How is Creativity like jumping off a cliff?

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: Daniel Flower *

I suppose I should start by offering a definition of creativity, since it’s a word which doubtless means different things to different people. My definition is simply this: finding the ‘Pattern that Connects’ (in Gregory Bateson‘s memorable phrase), and expressing it in a new form. Coaxing order and meaning out of chaos. When you find yourself in the middle of this process, it is more thrilling than any amusement park ride. It’s a rush.

It seems to be a fundamental human drive, and certainly evidence of human creativity is nearly as old as evidence of humans – from cave paintings to early instruments, simple tools and elegant, innovative solutions to what were clearly pressing problems and concerns.

However, this is not just a book about creativity; it’s also about fearlessness. It’s about the moments in life when we have to confront fear, rise above it, move beyond it; when we take the risk, brave the consequences, and in the process learn something about ourselves, our limits, and our ability to surprise ourselves.

The most profound and transformative moments in my life have been those that combined these experiences: Fearless Creativity. This manifesto represents my ‘formula’ for making more of these moments…

So no, this is not going to be about physically jumping off of cliffs, though it’s a handy metaphor and might come up from time to time. This is about jumping into life and into our innate creativity, conquering hesitation and self-doubt and uncertainty. It’s about taking a leap of faith into the unknown, into possibility.

Creativity, to me, is about facing our internal fears and blocks, seeing them for what they are, setting them aside for a while and doing something amazing despite them. It is about getting the better of the part of our brains that wants to avoid risk, play it safe, be cautious and conservative and not draw too much attention to ourselves.

This ‘lizard brain’, as some have called it (Maria Nemeth, in her wonderful book ‘Mastering Life’s Energies‘, prefers to call it the ‘Monkey Mind’), wants us to do that because it’s a good strategy for not getting yourself killed by a hungry predator, which was very important for much of our evolution as a species – when that was an important aspect of survival.

Unfortunately it’s also a good formula for an unfulfilled, unfulfilling life, and since surviving on a day-to-day basis is less about avoiding hungry predators than it once was, there’s no good reason for living that way any more. We can afford to risk being more. In fact, we can’t afford not to.

Creativity is curiosity, and even though curiosity can get you into trouble (apparently it can even kill you, at least if you’re a cat…) it might also be your best shot at finding your way out of it again. This applies on a global scale as well – it’s arguable that human curiosity is responsible for many of the dire threats facing our world, but I think it may also be our only real chance at averting disaster.

Creativity is about taking risks that might quite possibly not pay off, but might also lead us beyond ourselves, let us solve seemingly impossible problems, make something beautiful and transformative, and maybe even change the world for the better. It’s happened before, after all.

Creativity is starting with something small and ending up with something amazing. It can be simple and quiet, but it can also be utterly exhilarating: like standing at the edge of the cliff, feeling the vertigo and the rush of air and the tingle of anticipation, completely and utterly in the moment… and then stepping off into air (with, hopefully at least, some deep water at the bottom!)

Creativity, finally and most importantly, is about what happens after that – about the change that takes place in you, as a result of the utterly transformative experience that I like to call The Creative Moment – the electricity and spark of something new emerging out of nothing.

This manifesto is inspired by that moment, that feeling, that experience. I want to convey the excitement of it, and to offer a glimpse of what might happen if more people could taste that thrill… And I want to offer a kind of formula for cultivating the mindset that makes it possible, avoiding the most common pitfalls along the way, and developing a deeper sense of creative connection with the world around us, into the bargain.

The Cliffjump! Manifesto is intended for anyone interested in digging deeper into the creative process – not just professional artists, although that is my own background and will inform my approach. I believe these precepts can be applied productively in any field where creativity and innovation are needed, including but not limited to the fine and performing arts, literature, design, technology, business, marketing, science, engineering…

groundwork 2

photo credit: Mike Babiarz *

So what exactly qualifies me to talk about all of this?

I’m a musician, composer, and writer. I’ve been absorbed with creative work, and with thinking about creativity, all my life. I was also somehow along the line blessed and/or cursed with an inability, once I become curious about something, to stop thinking about it until I feel I’ve sorted it out to my satisfaction. This can take rather a long time when the subject is large, and creativity is definitely one of the largest subjects I know of.

Cliffjump! distills this lifetime of experience and investigation into a powerful set of guidelines for creative endeavour. It presents a model of the creative process that is both practical and philosophical, but above all empowering. It digs deep into the psychology of creativity as I’ve experienced and observed it, and offers a roadmap that gets us to the good stuff – while trying to avoid the many pitfalls and blind alleys along the way. It’s not intended to be an exhaustive, definitive statement; more of a “here’s what I’ve got so far, what do you think?”

Perhaps the purest and most complete expression of the principles of Fearless Creativity in my own life has been my solo piano work, specifically the ‘continuum‘ concert series. These are completely improvised: I walk onstage with literally no idea at all what I’m going to play, sit down at the piano and look for a friendly-looking note (or chord, or pattern). The first thing that comes out, whatever it might be, becomes the theme. I play with it, see where it wants to go. The resulting journeys invariably take me to places I could not have predicted; sometimes challenging, sometimes painful, sometimes uplifting, but always unexpected.

Similarly, my electronic/ambient composition project ‘Sound Fascination‘ involves rapid, from-the-hip simultaneous composition/production, with the starting point being a sound (whether it’s a previously prepared patch, a preset created by someone else, or something put together on the spot). I play something on that, whatever my first idea is, then start looking for another sound or effect that seems to add something interesting to the first one… and so on.

Now, not all of my work involves this kind of freefall; some involves meticulous planning and extensive editing and revision; but the fundamental mindset is often the same and it has informed and defined my whole creative life. It’s very much the spirit that underlies the Cliffjump! Manifesto. 

continue with Everyone loves an Acronym

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