Leave the Shore
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” - Mark Twain
Keys to Mastery. Part I
The creative process requires three essential steps: first, choosing the proper Creative Task, the kind of activity that will maximize our skills and knowledge; second, loosening and opening up the mind through certain Creative Strategies; and third, creating the optimal mental conditions for a Breakthrough or Insight. Finally, throughout the process we must also be aware of the Emotional Pitfalls - complacency, boredom, grandiosity, and the like, that continually threaten to derail or block our progress. If we can move through the steps while avoiding these traps, we cannot fail to unleash powerful creative forces from within.
Step One: The Creative Task:
You must begin by altering your very concept of creativity and by trying to see it from a new angle. Most often, people associate creativity with something intellectual, a particular way of thinking. The truth is that creative activity is one that involves the entire self - our emotions, our levels of energy, our characters, and our minds. To make a discovery, to invent something that connects with the public, to fashion a work of art that is meaningful, inevitably requires time and effort. This often entails years of experimentation, various setbacks and failures, and the need to maintain a high level of focus. You must have patience and faith that what you are doing will yield something important. You could have the most brilliant mind, teeming with knowledge and ideas, but if you choose the wrong subject or problem to attack, you can run out of energy and interest. In such a case all of your intellectual brilliance will lead to nothing.
The task that you choose to work on must have an obsessive element. It must connect to something deep within you. You must be like Captain Ahab in Melville’s Moby-Dick, obsessed with hunting down the Great White Whale. With such a deep-rooted interest, you can withstand the setbacks and failures, the days of drudgery, and the hard work that is always a part of any creative action.
It is the choice of where to direct his or her creative energy that makes the Master. When Thomas Edison saw his first demonstration of the electric are light, he knew then and there that he had found the ultimate challenge and the perfect goal toward which to direct his creative energies. It was the perfect riddle for him to solve. He had met his creative match. For Rembrandt, it was not until he found particular subject matters that appealed to him - dramatic scenes from the Bible and elsewhere that conveyed the darker and more tragic aspects of life - that he rose to the occasion and invented a whole new way of painting and capturing light.
Your emotional commitment to what you are doing will be translated directly into your work. If you go at your work with half a heart, it will show in the lackluster results. If you are doing something without a real emotional commitment, it will translate into something that lacks a soul and that has no connection to you. You may not see this, but you can be sure that the public will feel it and that they will receive your work in the same lackluster spirit it was created in. If you are excited and obsessive in the hunt, it will show in the details. If your work comes from a place deep within, its authenticity will be communicated. This applies equally to science and business as to the arts. Your creative task may not rise to the same obsessive level as it did for Edison but it must have a degree of this obsessiveness or your efforts will be doomed. You must never simply embark on any creative endeavor in your field, placing faith in your own brilliance to see it through. You must make the right, the perfect choice for your energies and your inclinations.
There are two additional things to keep in mind: First, the task that you choose must be realistic. The knowledge and skills you have gained must be eminently suited to pulling it off. To reach your goal you may have to learn a few new things, but you must have mastered the basics and possess a solid enough grasp of the field so that your mind can focus on higher matters. On the other hand, it is always best to choose a task that is slightly above you, one that might be considered ambitious on your part - the higher the goal, the more energy you will call up from deep within. You will rise to the challenge because you have to, and will discover creative powers in yourself that you never suspected.
Second, you must let go of your need for comfort and security. Creative endeavors are by their nature uncertain. You may know your task, but you are never exactly sure where your efforts will lead. If you need everything in your life to be simple and safe, this open-ended nature of the task will fill you with anxiety. If you are worried about what others might think and about how your position in the group might be jeopardized, then you will never really create anything. You will unconsciously tether your mind to certain conventions, and your ideas will grow stale and flat. If you are worried about failure or going through a period of mental and financial instability, your worries will be reflected in your work.
Think of your self as an explorer. You cannot find anything new if you are unwilling to leave the shore.
Stretch Into the Unknown
“Man's mind stretched to a new idea never goes back to its original dimensions.” - Oliver Wendell Holmes
Why make Art? Because you can. Art is what it is to be human.
Changing Your Framework For Success:
Competent people enjoy being competent. Once you’re good at something, changing what you do or moving to a new way of doing it will be stressful because it will make you (momentarily) incompetent.
Art is threatening because it always involves moving away from the comfort zone into the unknown. The unknown is the black void, the place where failure can happen (and so can success). Our instinct, then, particularly if we’re successful at one thing, is to avoid the unknown.
To stay in the comfort zone and ignore the fact that the safety zone has moved. No one taught you how to do art. There are generations of thinking about what it means to challenge your fear and create something worth talking about - something that changes people - so you don’t have to start from scratch. If you decide that its important to stop complying and start creating, the first thing to do is change your framework, the worldview you bring to your work.
The framework changes what we see and changes what we tell ourselves is important. And the revolution is tearing your old framework down.
Your Pain Is Real:
It’s the pain of possibility, vulnerability, and risk. Once you stop feeling it, you’ve lost your best chance to make a difference.
The easiest way to avoid the pain is to lull it to sleep by finding a job that numbs you. Soon the pain of the artist will be replaced by a different sort of pain, the pain of the cog, the pain of someone who knows that his gifts are being wasted and that his future is out of his control.
It’s not a worthwhile trade. In the words of Joseph Campbell, you’re doing art “for the experience of being alive.” The alternative is to be numb, to lull yourself into the false sense of security offered by the promise of the rare well-paid job where you are doing someone else’s bidding.
The pain is part of being alive. Art is the narrative of being alive.
Like a growth spurt for a teenager, the pain of facing the void where art lives is part of the deal, our stretching into a better self.
The Icarus Deception – how high will you fly?