The largest barrier to creativity is the one we set for ourselves

To be an artist you have to make art, there’s no way around that fact.

Of course similar advice could be said for being a writer, an inventor, a scientist, a dancer, a musician, an educator, an entrepreneur, or anything between. While the basic defining work for any of these roles is fairly straight-forward, we often pile on difficulties in an act of self-sabotage.

Or, more prominently, we tend to shy away from creative work (or thinking) in an effort to avoid failure.

Despite how difficult it may seem, the real struggle with becoming a painter is embracing your need to grow into it; by putting the brush or pen against the canvas repeatedly and then stepping back and being able to say: “This may not be ideal, but it’s a start.”

The act of failure is inherent in any creative work.

Too often we attribute the act of creativity to those who are born with the ability, or those who have a natural inclination for it. In reality: it’s those who are willing to diligently pursue creative work (or thought) who wind-up expressing it most. The reason? They work through the failures, the unsuccessful products they produce, the bad work.

The only absolute defining trait of those who will succeed in any creative endeavor is their ability to persevere.

In Creative Confidence Tom and David Kelley elegantly summarize this point:

“Creative geniuses, from artists like Mozart to scientists like Darwin, are quiet prolific when it comes to failure—they just don’t let that stop them.”

I have a friend who has always wanted to write a book. For years he has told me about his idea for this book he is going to write. And for years the book has stayed little more than an idea or rough pages typed quickly in the night.

When he says he doesn’t know how to be a writer, I point at the writing he has already done and tell him “just do a lot more of that.”

But he hesitates. He doesn’t make writing more a priority, simply because he doesn’t believe he can do it. He’s not a writer. But what makes a someone a writer? They are someone who writes. Sometimes what they write is poor in quality or substance, sometimes it’s full and inspiring. But what they write doesn’t matter so much as the fact they have written (and, arguably, shared) it.

Often the barriers we encounter in our pursuit of a more creative life is the sheer fear of failing.

In actuality, failure is how we become creative in the first place. By working past the failures, seeing through the stumbling, and pressing on to see what we can come up with next.

I want to write but my thoughts refuse to straighten up into words. They just sit there, mucking about because I’m supposed to know what to do. I’m supposed to be in control, but I’ve lost the power. I spin, and fall, and eat my stomach when it tries to crawl up my esophagus. I feel the physical embodiment of failure and every coherent thought stops to revolve around the word “failure” creating an elaborate fanfare, worshipping it’s accuracy.

I want to write but I lack the coherent thought required. I can’t focus on any one thing and it kills me. I am supposed to be focused, patient, measured, secure, stable, always. I am not supposed to be this scatter brained mess I have become. It is no one else’s fault I am this way.

—  July 16 2014
Found something I forgot I wrote. Remembering the state I was in when I wrote this brings tears to my eyes.  

Students, as a result, often get the message from very early on in their education that if they do not immediately grasp how to solve a problem or get the right answer, they must not be very smart or good at that particular subject. With years of training in this way of thinking, it comes as no surprise that students often respond to challenging work by either immediately asking the teacher for help or by giving up.

My main concern with this approach to teaching and learning is that it simply is not authentic to either the practice of science or just about anything else in life. Most real-world problems are complex and do not come with clear steps to follow to reach a solution. If we are not equipping students with the skills to tackle such problems by supporting them in struggling with challenging work in our classrooms now, then we are simply pushing the issue farther down the road when students will come up against bigger challenges in future classes, in college, or in their careers.

How to Fail

‘If you want to be a complete human being, if you want to be genuine and hold the fullness of life in your heart, then failure is an opportunity to get curious about what is going on and listen to the storylines. Don’t buy the one’s that blame it on everybody else, and don’t buy the storylines that blame it on yourself either.’

- Pema Chodron, How to Fail.