Creativity Is Nourished by Conflict

Talk to any brilliant creative about their life leading up to their success and you’ll discover some messy stuff. The role of conflict — conflict with others and conflict within — is especially evident when you examine the inflection points in creative careers.

Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco, for 99U.

Consider the inner conflict of depression for a famous painter like Vincent van Gogh, or the role of a devastating break-up that inspires a career-making album like Alanis Morisette’s breakthrough Jagged Little Pill. Look anywhere and you’ll see it, from Woody Allen’s finest films developed during bouts of his depression to Janet Jackson’s triple-platinum album The Velvet Rope — widely attributed to a battle with anxiety from a failed marriage and a difficult childhood.

Creativity is nourished by conflict.

Another example hits home this year, and especially this week.

Rachel’s album hit #2 this weekend.

Rachel Platten, a friend from high school who began pursuing a career as a musician over a decade ago, has a new album at the top of the iTunes charts and a hit song (Fight Song, which you may have overheard at this point!) with over 50 million plays on YouTube. However, this wasn’t an overnight success.

For most of the last 10 years, Rachel would take any gig she could get. Most music critics didn’t take note, and some who did dismissed the music as light and insignificant. But something happened to Rachel in the last year or so. After struggling for so long to the point of feeling broken and lost, Rachel hit rock bottom and wrote and released the first song for her new album, “Fight Song.”

Losing friends and I’m chasing sleep
Everybody’s worried about me
In too deep
Say I’m in too deep (in too deep)
And it’s been two years
I miss my home
But there’s a fire burning in my bones
And I still believe…

This song is Rachel’s first major hit (we’re talking morning shows, rabid fans, sharing the stage with Taylor Swift, etc…), and like all art, it came from a dark place: desperation, exhaustion, and the desire to prove oneself amidst universal doubt.

This is my fight song
Take back my life song
Prove I’m alright song
My power’s turned on
Starting right now I’ll be strong
I’ll play my fight song
And I don’t really care if nobody else believes
’Cause I’ve still got a lot of fight left in me

Art, in its rawest and most moving form, is born of struggle. While creativity is mostly the combination of genuine interest and initiative, the emotion in the art that engages others (the listeners, viewers, customers) comes from somewhere deeper and darker. Emotion pushes us beyond what is familiar and safe. Emotion is inherently uncomfortable. It short-circuits our brains to escape pattern recognition and repetition, and literally makes us interpret the world in new ways.

Creativity thrives on conflict-born-emotion and abhors comfort. But conflict alone won’t cut it. You need hope and a vision — something towards which you can channel the dark energy.

I actually interviewed Rachel for the first Behance blog we launched back in 2007, and I asked her about perseverance amidst the struggle of anonymity. As Platten explained it:

“When I get determined about something, I am really stubborn. So I just didn’t let it go. Through all the ‘no’s’, ‘you’re not good enough’s’…I just kept the visualization of my success in my head. …I visualize myself achieving my goal. I make it so real that I can see every detail, the sounds, tastes, visuals, etc… and I literally just imagine it and meditate on it for about ten/twenty minutes whenever I can…”

Perhaps vision offers a unique destination, and conflict is fuel for the journey? I have found this to be true in my personal life, and with the teams I have built.

As I consider the conflicts behind my own creativity, I recall my childhood with a developmentally disabled sister. The situation required my independence and self-reliance, both of which have influenced my creative process. Creatively, I thrive in isolation. And perhaps there is a part of me pushing to create on behalf of not just myself but also my sister? Perhaps the conflict continues to fuel me?

It is also true in teams. As you hire creative and passionate people, you’re inviting conflict into the fold. When you really give a damn, you’re willing to fight for it. Conflict accompanies passion. With teams, the leader’s role is to channel conflict to fuel the journey. Seek to resolve but do not restrain conflict. The tensions are the magic touch. They force us to question ourselves and explore the full terrain of possibility. The tensions keep us uncomfortable enough to keep trying. Hire people that are willing to fight, and fight apathy ruthlessly.

When you really give a damn, you’re willing to fight for it.

Finally, how do you sustain conflict as you succeed? Now that Rachel is at the top of the charts, will she write more hits? Some artists talk about conjuring up emotion as part of their creative process — whether it is an accomplished writer traveling to immerse herself in a struggling community as a source of empathy and inspiration, or a successful rap artist returning to his childhood neighborhood to transport himself back to a more difficult part of life — emotion requires kindling.

When you face conflict it becomes a part of you, for better or for worse, and it can nourish you indefinitely so long as it is not suppressed. The only way to work through pain is by bringing it to the surface — and engaging with it. Choose to create or choose peace, but don’t fool yourself into believing you can have both in full force. Greatness is sparked in dark places.

Years ago, one of my mentors, Seth Godin, sent me a note that simply said, “Scott, keep making a ruckus. -Seth” This note has meant different things to me over the years. But more than anything else, it reminds me to not shy away from conflict. It reminds me to keep fighting. It encourages me to embrace struggle and be wary of complacency induced by comfort.

Your struggle is fuel for whatever it is you must make. It is a renewable resource, and only through conflict do we defy the peace of what already is and make progress.

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An earlier version of this article was shared on 99U.com, along with Rachel’s original interview from 2007. And thanks again to Rachel for sharing insights from her journey.