How to Escape the Rut You’re In

This is the unorthodox solution

John P. Weiss
Jul 11, 2020 · 7 min read
Artwork by John P. Weiss

I’ve been in a creative and artistic rut lately. The worst part is that I have no reason to complain.

I get to write and create art full-time in my home studio. I set my schedule, and am free to pursue whatever creative direction I choose to.

A lot of artists and writers would kill for the chance to pursue their creative passion full-time. Who am I to complain?

And yet here I am, artistically adrift.

Well, I was adrift, until an unexpected incident in a bookstore.

A rut and a grave

It’s not always obvious that we’ve fallen into a rut. Sometimes we’re so busy with the rhythms and responsibilities of life that we fail to recognize the growing malaise burrowing deep into our souls.

“The only difference between a rut and a grave are the dimensions.” -Ellen Glasgow

How do we recognize the signs that we’ve fallen into a rut? According to an article in themuse.com, here are seven warning signs:

It’s Hard for You to Get Worked Up or Excited About Anything

You’re living in a muted world of black and white. The color is gone.

You Keep Reminiscing About the Past

There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia, except when you use it to substitute experiences in the present.

Your Health and Well-Being Aren’t a Priority

Our inner thoughts often reflect on the outside. Emotional turmoil can prevent us from exercising, showering, etc.

You Daydream About an Alternate Reality

Daydreaming is fine, but not when you constantly fantasize about being somewhere else.

You Don’t See the Purpose of Anything You Do

We need more than money. We need a sense of purpose. Fulfillment. When we are no longer growing and a sense of stagnancy creeps in, it’s time for a change.

You Find Yourself Feeling Unwell on a Regular Basis

Stress, unhappiness, and fatigue can lead to real physical problems, including illness.

You Stay in a Situation Because You Believe There’s Nothing Else Out There

The truth is that there are always alternatives, particularly if we open ourselves up to chance.

My rut doesn’t include all of the above warning signs, but numbers one and seven stand out to me. I haven’t been as excited about my work lately, but I keep doing the same thing because alternatives aren’t obvious to me.

I’ll bet you can identify with one or more of the above seven warning signs. We all fall into ruts now and then. Sometimes, the ruts lead to a kind of mild depression.

According to an article in Psychologytoday.com, this mild depression has a name:

“Dysthymia — the mild, chronic cousin of depression, the symptoms of which are low energy, low mood, loss of interest, and general anhedonia (loss of pleasure). Dysthymia can last years and often goes undiagnosed because life still goes on, although it feels like the colors are muted.”

Of course, sometimes folks fall into clinical depression, in which case professional help should be sought to get back on track.

Beyond the obvious

My creative dysthymia hasn’t lasted for years, thank goodness. It’s only been the last few months.

A little research uncovers plenty of advice on how to get out of a rut. Vlogger Thomas Frank did a YouTube video outlining three techniques to get out of an unmotivated rut. Watch it below.

Frank’s first suggestion is to find and interact with people who inspire you. This doesn’t mean you dump your friends. Friends are lifelong blessings, but sometimes you need to associate with people who inspire you in new ways or challenge you to grow or change.

“You’re only going to be as good as the people you surround yourself with… If you ever find that you’re the most talented person in the room, you need to find another room.” -Austin Kleon

I’ve reached out to artists, writers, and people who inspire me. Some of them I even had online (Zoom) conversations with. Others I paid to teach me new skills.

Frank’s second suggestion to escape the rut you’re in is to take a break. This might be difficult for some people, especially if your life is busy. Still, taking a break is huge. Particularly if you use the downtime to do something different.

Every time my wife has arranged travel or a vacation trip for us, I benefited creatively and artistically. Visiting new places, meeting new people, and experiencing new cultures all pull us out of our comfort zone, not to mention our rut.

Frank’s last suggestion is to branch out and explore new things. Pay attention to “little things” that you might have an interest in. The attention you place on those little things can become the fuel you need to fire up a new passion or creative direction.

Copying is about reverse engineering

Creative style is a funny thing. We tend to build our style from the influences of others.

Author Austin Kleon, in his book “Steal Like An Artist:10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative,” tell us that it’s okay to borrow from our creative influences.

Kleon notes in his book:

“If we’re free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it.”

I used to agonize over the fear that my creative work would be a sad reflection of my artistic heroes. I longed to create my own, original voice.

But the reality is that everyone borrows from someone else along the way to finding their voice.

“We learn by copying. We’re talking about practice here, not plagiarism — plagiarism is trying to pass someone else’s work off as your own. Copying is about reverse engineering… Remember: Even The Beatles started as a cover band.” -Austin Kleon

The power of randomness

There is a caveat to all of this that I recently discovered. It’s fine to embrace our heroes and reverse engineer their work to improve our own. But in order to really change, to truly escape the rut we are in, we need to broaden our pool of influences and take an unorthodox approach.

We need to make room for the unexpected. The unusual. The different.

In other words, if you want to escape the rut you’re in, you need to:

Embrace the power of randomness

Embracing randomness is a bit like Thomas Frank’s advice to “branch out and explore new things.” The difference is that exploration is an overt act, whereas being open to randomness is more acquiescent.

Random stuff happens to me all the time, but I’m paying closer attention now because often there are creative hints and doors worth opening.

For example, the other day I was in the bookstore walking through the fantasy/sci-fi section on my way to the art section. Had I made it to the art section, I predictably would have explored landscape art books. But something random happened.

I brushed past a book in the fantasy section, causing it to fall. The book was titled, “The World of the Dark Crystal.” Curious, I picked up the book and thumbed through it. The artwork blew me away.

The book showcases the gorgeous conceptual artwork for the film “The World of the Dark Crystal,” by the artist Brian Froud.

Froud is an amazing artist best known for his Faerie drawings and paintings. His work was influenced by the late artist Arthur Rackham, and I immediately fell in love with his sketches and paintings. This random event, and the discovery of Froud’s artistry, led me to purchase several of Froud’s books and begin exploring my pen, ink, and watercolor artwork more deeply.

Suddenly, I’ve found a renewed sense of inspiration, subject matter, and creative/artistic energy. All of which led to the random sketch at the top of this article, as well as the drawings within.

“A lot of artists who have a certain style are expected to more or less keep doing their style. It’s so easy to get into that rut of production.” -Laurie Anderson

Whatever rut you might be in, hang in there. Start with Thomas Frank’s three tips: Find people who inspire you, take a break, and explore new things.

“So much of life, it seems to me, is determined by pure randomness.” -Sidney Poitier

Remember, the best new things are often hidden in randomness. Unexpected events, discoveries, experiences, and people.

Whether it’s a fantasy art book that dives off a shelf in front of you or a chance encounter with someone who ignites new perspectives, be open to it. The more unorthodox and random, the better.

It just might pull you out of your rut, and onto that long-awaited path to personal renewal and discovery.

Before you go

I’m John P. Weiss. I draw cartoons, paint, and write about life. Get on my free email list here for the latest articles and artwork.

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