“There is always room, if only in one’s own soul, to create a spot of Paradise, crazy though it may sound.”
– Henry Miller, Preface to Stand Still Like the Hummingbird
“I tell you: one must still have chaos in oneself, to give birth to a dancing star.”
– Frederick Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra
“The fact that order and creativity are complementary has been basic to man’s cultural development; for he has to internalize order to be able to give external form to his creativity.”
– Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine
Anyone who says “I don’t have a creative bone in my body” is seriously underestimating their skeleton. More to the point, they are drastically undervaluing their brain.
My contention in this article is that creativity is an integral part of being human, and to deny its expression is like denying the expression of other crucial human elements that we intuitively realize we’d be miserable without. How about a life without sex, to use one bare-knuckled example? Creativity is no less a part of who and what we are. What follows are 10 reasons why we frequently struggle to get into a creative space, along with suggestions on how to get there.
1. Your brain is always putting out fires.
Cognitive science research tells us that our brains are equipped with sensitive threat-alert systems (of which the amygdala is a significant part), and these systems are older than we are, evolutionarily speaking. In our brains, the limbic system–home of the well-known fight or flight response–is ready to click on with a micro seconds’s notice. That’s a good thing. The problem is that it’s ready to click on with a micro second’s notice. As with many paradoxes within our brains, the good is also the bad depending on context. Because we are so neurobiologically predisposed to looking for the next fire, it’s challenging to carve out a “safe space” for creativity.
What can we do about that? The video at the end of this article, featuring the inestimable creative genius John Cleese, offers some quality suggestions.
2. Chunks of time are hard to come by.
Even when we can outwit our brain’s threat-alert system, it’s still difficult to find what the late, great management philosopher Peter Drucker advised we must find to be effective in any capacity: “chunks of time.” Spurts of time riddled with interruptions aren’t conducive to creativity because each time our focus is wrecked, we struggle to get back to the point we’d reached in our creative “flow” (a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi). Creativity isn’t like restarting a blu ray disk and picking up exactly where we left off. A great deal of energy went into getting to that place, and we must expend more energy to get into it again.
Cleese’s video also offers suggestions for this problem, but in short — we must set firm, impenetrable parameters for being creative. If you think you’ll need two solid hours to get there, then make those two hours nonnegotiable.
3. The “self-efficacy” problem.
Pioneering psychologist Albert Bandura devoted a large part of his expansive career to figuring out how people can develop a necessary sense of self-efficacy–the outcome when accomplishment yields compounding confidence in one’s abilities. The irony that Bandura uncovered is that we only get there when we’ve experienced enough failure to demonstrate the difficulty of our eventual accomplishment. Another way to say that is — if it were easy, none of us would have a problem. But creativity isn’t easy, and we’re going to stomach failure–probably more than we think–before achieving something that starts depositing confidence in our cerebral bank accounts.
The thing to remember is that confidence compounds with time, and most people give up before they start earning a return on their investment.
4. The “governing scenes” problem.
Two more great psychologists, Silvan S. Tomkins and Gershen Kaufman, devoted much of their careers to figuring out why shame wields so much power in our mental lives. Tomkins (who is the father of “Affect Theory” and “Script Theory”) coined the term “governing scripts,” and Kaufman built on his work, later coining the term “governing scenes,” which are the mental images of past experience that our brains conjure when we come across a “trigger” for that experience.
The tricky part is that our brains conjure governing scenes automatically–they arise from the unconscious. So when we experience a creative failure, our brains toss out vivid images–not just vague memories, but “scenes”–of past failures. Kaufman saw this as the pivotal dynamic that makes shame such a potent emotion — it’s not just an externally triggered feeling, but also an internal saboteur.
What can we do about that? Look to Albert Bandura’s discoveries (#3 above) and get back to the hard work of overcoming, and overcoming, and, oh yeah, overcoming. In other words, don’t quit, because in all likelihood you are giving up far too early.
5. The functionary temptation.
“So, what are you going to do with that?” Tough question to answer for anyone trying to be creative, because there probably isn’t an answer. What we seem to have a hard time getting our arms around is the fact that there also doesn’t need to be an answer. What would a world driven by purely functionary concerns look like? Is that a world you’d want to live in?
The answer to this one is self-evident: stop asking the functionary question about everything in your life, or others’ lives. The question itself is designed to drain creativity from your bones.
6. Fear of disruption.
Getting into creative flow can disrupt your life. Henry Miller referred to this disruption in Sexus with the pregnant term “primal flux.” It’s a hard fact to handle, but the truth is that creativity isn’t all sweetness and light — it’s a volatile, disruptive force that can shatter presumptions, undermine expectations, and dismantle unquestioned standards. That’s part of what makes it a frightening prospect for our threat-sensitive brains (see #1).
What can we do about that? Decide how much creativity your life can handle — more precisely, how much you are willing to handle.
7. Misunderstanding the “background noise” dimension of creativity.
For some reason we think that to be creative means constantly creating something tangible, but that’s not how creativity works. Much of the creative process goes on in the background of your conscious mind space and emerges in conscious flurries. As discussed in #2, we need chunks of time to create something tangible, but leading up to those chunks of time is an enormous amount of background processing. This is also why #8 that follows is so important.
8. Opportunities slip through the cracks.
You know the old story about how writers keep a notebook by their beds in case they have an idea in the middle of the night? There’s only two things untrue about that story — it’s not just writers who do it (or at least it’s not just writers who should do it) and it’s not just in the middle of the night that a notebook or something to scribble on is invaluable to capture rapidly evaporating thoughts. Those thoughts are creative opportunities, any one of which can open doors to new thoughts, fresh ideas, and untapped creative energy.
Easy fix for this one: get a notebook and a pen, and get ready.
9. It’s easier to get numb.
Irony of ironies, the same incredible organ in our heads that allows us to be creative is also perilously prone to brain-numbing distractions. Sure, those can be chemical distractions–drugs, alcohol, etc–but in this case I mean just the regular old “plug-in drugs” like TV (using the term coined by author Marie Winn). The problem with TV, of course, isn’t TV, it’s the hours upon hours that it draws us in. At the very least, at that level it’s a time sink that makes finding those essential chunks of time even harder. At worst, it’s a brain backwater–a complacency refuge from the challenge of creativity.
What to do? Regulate time. Distractions aren’t the problem; it’s our unregulated devotion to them that doesn’t allow creativity to spark.
10. Limited exposure to the creativity of others.
I’m a firm believer that creative inspiration isn’t all about originality; it’s more about being driven by the creative achievements of others. After reading a great novel, creative energy swirls in the brain like a newly spawned tornado. After watching an incredible movie, mental wormholes open to challenging ideas and possibilities. Same goes for museums and galleries and concerts and even electronics shows. It doesn’t matter where the ideas originate — it matters where they take you. To the extent that we limit our exposure to an array of creative ideas (and focus instead on just one source; TV, for example), we limit our creative potential.
The solution: get up, get out, and get exposed.