Why the Secret to Creative Freedom is Allowing yourself to Fail
Somewhere along the path of growing up we forgot that it’s ok to play, and to not be great at something straight away.
I’ve worked in the creative industry for a while, and you could be mistaken for thinking that for me, creativity comes naturally. But working as a creative professional doesn’t make me any more able to tap into my creativity than anyone else. And it doesn’t give me any more permission to exercise that ability than anyone else either.
As a culture we are frequently afraid of creativity. And a lot of the time that fear doesn’t necessarily come from a previous failure in attempting anything creative. It instead often comes from something different: the idea that trying to be creative might eventually lead to an outcome that is sub-par, or worse, worthless. You spent all that time creating something, and what you ended up with was something you’re not happy with. It’s a justifiable disappointment, and it’s usually true.
For a lot of us it can almost seem that creativity is something that has to be earned. An elusive club that only creative elites and creative professionals are allowed into. A club where anyone else is not welcome. To be creative as an adult, it is often perceived that you have to be good at it first.
I’ve heard people say things like:
“Of course you can be creative, you’re already creative, you do it for a job, every day. I can’t be creative, obviously. My job isn’t creative and I’ve never done anything creative so how could I possible be?”
And this one as well:
“I don’t have a creative bone in my body! If I tried being creative I’m sure I’d be rubbish at it anyway. Why would I try something that I’m just going to fail at?”
Thing is, despite the perceived barrier to entry, being creative is something that everyone can do. And you don’t have to be good at it. In actual fact, it’s often best to not be good at being creative at all, in order to enjoy the process of creativity itself.
I fall into this trap all the time, and inevitably end up frustrated. That the limited time I had, I spent on doing something creative. That in doing so I didn’t end up with something that was worth the time spent: the best painting I’d ever painted, or the best piece of writing I’d ever written, or the best… whatever it is, that I was doing. I just ended up with something half finished or mediocre, or worse yet, nothing at all.
Somewhere along the line we forgot that it’s ok to be rubbish at something. That producing nothing from allowing ourselves to be creative is not a failure.
But how did we get here. How did we get to the point where we are scared of allowing ourselves to be creative? Scared to show our creativity to others.
1. In a world with so much stimuli, the output of creativity is worshipped, whilst the process itself remains hidden away.
We spend our lives in the modern world worshipping the finish line.
We aim for unattainable goals, dream up ever bigger dreams, set ourselves unrealistic expectations, and force ourselves into habits and activities we don’t actually enjoy. Only to watch them crumble as either the reality of the hard work required to achieve those goals sets in, or we finally admit to ourselves that they are unrealistic or just simply not fun any more. Why?
Why are we not simply encouraged to continue to try new things, as children are at school, instead of forcing ourselves to dream up what we want to achieve, before even starting it. We’ve often failed before we even begin. It seems the wrong way round.
Somewhere along the line as adults, we learned to justify creative success by the merit of the outcome, not the experience of the path.
Superstar musicians must be famous because their songs are so great, or because the record labels marketing budget was so big it was inevitable. But if that was the case then why are the most timeless and successful musicians the storytellers. The people not afraid to convey the meaning and emotion of the journey, of moments from their experience, and the story of their path.
The superstar athlete must be the best in their discipline because they have a natural god-given talent. But if that was the case then why do we route so badly for the underdog. The athlete who isn’t the otherworldly talent, but just an average kid, with a hard-working mentality, and a story to tell.
Social and mainstream media evangelise the output, whereas human beings inevitably yearn to attach themselves to stories. So let’s celebrate the stories, and in turn celebrate the creative process.
Rarely is there instantaneous success. Rarely is the final output the result of naturally gifted creativity. There is always a path. The route to producing anything creative that has any sort of success, commercial or otherwise, is strewn with learning and failure, so why don’t we celebrate it. We should acknowledge and value that process more.
Let’s ask how and why someone did what they did, or got where they did. And let’s revere them for that, as well as for the result at the end of it all.
Maybe then we can be comfortable sharing our own process with others, instead of constantly hiding it away behind the output of our creativity.
2. In a world where productivity and social perception is glorified, time spent on play is seen as being wasted and useless.
The second part to our fear of creativity, our unwillingness to allow ourselves to be creative, comes from the values we embrace in our lives as tantamount to success and happiness.
One of these is the glorification of productivity. The idea that if we want any chance of success in our career, as a parent, as a partner, in our social lives and relationships, that the productive output of that time must be observed and optimised. Endlessly. We optimise our systems, our data, our businesses in the internet age, so why would we not want to optimise our personal lives too. There is a reason why productivity articles are so popular on Medium.
And on the surface there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
But there’s being efficient and optimising your time, and then there is too much. We obsess over productivity hacks, and being so ruthlessly efficient that we forget one of the key things that makes us human. One of the key parts of our childhood development, that again we have seemingly lost as adults.
The ability to play.
To set time aside for just faffing around with something fun. To set time aside specifically just to give it a go.
One of the most rewarding, and psychologically freeing lessons I ever learned from working on my own creative projects outside of my day job was this:
Once you free yourself from the necessity to achieve something, you free yourself to be truly creative, and in turn free your mind from the shackles of failure that comes from doing something, and ending up with nothing in return. Nothing in return is fine, great even. The point is not to create something, but to try something. To have fun, and be absorbed in enjoying the process.
We should allow ourselves this for the sake of our own positive mental health. Being endlessly productive and active is tiring. Our bodies and minds need time to rest, to wander, and to enjoy being fully distracted in moments specifically for the purpose of play, or our own enjoyment. To revel in the excitement and satisfaction from the discovery of something new.
We need this to help us allow ourselves to be truly and openly creative. To psychologically give ourselves permission to be creative without worrying about whether it is productive or not.
3. In a world obsessed with classification and titles, we forget that even jobs and activities NOT in the creative industry, can still be creative.
The third prong of the creativity fear conundrum is this:
“But nothing about what I do is creative. All I do is solve problems for other people, organise/manage my team and/or set rotas or write project briefs. That’s not creative.”
It is a fallacy to argue that jobs or tasks traditionally not defined as creative are inherently not creative.
Problem solving in itself is a creative endeavour. It involves being presented with a problem, and then figuring out the best possible solution, based on the tools available and situation at hand. It could almost be substituted as a definition for creativity.
There are countless day to day tasks that involve us being creative without even realising that we are. Human beings are ‘creative’ by nature. Even basic survival is creativity to an extent.
Things like; managing relationships, managing team members at work, planning holidays, buying things we like, making decisions, cooking dinner, etc etc. These are all creative endeavours.
We often lie to ourselves about the very nature of the things we do on a day to day basis in the pursuit of shielding ourselves from creativity. That none of it is creative, that we cannot allow ourselves to be creative in any capacity because nothing we already do is creative. That definition stops us from realising we are all creative by nature, and we all deserve to allow ourselves the freedom to be creative whenever we want to be. Creativity is not about being good at drawing pretty pictures, it is simply about being able to function as an adult who exists in the world.
Which brings me to another phrase I’ve heard more than a few times:
“But I’m not good at drawing, so I’m just not a very creative person.”
It’s almost like we have a learned response, to negate anything resembling accusatory questioning through the acknowledgement that we are, in actual fact, just not very good at it, and that somehow makes it ok.
But so what. Why should the fact that we are not good at something hold us back if we want to give it a go. Why should it be our defence, and why is it looked down on to appear bad despite trying, and seen as better to have just not tried at all.
Why should the classification of being ‘creative’ or ‘not creative’, stop us from actually trying something we think we might be interested in.
‘Good’ is subjective anyway. If we could celebrate the process, and strive to build a better, more open and playful perception of creativity, then we no longer need to hide behind inadequacy as an excuse for never trying.
It can sometimes feel like those who are ‘creative,’ and those who aren’t, are somehow separated from each other. But to me that could not be further from the truth.
Of course, not everybody has to be ‘creative,’ but rather, we all just inherently are. If you want to go do something creative, everyone has the capability of being just as creative as they want to be. We already do it naturally anyway, every single day.
And if you don’t want to ‘be creative,’ whatever that means to you, that’s absolutely fine as well. No judgement or preconception should hold us back from doing exactly what we want to do.
So let’s break away from the fear of creativity, together.
Respect the process and talk openly about failure.
Embrace your down time and remember to have fun with it.
And finally, ignore the titles and classifications. If you want to do something, just do it. No matter if you’ve ever done it before, no matter what the outcome.