Choose a Creative Operation

6 minutes, 3 links


Updated November 3, 2022

You’re reading an excerpt of Creative Doing, by Herbert Lui. 75 practical techniques to unlock creative potential in your work, hobby, or next career. Purchase now for instant, lifetime access to the book.

Whether you have grand ambitions or are simply curious to explore, it helps to begin concretely. Pick a creative operation you will explore.

If you don’t have a creative area to work in and are nervous about getting started, think about what area might expand on your existing skills. If your job involves writing, for example, and you enjoy doing that, creative writing might be an interesting place for you to start.

If you already do creative work but feel blocked, consider a new creative operation—it could be something entirely different than your usual work. This decision could be a temporary experiment, and not necessarily the medium you’re going to stick with forever.*

You could start with a community you appreciate. For example, if you regularly read a subreddit like r/startups, you could start by responding to questions or sharing business opportunities you’ve noticed.

Look into your routines and the daily things you enjoy, and list all of the possible related creative fields. If you find yourself hanging out at jazz clubs, you might want to try something related to the recording arts or mixology. If you really appreciate hip-hop, you might want to try songwriting, spoken word poetry, making instrumental tracks, stage design, or designing streetwear. Many of your interests contain or are connected with a host of creative possibilities that you can try.

You might be saying, “Jazz club? I work 80 hours a week.” If you haven’t made creative work a part of your life in the past and don’t know where to begin, start by taking yourself out on “artist dates,” as The Artist’s Way author Julia Cameron suggests. Visit a museum by yourself, letting your feet carry you to the work that draws you in. Go to a concert and sit as close to the stage as you can—which instrument do you find yourself hearing the loudest, which musician do you watch while the band plays? Spend three hours on Saturday reading a book outside of the genre you normally read. You may find that a clear answer emerges from expanding your horizons.

Lastly, consider the objects that you love. If you’ve always loved light fixtures, you can choose an operation related to industrial design. If you like skillets, kitchen knives, and cookbooks, you can try an operation related to the culinary arts. (See Select One Tool.)

Michael Saviello, also known as Big Mike, paints during his lunch hour inside Astor Place Hairstylists, where he has been a manager for 30 years. It’s not difficult for Big Mike to paint during the lunch hour at his day job. “This is my favorite part of the day,” he says. If you find yourself paralyzed by choosing one creative operation—which can be difficult!—then stick with what feels good to you. Ask yourself, “Could this be the favorite part of my day?”

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Once you’ve narrowed in on a creative operation, getting started might feel like another task in your to-do list—even a chore, on some days. Instead of feeling “I need to do this,” you can cultivate the attitude of “I get to do this.” If you don’t enjoy it, then you need to ask yourself what you’re doing and why. Is the goal something different from enjoyment, or passion? Are you driven to change your career path, or to learn a new skill for a different reason?

Questions like this might enable you to realize whether the operation you’ve picked is really the right one for you. Lindsay Jean Thomson’s first 100 day project was taking a photo each day, only for her to realize that writing suited her better. Nonetheless, Jean Thomson fulfilled her 100 days of photography. Some days must have been hard and others easy; but she made it happen.

Be easy with yourself—if you don’t actually like it, don’t force it. It may help to remind yourself that you’re practicing this skill in service of what you really like. (For example, you need to practice research in order to become a good writer.)

You may also realize that, after a few days of practice, it really becomes the best (or second best, or third best) part of some of your days. This isn’t necessarily meant to be a lasting, permanent, “I’ve found the thing!” but rather, “I’ve found something.”

Many people pick up two or three different crafts throughout their lives. Maybe you’ve found the first one, and the second one awaits you somewhere down the line. Once you’ve found it and committed to your chosen creative operation, the next moves are to figure out how to fit it into your day, and how to make sure you keep doing it. You can liken this to the experimental process of a scientist: when you choose an operation, you’re coming up with hypotheses of what you may or may not like. When you observe something doesn’t work, you’ve completed the experiment, and are free to test another hypothesis.

Work with What You Have

Artist Chuck Close describes the tendency for artists to spend years finding, designing, and outfitting the perfect space to work. Once the space is done, though, they end up selling it and building another. Close says in Inside the Painter’s Studio, “It seems more often than not a way to keep from having to work. But I could paint anywhere. I made big paintings in the tiniest bedrooms, garages, you name it. You know, once I have my back to the room, I could be anywhere. I could care less.”

Even before we start our creative work, it’s easy to find reasons to stop—it’s common to say, “I can’t create because I don’t have professional tools or the right space.” We spend hours—maybe even days—getting around obstacles that we set up for ourselves. Even for something like writing, which can involve as little as a single tool, you can stop yourself from actually working by cycling through an endless series of questions: what word processing software or notebook should I use? Where should I publish my work? If I’m deciding to set up my own blog, which software should I use? Should I be building my audience first instead of writing?

These questions are all well and good. They also have absolutely nothing to do with writing. Just put the pen on a page (or even a scrap piece of paper), and start writing.

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