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.
We’ll learn to break the habit of force and discipline, and to accept and embrace how the work turns out, even if the outcome doesn’t fit in with what we were expecting or preferring.
As powerful as it is, obsession can also be a troubling occupation of the mind. Left unchecked, it also causes obstacles, or even causes projects—and people—to eventually self-destruct. Obsession can raise a standard so far beyond acceptable that nobody can meet it, creating a creative block. Many people become slaves to their obsessions, caving in to the impulse to push for perfection. Sometimes, if they’re lucky, this results in a complete piece of work. Many other times, though, it causes the work to self-destruct.
The Pixar team, inarguably masters at the crafts of storytelling and animation, also face the over-obsession challenge. Sometimes, people on their team spend days or weeks on a detail that none of the viewers ever actually see. In the 2001 blockbuster Monsters Inc., there is a three-second segment where Boo knocks over a stack of CDs. Pixar artists created a CD cover, as well as a program to change rendering for each of over 90 CDs, for a three-second segment. It was a level of detail that very few, if any, viewers would notice. “Clearly, something in our process had broken—the desire for quality had gone well beyond rationality,” writes Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull in Creativity Inc.*
We can practice loosening the grip obsession can have on us in the creative process. In practice, this means declaring something that you feel is acceptable—but incomplete—to be done. If it’s not acceptable, scope it down by omitting the incomplete details.
If you really can’t bring yourself to do this—if only it were so easy!—set a timer for 45 minutes to complete the omissions and transition the rest of the work together, and declare the work done after the timer goes off. Save and title this version of the work.
If you’re still not happy with it, pick up where you’d started and create a different version tomorrow. Treat the detail or aspect that you’re obsessing over like a brand new starting point for different versions of your work each day.
Make notes of the process, including how letting go feels, what you’re afraid of, what imperfection means to you, and what you’re comfortable and not comfortable compromising on. Through this journaling process, you’ll learn the aspects of obsession that are driving you and getting in the way of you relaxing, and doing your best work as a result.
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In 1926, London School of Economics co-founder Graham Wallas published The Art of Thought, in which he described a four-stage creative process. The first three stages were adapted from physicist Hermann von Helmholtz, and Wallas’s descriptions are in quotes:
Preparation: “the stage during which the problem was ‘investigated … in all directions’”—think about exercises, rituals, and routines that stimulate your mind.
Incubation: “not consciously thinking about the problem”—this is about consciously letting go of the problem and relaxing your mind. It might involve going for a walk in nature, or relaxing in a shower.
Illumination: “the appearance of the ‘happy idea’ together with the psychological events which immediately preceded and accompanied that appearance”—the eureka moment, where an answer comes to you, either quietly or striking like a bolt of lightning.
Verification: “the validity of the idea was tested, and the idea itself was reduced to exact form”—the phase where an illumination is tested through feedback or, in science, proofs and matching theories.
Whether it’s a 60-second speed writing exercise, or a song that takes 5,000 hours to perfect and record, every work goes through this linear process. You can look at any creative product through this lens. For example, virologist Jonas Salk spent his preparation phase cooped up in his windowless basement laboratory at Pittsburgh Municipal Hospital, working 16-hour days to figure out the polio vaccine. In exhaustion, Salk entered his incubation phase, retreating to the monastery at the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi in Italy, a magnificent structure permeated by natural light. That’s where the illumination happened. Of course, Salk attributed the discovery to his environment—but it’s important to consider that he was taking a break when the breakthrough happened. And lastly, the verification phase: in addition to testing two children at two Pittsburgh-area institutions, Salk injected himself and his family with the vaccine in his kitchen.
While most processes have start and end phases, in the creative process, a verification stage may also double as a preparation stage of a different project, which then starts a new cycle. Some people, upon getting new ideas for their project near the finish line, grow reluctant to draw their work to a close. That’s how the creative process can go on forever; it’s our job to draw it to a temporary close.
The value of the work is recognized when a version of the work is deemed finished. We must make the infinite finite. It is possible to update and iterate—many books have revised editions (like this one!), many albums get remastered and remixed—but the original work needs to be complete enough for people to watch, touch, listen to, taste, read, see, or experience in some other way. For example, you might find that getting the resources and support you need to make the best version of a book happens only after you complete and publish an article on the topic. That’s when the creative process can be seen as linear, for a single piece of work. A separate creative process can start over again once you decide to turn that article into a book.
Seeing this linear process is the key to understanding how to make each piece of creative work happen. The process can be straightforward and simple, like an assembly line. From this perspective, the goal of your creative process is to create a steady, predictable, and uninterrupted flow of creative work. Your creative process also should prevent you from getting blocked, fixated, or tormented by the excitement of new ideas or fixation on perfection.
Identify Your Bottleneck
In his 1984 business fable The Goal, Eliyahu M. Goldratt wrote about how any improvements or optimizations made to a single process are an illusion, unless they’re at the bottleneck. This is often the slowest step, or the weakest link. In their book Diaminds: Decoding the Mental Habits of Successful Thinkers, Mihnea Moldoveanu and Roger Martin describe this constraint as a “rate-limiting step,” and illustrate it with the example of the flexion hip joint, which gets in the way of even the fastest sprinter from being even faster.
This idea applies to your own creative process. It’s important to take a critical eye to your work and assess which part of the process is limiting you. If you’re not happy with your results, it’s easy to blame an absence of audiences or an unfavorable algorithm. But both of those are lagging indicators of high potential creative work and the promotional work that activates the potential.
Here’s a list of questions you can ask yourself to see which stage you’re getting stuck in the creative process, at the preparation, incubation, illumination, or verification stages:
If it’s a struggle for you to come up with enough ideas, expand your preparation phase. Find more references and spend time studying them and distinguishing between the ones you like and don’t like, and why. (See Visit the Greats.)
If you find you’re coming up with a lot of ideas, but none are resonating, expand your incubation phase. Give your brain more time to rest and relax. (See Make Idle Time.)
If you find you’re missing breakthroughs, pay more attention. Write each breakthrough down whenever you feel your mind making a connection, whether it’s a small one or a big one. Don’t distinguish or edit what your mind is telling you. (See Write Down 10 Ideas.)
If you find that you don’t have enough time and energy to make acceptable work, redefine what quality means to you at this point in your life. In all likelihood, you have to assess how much time, money, energy, and other resources you have to verify—edit, polish, refine, design—and lower the fidelity and scope you are shipping your ideas with. (See Complete Your Operation in Seconds.)
This last one is what I wrestle with the most. I tend to write pretty quickly, but I find it time consuming to come up with new, relevant ideas and pitch them to publications. This is the step I need to work on.
In order to continue supporting myself and strengthening my pitches, I’ll need to cultivate different sources, ones that spread news or share interesting perspectives faster. I need to focus my efforts into specific areas and use relevant events to speak to that area. I’m considering coming up with a weekly or even daily quota of article ideas that I pitch every day.
Since your situation is specific to you, I’ll suggest a few questions as starting points to get you to take a step back and look at your creative process:
Dive deeper into these phases, especially if you find yourself getting stuck in one specific part. For example, you may find that your brain is out of practice with getting its unfiltered, unedited, incomplete, thoughts out there. You can then start designing your own exercises for this. (See Julia Cameron’s morning pages in Commit to a Size, and the journaling exercise in Stop Obsessing) Nobody else will read this. What’s on your mind? What are you feeling? What is clear and unclear to you?
Think about thinking. Write down and listen to what your mind and body are telling you about a specific constraint. For example, is it expressing a fear of embarrassment? Or a skepticism that what you’re about to do is not worth doing? What emotion are you experiencing? What activities are you occupying yourself with instead of your creative work?
Advise someone else in the same situation. If your friend or peer was approaching you with this problem, what observation would you make about where they were getting stuck? What would you say to them?
Talk to a friend, or to yourself, about this question: Which part is the most painful part of the creative process for you? Why?
Through answering these questions, you can look into the section that you’ve identified, and pay attention the next time you go through the process. What is holding you up? What feels bad? What is your action, or reaction, that blocks you?
This prompt actually emerged as my own reflection, as I was identifying my bottleneck. For example, I’m fairly practiced at writing ideas down, but I have a difficult time choosing one to start writing. I realized through listening to myself that one of the blocks I face as an author is, “I don’t want to write this, it’s too obvious.” This feeling of a lack of originality is a challenge that I’ve seen other writers face as well.
For me, I came across a few sources of consolation. First off, I saw a tweet from marketer and software engineer Patrick McKenzie assuring the reader, “You radically underestimate both a) how much you know that other people do not and b) the instrumental benefits to you of publishing it.” McKenzie also linked to New Science executive director and blogger Alexey Guzey’s writing about the value of unoriginality, “Because it helps in the process of discovery and in the process of supporting underappreciated ideas.”
I also noticed how a handful of “obvious” ideas other people had made an impact on me and my friends. For me, two examples were author Seth Godin’s “Talker’s Block”—which asks why writer’s block exists when nobody gets talker’s block—and Roy Bahat’s “Forwardable email,” which suggests that readers shouldn’t ask for an email introduction, and instead make a request for someone to forward their email along.
I grew to appreciate that what was obvious to me might not be so obvious to someone else, and might seem original and—more importantly—useful.
Don’t worry about factors that aren’t limiting you. Work on the step that slows you down the most, whichever it is. Once you’ve identified the step, you can isolate it, then study it for a few weeks. If you’re looking externally, you can find someone who has dealt with a similar challenge before, and through their public appearances or documentation on social media (or reaching out for an informational interview), find out what they do to solve it—whether it’s physical or a mental workaround—and select some insights to take back with you and apply into your own constraint. Put those insights into practice into your own creative process, as new routines or rituals.
We choose creative work not only because we love it; we also have good taste. Naturally, as we start making creative work, we see the distance between what we call good and what we’re making. The fear dawns on us: What if we make something bad?
This is the gap between taste and ability that everyone starts with. As broadcaster and producer Ira Glass says, “It’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you’re actually going to catch up and close that gap. The work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.”
The quantity of work is essential. We’ll make mistakes, pretend we know what we’re doing, say the wrong things, imitate people, and find new ways of working that we swore we’d never do.
We need to set the expectation with ourselves that we will probably look foolish as we make our early work. In fact, we need to lean into it and accept it.
There’s also another reason we’ll look foolish, even as we start to emerge as artists and creators. “To the preservation of the universe, instead of its destruction,” poet Allen Ginsberg said. He and conservative political commentator William F. Buckley, Jr., were debating the Vietnam War. Ginsberg pulled a harmonium up, sat it on his lap, and sang a Hare Krishna song. Buckley Jr. smiled the smile of someone uncertain of how to react. As Allen sang seriously, Buckley Jr.’s smile disappeared, and he moved a finger over his mouth as if to silence himself. Unwilling to offer his approval, Buckley Jr. laughed after the song, “That was the most un-Hare Kirshna I’ve ever heard.”
In a TED Talk, actor and director Ethan Hawke described Ginsberg returning to New York City after this performance to his friends—his fellow Beats—rebuking him for the song. He looked like an idiot, they said, and the whole country was making fun of him.
Ginsberg responded, “That’s my job, and I’m going to play the fool.”
The ensuing embarrassment, shame, or even humiliation, that comes from being made to feel stupid can feel overwhelming and intolerable. Our minds evolve to protect us from this emotional pain, as well as the ensuing real-world consequences. Yet in the early stages of creative work, you must be willing to look foolish and vulnerable. You must be willing to look silly, and to try. You’ll also learn not to identify yourself with an idea or moment in which you appeared foolish to someone else.
So, do something embarrassing. Express something honest, something positive, that you think may be silly.
As filmmaker David Lynch wrote, “Keep your eye on the doughnut, not on the hole.” Stay focused on the work and what you want to say. Don’t be afraid of how people may or may not react—be okay with making them laugh at you, not with you. Know that in the quiet hour when they can’t sleep, your truth may come into their mind, and they’ll wonder what it all really meant.
Make a Risky Version of Your Work
One of the best things you can do with and for your creative practice is to get outside your comfort zone and exercise your capacity for creative risk. Think of it like the director’s cut of a film. As Marina Abramović wrote in Walk Through Walls, “I always question artists who are successful in whatever they do. I think what that means is that they’re repeating themselves and not taking enough risks.”
“Safe” means creating something you’re most familiar with, that is, your “style.” Making something risky might mean dialing your style up to the maximum, or flipping it to be the complete opposite. Or it might just mean doing something completely out of the blue—that exceeds my capacity for suggestion.
For example, my friends told me that writing without quotes makes for better writing. This had paralyzed me for a bit—until I decided that I’d eventually just create two versions of this draft of the book, one with no quotes and one with all quotes. Similarly, I’d been stuck on structure, until I realized that I could just create a different version of the book with a completely different structure, perhaps a more essay-related format. I had no idea when I released this how it was going to look—and that was okay. That was how it was supposed to be.
Creative rituals, routines, and themes make it easy to get into a creative groove. But ease isn’t the goal, excellence is.
A certain degree of risk is a necessary ingredient in tapping into, and feeding, the chaotic energy of creativity. The risk could result in something original, which pushes the previously self-imposed boundaries of your work and pushes you to perceive or express yourself in a new way.
Choose an idea to put away. Don’t look at it again for at least six months. This prompt is particularly useful if you’re struggling with developing an idea; get out of your own way and let time do the work for you by archiving it.
The late Intel chief Andy Grove writes of a simple rule in High Output Management: “All production flows have a basic characteristic: the material becomes more valuable as it moves through the process.” That’s because more time and energy have been spent on the material to make it a final product.
One implication of this idea is the earlier you stop working on something, the fewer resources you waste. For example, if I’m coming up with a pitch, a quick Google search could tell me if someone else has written about the thing I want to write about. If someone has, in exactly the way I wanted to write about it, then I can easily shelve the idea in its current state, as it’s not acceptable to me. If I didn’t come across the prior coverage until later in my process, I’d have to give up the idea after hours spent researching and writing (which has happened before).
Sometimes, a challenging idea may be worth producing. But it takes clear discernment and deliberation to decide if that’s the case. A safer strategy could be to simply shelve the idea, and revisit it again in six months—perhaps time will be your ally and your subconscious mind will conceive of a new way to reframe your idea.
There is no right way to choose an idea to put away, or to pick back up. Just choose!
What would you think about your work if you didn’t know your own intentions or disappointments?
Too often, our uncertainty of our work leads us to be critical of ourselves. We say things to or about ourselves that we never would accept other people saying to us, nor that we would say about others. “I believe that unless combated, self-hate is easy to develop and nearly impossible to shed,” writes Donda West in her book Raising Kanye.
However, we also have the ability to choose and take action. We can flip that tendency on its head. Be your own greatest supporter.
This prompt isn’t just about making ourselves feel good, it’s about nurturing and developing your own talent, recognizing progress, understanding what’s working in what you do, and identifying where you excel. When you do this, you can then focus on improving other aspects of your craft, or drawing out what’s truly special about your talent.
Look at a completed version of your work and write down five things that are working well. Here are some potential starting points:
If you have been practicing or developing a certain technique, analyze your development and how it contributes to the piece. (For example, if you’d been practicing crosshatching—did it improve in this piece? For me, maybe I’ve been practicing writing headlines—does this headline pique my own curiosity, more so than the ones I’d written previously?)
Reflect on your process. If you set out to work consistently, did you meet your goal? If you’re setting out to explore new or groundbreaking subject matter, are you getting closer to that?
What did you learn from this week’s work sessions? Are there lessons you’ve learned outside your creative process that you can apply to it?
What would a supportive friend say about this? What would an imaginary biggest fan say? What would a family member say?
How do the lessons you’ve learned and your current work set you up for the future? What are some directions it can take you in, towards where you want to go?
This encouragement is a foundation for continued action. You can throw grandiose admiration onto your work, loudly praising yourself for it. Or perhaps quietly appreciate it. After all, it takes support to nurture and continue on a mission and to keep the main thing the main thing.
One powerful antidote to over-obsession is accepting that imperfection is the essence of nature itself. The Japanese philosophy of wabi sabi embodies this theme. Author Beth Kempton translates the two words in her book, Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect Life: “Wabi is about finding beauty in simplicity, and a spiritual richness and serenity in detaching from the material world. Sabi is more concerned with the passage of time, with the way that all things grow and decay and how aging alters the visual nature of those things.”
With the understanding of the etymology, Kempton describes the concept the two words convey:
Wabi sabi is an intuitive response to beauty that reflects the true nature of life.
Wabi sabi is an acceptance and appreciation of the impermanent, imperfect, and incomplete nature of everything.
Wabi sabi is a recognition of the gifts of simple, slow, and natural living.
Wabi sabi is a state of the heart. It is a deep in-breath and a slow exhale. It is felt in a moment of real appreciation—a perfect moment in an imperfect world.
We must accept that each imperfection is not a failure; rather, in wabi sabi fashion, each one makes the piece perfectly imperfect. Otherwise, obsession becomes a prescription for failure. An expectation or obsession for quality does not necessarily always result in it.
Find Your Comfort
To take risks and get out of your comfort zone has practically become a virtue of modern life. This book is no exception to that, with prompts on releasing your work, getting feedback, and exploring your own creative capacity.
As your journey continues, you might find that finding a ritual, prompt, or environment that makes you comfortable can support you in exploring your art and maintaining your creative process. Finding your comfort means noticing when you get into the groove with the work, and potentially developing warm-up routines to support that.
Michelle Kuo says being relaxed during the creative process is really important. “It’s not pure relaxation, it’s like relaxation plus a little bit of tension,” she says in an interview for this book. “I was taking these singing classes. I really adored my singing teacher, and she used to say this thing that always stuck with me, which is: to hit the high notes you have to be relaxed. Most people tense up when they see a high note coming, but actually to hit it, your breath needs to be relaxed.”
Finding your comfort could also mean acknowledging your own progress. “The more I’ve been painting, I don’t know if I’ll be getting better, but I get a lot more comfortable. When you’re a lot more comfortable, I think you are getting a lot better,” says Michael Saviello. “Your technique is improving even though you don’t know it.”
If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.Unknown
Have you ever wondered why the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes only exists on the printed page? Unlike Snoopy or Mickey Mouse, there are no blockbuster movies, no Netflix specials, and certainly no stuffed animals. Nobody even knows what Calvin’s or Hobbes’s voices sound like. That’s the result of a deliberate decision that the cartoon’s creator Bill Watterson made to not license out his work.
Watterson’s former business partners (the staff at a syndicate responsible for putting Calvin and Hobbes in the newspapers), estimate that tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars could have been made should Watterson have licensed Calvin and Hobbes. But for years, Watterson fought not to, and eventually won out.
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