When Frugality Impedes Creativity

I recently bought some gel paste food colouring (the super-strong stuff where you’d better listen to the instructions that warn you to use exactly one drop) and remembered that I really enjoy playing with colour. So I dug out some paints I’d bought on a creativity whim last year & started just trying to put down some eye-pleasing colours and shapes.

And I realized that I’m a paint miser.

I feel really anxious if I squeeze too much of a colour out of the tube and don’t use it all up. I feel ashamed of being wasteful of the paint. I did remember that painters do exhibit a certain amount of scrimping on canvases — if you don’t like how something turns out, it’s apparently pretty common to just blank it out & start over — but I think you can’t scrimp on paint. You have to treat it as an unlimited resource.

I have the same problem when trying new things in cooking or baking — I *hate* throwing away food, so it makes it really difficult for me to experiment with creating new recipes. I absolutely love the work that J. Kenji Lopez-Ált does over at Serious EatsFood Lab, but part of that is an awe that he can do it at all! I don’t think I could because and important part of that kind of experimentation is finding the failure paths. And those failures may be inedible*.

Something I’ve been working on improving lately is increasing my comfort level with failing. For most of my life I’ve been pretty failure/risk-averse and I think that it’s held me back in a lot of ways. I don’t try things unless I’m sure I can succeed in them. Doing things I might fail at ties into that feeling of wastefulness — I could have spent that time doing something else.

But I’ve also been doing a lot of reading on creativity and learning lately, and a common theme emerging is that to be happy you have to stop caring about the product, the end result of what you’re doing, and focus on the process of doing. And to learn, you have to fail. I certainly can think of situations in my life where that’s been true for me — hell, the thing I bought the food colouring for turned out to be a glorious fiasco, and now I know:

  • a lot more about how to tell if a sponge cake is done,
  • what corners you can’t cut when making buttercream, and
  • that our freezer is too narrow and too shallow to fit a half-sheet pan.

And even though I was trying this new recipe & technique for the first time to *serve to other people* I was happy enough at learning that I didn’t mind that it was a bit of an abomination. Failure drives learning.

But to feel safe in failing, you have to feel unlimited in certain types of resources. Paint. Flour. The amused acceptance of the people around you when you show them the Strange Cake you’ve made.

*I don’t want to state that the Food Lab throws away its ‘failures’ — I saw a reference to feeding a doorman pasta for a week But I know that for me, there would be inedible failures and wasting food on purpose really stresses me out.

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