Big Magic — Creative Confidence — The War of Art

How to Be Creative! 3 Popular Books

My reviews and short takeaways of some of the most popular books about creativity and what they teach us about how to make ideas become a reality despite life’s obstacles.

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This will give you short introduction to & the most important learnings from the books Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, Creative Confidence by Tom & David Kelley, as well as The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.
With thoughts of what I think of the book as well as the 3 key things I learned from them. I hope this will inspire you too pick up these books too!

Big Magic book cover with an explosion of colours

Big Magic

Creative Living Beyond Fear

By Elizabeth Gilbert

I listened to the audiobook version

Elizabeth Gilbert interview about the book: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HyUYa-BnjU8

Here is your permission to be creative

What is Big Magic? Elizabeth Gilbert takes us on this journey of redefining creativity and breaking down stereotypes of what it means to “classify” yourself as being artistic. Her knowledge, experience and unique perspective on how creativity wants to be a part of all our lives and make it better makes for a truly lovely book.

Sharing stories of her own life’s struggles and moments of delight Elizabeth gives us insight to how she sees creativity in the world and how it has been a huge part of hers. She shares different perspectives from history on how creativity has often be seen as a cruel mistress, torturing the soul of the poets and painters, making them suffer for their arts. Forever cursing ourselves that we were so unlucky to have been picked to be an Artist. She brings this up because that is NOT how she sees the Big Magic (aka what she has names creativity). No! It’s not how creativity effects her life and it’s not how it has to be for you.

This idea of the anxiety filled artist is not a very positive or fun corner we paint ourselves in. Especially when it comes to being successful in you craft. Elizabeth expertly breaks this idea and instead inspires you to happily embrace creativity and she shows us how this is real success. She talks about the fears and anxieties we all feel and the self-harming thoughts around showing your creations to the world. By putting a spotlight on them, one by one she dispels the hold they have on you.

Elizabeth wants creativity to be a delight, a friend and a happy choice to make our lives more colourful. We can choose to be happy that creativity picked us, cultivate it and make something great out of it! Big Magic is there to give our lives spark and for us to share it with others. Don’t hide what you are proud of, your creations, art and creativity.

“Yeah but it has not been done by YOU!”

— Elizabeth Gilbert

My Thoughts

This book is a delight and an absolute joy to listen to! I felt uplifted and full of positivity of how I want to be creative in new ways, without the fear and worry attached to it. This book made me want to be creative and not be limited with my thoughts on how other people might see or criticise it. We are so focused these days on producing perfect things that we can show other people to get recognition and praise. We forget to create for ourselves, to show people your craft because it makes the world richer.

Elizabeth Gilbert herself is the voice of the audiobook and she is tremendously wonderful. I really recommend taking in the book in this way if you like audiobooks. I felt her passion how much she cares about us (the readers) in our pursuit for to catch theBig Magic and make something great out of it.

This book is a calming blanket to the hard art world and chaotic ideas we have around what it means to express your creativity. Read this book to feel more at ease, like a cold drink in the shade on a hot day (or hot tea on a cold day) that says it’s ok to take it easy, enjoy the moment and you will do better work as a result. Let creativity be a joyful part of your life, NOT a punishment!

“What is creative living? Any life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.”

— Elizabeth Gilbert

Top 3 learnings

  1. No point in being the hurt and suffering Artist.
    Suffering is not a good use of creativity and it does not make us more creative. We need to drop the romanticised idea of the suffering artist. How creativity is some burden that drives the artist/poet mad and depressed. Having a creative mind is not a burden. It’s your choice to cultivate your creativity or not. So be happy with your choice and let it make your life happier.
  2. Let ideas come to you and let them grow.
    It’s your decision to take an idea to heart and cultivate it to grow. Or if you don’t have the time or energy right now, be ok with letting it go. Don’t torture yourself with what could be.
  3. Create for yourself because you love it, share it with others to inspire.
    We need to let go of the pressure we put on ourselves to create perfect things before we share it with others. This is a backwards way of looking at it. Don’t rob people of the lovely things you create! We need you to put it out into the world.

Recommendation

I recommend this book to anyone that wants to live creative without the anxiety and fear.

  • Artists (Stop being the suffering artist)
  • Young people (Life lessons to go after what you want in life)
  • Students (get courage to grow & be creative)
Creative Confidence Book cover with a fun hand drawn font style.

Creative Confidence

Unleashing the Creative Potential within Us All

by David Kelley & Tom Kelley

Creative Confidence TED Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=16p9YRF0l-g

Design for Delight

To give some structure to the other books on this list; Creative Confidence is the work of the two Kelley brothers that started the now well known creative schools IDEO & d.school. This book comes from the frontline of the industry of innovation.

This book are for teams that wants to solve big problems in an effective and creative way. Maybe you think of yourself as someone that is just not creative because your title doesn’t have ‘Designer’ in it? Tom and David wants to change this by spreading their message to make everyone awaken their own creativity. This book is their message of confidence to the world.

A good way to start a creative path is to look at how you can solve problems for other people. One example in the book is the story of the creator that made an updated version of a MRI machine; Doug Dietz. He was heartbroken when he discovered that his machine, that was meant to help sick children, was also the cause of much fear that lead to some children needed to be sedated before going into the machine. But he didn’t just shrug it off thinking that nothing can be done. No, he took the problem and came up with the very creative solution of painting the MRI room and in the theme of a pirate ship! Now the children were going on an exciting journey on a ship, not a scary white hospital. The cases of children being sedated lowered drastically and some were even excited to come back. This is just one of the inspirational stories where a little bit of creative problem solving can have a huge impact.

Watch his TedTalk about the design process here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jajduxPD6H4

The Kelley brothers put focus on looking at the lives and problems people (your users) are faced with and the importance of letting this guide you to find areas of which you can improve. We don’t solve the right problems sitting in an office just imagining what people need & want. Many stories in the book puts the users needs into focus and gives you practical tips of how you can become the observer to find those problems that you can solve.

If you are looking for practical tools on creativity, each chapter has a list of actions of how you can apply the teachings to your own work.
Furthermore, they list 10 methods (with detailed steps) you can use to be more creative & structured right now. A couple are for you to use yourself whilst some are for larger groups when you want to find creative solutions to big problems with a team. (I think this is where the best ideas come from). Teamwork makes the dream work!

“To learn from failure, however, you have to own it. You have to figure out what went wrong and what to do better next time. If you don’t, you’re liable to repeat your errors in the future.”

— Tom & David Kelley

My Thoughts

I really liked this book as it was easy and a delight to read. The stories are fun and engaging and the tips after each chapter are great for you to apply the methods for yourself. It’s nice to see practical steps since many books are inspirational but somewhat fluffy in their concepts.

The two Kelley brothers have a lot of enthusiasm and passion, and you will see it shine throughout the book. It’s inspiring and it will make you appreciate your own mind and ideas to a larger extent.

I will say, the stories in the first chapters will not be too surprising to you if you have some experience of this type of design thinking and methods since before (perhaps like me, from your education). But it was nonetheless fun to be reminded of the methods and see how other creative schools use them.

I would have liked to see more methods and tips of how to use this in an already creative field with individuals that are not new to this way of thinking. Many examples used in the book are for people and teams that are not considering themselves as creative so this can be their spark for creative thinking. But if you are already working as a designer (or similar) you most likely already know the power of creative problem solving.

But, sometimes it’s easy to not use these methods in the everyday work flow and it has been even more difficult to have any creative collaboration now whilst teams are working from home. So this book gave me renewed inspiration to use more of these creative tools and methods for myself, as well as introducing some more to my work team. It can be a bit of a hurdle to get over to start using these methods, but I know they work wonders once everyone is on board!

“Money will always be easier to measure, which is why it takes a little extra effort to value the heart.”

— Tom & David Kelley

Top 3 learnings

  1. Start by doing!
    Don’t just sit around thinking about a creative idea waiting for the perfect time to start! You will come a lot further by just starting to take small steps and learn along the way. New paths, problems, solutions and combinations will reveal itself when you start doing something!
  2. Use creative tools and structure to help a team be more creative.
    Just saying “come up with something creative right now” is not the best way to inspire for innovation. There are many tools in this book, but I suggest also searching online and you will find many more great tool to test out!
    Here are some I like — Hyper Island Toolbox: https://toolbox.hyperisland.com
  3. Were you told that you are not creative?
    At some point in our lives, many of us gets told that we are not very creative, that we are bad at drawing, writing or that our ideas are stupid (often by other children). This leaves scars that leads to some people later in life never exploring their creative ideas or exercising their creative muscles. This is very disheartening because the wold is not divided into ‘creatives’ and ‘non-creatives’. We can all be creative and we can start practicing now! Practice does not mean perfect. You will experience stumbles and pain to grow stronger. But that is part of any growth.

Recommendation

I recommend this book to anyone that wants to find a way to be more creative in all areas of life. Anyone that needs that extra inspired push and the tools to start taking the first steps.

  • Design students (for their future creative career)
  • Managers & Bosses (to unleash & manage creativity in a team)
The War of Art book cover with a flower growing out of a hard blocks.

The War of Art

Break through the blocks and win you inner creative battle

by Steven Pressfield

I listened to the audiobook version.

Resistance is the enemy

What resistances are stopping you from following your creative dreams? Is the work too hard? Are you afraid it will be bad? Are you a master procrastinator? Do you have an ocean off excuses at your side to rationalise not doing that thing? Then my friends you are familiar with the impact that resistance has on your life and dreams. This is the core that Pressfield goes through step by step in ‘The War of Art’. But know this “Resistance is always lying and always full of shit.”

He emphasises that resistance is not other people or outside forces. Not the critics and not the sceptics that tell you how bad you are. Resistance is coming from the inside; it is you fighting against your inner self. But know that resistance and fear only has power if you are afraid of it.
Pressfield takes us step by step through what type of resistances there are, how they show up as symptoms, how they stop you from doing what you really want and how to overcome them. Are you ready to look at what is stopping you and work though your blockers? This book tells you how.

The last chapter is the most inspiring part of the book, where he recites how the Greeks viewed and described the Muses and the Ego. The personification of inspiration and the whimsical influence they have over humans. Going back through history shows that the struggles of the Artist has been a big topic of thought human history. Pressfield does get a bit religious in this part, but as he emphasise, you can think of it in your own way. It’s more about looking beyond the material world than it is what specific religion you attach it too. Does your inspiration come from muses, energy or the universe.

“The opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s indifference”

— Steven Pressfield

My Thoughts

This book is a wonderful structured guide with great examples and powerful learnings. I had to listen to it again (there were some months in between) to fully remember all the teachings this book has but the second time was even better! Although it is a great and power inspiring listen, I would recommend getting a physical copy to really dig deep and get as much out of it as possible. You also want to go back to re-read it later. It’s that kind of book!

No long backstories stories that takes up 2/3 off the book (I’m looking at you; audiobooks over 6 hours long). There are some mini anecdotes and quotes from other people, but it is used to garnish his point, not to make the book thicker. He just goes straight to the point to give us the juicy centre.

I love and hate the theatrics of the audiobook version of this book. It’s not very common that books use music in this way. It even has war music when some chapters starts to empower his words. So the war side is very heavily delivered.

This book is quite the “Aggressive” version of creativity (I mean it’s even in the title) compared to Big Magic that is the more gentle side of looking at it. But they have a lot in common, just different approaches to explaining it. I would recommend reading this book first and Big Magic after as the perfect combination.

“The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.

— Steven Pressfield

Top 3 learnings

  1. Follow your Resistance.
    Resistances are great at showing us what really matters to us. The things that really scares you is the things your heart values and cares about the most. Knowledge about the symptoms of resistances gives you a better perspective and helps you work through the blockers instead of being controlled by them. Work for your dreams, especially the ones that you are scared off.
  2. The professional doesn’t wait for inspiration
    to strike before starting the work. They cultivate the environment where inspiration shows up every day. She comes every day prepared to work through her blockers. The professional works when things are hard — the amateur stops when it’s no longer fun and the quick gratification has stopped.
  3. Find what you want to create, even when it’s hard.
    What thing are you compelled to create even when you’re NOT getting any reward for your hard labour? What is the thing you can’t stop thinking about, that you just feel you have to create? What are you willing to create even when you don’t get the success, fame or money? Even when it’s hard, you fight through the resistances that is trying to stop you. That is the thing you need to create.

Recommendation

I recommend this book to anyone that work with creativity and have gone through struggles with “creative blocks”.

  • Artists & Creatives (wanting a practical guide to work past their blockers)
  • The Amateur wanting to go Pro (how to show up every day & do the work when it’s hard)

Thank you for reading! ❤️

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Here is another of my book reviews you should read:

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Anna Wikström
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Senior UX Game Designer at Hangar 13 (previously CA & DICE). I write about UX in Games and Review Books about Design, Career & Life.