The Beating Heart of Creativity

Why “trying” to be creative doesn’t work

Everyone on earth has brilliant original ideas several times a day.

Even if you’re in a bad mood — even if you’re mentally ill — you’re brainstorming all the time. Problem is, the instant you get a great idea, one or both of the following things happens:

  1. You grab onto the idea and start trying to develop it more fully, but the more you try to shape it, the more it slips through your fingers and disappears.
  2. Your mind reacts with, “Eh, that’s not important!” and tosses the idea away before you even get a clear look at it.

These are both natural reactions, because you’ve been taught all your life to scrutinize and critique unusual ideas, while it’s unlikely that anyone’s taught you how to come up with them in the first place.

The crucial distinction

Teachers tell you that if you want to be creative, you’ve got to create all the time; that you’ve got to discipline yourself to sit down at that keyboard or canvas, day after day, and stay there until you’ve created something original. And that’s true — but it misses the beating heart of the creative process.

That beating heart is originality — something that very few teachers ever explain, probably because many of them never learned the trick themselves. They’ll tell you to sit down at that desk day after day; but they won’t tell you what to look for, or how to recognize it when you’ve found it, or what to do once you have.

In other words, teachers usually fail to make a distinction between the actual process of creativity, which is impossible to directly control in any conscious way, and the conditions that allow creativity to blossom, which require intense willpower and focus to maintain.

Their failure to make that distinction does more than just slow the creative process — it directly causes creative block. And I’m going to explain why.

Why “trying” doesn’t work

“Trying” to be creative doesn’t work because it is psychologically impossible to consciously develop an idea in an unexpected way. Try as much as you like; the best you’ll do is produce pastiches; quilts of ideas that are all too familiar.

Originality only happens when you let your mind free-associate ideas without your critical intervention, and you transcribe that process in real time, moment by moment, in a way that doesn’t interrupt it.

In other words, creation isn’t just something that happens once you’ve come up with an original idea — creation itself is the process of generating original ideas. Ideas develop as you work with them; because you work with them; because you don’t hesitate or criticize them; you just jump straight in and create.

How to create

The only real difference between creative people and “uncreative” people is this: Creative people have learned to momentarily let go of conscious criticism at the instant an interesting idea pops up — just long enough to start making something based on that idea.

When executed properly, this move creates a blast of freely associated originality, resulting in a page of near-chaos. Then the creator puts on a completely separate hat — the editor hat — and cleans up that mess in a way that’s called artistic. But that’s just finishing touches.

The reason you sit at that desk every day isn’t to force yourself to be creative — it’s to give yourself the time, the space and the tools to explore all the ideas in your head, and to give you practice at recognizing the interesting ones when they pop up.

So stop “trying” and just start making things. The more you loosen your grip, the more you’ll surprise yourself.

And there’s no other feeling in the world like surprising yourself.