In Defense of Spreading Creativity Around

“Do one thing,” they said, “and do it well.”

That’s good advice. It’s the sort of advice that makes intrinsic sense and works for a lot of people. It’s also the sort of advice that is nearly impossible for me to follow, at least when it comes to creative endeavors. I want to do it all.

A quick survey of my Creative Market coworkers revealed that I’m far from alone. Our outside pursuits include playing a variety of musical instruments, cooking, painting, sculpting, photography, furniture building, pottery, creating decor, sewing, baking, and even puppet-making.

As for me, I make my living as a software engineer. I’m not the World’s Best Programmer (regardless of what my coffee mug may or may not say), but I have invested years of my life into the study and practice of writing clean, functional code. Not only does it pay the bills, I enjoy it. I enjoy the creativity involved in crafting solutions with code. Perhaps you’ve never thought of code-wrangling as a creative endeavor. It is. Yes, it’s technically challenging, but it also requires invention and imagination and taking time to daydream about possibilities. There’s this satisfying interplay between the Spock half of my brain and the Bing Bong half that only happens when I’m in the Code Zone™, and I love it.

But it’s not enough. I also write fiction, cook, make music, take pictures, and co-produce a podcast. None of these have ever made me rich or even contributed significantly toward my expenses. In fact, they all take time, energy, and money that could be spent more profitably elsewhere.

So why not focus all my time and energy on building my programming chops? Here are my top three reasons:

1. Sanity

Anybody who has built something larger than a basic “Hello, World” application will tell you that programming sucks. While architecting and building elegant, efficient solutions can be cathartic, that’s only a small part of an engineer’s day. The rest is spent squashing bugs (that the developer may or may not have introduced), unraveling Flying Spaghetti Monsters of technical debt, testing, documenting, and trying not to panic when hardware fails or a security vulnerability is found in some underlying bit of tech. Is the payoff worth it? Yep. Do programmers sometimes need to do something else for a while? Yes, please.

On the daily

The same is true for other creative professions. My coworker, Beth Rufener, said that her job (support) requires “a lot of left-brain type tasks, which is great! But that makes doing right-brain stuff on the side super beneficial.” (Check out Beth’s artwork on Instagram)

Whether you’re dealing with clients, building a fanbase, coordinating venues, promoting your work, tracking expenses, or keeping up your social media presence, there are parts of your job that are necessary pain points. Sometimes it’s nice to turn all of that off and create something for which the only pain points are the ones you’ve chosen to allow into your process. You could paint all the happy little trees you want, hang the canvas on your wall for family and friends to enjoy, and go on with your life—no showings or schmoozing required.

But the beauty of creating rather than consuming to refresh yourself is that it comes with the potential to reset your enthusiasm for the creative process itself.

And sure, you can always plop onto the couch, turn on the TV, and do nothing. Sometimes your brain needs a break. I get it. But the beauty of creating rather than consuming to refresh yourself is that it comes with the potential to reset your enthusiasm for the creative process itself. When I share a short story draft with my writing club or serve an especially tasty batch of salsa to my family, I’m reminded why I love creating. Those little sparks of accomplishment build up into a fire of motivation that follows me back to my laptop, empowering me to write more creative code. Better still, the fulfillment of a job well done brightens my attitude both inside and outside of work; when I create, I’m a more fun coworker, a more encouraging dad, and a husband who still has energy left to knock a couple items off the honey-do list over the weekend.

2. Creativity begets creativity

Maya Angelou once told an interviewer, “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” Drop the mic. Walk away. You might have the audacity to disagree with Maya Angelou about the creative process, but I don’t. And even if I did, my own experience would prove me wrong.

When I maintain a routine of daily creative writing, for example, I find myself coming up with ideas related to work and my other interests in my downtime, when my brain would otherwise be in neutral. It’s as if my thoughts fall into a pattern of creativity, and when that happens, trips to the store result in ideas for product features and haircuts turn up new lyrics.

Ben Wyatt is my spirit animal

And the effect is not limited only to the times when my thoughts would otherwise be idle. A little accomplishment in one creative area can fuel my self-confidence in another area. Maybe I’ve been stuck on chapter two of my novel for a month (or more). But you know what? I spent an hour in Photoshop last night and turned some mundane old photos into something portfolio-worthy. If I can harness that momentum, I can use it to press through my writer’s block.

As Beth Rufener said, “Being creative for me is almost like another food group and/or muscle (if that makes any sense). If I keep creating and exercising the creative muscle I definitely feel more energized and motivated to do other things.”

This is my favorite side effect of creative diversity. I cannot count the number of times something I learned in one creative outlet has influenced another creative outlet.

Working through voice and perspective for fiction writing has influenced how I approach lyric writing (who tells the story and how they tell it can be as important as the story itself). Lessons I’ve learned about how and when to apply salt when cooking apply to the application of compression in audio production (too much anywhere can ruin the end product, but a little added at the right points in the process can make it shine). The French culinary concept of mise en place has changed how I approach coding challenges (get everything ready and prepared first, then assemble the components). Composition in photography informs scene scope in short stories (what you leave out of the frame is as important as what you include). And I write pseudocode to plan out all sorts of projects, from novels to recipes.

Matt Borchert, Creative Market’s Community Curator, has had similar experiences. “I’ve made a lot of furniture — the way you have to concept and think about how the various pieces work together applies to almost any kind of design.” (Check out Matt’s creative work on Instagram)

Bronwyn Gruet, Brand Designer, also agreed. “Working in multiple disciplines gives you useful perspectives to apply to your primary discipline. There are things to learn from any/every experience, craft, and person you encounter that will make its way into your work.” (Check out Bronwyn’s projects on Instagram)

Go forth and create

Make time to indulge your creative interests. Write a poem. Learn to make your own fonts. Carve a bust of Han Solo out of soap. Do what brings you joy for its own sake, and see what happens. Creative diversity does not have to equate to lack of depth in any one field. There is a reason football players often take ballet. Cross-training can be beneficial.