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Creative and Prolific But Going Nowhere?

I don’t think I’ve ever had new year’s resolutions, but my conversation with my friend today compelled me to define them. We were talking about how difficult it is for most artists to compose a cohesive whole from parts. That final step requires something more than just creativity.

For instance, in music, most guitarists can come up with a bunch of great sounding riffs, but not many can take the next step and compose a whole song.

Many people can write a bunch of blog or social media posts, but not many of them can write a whole book.

These days, most people take thousands of photos every year on their smartphones. Many of them post their photos on Instagram. But a very small percentage of them can create a body of work that together reveals some deeper truth about the world or themselves.

Most people shoot hundreds of videos every year on their smartphones, especially if they have children, but only a tiny percentage of them would edit together a movie that tells a compelling story.

And so on…

I know a lot of creative people but most of them are just sitting in a warehouse full of creative parts unable (or unwilling) to compose a cohesive whole from the parts. What is blocking them?

Why a Structure Is Necessary

When I observe the two groups, those who can compose a whole from parts and those who cannot, I notice that the former has a clear idea of who their audience is. The primary audience for the latter is themselves. In music, this is clear. So-called “jamming” is fun for the musicians themselves but not necessarily so for anyone listening to it. As a musician, the point of jamming is to please yourself. Pleasure is your primary drive. The problem with pleasure is that it lasts only for a short period. It’s not possible to sustain it for a long time. I have this problem myself, and because of it, I can only write short essays. I need to finish each essay in one sitting.

The word “pursuit” generally implies long-term, which means it must persevere through many cycles of pleasure and pain. The inability to carry out a long-term pursuit limits what you can possibly create. Because you cannot control when the drive for pleasure arise and how long it lasts, the resulting products are disconnected and lack an overall structure that ties them together cohesively. In order to connect them to tell a compelling story, you must be able to work on a single project over a long period of time. When you are ready to expand your audience beyond yourself, you need this ability to create a whole from the parts. This means you have to be driven by something other than pleasure, something deeper and more meaningful, like self-actualization, that perseveres through the peaks and valleys.

What Prevents You from Building a Structure

I think there are two phases in a creative process. The examples I mentioned above such as jamming and blogging are in the first phase and many artists get stuck there and never venture into the second phase. This isn’t to say that these activities are a waste of time. This is the exploration phase where your creative ideas and visions are born. For most people, this is the fun part that comes naturally without much effort. The second phase is the execution phase where you build a structure, and this part would not come naturally or easily for most people. The “creative blocks” you face during these two phases are different because your drives are different.

If you are facing a creative block in the first phase, you may want to ask yourself whether you are being true to yourself. Perhaps you just like the idea of being a “writer”, “artist”, or “musician”, and don’t actually enjoy the process. Perhaps you are confusing talent and passion. Just because you are very good at painting, it does not mean that you enjoy it. Talent and passion do not necessarily overlap.

Many self-help gurus prescribe self-discipline as a cure for creative blocks and offer many different ways to discipline yourself, but self-disciple cannot make up for the lack of passion. Besides, if you are not passionate about it, what is the point of pursuing it in the first place?

Personally, I have no problem with the first phase. I love experimenting and exploring, and coming up with ideas. I do not need any self-discipline to motivate myself, but I do have a problem with the second phase, the execution phase, with giving my creative output a cohesive structure.

Everyone Needs a Support System

During the execution phase, the type of creativity we need is problem-solving which is different from the stereotypical “creativity” associated with arts. I agree with the self-help gurus that you need to be disciplined during the execution phase because it involves tasks that you may not naturally enjoy. Designing a house might be naturally fun for you but actually building a house involves so many different aspects that it’s practically impossible for anyone to enjoy all of them (engineering, financing, legal, bureaucracy, plumbing, security, technologies, etc..). The same is true for any type of creative endeavors. It’s true even in the startup world where having cofounders is practically required by the venture capitalists. They understand that it’s too hard for a solo founder to pull off everything. Many entrepreneurs say that coming up with great ideas is the easy part and that the hard part is the execution.

Even if your medium is normally associated with solitary activities (like writing and painting), you would still need support from others, unless you are highly self-disciplined. If you read the “acknowledgment” section of any book, you would see how the author pulled it off with the support of their friends and colleagues.

When you read the biographies of famous writers, artists, and musicians, you often find that they belonged to a circle of other people who are now famous. It’s not a coincidence that these famous people knew each other before they were famous. It’s because they helped each other that they all became famous. Behind the scenes, their seemingly solitary endeavors were collaborative.

The Fear of Failure

Another reason many artists have trouble building a proper structure to present their creative output is the fear of failure. When you provide a clear structure, your failure too becomes clear and undeniable. Some artists avoid going into the second phase for this reason.

For instance, if you were to go beyond your own casual blog and create your own magazine, the stakes would be much higher. Most “blogs” have no structure whereas “magazines” have clear structures like when and how often articles are published. If you fail to publish according to your self-imposed schedule, the failure would become obvious. With magazines, you are expected to have a creative direction and/or “columns” with specific themes or subject matters. You cannot publish whatever you feel like. Every article must conform to the premise or the vision of the magazine. It must also meet certain standards of style, quality, and accuracy. If you publish an inappropriate article, it would be obvious to the readers and can damage the reputation of your magazine.

Having a structure in creative output makes both success and failure visible. This is scarier than a failure in business because, in arts, your products are intimately tied to who you are. When your fail, it’s personal.

My New Year’s Resolution

Before my conversation with my friend, I had never differentiated the different phases of a creative pursuit and what each phase required to succeed. I was confused because I never felt I needed self-discipline to do what I wanted to do, but I was stuck all the same. Fear was a factor too. After much self-reflection, I realized that I’ve been unconsciously avoiding the second phase. What I would like to achieve this year is to give a structure to my creative output. (Don’t yet know what structure.) At the end of this year (2017), we will see if I failed or succeeded.

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