Do you think creativity is a special talent that other people have but you don’t?
Do you long to make art, but feel you’re not a creative person? Have you lost your creative flow?
Then my free e-book Unleash Your Creativity is waiting for you. I believe we’re all innately creative and I want to help you find your artistic heart.
I know how hard it can be to claim the title of artist or creator. I know you’re busy. Like me you have work, family, and social commitments demanding your time and energy. But despite all that, you feel something’s missing.
I wrote Unleash Your Creativityfor you; a short guide to living a more creative life in the real world. In your free e-book you’ll find advice and exercises to guide you as you identify and start to follow your passion.
Whether you lack confidence, ideas or resources, there’s something here for you. You’ll also find more tips and ideas on this blog every week.
They say that everyone has a novel inside them. Maybe you know someone who is hard at work on theirs. You read their comments online or chat with them at an event. They tell you they’ve been working on it for a while. “How long?” you ask. They tell you it’s been several years so far. These perfectionists have laboured over this one piece for five, seven, ten years. And they don’t know when it will be finished.
Or maybe it’s your work that has limped on forever. You’re stuck because you can’t figure out the right style of the gowns in your Imperial court, or your research on spring weather patterns in Kansas has led down increasingly arcane corridors.
You’ll publish or submit, someday. But it’s not perfect yet. And so your great work sits on your hard drive and the world never sees it.
What Are You Afraid Of?
Perfectionists are often procrastinators. You believe if a thing’s worth doing, it must be done properly and nothing less will do. So you either rework and edit endlessly, or you don’t even start because you can never get it absolutely right. And you can’t edit an empty page.
You conceal these feelings behind strong psychological defences and sublimate them into pointless activity. But research isn’t writing. At some level, you know that and you’re disappointed with yourself.
At the heart of perfectionism is fear.
Fear of failure.
Fear of success, because then you have to do it again, leading back to fear of failure.
To overcome perfectionism, you need to understand your fear and master it. Courage is not the absence of fear, it is action despite feeling fear. Courage is taking a deep breath and doing it anyway because your desire for something is greater than the fear of what might happen.
If you never challenge yourself to move past fear, you cannot improve or grow. Everything you really want is outside of your comfort zone.
In order to step out there and thrive, you’ll need to let some ideas go and embrace new thinking. We’ll look at how to do this next.
Everybody sucks and nobody cares
Fear is a basic emotion that we all understand. You fear humiliation and ridicule for getting something wrong. Perhaps you replay some old memory of being laughed at for a minor error, and that underlies your current avoidant behaviour.
Here are two reasons why you should leave that in the past where it belongs.
Everybody sucks in the beginning. Every author, actor, artist, or sports person you admire now was once terrible at their chosen discipline. They wrote awful prose, missed more shots than they scored, and forgot their lines on stage. But they carried on and used those early failures to improve over time. Nobody has a perfect score overall.
People aren’t actually watching that closely. They are as consumed by their inner lives as you are by yours. Even if they look your way, they forget you the next moment as their own drama takes over. Though you might feel as though everyone is looking at you, they’re really not. In psychology, this is known as the spotlight effect. Knowing about the spotlight effect is liberating. It frees you to do whatever you need to do without the pressure of a supposed audience.
Act like a baby
Babies are the world’s fastest learners. From zero, they learn to feed, walk, talk, and live in a social unit, all within two years. They achieve this not by being perfect, but the opposite. They stumble, fall, stand up again.
They babble nonsense and parrot speech without understanding at first. Eventually, they achieve a level of competence that allows them to run, jump, and sing a nursery rhyme.
They do not beat themselves up because they can’t yet recite Shakespeare. They simply chatter and listen to adults when corrected. Each time they repeat, they’re closer to the goal of intelligible speech.
You learned to speak, walk, and countless other complex skills in the same way. If you had waited to speak until you were perfect, you would not have uttered a word for years.
Cultivate a beginner’s mind. Understand that supposed errors are signposts back to the right path, and you’re much less fearful of your results. Judge not against some unattainable level of perfection, but against where you were last time you tried.
You already know how to learn and improve. Adjust your aim, and try again.
Less is not more
While you’re slaving over one meticulously crafted blog post, searching tirelessly for exactly the right image and quote, I’m ramping up my output. One post every Friday was my first goal. Having reached that goal and with over 200 posts under my belt, now I’m aiming to post two or three articles every week. I don’t have time to agonise endlessly over a picture.
Oh, you say, but you prefer quality over quantity. People repeat this justification for low output as if it were gospel truth. It’s completely wrong.
Quantity leads to quality
In an experiment, students in a ceramics class were split into two groups. One group was told that they could get an A by turning in one perfect piece. The other group was told that they would be graded solely on the total weight of pieces produced, of any quality.
The results were surprising. The second group produced a large number of extremely good pieces. They were freed from the constraints of perfection and given free rein to experiment without being penalised. I’d bet money they were happier with their work too.
Repeated practice increased their skills and confidence. They weren’t paralysed by over-analysis or worried about criticism. They did not fear the impossibility of lightning striking twice, because they knew how to create a storm. They were able to replicate good work because they understood what went into making it.
Imagine if Dali had refused to let anyone see his paintings, or if Michelangelo had obsessively chipped away at and repolished his David. How much poorer we would be! Remember also that an artist’s most famous works comprise only a fraction of their total output.
Writers learn more from finishing one story than from starting and abandoning ten. You’ll learn where you wrote yourself into a corner, and how to figure your way out. You’ll learn how many plots you can juggle. You’ll learn what makes a good ending. And eventually, you’ll join up all those skills and move from conscious competence to unconscious competence.
In other words, you will master your craft and spend more effort on deciding where to put the ball than how to kick it.
At some point, you have to declare a thing finished and let it go. The more refined your skill, the harder it is. You always feel there is just one more thing you could improve upon.
Let it go. Ship it. Publish, submit, and move on to the next thing. That’s the secret; always have a next thing. Each piece becomes a little less precious when it forms a smaller part of your portfolio. You may still have your favourites and the ones you shrug over, but the totality is what matters.
Confidence comes from improvement. You know that you can make another piece, and it might be even better than the last. And if it’s not, that’s okay too.
That is true creative freedom.
Ready to reclaim your creativity?
This free short e-book will show you how to stop letting limiting beliefs hold you back and finally start creating the work you’ve been dreaming of. Want your creative spark back? This is the guide for you.
Sometimes the ideas won’t come. You want to paint or write but you don’t know what. You started something and now you hate it. Or maybe you’re trying to get started again after a drought or forced hiatus. Like a stalled car, you need a little push to get going.
The Two Types of Thinking That Affect Creativity
The way we think has a great impact on creativity.
Divergent thinking creates possibilities. It gathers ideas and combines them in new ways. There is more than one answer to a question. And all ideas have potential value. Divergent thinking creates options using right-brained methods; imagination, visualisation, and intuition.
Convergent thinking solves problems. It considers, weighs and discards options, narrowing them down until the right answer emerges. Convergent thinking achieves results using left-brain methods; sequencing, logic, and facts.
We need both types of thinking to achieve a result. First, come up with ideas using divergent thinking, then execute an idea using convergent thinking. A brilliant concept is nothing without the techniques to make it a reality.
Judgement can wait
But choosing which idea to work on too soon can choke off possibilities. We tend to judge ideas and discard them without fully exploring them. So it’s vital to gather all your ideas without judgement first. It’s like mining a fine diamond; they’re not lying about on the surface. After digging through a lot of worthless stuff, you spot something with potential. Then you get to work cutting and polishing.
Creativity exercises are best done quickly to outwit the inner critic. Keep moving and let yourself be imperfect.
We don’t make mistakes, just happy little accidents. Bob Ross
1 . Get random
Having too many choices can lead to being overwhelmed. Because you could do anything, you end up doing nothing. Research has shown that we are more satisfied with our choices when options are limited.
Try letting chance dictate your next move rather than fretting over what to do.Then you can put your energy into doing, rather than frustration that you don’t know where to start.
Turn to a page in the nearest book to hand. Count the tenth verb or noun. Set a timer for ten minutes. Write a story or poem inspired by this word.
Do the same with a magazine, instead using the tenth picture as inspiration.
Go to Pixabay or Unsplash for photos. Use the first image containing a yellow object as inspiration.
This is a classic way to access divergent thinking. The idea is to generate quantity rather than quality. Concentrating on quantity leads your brain to think widely, past the obvious. Creativity sees new links between ideas or objects that were not connected before.
Keep asking “what else?” but do not ask “would this work?” For example, a Lego brick could be a doorstop. It doesn’t matter at this stage how effective that might be.
Most people can think of 10–15 ideas for a paperclip. See how much better you can do.
Write down as many uses as you can think of for a paper clip; a Lego brick; a small silver coin; or a teaspoon.
Pick an unusual use for an object and write a short story about it. Or draw it instead.
3 . Do the same job with fewer tools
Creativity blossoms within restriction. When we challenge our skills by limiting the available options, we have to find another way to get the job done. In other words, divergent thinking comes into play. That is the essence of creativity.
Artists, paint or draw using shades of only one colour. If you usually draw in pencil, try using ink. Set a time limit.
Writers, use a random first line generator like this one to write a one-page story. Sometimes this works better writing by hand; somehow it’s less daunting than the blinking cursor.
4 . Play in a different sandbox
To create we need to see the world in a different way. When we’re comfortable in one way of seeing, it’s good to mix it up. Maximise your creative muscle by trying something new, just as you’d train different muscle groups in the gym. You will benefit by finding new solutions and skills that you can bring back to your chosen field. That could be improved memory, attention to detail, or improvisation. And it’s fun to try something new.
Make something small, in a different medium.
Doodle your favourite animal, if you write.
Write a song or poem, if you paint.
Cook a meal using a new recipe or only three ingredients from your fridge.
Look at an object in the room for one minute, then try to draw it from memory.
5 . Move
The brain requires up to 20% of the body’s energy. That energy comes from circulating blood, and getting active improves circulation. Sitting or standing in one position for extended periods also leads to stiffness and even pain. Artists and typists are prone to repetitive strain injuries from small repeated movements.
Spending long periods inside in solitary activity can have a number of negative effects, from vitamin D deficiency to low mood. We need to take care of our bodies if we want to stay healthy longer.
Go for a walk and notice the animals. One of them will become a character in your next story or painting.
Wander around a gallery, craft supplies store or even a toy shop. Surround yourself with interesting visuals to spark ideas.
Running, swimming, walking or gardening are good ways to clear the mind and occupy the body with soothing repetition. This allows ideas from your subconscious to bubble up to the surface.
Just do it
The most important thing you can do to access creativity is to make more things, no matter how small or mundane. A new recipe, story, garden, doodle, or haiku all come from looking at the world, seeing new possibility and then expressing what you see in your own way. And that’s what creating is all about.
Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes.Art is knowing which to keep. Scott Adams
I’m stuck. Just forty minutes ago the words were flowing, full steam ahead. Now they’ve dried up. I stand, stretch, sit again. Still no words.
It’s time to follow my own advice. I say that writer’s block can be overcome*, so this is my opportunity to walk the talk. I resist the temptation to fall into a social media vortex. The weather is too hideous for gardening or a walk, so I head to the kitchen.
Flour, butter, sugar. The basic elements for baking are all there, and it is truly amazing how many variations flow from them. Like Lego blocks, they can build many things. I grab my trusty recipe for oat and raisin cookies.
Not enough butter, so I make up the shortfall with avocado oil. It’s supposed to be super healthy, and it ought to be at that price. Must have been feeling well off that day.
The recipe says raisins. I substitute mixed fruit and chopped ginger. Little changes make these cookies uniquely mine, raisin and oats and something else.
Creaming butter and sugar is repetitive and soothing. I can’t get this wrong and there’s no pressure of time. I sift the dry ingredients together and inhale the aroma of cinnamon, noting the random speckles of brown against white flour.
While I combine ingredients, the story problem simmers in the background. It’s meditative, this focus on a single thing. I lose the plot. I start clean up while the oven preheats. Blobs of dough sit unevenly on assorted baking trays. They’ll all taste great.
The aroma of baking is heavenly and I inhale deeply. The kitchen is quiet and tidy again. After hours of mental effort, turning the focus outwards and creating order restores calm. I feel more in control and the nagging voice of doubt recedes, because the cookies are a small but certain win.
And then the protagonist whispers, “I fell asleep on the train and now I’m waking up in Sheffield with a dead phone and no money. Help.” Oh yes, I can work with this. The next steps light up in my brain and I return to work energised, with tea and a warm, delicious cookie.
*No more writers block
Simple repetitive tasks are calming, approached in the right mindset. Step away from the keyboard. Let your subconscious work on a problem while you occupy your brain elsewhere. Engage all your senses and pay attention.
Limitations create problems. Solving those problems demands creativity.
Making something tangible is satisfying in a way mental work is not. Small wins help enormously on the way to the bigger goal. Enjoy your cookie.
In the developed world choice is king. The more choices, the better the world is working, and the received wisdom is that more is always better. Whole industries are built on finding and then expanding niches.
It’s no wonder that the protagonist of The Hurt Locker stood in the store when he returned from Iran, paralysed by too much choice. We’ve all done this. We rush into the store to find something for dinner, and we find ourselves overwhelmed, unable to choose.
FMI statistics show the average US supermarket carries over 42,000 items. In 2015 Tesco, Britain’s largest supermarket chain, carried 90,000 items, including 28 kinds of tomato ketchup. They planned to cut this to 60,000 to make shopping more efficient.
How often do we grab the first thing we see, or give up and get a takeaway meal instead, in a mild state of panic? Those tempting offers and discounts take advantage of our frazzled brains, already worn out by too many choices from the moment we woke up.
In his TED talk Phil Hansen talks candidly about his quest to “Embrace the shake”. Well worth ten minutes of your time. He talks about losing the ability and will to create as he wished, and how he overcame a creative slump that lasted for years. He vividly describes becoming overwhelmed by possibility.
For writers, this equates not only to the empty page, but also to absent parameters. “Write a short story/novel/poem about anything” sounds great, till we sit down to start.
If all paths are open, which one should we take? Perhaps your stomach is already clenching at the very thought. But there is a way forward.
Put some walls in place, and ideas can bounce off them, finding surprising ways to fulfil the brief. It’s not only true for artists, because we all have constraints. Problem solving is a key skill for life.
If there are no constraints, there is no problem to solve.
We happen on a brilliant solution not by waving a hand or throwing money at problems, but by understanding that we must transcend apparently fixed parameters. We use only what we have been given to find another way.
This is a great way to recover creativity. Or to overcome the dread of the empty page. Or to continue when we we doubt our ability to get going.
Here are some suggestions. The first and most important step is to suspend judgement, the endless chatter of this is stupid/no good/worthless. It’s just practice.
The idea is to move forward and get ideas flowing, so that the energy feeds into your current project. First you need to loosen your creative muscles, like an athlete warning up.
Look around you, and write 100 words on the first red or blue object you see.
Construct a main dish using only the items in your fridge right now.
Pick up a book, turn to a random page. Look for the first word that is a noun, verb, or adjective. Write a one page story using that word, in ten minutes or less.
I highly recommend Phil Hansen‘s talk, where he gives great illustrated examples. He tried some surprising things. One might just be the spark you need to get started again.
Limiting our fictional characters can also be a good thing. Give her a seemingly impossible situation, and then she must fight her way out. Put him in a literal or metaphorical cage, and see how he responds. It’s a great way of showing character.
Sometimes, too many choices make us anxious. Then, we need a box as a starting point. It needs to be small enough that it doesn’t paralyse with too much possibility.
Big enough that imagination can stretch its wings and fly.
I’m a big fan of Chuck Wendig and read his emails every week as he photographs tiny things, rants about politics, and talks writing, in very colourful words. In the post above he tackles the deep despair that can overcome you when the wanton f*ckery of the world seems too much to bear. (his phrase, not mine)
Creatives, especially at the early stages when it’s hard slog for little reward, can be tempted to give up. What’s the point we say, crying into our gin/ice cream tub/family pack of snacks? Nobody’s listening, it’s no good anyhow, the world is going to hell in a handcart and I’m powerless to stop it. My little story/song/picture/recipe/whatever is pretty useless as ammunition in this fight.
Chuck says, just do it anyway.
There’s someone out there for whom your thing is exactly what they need, right now. That could be entertainment, distraction, tools to do a job or navigate a heartbreak. They might see themselves in your thing and be inspired.
I once wrote a scene in which two gay men argued about being their authentic selves. A woman sent me a comment saying she had wept, thinking back to the compromises she made in earlier life, and that she felt like it was her story on the screen.
Emotional connection transcends time, gender, place. There is no better feeling for an author than knowing your words touched a chord with a real person.
You never know what people will take away from your work. Once it’s out there, it doesn’t belong to just you any more. Like a newly minted adult, it must take on the world on its own merits and find its place.
So enjoy Chuck’s take on writing, and keep creating. Don’t deprive the world of what you have to say, just because you got discouraged. Take a break and come back stronger. The world is awful, and it’s also amazing. Be part of the amazing.
Ill-concealed jealousy, or perhaps a fleeting moment of self- knowledge, a slip of the tongue, a confession unprompted. Still, I understand. You think you know the price.
You make it look so easy.
I assure you it is not. After years and centuries of practice, practice, try again, I have earned grudging acquaintance with the standards I keep. Improvement is my goal.
I don’t understand it.
I hear the scathing tone of your dismissal. Should art be understandable? Only for those to whom it speaks; and to the rest, it is noise. Listen harder.
How do you do it?
I just do it. I persist. I hear the self-doubt and corrosive whispers of fear that burn my heart, and I do it anyway, because the art demands to be heard. The pain of silence, I have learned, is worse than carrying my art stillborn in my chest.
Anyone could do that.
No, anyone could not. Every one’s a critic, but very few a creator. Anyone could do it. Hardly anyone does. I invite you to try.
I’ve always wanted to do that.
Creation does not wait for permission. But if you need permission, go ahead. It’s never too late to begin. The world is waiting to hear your story. It’s as simple, and as terrifying, as that.
You’re hardly the next JK Rowling/Beyoncé/Picasso/whoever.
You’re right, nobody is. But what I am, what I will be, if I can keep going, is the first, glorious me. I don’t seek comparison. You are no-one special, either. But I allow you the possibility that you could be.
It’s just your life story.
It’s just my heart and soul, bled out on the page, the canvas, the stage. What else is there? Where else will I find the raw and honest stuff to build my creation? I fuse drops of my history and things not yet imagined and echoes of other people’s random musings. Something new emerges. It is enough.
I envy you.
You see the glittering jewel. I see exhausting hours mining, selecting, cutting and polishing, rejecting and starting over. I see blood and tears. I remember pain carved in my bones, doubt piercing my heart, fear and loathing waiting to trap me. It looks so easy. But it’s not.