Bad Habits

Jealousy | Bad Habits, part 6

Note: this page is part of the Cliffjump! Manifesto. If you’ve arrived from an external link, and haven’t read the previous parts of the book, you might want to start at the beginning

Photo credit: Derek van Vliet

Our next guest needs, I think, no introduction. We’ve all experienced jealousy, and most of us have been told since childhood that it’s not the healthiest mental habit to indulge in. Creative jealousy is a special breed and in my experience it’s poison to the kind of creativity this book is about, Fearless Creativity.

In his extraordinary book ‘Effortless Mastery‘, jazz pianist Kenny Werner describes a moment of transformative clarity encapsulated in 4 simple words. He was listening, with a fellow pianist and friend, to an extraordinary performance by a classical virtuoso, and was in a kind of agony as he realized he would never play like that. He looked at his friend, who was transported by the beauty and perfection of the performance, and the friend looked back at him and said: “Be Friendly to yourself!”

Werner describes this as the moment when everything changed for him, but he never really defines exactly what this ‘friendliness’ means and why it’s so essential and powerful. I guess everyone needs to find out for themselves in the end… but I’ve thought about it quite a bit, and come up with three essential aspects of ‘friendliness’:

a) unconditional support and encouragement
b) honest criticism when needed, and
c) sincere praise when deserved.

These are things that I think we should extend to those closest from us, and that we should be able to expect in return from them. I think that ‘being friendly to ourselves’ means extending them to, and expecting them from, ourselves as well. Let’s take a closer look at each one, in the context of creativity:

a) unconditional support and encouragement… I think this is relatively easy. We want to be creative, even if it’s difficult sometimes. We don’t tend to beat ourselves up too badly for the basic impulse. But it’s a good idea to make it explicit anyway: you need to be unconditionally supportive and encouraging towards yourself in your creative endeavours, the same way you would with your closest friends. No matter what.

b) honest criticism when needed… We touched on this in the last chapter in the context of overconfidence. It’s completely destructive to believe that everything we do is brilliant, or that we ourselves are so talented that everything is fine and we don’t need to really work hard or apply ourselves to create masterpiece after masterpiece. Not many people really suffer from this, in my experience – there are more people sabotaging themselves with insecurities than with genuine overconfidence. However, again, let’s make it plain: you need to be able to take honest stock of where you’re at and what you need to work on. It doesn’t get us anywhere to pretend our weak points aren’t there.

c) sincere praise when deserved… I think this is the hardest one of all, but in some ways the most crucial. It’s also important to look at the more subtle layers of it; this isn’t just about patting yourself, or your friends for that matter, on the back. It’s about being able to recognize and acknowledge, in a genuine way, when we’ve done something really good, or beautiful, or fascinating. In the same way that it isn’t helpful to deny our weaknesses, it doesn’t get us anywhere to deny our moments of clarity and luminosity. I’ve known a number of highly creative people over the years who seem unable to let themselves accept that they did something well, and this seems to sabotage their ability to enjoy the whole process… this has always struck me as tragic.

Apples and Oranges

As subtly powerful as this Friendliness idea is, I’m aware that it’s not a magic pill that will instantly free us from deeply ingrained habits. And the habit of comparing ourselves to others, always judging our own worth and talents in comparison to the perceived worth and talents of others, is one of the most deeply ingrained habits there is.

This is true for most people on some level, I think – at least, that’s the conclusion that a lifetime of observation has led me to. However, in the context of creativity it’s especially poisonous, because our sense of self is often tightly bound up with what we do, what we create, what we feel we’re capable of.

It’s very easy to misjudge our own talents and those of others; we tend to downplay our own abilities, and overestimate those of others. Their work seems so effortless, so fully-formed and, most of all, so beyond us and our meager talents.

We forget the work that lies behind the work we see, and we forget to value what we can do that they can’t, the products of our own hard work and unique experience. In short, we lose sight of our own creative identity, our own amazing possibility, when we indulge in this kind of creative jealousy.

The Fame Game

It’s the same when it comes to judging success – we are unable to focus on our own success because we are distracted by that of others, and jealous of it – and by the feelings of unworthiness that come with that. We are especially jealous of people who are ‘famous’, whose work has led in one way or another to mass recognition, which our culture continually tells us is the ultimate measure of worth and talent.

Personally, I think that the cult of fame is an unmitigated disaster – generally, and more specifically with regards to creative work. I think we lost something very important when we made fame the goal of creative endeavour, and not only because not everyone can be famous.

There’s a passage in Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard where he talks about how the scale of recognition has changed in the last few hundred years. To paraphrase rather liberally (I haven’t read it in many years)… there was a time, not so long ago, when the village bard was likely the ‘best’ musician anyone in that village had ever heard. Everyone played a little music, but he or she was the specialist. Hardly anyone had ever travelled further than the next village, so opportunities to hear ‘world-class’ musicians were notably thin on the ground. So much so, in fact, that the very concept would have been alien and meaningless.

Now, however, if I happen to be the one on your block that specializes in music (assuming there aren’t eight or ten others), I’m up against the whole world. I have to compete for attention, appreciation and recognition with everyone who’s ever played a concert, released a CD or made a music video. Why would anyone pay attention to little old me? Our whole sense of what is good, what is talent, and above all what is successful has changed. Now it’s perspective that’s thin on the ground.

[I managed to track down the original passage, for those interested…]

Chasing shadows

So it’s not surprising that we respond with jealousy towards the famous. But in reality fame is mostly an illusion, and setting it – even unconsciously – as a goal is for most people antithetical to cultivating a genuine creative life. In fact, even if we could magically switch fame on, most of us would probably hate it and in fact we would likely self-destruct if we suddenly found ourselves in the limelight. Personally, I like a bit of privacy…

Why do we think we want fame? Why are we jealous of it? I suppose we think it would make everything easier… but I suspect that this is largely untrue. Sure, it would allow us to buy more things, live in bigger houses, stay in more exclusive hotels… but simpler? I’m not convinced. In fact, I’m pretty confident that it makes most things a lot more complicated. Do we really want to be those people we’re jealous of, so that someone else will be jealous of us? Does that really improve our lives in any meaningful way?

Moreover, fame requires intense focus and relentless hard work to maintain, as well as tremendous personal sacrifice and risk. Doubtless it would make paying the bills a bit easier, although there would also likely be a lot more bills to pay; but I’m really not at all sure it would make creating anything of value any easier at all, and quite possibly it would make it harder. Some people seem to handle this better than others…

I believe that it really is better to focus on hard work and creativity on our own terms, and define success as when those things are working, making us happy, and, for those who choose to make a living from their creative work, providing a reasonably comfortable and sustainable one. Jealousy about others’ fame kills that. Leave it behind.

Of course we cannot ever leave it entirely behind. These habits are very human and the best we can do is keep a close watch for them and try not to let them dominate us unconsciously.

I have a little mental game I play, which like all the others in this book is not intended as a ‘magic bullet’ but as something to think about. It’s this: when jealous thoughts inevitably do come up, I try to replace or at least match every jealous thought with one of gratitude. I think about something I do have that I should be more grateful for, take less for granted, and focus on that instead.

It’s not magic, but it helps.

What’s your take? Does this make sense to you? Have you had creative experiences that confirm or contradict these musings? Please leave a comment in the Discussion section below, and start or join the conversation!

* used (with much appreciation!) according to a Creative Commons license:

Fatalism | Bad Habits, part 5

Note: this page is part of the Cliffjump! Manifesto. If you’ve arrived from an external link, and haven’t read the previous parts of the book, you might want to start at the beginning


PHOTO CREDIT: intellax *

Fatalism is another powerful enemy of creativity: it tells us that it’s not worthwhile starting anything, because it, and/or we, will almost certainly not amount to anything anyway. At least, nothing is likely to live up to the image we build in our minds when we allow ourselves to dream for a minute, to imagine what ‘success’ would look like.

Now, I am not a big fan of ‘manifestation’ or ‘Law of Attraction’-style visualization. I think many people waste a lot of time and energy that they could be using to actually do or create stuff, daydreaming about what could happen if the world were completely different. I think most people selling this stuff are selling snake oil, and I don’t recommend buying it. You’ll only end up back in fantasy-land.

However, I do recommend keeping a close watch on yourself for signs of fatalism, which is kind of the opposite of believing in benevolent spirits which will make our wildest dreams come true – it’s believing in malevolent spirits that keep good things from ever happening. Both versions are a little bit delusional, and neither helps us get, or stay, creatively unstuck.

As I see it, there are two main manifestations of creative Fatalism:
a) I’m not creative – I don’t know how, I don’t have the talent, etc.
b) why bother trying? Nothing ever works out for me anyway.

Both are excuses for maintaining inertia, for not taking risks. In the first case we are dealing with the Talent Myth – the idea that it is not worth doing creative work unless you are a certified genius. I’ve been around a lot of very creative people in my life, but I’ve never met a single one who does it by magic, who doesn’t have to work and sweat and work through all of this stuff, one way or another, in order to do the work that makes us wonder.


This brings us to one of our culture’s key metaphors: the myth of the Genius, the transcendentally gifted or creative person. You know, the one who doesn’t really have to try or work or practise to be brilliant.

This is a tricky one for me personally because I was given to believe, for much of my early life, that I was a particularly talented child. And it’s true, some things did seem to come very easily to me – so it’s very hard for me to say there’s nothing at all behind the idea of talent. But I can tell you that it’s highly overrated.

First of all, talent is not particularly rare. Many children are gifted in unusual and fascinating ways, and indeed I’m quite fascinated with where that might ‘come from’ – how do we make sense of a child’s seemingly preternatural gift for chess, or music, or a particular sport? I don’t know, but I do know that in the long run it doesn’t count for much. Hard work and dedication to craft count for far more in the long run.

Let’s take the perennial example (and one of the most extreme), Mozart. He displayed prodigious talent as a performer from a very early age, and was composing short works on various instruments by the age of 5. His first operas were written as a young teenager and he was employed as a court musician by the time he was 17. By this time, too, he was writing symphonies and concerti that are now considered staples of the classical repertoire.

So that’s a clear case of transcendental genius, right? Well, I’m not so sure.

What’s hidden behind this story is the astonishing amount of work it must have taken. We know that his father, a relatively established and certainly highly educated musician himself, gave up his own career entirely to cultivate the remarkable talent of his son. His ambition manifested itself in a rigorous program of musical education, as well as a demanding travel and performance schedule. Mozart acheived his ‘greatness’ largely through working harder than most of us are capable of imagining.

What about Beethoven, fretting over flaws in the 9th symphony while the audience at the premiere was in rapture? More than just a poetic image engaging our pathos about the irony of his deafness, it shows his perfectionism, the tenaciousness with which he pursued his vision – instead of succumbing to the fatalist “I’ll never be good enough” line.

Beethoven and Mozart, while obviously enormously talented, were not so different than you or me; again, there are lots of kids with amazing talents, but they don’t all end up making lasting masterpieces of art in their fields. But they were definitely less prone to fatalistic surrender. They stuck with it until it worked. And then stuck with it some more, until it worked better.

Lives of the Rich and Famous

In case of our second fatalistic cop-out, we are dealing with fear of judgement, mapped onto ‘success’ as the objective of doing art or being creative – it’s not worth doing creative work unless you’re going to get rich and famous from it, or at least unless it’s going to ‘pan out’ in some way.

Whatever this imagined form of success might be for you, I submit that drawing lines around it in advance is not doing you much good. We don’t know, not really, what will happen to any creative work that we do, where it will lead us, how it will be received. If we think too small, we’re limiting ourselves; if we think too big, we risk disappointing ourselves. Either way, we’re focusing on the wrong thing – we’re keeping ourselves from giving full attention to the creative work.

Yes, it’s nice when people notice and like our work, and yes, it’s worth putting the energy into ‘getting it out there’ if we believe our ideas are worthwhile. But ‘success’ in the sense of becoming famous for our art is largely an illusion and for the most part does more to discourage than encourage creativity.

Be reasonable!

In place of the two-headed hydra of fatalism, I am offering the idea that doing creative work is worthwhile for two reasons, which have nothing to do with ‘being creative’ and are independent of the outcome of our endeavours, and whether it ‘works out’ or not:

The first reason is simply that it’s more interesting (and more fun!) than being a passive observer of the world. Interesting things happen when creativity starts flowing. Moreover, problems get solved, and if there has ever been a time in the world where we needed creative solutions to some very big and pressing problems, this is that time.

The second reason is that, if we approach it in the right way, it makes us better and healthier people. It cultivates generosity of spirit, it promotes empathy and tolerance, it connects people across boundaries and borders, opens minds and hearts and generally makes the world a better place.

(Artists know this intuitively. We are puzzled when people demand that we demonstrate the ‘usefulness’ of our art, as is becoming more common these days. The question doesn’t make sense to us, and it’s hard for us to imagine the mental state of someone who would be capable of asking it.)

Nothing is really fated unless you accept that it is. ‘Creative people’ do not do creative work because they are fated to do it, but because they have an idea they can’t get out of their head, or they are willing to assume that one will come along if they pick up the tools and get to work… and once they get started, things get interesting and they start having fun and want to see where the process takes them. That’s pretty much it. Ideally, at least.

And of course there is a flipside of fatalism: overconfidence, assuming that because we are ‘talented’, everything will fall into our lap… we’ll come back to that in a bit. Patience, grasshopper!

What’s your take? Does this make sense to you? Have you had creative experiences that confirm or contradict these musings? Please leave a comment in the Discussion section below, and start or join the conversation!

continue with JEALOUSY

* used (with much appreciation!) according to a Creative Commons license:

Fear | Bad Habits, part 4

Note: this page is part of the Cliffjump! Manifesto. If you’ve arrived from an external link, and haven’t read the previous parts of the book, you might want to start at the beginning


photo credit: TimothyJ *

I guess this one is kind of obvious – fear is by definition the opposite of the Fearless Creativity we are trying to define and cultivate. However, since fearlessness is our theme, we kind of need to define fear in more precise terms, identify the things that creative people are all-too-often afraid of. And most importantly, those that keep us from creating.

Of course, not all fear is bad; it can be a powerful motivator… and more than a few people have written about how we can go about capitalizing on the energy of our fears to catapult us into creative action we might never have thought ourselves capable of.

So yes, fear can be very motivating. However, I’m not sure it’s not necessarily the healthiest motivator. I think there may be other ways to build the same motivation (and what is motivation but a force that moves us forward, as opposed to a force that keeps us still?) in a better, more sustainable and sustaining way.

Again, I don’t believe that it is really possible to be completely fearless. I also don’t believe that facing down our fears in the usual ‘heroic’ sense, doing battle with them, is necessarily the most productive metaphor we have for dealing with the anxieties that work against our creative flow. I think this pitched-battle mentality may do little more than feed them, put energy into the system that gives them power over us.

Let’s Get Closer

However, I do believe in transcending fear. I believe in keeping our fears close by, where we can keep our eyes on them, but finding ways to reduce their power through familiarity and quiet courage.

How do we manage this? How do we become, not literally fearless, but able to move through our fear, let it pass around us, and keep moving forward? The first step is to Name Your Fear. Figure out what you’re afraid of. Make it explicit, bring it into the open, put it on the table: What, seriously, is the worst thing that could happen? Let’s get it out in the open. How bad is it really? Would your life end?

Remember that we’re talking about creative fears here. This is not meant to trivialize or belittle fear based in real-world situations – much less phobias, which can be very debilitating and which are often much more complicated to untangle. I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t want to pretend I can make your fears about the world in general disappear by showing you intellectually how silly they are…

However, I do know a thing or two about fears that tend to get in the way of creative work. Here are some of mine:

  • I’m afraid I’ll run out of creative energy one day, that I just won’t care about it anymore, and that I will never again feel the ‘rush’ of creation.
  • I’m afraid I’ll run out of ideas and have nothing left to say, or no ability to say it in an effective or satisfying way – or that I’ll be somehow muzzled, unable to feel enough to give the ideas I do have life.
  • I’m afraid I’m not really ‘good enough’ at what I do and that if I did stop creating, no-one would really notice or care all that much.
  • Or worse, that I will keep giving it everything I’ve got, really lay it on the line, and truly believe in my work and its merit… and that no-one will really notice or care all that much.
  • I’m afraid that I will let these fears hold me back from ever really delivering on the promise of my talents, such as they are. I’m afraid I’ll be too afraid to really go the distance, and will always keep something back.

Resistance is Futile

I read a quote somewhere, which I can’t find anywhere so I may as well have made it up, which goes along the lines of: the agony of creating is less than that of that not creating. When I really think about it I’m more afraid of letting fear hold me back from ever creating something worthwhile with the time and the tools available, than I am of doing the work in front of me, right now, and doing it soulfully and well. However, the small fears that keep us from ‘just doing it’ are often more immediate and insistent, and as a result we put off facing that bigger, deeper fear until it’s too late.

I think there are some really common fears among creative people, and maybe some of those listed above will resonate with you, too. I certainly don’t think they’re particularly unique to me. Fear of failure, of really trying and coming up short, is certainly a common aspect of what Stephen Pressfield has called ‘The Resistance’ – that enormously complex and multi-faceted system, or set of systems, which we build within ourselves and which keeps us from doing our work.

Fantasy Island

One system I’ve observed in myself and in others is the ‘fantasy of possibility’. It’s often not the work we are attracted to, it’s the idea of the work, the potential. We imagine ourselves having done something extraordinary, and of course all the praise and success that follows.

It all seems so easy in this fantasy… but how crushing, how crippling it would be if we took the risk, did the work and nothing happened! What if, when viewed in the harsh light of reality, our creation didn’t turn out to be the masterpiece we’d been imagining, and nothing happened? We’d be destroyed. So the primitive, self-protective part of our brains says, Why take that risk? Why not stay in the safety of the fantasy? Everything turned out great there. Isn’t that good enough?

We are afraid that if we commit, then we let go of possibility. If we never follow through, we can forever hold onto the illusion that we could have been great, done great work. But if we do the work and it is not great, we will have to face that, and we will have to face the judgment of others – whether it is imaginary or not… and we’ll have to face the judgment of ourselves, our own disappointment. It’s easy to see why many people get addicted to the illusion. But ‘could have done’ is not the same as doing. Really creating something, even something small, is a bigger thrill.

We’re on your side

Finally, lurking somewhere at the bottom of all of this, I believe, is fear of success. What if we follow through and it does pan out? What if the fantasy plays out perfectly, and the world gives us all the attention we think we want, what then? There will be nowhere to hide! Our inadequacies will be on display for all to see.

I call this the Phony Syndrome, and for me and, I suspect, for many others this is one of the most debilitating manifestations of fear. It’s the deep-rooted belief that at some point, whether literally or metaphorically, someone will come up and tap us on the shoulder and laugh at us. Just kidding! We’ve all seen through you this whole time, did you think you were fooling us? Everyone can see that the emperor wears no clothes.

The Phony Syndrome is a sham. It’s a game the Lizard Brain plays with us to keep us from taking risks. As a performing artist, the most valuable thing I ever learned is that when I’m on stage and the audience is watching and listening, they want me to succeed. They want it to go well, they want to like it, they’re on my team. They are not all sitting there hoping I will screw up. They are invested in the experience as well, they want to enjoy it.

I would wager it’s the same with you and whatever audience your work has or allows. We’re not hoping you fail so we can gloat. We’re on your side. As creative people, we have to look squarely at this fear that everyone is judging us all the time and looking for faults in everything we do, and see it for what it is: a debilitating hoax. It simply isn’t true, 99% of the time.

That isn’t to say we should stop caring about doing it well, blithely slap any old thing together and sign our names to it, since everyone wants it to be great anyway and won’t notice the difference. They will – they will notice that, they will notice if you’ve stopped caring. That’s the only way you can really be a phony.

But short of that? If you can look your fears in the eye and step around them and get on with your work, your piece or performance or project… I’m here to tell you that the world is friendlier than you might think.

continue with FATALISM

What’s your take? Does this make sense to you? Have you had creative experiences that confirm or contradict these musings? Please leave a comment in the Discussion section below, and start or join the conversation!

* used (with much appreciation!) according to a Creative Commons license:

Inertia | Bad Habits, part 3

Note: this page is part of the Cliffjump! Manifesto. If you’ve arrived from an external link, and haven’t read the previous parts of the book, you might want to start at the beginning


Inertia, in the context of creative work, is stuckness (or more engagingly ‘stuckification’, according to the wonderful Havi Brooks). I tend to think of it as a direct corollary of the physical Law of Inertia: objects tend to maintain a constant velocity unless acted on by an external force. We are the objects, and our ‘velocity’ is our creative flow. Lots of ideas, energy, projects moving forward keeping us busy and productive but not overwhelmed or clogged up – that’s velocity. No ideas or ‘inspiration’, no energy to start things, nothing much going on – that’s stasis, zero velocity. Lots of things can get you stuck in creative life, and once you’re there it can be very tricky dislodging yourself – and certainly it’s no help just sitting there waiting for the mysterious ‘inspiration’ to strike. The law of inertia states that if your velocity is zero, or nearly zero, if you’re creatively stuck and you want to get unstuck, you need to apply an external force. You need to light the fuse. Conversely, if you have momentum, if your constant velocity is rocking along nicely thank you very much, you need to AVOID external forces. Taking honest stock of where we are at on this continuum is crucial. We are often amazingly good at fooling ourselves. We can make all sorts of excuses for why we aren’t flowing, why our stuckness is justified, out of our control, a matter of circumstance. We can blame others, blame our lack of money, time, all sorts of things – but none of these excuses get us unstuck. If anything, they wedge our wheels even tighter into the rut.

Jumper cables…

Clarity, then, is the first order of business. Get clear on where we’re at (lots more on clarity over here!) and recognize the mental games we’re playing to avoid the simple truth that we’re mostly stuck for internal reasons. There may be things we cannot change about our circumstances, but they are rarely the real reason we’re stuck. We’re stuck because of inertia. How, then, do we apply an outside force when we need one? There are lots of ‘tricks’ to jumpstart the engines, but these are not the focus of this book. For those seeking a great source of ‘outside forces’, I would recommend the superb series by Roger von Oech, ‘A Whack on the Side of the Head’ and ‘A Kick in the Seat of the Pants’… Also excellent is Michael Michalko’s ‘Thinkertoys’. Rather than trying to add to those, I will offer instead my own prescription for lurching into motion, as outlined in the second half of this section – the ‘Cliffjump Method’ of creative action. It’s less a set of ‘creative tricks’ than a set of stages that lead from idea – or rather, a little before the idea – through execution, and on to a larger perspective on creative living. Meanwhile… to recap: first we have to admit that we are stuck, and that this inertia is mainly internal in nature. We need to recognize the nature of the stuckness – is it distraction? Depression? Some factors are not trivial to overcome, and I don’t mean to imply that if you just get off your butt and get started, everything will be fine again. Sometimes the external force that is needed is therapy, which is again outside the scope of this book. Sometimes it’s just lightening up and giving ourselves permission to have a little fun for a change.

Urgency and calm

However, regardless of where or how we find that external force to get us rolling again, we need to recognize how urgent it is that we find it. We need to realize that time is slipping through our fingers. Every day we do not create is adding to our inertia, our stuckness; and every day that we do is adding to our momentum. I find the latter more satisfying! This is not to say that taking a break or enjoying some downtime is necessarily a bad thing; it can even bring amazing benefits. Too much of a good thing can sometimes bring exhaustion, and rest can sometimes coalesce the subtle insight of the body – as opposed to the quick flash of the mind, which prefers action. It’s also possible, in my experience, to rest and refresh the mind and the creative self through physical exercise or hard work, which can sometimes bring fresh energy and/or perspective. Most of us have had the experience of having a breakthrough on some intractable problem while out walking in the forest, or perhaps mowing the lawn. Some further thoughts on this can be found on my blog: But we are creatures of habit; and again, according to the inertia principle, getting too much into the habit of not-doing tends to lead to more of the same. If we want to find that magical creative flow where it feels effortless, and feel like that more of the time, it’s likely best to cultivate an action habit. And if we’re particularly calcified, it may take a bit of a push to get things rolling. (We’ll get to the ‘how’ part a bit later on…) This is not a value judgement, by the way. In one sense there is nothing inherently better about action than inaction, creativity than stillness. However, this is a book about creativity and creative work, and not so much about meditation and the beauty of non-doing. So, let’s take a closer look at some of the forces that tend to keep us stuck, and see what we might be able to do about them… continue with FEARWhat’s your take? Does this make sense to you? Have you had creative experiences that confirm or contradict these musings? Please leave a comment in the Discussion section below, and start or join the conversation!

* used (with much appreciation!) according to a Creative Commons license:


Limitations | Bad Habits, part 2

Note: this page is part of the Cliffjump! Manifesto. If you’ve arrived from an external link, and haven’t read the previous parts of the book, you might want to start at the beginning


photo credit: glennharper *

While working within your limitations as opposed to striving futilely to erase them, as discussed in the last chapter, can be a very powerful and empowering thing, this does not mean we should accept limitations in the work itself. Creativity is itself about transcending limitations, and we have to be ready to step up when the work challenges us to move beyond what we think we can do.

However, the danger is not just in accepting limitations; we also have to be very careful about imposing them, whether consciously or unconsciously, on ourselves or our work. One of the main ways we limit our work is with preconceptions – overthinking things beforehand, knowing too much about what we want the work to be, and closing ourselves off from the unexpected.

This limits the ability of the work to become what it ‘wants’ to be (more on this later!), as we dance through its creation alongside it, and it limits our ability to grow through the process, to learn something we might not have expected to learn… and I firmly believe that those are fundamental motivators for any really creative work; if you’re not looking to learn and grow, what are you doing?

Be like Houdini

On the other hand, a different kind of limitation can also be used to foster creativity, not to quell it. Using arbitrarily applied rules, games or formulas, deciding to only use a particular palette or instrument or narrative voice, can often act as a better idea catalyst than starting with a completely blank slate, or an anything-is-possible void.

Some people use rules; I personally prefer ‘prescriptions’ – a set of restrictive parameters in which a given work is imagined and begun, but within which there is explicit freedom; possibly more so than with ‘ideal’ conditions. This is the ‘Houdini Solution‘: thinking inside the box. In my solo piano work the prescription is that I don’t know what I will play beforehand; in the Sound Fascination project, the prescription is that the piece should be finished in one setting, and take about an hour or so. I’ve ‘broken’ both these ‘rules’ in several cases, but they remain fruitful ways to get started. 

In my opinion, regardless of what you want to call it, the essential thing is to keep it open – to remember that the rules are made to be broken. The formula can be a great place to begin, but we have to know when to let the formula go, when the drawing will only be ‘right’ if it goes outside the lines. If we are unwilling to do this, or are unwilling to go the distance when the work pushes our pre-conceived ideas of our own limitations or what we intended the work to be about, then we are limiting the best we can do – we are refusing to surprise ourselves, or let our work surprise us.

We make the rules, we break the rules

So from this angle the real trick is to play with limitations – use them as tools, set them up deliberately but at the same time, know that when things get rolling, when we feel the fascination take hold, all bets are off. We can use the prescription as long as it is useful, and abandon it the moment it seems to be overly restrictive, preventing the work from going where it ‘wants’ to go.

But at the end of the day, we need to continually remind ourselves that there are very few limitations that are absolute. In every sphere, things that were widely considered physically impossible a generation ago, if anyone even thought to imagine them, are happening every day. In fact this is happening more than ever before, as the internet sheds light on what other people are doing at the extremes of possibility, all over the world, instantly.

So my advice is to examine your presuppositions about what you can and cannot do, what your work is or is not about. Bring them into the light, begin with the assumption that they are all arbitrary, and then choose carefully: which ones are helping you, which ones holding you back?

What’s your take? Does this make sense to you? Have you had creative experiences that confirm or contradict these musings? Please leave a comment in the Discussion section below, and start or join the conversation!

continue with Inertia

* used (with much appreciation!) according to a Creative Commons license:

Control | Bad Habits, part 1

Note: this page is part of the Cliffjump! Manifesto. If you’ve arrived from an external link, and haven’t read the previous parts of the book, you might want to start at the beginning


photo credit: Lori Photography

Full disclosure: I’m a bit of a control freak by nature. I have a strong tendency to try to do everything myself, thus controlling all variables and reducing my level of dependence on others. I’m a fairly quick study, and can learn the basic skills needed to dive into almost any problem relatively quickly, but obviously there are limits.

Nothing can substitute for real, deep and specialized skill, and even people far more talented than I am have not been able to achieve that kind of skill at more than a few things in one lifetime. In some ways, despite the fact that learning new skills is fun, interesting, and generally not as hard as many people imagine it to be once we dive in and start solving problems, there is also something to be said for focusing on your core aptitudes and collaborating with other specialists on things outside that area of expertise.

Control is the opposite of being open to the unexpected, the surprises which are such a big component of creativity as I have come to know it. And I’ve found that my creative work is more successful, more fun, and more fulfilling when I let go, at least a little, of my need to control everything.

Risky Business

Creativity is inherently, and by definition, at least a little out of control. If everything is perfectly predictable and goes 100% according to plan, it’s hard to call the process creative, since nothing really new or surprising can come from it. It’s probably also not going to end up being very interesting or exciting, because you’re not really taking any risks or discovering anything.

Risk is where the magic is; perfect control means that you’ve closed your door to the unexpected. And as Heraclitus wisely told us, “Expect the unexpected, or you won’t find it” 1

This is a bit of a dichotomy, since of course a certain amount of control is also essential. In the arts, you need a significant degree of control over the tools or the instrument or the language you’re using; in any case, these skills can bring depth and subtlety that is impossible to acheive without them. In science or business, control would probably equate to thorough understanding of the core concepts and relevant methods.

And of course control does not necessarily mean you are not taking any risks at all; in fact, in some ways you can break the rules a lot more creatively, or in more interesting ways, when you know them inside out. Also, unconsciously breaking all the rules all at once tends not to be as fruitful as consciously breaking one or two while following the rest…

Master and Commander

Control is technique, skill, command of the medium; it comes from training and experience, and without it your work will only go so deep. Technique is essential inasmuch as it makes it possible to work at a high level. When you have a solid grounding of technique, you can assimilate the happy accidents into a deeper network of knowledge that lets you recognize, replicate, and develop them more quickly, more thoroughly and more powerfully.

However, technique for its own sake can be a trap. It can become an addiction, where you are so busy learning and honing and perfecting technique that you never get around to doing anything creative or beautiful. And if you become lost in that maze, a slave to the myth of perfect technique and total control, it can sap the joy and the surprise and the life from your creative work. We don’t want that.

As a pianist, I made a decision at a certain point that developing a strong personal style based around my particular strengths and weaknesses was more interesting, a deeper well as it were, and a faster track to doing good work than spending 20 years trying to eliminate the weaknesses entirely, as if that were even possible.

I still work on my weaknesses, yes, but not with the illusion of perfect technique in mind. I try to balance practicing things I’m not so good at, which is essential, with reinforcing the things that come more easily, which keeps me connected to the pleasure of creating.

The essential thing is to let this happen organically – allow the work define the practice, not the other way around. If my creative curiosity leads me to something I need to build up some skill to pull off, it’s time to work on that skill – not to perfect it for the sake of perfection, but to do the thing that I can’t get out of my head, that I need that skill in order to do. And so that I can uncover the next unexpected connection that drives the next creative fascination.

Making it up as we go along

Technique and control of our process should be at the service of the unexpected, not in opposition to it; and we should not waste our time, energy and talent pursuing the illusion of perfection or of being able to control every variable. We need to find a way of working that makes the most of the limits of creative control, while simultaneously expanding them.

I have found that the best way to do that is to focus on the work itself, rather than the technique. Instead of viewing my creative work as an opportunity to show off skills, I view it as an opportunity to explore something, some new problem or possibility, find the pattern and the beauty in it, and develop the skills needed as I go along.

It’s a dynamic process. It’s at the heart of my approach to creativity. And it depends on recognizing both the value and the limits of control.

What’s your take? Does this make sense to you? Have you had creative experiences that confirm or contradict these musings? Please leave a comment in the Discussion section below, and start or join the conversation!

continue with Limitations

* used (with much appreciation!) according to a Creative Commons license: