#2: Stop judging your own work
As an author of a book on creativity, I spend a lot of time discussing creativity with people who want to be more creative. They’ll say things like:
- “I had some bad experiences as a child, and that made me feel like I wasn’t creative. I’ve always been interested in a bunch of creative areas, and never had a chance to truly try to pursue one until now.”
- “ Right now, I don’t know how to get started each day. I want to come up with a process that enables me to get straight to work.”
Whatever is getting in the way of your creativity, here’s what you need to know about it:
Everybody is naturally creative, including you.
Most people spend so much time get stuck in their own heads, agonizing over the creative process, that they don’t actually get to practice their creativity.
If you want better creativity, focus on identifying and building consistent habits that will improve your creativity. Here are three good ones to start with:
The biggest lie we’ve been told is that we have to choose between quantity and quality. Quantity and quality are not tradeoffs. They support each other. Quantity supports mastery of a craft, and quality.
It’s no coincidence that many creative people are also prolific. Yayoi Kusama has created nearly 9,000 pieces, Pablo Picasso created 10,000+ original paintings, and Shantell Martin has completed well over 5,000 paintings.
There are all sorts of reasons that making more work will lead to making better work:
- You set yourself up for a lot of chances to experience success; every piece of acceptable work becomes a lottery ticket. Austin Kleon writes, “The frequency of my work — showing up at regular intervals, without worrying about results — has actually lead to better results.”
- Creative blocks happen when expectations of results get too high for one project to achieve. “This has to work, or I’m giving up.” By making a lot of acceptable projects, you are able to deflate your expectations of each one, and beat creative blocks.
- You create an opportunity for unluckiness to run out. Ray Bradbury writes, “If you can write one short story a week — it doesn’t matter what the quality is to start, but at least you’re practicing, and at the end of the year you have 52 short stories, and I defy you to write 52 bad ones.”
Dean Keith Simonton, one of the most prominent professors to study creativity, notes the relationship of how quality emerges from quantity. In Simonton’s book The Genius Checklist, his main recommendation is to satisfice in your creative work; to make sure “each work [meets] minimal standards, without optimizing all criteria for success.” This is the most consistent strategy to create a body of work that lasts.
In other words, you want to create a high quantity of work that meets an acceptable (or “minimum”) standard of quality is really the key to navigating between quantity and quality.
Perfection will naturally emerge from this process.
Within every writer — and probably every person in any creative endeavor — there are four forces at work. Professor Betty Flowers identifies these four characters, writing four words on the board of her classroom: “madman,” “architect,” “carpenter,” “judge.”
In particular, the “madman” and the “judge” are at odds with each other. Flowers describes the judge:
“He’s been educated and knows a sentence fragment when he sees one. He peers over your shoulder and says, ‘That’s trash!’ with such authority that the madman loses his crazy confidence and shrivels up. You know the judge is right-after all, he speaks with the voice of your most imperious English teacher. But for all his sharpness of eye, he can’t create anything.”
Over the years, our inner judges grow stronger as we learn to preserve ourselves and to be more considerate of other people’s feelings. We learn to be more practical and forward thinking. At the same time, we starve our madman of creative, chaotic, energy.
Remember, your judgment of your work may not reflect how somebody else interprets or experiences it. In fact, many people are terrible judges of their own work.
In his video for TED, Ethan Hawke says:
Most of us really want to offer the world something of quality, something that the world will consider good or important. And that’s really the enemy, because it’s not up to us whether what we do is any good, and if history has taught us anything, the world is an extremely unreliable critic.
Depersonalization is another way of saying this. Not everything has to be personal; in fact, even though our creative work may draw from our lived experiences, it’s still just our work. What we make is not a whole reflection of who we are; we must avoid the trap of overidentifying with our work.
These days, there’s no shortage of shiny opportunities. Emerging markets include web3, mushrooms, and NFTs — among many others. In fact, the greater your inclination towards creativity, the more likely your brain is to explore other opportunities — which can be very distracting from whatever creative practice you were working through. Shiny object syndrome is one of the greatest challenges you’ll face, and it can drain your creativity.
Rather than choosing to chase whichever trend is in vogue — and incurring unnecessary financial risk which could hurt your focus — you can stay committed to making the thing you’re best at. You can say no to copying other people.
Picking the low hanging fruit isn’t always worth putting down what you’re doing; plus it’s the fruit that everybody is chasing, which means it’s not scarce.
Let the other people chase the quick wins and glittering lures. Focus on your craft and your life’s task instead. If you don’t know what it is, focus on finding it.
If you’re having trouble with this, you can start the process by simply choosing one creative operation and sticking with it for 10 days. If you’re going to take photographs, take 10 photos per day for 10 days. If you’re going to write, write a blog post every day for 10 days.
Once you do that, you can decide if you want to keep going, or to decide to pick a new creative operation.