One of my favourite Ted talks is by Elizabeth Gilbert entitled ‘Your elusive creative genius’. She discusses her creative journey and how she goes about producing her work. She describes the ‘utterly maddening capriciousness of the creative process’. Will she ever produce a piece of work as successful as ‘Eat, Pray Love?’, she asks herself. Probably not, she admits.
Producing creative work on a consistent basis is a problem many people suffer from. They feel blocked. They lack inspiration. They lack energy. They’re unhappy with the work they produce. As a consequence, they fail to achieve their creative potential.
So, how do you avoid this? This is what I’ve learnt.
1 Stick to a routine
The most important lesson is to keep showing up. James Clear explores this throughout his excellent book ‘Atomic Habits’. Set yourself a schedule and stick to it, he recommends. Treat it as a job, not as a hobby. If you wait for inspiration to appear then your output will be sporadic. Amateurs wait for inspiration. Professionals show up and inspiration comes to them.
Julia Cameron says something similar in her seminal book ‘The Artist’s Way’, where she refers to setting yourself ‘artist’s dates’, appointments with yourself to undertake your creative work.
2 Don’t be too harsh on yourself
We’re our worst critics and this holds us back. We fear how others will judge us. This causes us to freeze and to hold back. Don’t let self-judgment prevent delivery.
What’s also evident is that most people are very poor at self-judgment. When we produce creative work, it’s so hard to know what the response will be. Many creatives have expressed surprise and delight at how well certain work has been celebrated. They also express, bemusement as to why other work they perceive to be of equal quality, has been less well received. You just can’t tell.
Give yourself permission to create poor work. Use it as a learning experience. Creative excellence does not emerge fully formed. Don’t beat yourself up about it. It’s normal.
3 Keep working at it
There’s much evidence to suggest that it takes a lot of time and practice to perfect your craft.
In ‘Outliers’, Malcolm Gladwell famously entreats us to practice for 10 000 hours to reach ‘genius’ status. He provides many examples from the Beatles to Bill Gates.
All successful athletes attribute their success to hard work and practice. Just pick up any of their autobiographies. It starts when they’re young, but continues just as intently during their prime.
Thomas M Sterner in ‘The Practicing Mind’, also outlines the importance of what he calls deliberate practice. He encourages us to remain patient and stay disciplined when trying to develop a skill. It can be frustrating as progress is often imperceptible. But if we turn up and keep at it, we’ll inevitably improve.
4 Regularly share your work
Don’t keep your work to yourself. Publish it. Exhibit it. Perform it. Don’t self-judge- see above. Yes, it requires you to be brave and to take a risk, but sharing will do two things.
Firstly, it will hold you accountable and push you into giving your best efforts. Secondly, you’ll get feedback. This will give you encouragement, direction and will help you find ways to improve. Every week, I commit to publishing a blog post on this site. I have no idea how it will be received, but I believe it will make me a better writer and a better trainer. So I continue to do it.
5 Finish something
It’s easy to put aside an incomplete story or a half-baked idea. Don’t reject work too early. You need to have the discipline and perseverance to finish it. There’s a real sense of achievement in completing a piece of work. That way, you’ll stay committed and learn from what you’ve done. And of course, once you’ve completed the work, move on to the next thing. Stay productive. Remember it’s what separates an Amateur from a Professional.
Having studied and observed the work of successful creatives, the message is clear. Inspiration is over-rated. Some observers, notably Seth Godin, argue that creative block — specifically writer’s block — is a myth. Sure, we need to surround ourselves with creative stimulus and seek new experiences. But at the end of the day, it’s all about focus and getting on with it. Set a routine, do the work, produce, practice, share, get feedback, start again. Stick at it. If you do this, your creative Muse is bound to show up. Just make sure you’re ready to listen when it does.