.

In the FAWM challenge, I would never ding a songwriter who made a real effort but ended up short of the target of 14 songs. But I was stunned by the actual results: more than 3 out of 4 songwriters who signed up never even wrote their first song. This made me speculate that Just Getting Started is a bigger hurdle than I'd given it credit for. I mused that it's a huge but invisible problem: No one ever finds out about The Things You Didn't Do, no matter how great they might have been.

What would the world be like if we could change the game a bit, so that even a fraction of these lost inspirations instead came to fruition? It would certainly be a much richer place.

This issue of getting started had special resonance for me, because I've often had great difficulties getting started on creative projects. I've learned over the years that it's important to start from where you actually are, no matter how badly you wish your starting point were a little bit closer to your goal. I've learned that if a project is too big to start today, you should pass on it, no matter how cool the idea is, because it's just too big for you. And it's easy to underestimate the importance of simply being comfortable in your creative space.

As I thought further about the difficulties of getting started, I realized that creative artists have a unique challenge: our work requires the ability to enter the creative state of consciousness, a special brain configuration that is not always available when we need it and not under our willful control. Without the creative state, we can't do good work. We face what's called "writer's block" or "being stuck."

The creative state can only emerge under certain conditions. First of all, you must be fully in charge, fully responsible for the creative work to be done. In addition, you must believe you can be successful in solving your creative problem, and also that doing so will make a difference that matters. These two key beliefs — "Yes I Can" and "Yes It Will" — must be in place. If doubts arise and interfere with either of them, you won't be able to enter the creative state.

Luckily, these two key beliefs are only loosely based in reality, which means you have the power to fix your creative block just by changing your thoughts.

On the "Yes I Can" side, you might want to pick a smaller goal, one that's easier to achieve, and give up trying to prove yourself. You also must be careful that your goals don't grow out of control, because your own excitement and enthusiasm can quickly build them up into mountains so high that you can never scale them.

Or you might just need a boost of confidence in your abilities, especially if you've spent too much time in an environment of overly negative and critical people.

On the "Yes It Will" side, you can sidestep your doubts by changing what you focus on. If your focus is on your to-do list, you could easily feel you're getting nowhere. And if you're worried about what people will think, you can never feel sure of success. So focus on things that are already inside your control, and you'll feel more positive about moving ahead.

If you're stuck, don't just say "I procrastinated," because that's an explanation that explains nothing. If you just try again, with more exclamation points this time, you will probably just fail again with more exclamation points. You don't need more will power. You need a different game board. You don't need incredible luck. You need to pick the winning cards and put them in your hand to start with.

Take a closer look at your situation, make a reasonable guess about why you haven't taken action yet, and then try something different. Change your goal, or redefine what it means to be successful at your goal. Change your environment, your thoughts, your timing, your tools, your attitude, or your behavior. You're tuning your instrument for the first time, so don't expect to get it perfect on the first try. But if you keep trying things and paying attention to the results, you can create the right setting where it's easy for you to create beautiful works of art.

It takes time and careful attention to turn going-nowhere into momentum-of-a-freight-train. Don't expect an instant, miraculous solution. But you don't have to do it all at once. Solve today's problems today, and save tomorrow's for tomorrow. One bit at a time, you can build momentum and get your creative life moving. Let's get started!

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