As a high school honor student and English major, my instructors required students to turn in drafts and notes with our term papers as part of our grade.
The purpose, I believe, was to prevent plagiarism. Before the development of anti-plagiarism software, this was a way for instructors to ensure that the paper was original by having documentation of the student’s writing process.
Some of my peers didn’t plagiarize, but they did take shortcuts. They wrote their papers the night before it was due and managed to turn in a stack of drafts and notes.
How they pulled this off, I don’t know. I don’t think it was out of laziness. Like me, they were high performers with schedules full of the things that high performers do, and in this one area they chose to cut corners.
Maybe you don’t blame them. Maybe you think that this process is insanely tedious. Maybe you would have done the very same thing.
Because I am a writer, I did not find loopholes. I did the work. All of it.
I wrote about 3–5 drafts per term paper, starting the writing process weeks out before the deadline. I broke the process down in chunks of tasks.
My peers did less work, took the shortcuts, and in some cases got better grades than I did, yet they missed out on this process.
Writing English papers isn’t “creative”, but this process taught me valuable lessons about how to be creative.
I learned how to walk away from the project and come back to it with fresh eyes.
I learned how to get to the heart of the matter with clarity, precision, economy, and candor.
I learned about the shitty first draft and the evolution of an idea.
While I was putting in my 10,000 hours, this process immersed me in a deep study of my craft.
I learned how to edit my own work, arriving ever closer to expressing an idea in its purest form.
No Perfect Conditions
If you didn’t learn how to be creative, it’s easy to blame external conditions.
A parent told you that you weren’t creative and to enter a profession that “makes money”.
You were trapped in the gray prison of the American public school system that taught you to memorize facts and take tests.
Or, you always feel blocked, so you tell yourself, “I am not creative.”
Creativity can be taught, but only if you have the courage to learn.
I did not have the problem of a discouraging parent, the American public school system, or a lack of confidence.
I am creative, and I had a mother who was an artist, thrived in the America public school system, and alway held an unshakeable truth that I am a writer.
Sounds like the ideal conditions, right?
You would think that, but I also have my own obstacles, like a mental illness that seems to push me one step back for every two steps forward I take.
Through it all, I have the Butt in Chair Discipline required for prolific wordage.
There are always obstacles. There will always be obstacles: impediments on your time, creating a human being, the grind, your depression or fibromyalgia or ADHD; or buying a house and then replacing the roof and then going through a divorce…and then, and then, and then.
Your negative parents, creative blocks, and shitty gray prison of an American public school system are just one of a goddamn many obstacles between you and being creative.
These are all the normal conditions of being a creative. They do not define you.
This work will do everything possible to break you. Life will give you resistance from all sides.
All obstacles can be overcome.
You cannot survive by taking shortcuts. You learn to be creative when you walk on the hot coals and crawl through the broken glass and you do the work anyway.
You can blame your parents, your teachers, and the bully who lived on your street. But at some point, it comes down to whether you’re willing to do the dirty work.
My peers took shortcuts because they decided that learning the process was not worth their time. They chose other priorities. It worked in the short-term but not in the long term. They robbed themselves of an experience.
You can learn to be creative if you respect the process, don’t take shortcuts, and crawl through the mud.
Creative work is euphoric and invigorating. It will also scrape out your insides and make you doubt the meaning of your existence.
All those years as an honor student in high school and later college, I found time to write. I wrote in the wee hours of the morning, during my free periods, and on 30-minute breaks of a part-time job.
I have to fight for that time. It is never convenient and it always comes at a cost.
If you want to do this, then you have to find a way, not an excuse.
6 Principles for Being Creative
Being creative is all about mindset. When you have the mindset that you can overcome your obstacles, then creative opportunities are open to you.
You know that book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People? If you’ve read so much as a few sections of it, then you know that these aren’t habits like drinking 8 oz of water in the morning or putting on sunscreen.
They’re habits such as being proactive, working with the end in mind, and building relationships. Those aren’t exactly habits that you build in 30 days. They are habits that you work on for life.
I don’t think of these as habits so much as I think of them as principles that I apply to my life. I make choices towards being proactive, building relationships, and working with the end in mind.
These are the set of principles that I live by, and I make choices about creativity from these principles.
6 Habits of Highly Creative People
- Discipline. You know how to overcome those obstacles, because you overcome them on a daily basis. You don’t worry about getting the work done, because you know you have the discipline for getting it done. The discipline gives you confidence. You don’t define yourself by any one bad day, because you know that tomorrow is another day. Criticism stings a little less, because you’ve built up the confidence from doing the work.
- Process. Nothing ever comes out as a finished product, and your process is how you create that finished product. Your process is what you fall back on, when you are filled with doubt and uncertainty. It’s how you draw the idea out of your head, let it evolve, and finish it one way or another.
- Practice. You put in your 10,000 hours to learn your craft and 20,000 hours to hone it. You are not satisfied with what you know, so you push yourself to learn more. You always strive to be better.
- Experimentation. You approach every new idea with a “Let’s try this and see what happens” mentality. You are willing to put together two elements that may not necessarily go well together. More importantly you go off script. You take one step outside of practices that are common and predictable, because you understand that that is how you make it your own.
- No expectations. You are not attached to outcomes, and you let yourself be surprised by them. You have no expectations, so you are disappointed by nothing. You can’t control whether it resonates with an audience or makes millions of dollars. What you can control is creating the best piece of work that you can.
- Patience. You are playing the long-game. You are not trying to create an overnight success. You are trying to create a body of work. You are in it for the work and the work alone. So you are not deterred by rejection, a small audience, or a shitty writing streak. You have discipline, a process, practice, a try-anything approach, and no expectations, and that gives you the patience to endure anything.
Whether you have the aptitude to make something great or whether you create for your own personal fulfillment, that’s a question you have to answer for yourself. But by following these principles, you will learn to be creative.
Earning Your Confidence
“People talk about confidence without ever bringing up hard work. That’s a mistake. I know I sound like some dour older spinster on Downton Abbey who has never felt a man’s touch and whose heart has turned to stone, but I don’t understand how you could have self-confidence if you don’t do the work… I have never, ever, ever, met a high confident person and successful person who is not what a movie would call a ‘workaholic.’ Because confidence is like respect; you have to earn it.” ― Mindy Kaling, Why Not Me?
People are mistaken when they think that confidence comes before you do the work. But really you get the confidence from doing the work.
As you use your discipline to put in the practice, your confidence gradually builds. It’s like you’re making deposits into a bank account. Then when someone makes a jackass comment about your work or tells you to get a “real job”, your Confidence Bank Account has a positive balance with money to spare.
Those barbs that you caught from parents and teachers earlier in life? You got them before you could make deposits into your Confidence Bank Account, and you’ve been getting Overdraft Fees ever since.
That is truly a shame. I’m sorry that you had that experience. Those people weren’t artists, or maybe they suppressed their own creativity.
Whatever the reason, they had no business making those comments. Real artists know not to critique someone’s work unless they ask for it, and even then offering criticism is it’s own art form.
But that’s in the past now, and the only thing that can be done about it is to make those deposits into your Confidence Bank Account.
Start with the discipline; develop your process; get in the practice; experiment; let go of expectation; and most of all have patience.
With that you will build a wealth of confidence. You will learn to be creative.
You can learn to be creative. The opportunities are there. Anyone can do it.
I’m surprised more people aren’t creative. It is single handedly the most life-affirming thing I have. I firmly believe that the secrets of the universe are buried in creative work.
Artists are fighters. They fight the resistance of toxic people, insecurity, failure, and their own self-destructive tendency.
You can learn to be creative. How much are you willing to fight for it?