Essay: The First Obstacle to Creativity
How to Give Yourself Permission
Let’s do a thought experiment. Think back to the last time you attempted to make something you had never made before and had no idea where to start. You might have trouble remembering because it was in childhood.
Why is that? As children, our lives are dominated and dictated by the rules of our elders. Bedtime is at 8 o’clock. No R-rated movies. Don’t stare at that man. But ironically, our imaginations are given free rein. It is assumed that in childhood a beginner’s mind is not just normal but healthy. Most children will bravely jump into the deep end of any creative activity with little to no concern over the outcome or more importantly what others will think of the outcome.
But this renaissance cannot last. Sooner or later we learn that it’s not safe or even good to attempt something unless we can demonstrate mastery out of the gate. For most of us, this happens in our teenage years. We stop allowing ourselves to explore our creativity because the perceived risk of humiliation is too high.
So, the key that unlocks the door to being creative is permission. Most artists or people who earn a living in a creative capacity have a genetic predisposition to ignore the social contract of permission. We idolize and reward these kinds of people like Sting who decide at 26 to stop teaching school and start a punk band, but only after they’ve proven successful. Jean in accounting will likely get the side eye from her colleagues when she invites them to come to see her read at a poetry slam. Most people, when confronted with even the possibility of this kind of social rejection opt out of taking any creative risk and deny themselves.
Permission: It’s What’s Stopping You
The only person who needs to give you permission to be creative is you, which is precisely what makes it so hard. If it was someone else denying you this basic freedom, you would ignore them or confront them, but you certainly wouldn’t obey them. So what makes it so hard for us to give ourselves permission? There are three big reasons:
We are wired to seek predictable outcomes. By definition, a creative endeavor is a ticket to an unknown destination.
Our inner critic is ruthless. If you can’t be as good as your hero, you’re worthless and shouldn’t even try.
Our ability to cold-start has atrophied. We see a blank canvas as a wall instead of a doorway.
If you can surmount these obstacles, you can give yourself permission to be creative and the real work can begin. Depending on how you were raised, what your basic nature is, and what your previous creative experience has taught you will have a lot of bearing on which of the three obstacles give you the most resistance. I want to unpack each of them in turn and at the end of the post, provide some strategies for overcoming each.
1. The Predictable Outcome
If you are more conservative in nature or a next-level planner you will struggle with this one. Predictability equates to security. If you know the exact sequence of steps and the precise measurement of the ingredients required, you can count on a cake at the end of the process. While it’s possible to exercise creativity within a defined process, you’re not really using your creative muscle or experiencing the main benefits which are the wonder of discovery and the exhilaration of reacting in the moment.
Allowing yourself the grace of an unknown outcome is a radical idea.
When was the last time anyone in your work or personal life gave you that kind of grace? It’s a big deal after all because the trains have to run on time. It’s a big deal because it’s a gamble — a bet you’re placing on yourself. All this may seem completely obvious, but I’m asking you to look deeper into the wiring of your brain. Whether you’re consciously aware of it or not, I can guarantee that your need to see a predictable outcome is holding you back if not completely blocking you.
2. The Inner Critic
I could tell you some ways to help identify your inner critic, but I’m pretty sure you are well acquainted with that disapproving fucker. They taunt your every waking hour from the minute you get up and brush your teeth in front of the bathroom mirror. You’re probably so used to the running litany of criticism in your head that you don’t actually see how harmful it is.
To be clear, there is a place for criticism and it’s a vital part of the creative process. But it’s toxic in the beginning. To make anything for the first time, you will have to get to know your inner critic and tell them to have a nice warm cup of shut-the-fuck-up until you’re ready to hear what they have to say.
As an experiment, tomorrow take a little notepad with you and write a quick note every time you say something mean to yourself, every time you call yourself a name. At the end of the day flip through your notes and you will see what you’re up against in ever trying to do something creative. You would never talk to anyone the way that you talk to yourself. Later in the post, I will unpack some ideas for how to manage your inner critic.
3. Fear of the Void
The act of creating something new requires that you first stare into the void. Just as we are hardwired to seek predictable outcomes, we are also inclined to fear emptiness. We go to great lengths to fill up our lives so we can avoid the void and with mobile phones attached to us at all times, this has never been easier. But creativity requires space, unstructured time, and silence. It’s natural for us to avoid this state because it’s more work for our brains when there is nothing to react to. The human brain is magnificent at pattern recognition and problem-solving provided it has a starting point of reference. We understand everything in the world relative to other things in the world.
When we take up a new creative endeavor, we are presented with a narrow view into a vast emptiness like an astronaut gazing through a tiny portal on the shuttle looking out into space. There is no point of reference to what is known to us. That’s a scary feeling and too often we allow that fear to overshadow the huge benefit which is infinite possibility. Starting from nothing means anything is possible.
In the next section, I will provide some ideas for how you can work around the three obstacles that prevent you from giving yourself permission to be creative as well as some specific exercises to practice.
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