In an increasingly knowledge-based economy, where the daily tasks required in a large number of jobs require not repetitive button-pushing but independent and complex thinking, we are often exhorted to “be creative” or “use some creativity.” Which would be fine, if creativity were a little dance one could do on command like a well-trained circus seal. But, for better or worse, the act of creation contains a certain morsel of irreducible mystery. It’s intuitive and holistic, rather than analytical and linear (which is the gear we’re usually in when we’re struggling to get work done). It prospers under certain conditions and perishes under others. Here are 11 factors that often vaporize folks’ creative juices:
The No. 1 cause of death for good ideas is to be smothered in the cradle by repression. There are enough critics, haters, and the merely indifferent out there in the external world. Often we fear these responses so much that we internalize them, and invoke them preemptively, even unconsciously. We fall victim to shame, guilt, negativity, low self-esteem, or just plain healthy tendencies of skepticism and self-doubt. The thing is, there’s a time for judgment, analysis, and editing - those are all key if you want to produce something good - but that time comes after you’ve given your ideas a chance to breathe. In the initial phase, the watchword is play: un-self-conscious, consequence-free, uninhibited play. Intellect, discretion, and second thoughts can all wait. Those can help you sculpt or prune what you’ve got (in a subtractive way, like a bonsai tree), but if you use them from the get-go, you won’t produce the raw materials you need.
As with many of the items on this list, you can have too much ego, not enough, or the wrong kind. The ranks of great artists and innovators are certainly filled with narcissists and egomaniacs. A healthy sense of worth is crucial to help provide the courage to overcome shame, silencing the doubts within you and without. Ambition, too, is necessary; it may well be a virtue to be humble, but it is not a virtue that often correlates with great deeds. However, excessive self-regard not only makes one impossible to work with, it can bleed through to one’s work in the form of self-indulgence or complacency. Too much praise can be just as stifling as too little encouragement.
There is no room for creativity when dogma takes over. Inflexible, rigidly set ideas will stifle free expression every time. “It has to be this way,” one says. “Does it? Why, exactly? What if we tried this instead?” Many brilliant breakthroughs have come from that impulse. Yet it’s not merely the closed-mindedness of fixed belief that can hold us back: it’s also the convenience of habit, the laziness of stereotyped thinking. Stereotyping is something our brains do constantly, creating two-dimensional “thumbnails” as shortcuts to reduce complexity and make the world manageable. Defamiliarization, the act of looking at something as though for the first time, can bypass these filters and open up new possibilities.
Politics can be an enemy to creativity on multiple planes. On the most obvious or extreme macro level, the commissar might come and lock you up for writing or painting the wrong thing. Luckily in America, the First Amendment affords basic protections for free expression across all media, but only from government interference. Marketplace realities impose a more subtle, and for that reason insidiously powerful, restraint. People are inclined to self-censor ideas they know will be unpopular. This extends to the smaller scale as well; junior members of a company are unlikely to air ideas that second-guess the basic premises of their superiors.
The relationship between money and creativity is an interesting one. Many acts of creation (think of architecture or movies) require a substantial budget. Even writers (who nominally require only a pen and pad) have to put food on the table. Still, even the most dire straits often spur on creators; J.K. Rowling credits the public benefits system in the United Kingdom for giving her enough of a pittance to subsist on, while she wrote her way to one of the world’s greatest fortunes with Harry Potter. For lesser spirits, or in less generous societies, the stress may well be demotivating, and whatever mindless form of wage slavery is available may look like the only option. An extreme lack of funding can push people away from creativity, toward sheer practicality or even triage. However, extreme comfort has its own perils too. Riches can breed contentment, while on the other hand, having something to lose may make one less inclined to take chances.
The dynamic of creativity that takes place in groups provides a fascinating and mysterious object of study. Under ideal conditions, alchemy that produces more than the sum of its parts occurs. Take something like The Beatles, or the great actor-director partnerships: von Sternberg and Dietrich, Ford and Wayne, Scorsese and De Niro. The chemistry has to be right to produce the perfect give-and-take (and sometimes the chemistry is too right to last, especially in sexually charged “muse” situations), and there’s no way to predict it. Some great creative minds simply work better in solitude. Then, too, there are extroverts who draw energy from group settings, and collapse into boredom if left to their own devices.
Heroism, someone once wrote, is a way of being that is not conducive to family life. Artists, at least in our romantic conception of them, fit this definition well. Often the most potent creators on the world stage prove to be appalling parents and spouses at home. There are plenty of counterexamples, of course, but they’re the exceptions that prove the rule. Even creative dyads like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, or Charles and Ray Eames were rarely as happy, or equal, as they seemed. Apart from the demanding depth of family relationships, even what we would colloquially call “having a life” can be an impediment to creation. Fun, overstimulation, distractions, and even happiness and security can lead to loss of focus, procrastination, and excuse-making.
Much ink has been spilled regarding the connection between art and addiction. The stress, and frequent despair, of pushing oneself to create can make escape seem tempting. However, the motivations of users vary. Writers in particular are legendary for their reliance on the disinhibiting effects of alcohol. Many of us count on a boost from coffee, while some abuse prescription medicines or amphetamines to work all night. Seekers employ psychedelics to gain new perspectives, via what Rimbaud called “the systematic derangement of the senses.” Cocaine users push their egos to grandiose heights, only to come back to earth in a shattering crash. Artists whose drive comes from a profound inner pain are susceptible to opiates like heroin. All of these are ultimately crutches, which often end up further hobbling creativity, and are punishing in varying degrees to one’s health.
Again, this is a matter of balance. While we always speak of education as a positive in our society, there are counterexamples. A naive lack of instruction has always provided outsider artists with great vitality, while established folk traditions often pass on a fantastic wealth of ability that’s almost impossible to transfer to a formal academic setting. Amateur enthusiasts have made many a breakthrough, from the airplane to the PC, that smarter people “knew” were impossible or pointless. Overeducation can lead (the word “educate” itself means “lead away from”) to exactly the kind of rigidity and dogma listed at No. 3 here.
This is the most salient reality of creative work as it operates in the real world. Getting things in on time, on budget, forces one to make things happen. Unreasonable levels of pressure, though, can backfire, leading to “writer’s block” and other forms of paralysis or even nervous breakdowns. On a related note, for those who’ve proven their creative chops, the world’s high expectations can seem weighty or even crippling (thus the common “sophomore slump” phenomenon).
The only thing worse than deadlines is no deadlines. A total lack of pressure leads to nothing much getting done; one can waffle endlessly and tinker infinitely, never finishing a project. Overindulgence can lead to flaccid creations. Creativity is a game. It’s related to our faculties for problem solving. We look at a situation and think, playfully, what would be a clever, elegant way to solve this? The most radical revolutions in modern art would not have meant a thing if their proponents hadn’t been deeply trained in the old ways of doing things. They would have had nothing to react against. We need parameters within which we can be creative - not set in stone, but constituting a kind of scaffolding that gives us something to work with. Setting too many rules will kill creativity, but so will setting no rules at all.
This is a guest post by Rosa Ray, a freelance writer for Onlinecollegecourses.com. The piece was originally published on Onlinecollegecourses.com.