Become a better creative: Lose the monkey mind!

While mowing my lawn this weekend, I decided to pop in my ear buds and listen to a random episode of Freakonomics Radio. As the finale to the Freakonomics “Self-improvement Month”, they interviewed Tim Ferriss, the well-known tech entrepreneur, life hacker, and author of The 4-Hour Work Week. During the course of the podcast, Ferriss answered several questions about his life and inspiration. During a tangent discussing the mindset behind writing his productivity books, Ferriss happened to mention the term “monkey mind.” I’d never heard the term before, but in the context of productivity, I instantly knew what it meant because it so accurately portrayed the state of mind I’ve been struggling with at this point in my career.

Turns out that “monkey mind” is actually a Buddhist term that means “unsettled; restless; capricious; whimsical; fanciful; inconstant; confused; indecisive; uncontrollable.” This seems like a state of mind that any mature professional would instantly detect and avoid, but all too often, it sneaks into our lives and starts wreaking havoc, slinging poo and flailing its arms and expending loads of energy and creating chaos while accomplishing nothing of value.

As I’ve experienced first-hand, monkey mind can be particularly devastating to experienced creatives. It all starts with a bit of misdirected passion and confidence combined with at least the illusion of possibility. Once you have achieved a decent level of skill and knowledge, developed an awareness of opportunities, and experienced first-hand the thrill of success (small or large), these factors feed into the euphoric idea that with a little elbow grease and extra time, you can successfully create anything you desire! Obviously, you’ve become so intelligent and savvy that given enough time and resources, you’ll find a way to make your endeavor successful, earn some extra money, and build up that precious reputation. After all, you have so many skills to put into practice, a formidable toolset, and an endless supply of wonderful opportunities and ideas! After your smashing success, that featured Medium article about your humble beginnings will just be icing on the cake.

However, there’s a couple things you lack at this point in your life: focus and discipline. You work hard on that one great idea each night after-hours for a week or so, but then it starts feeling a lot like actual work, so you put it on the “back burner” until you can catch your breath. You aren’t feeling so passionate anymore, and as any good creative knows, passion is what separates you from those mindless drones over at Corp Co. You don’t want be confused for one of those poor saps. Time to recharge.

The next morning, you read this great article about a new tool that will revolutionize your career and make you an even savvier creative. So exciting! Time to buy some books and learn this amazing new technology! This will help you become better at your job, but more importantly, you really just need to be able to tell yourself that you’re cool again. That loss of passion last night led to some severe identity issues; maybe you’re not a real creative and you should just go buy some khakis and accept your fate as a Pixel Analyst Engineer II over at Corp Co. After you find a great tutorial blog about this new tech (because the books were too expensive and you hate reading technical stuff on your Kindle), you find out the author’s bleeding-edge community project definitely needs your help creating things with this new tech you knew nothing about a day ago. Plus, you’ve been worrying about how your lack of altruistic work may be affecting your professional reputation, so you’d really be killing two birds with one stone here. It’s a no-brainer; let’s do it! Time to burn some more midnight oil!

While this storyline is a bit satirical, it’s really not far from the truth for many creatives. While we might have the ability to build great things, we shoot ourselves in the foot when we forego focus and discipline and chase after the high of passionately going all-in on the next amazing new project. Soon that passion dies, and we look for the another great pursuit to bring us that sense of “really getting somewhere.” We forget that building real value in our projects and our life as a whole actually takes an incredible amount of time and patience. Long-term dedication is where you develop a nuanced depth of experience and learn things about yourself that only manifest when you have chosen to commit yourself to something in the thick and thin. Forcing yourself to stay put on the boring days and think creatively within the confines of your current commitment can often foster more imaginative growth than jumping from one place to another. This approach takes discipline and focus, and unlike passion, these aren’t naturally-occurring characteristics. They only grow through practice, trial and error, repetition, and continual introspective evaluation.

The truth is that most of us don’t have enough hours in the day to dedicate ourselves to more than one or two such pursuits at any given time in our lives. The passion may come and go depending on the season, but to continue bringing value, that passion must be supplemented with diligence and determination. You have to be the type of person who creates value even when you don’t feel like it. You have to lose the monkey mind.