What Wouldn’t You Do?

Week 11 of the Oblique Strategies Series

This is part of a series, running through 2016, in which your faithful fool randomly selects one of Eno and Schmidt’s “Oblique Strategies” and analyzes and interprets them. For background on the series and the strategies, please read the series introduction.


There are two types of limits we have when it comes to creative work: those that we just encounter, and those that we place on ourselves. The latter is the most prevalent, and as a result, the most insidious. We place all sorts of limits on what we will and won’t do, and thus limit just how creative we can be. This week’s strategy addresses this very problem:

What wouldn’t you do?

In my mind, there are three different variations of this question. Each variation reveals a different aspect of misplaced doubt or hesitation about doing creative work.

  1. What wouldn’t you do because you think it’s not your style?
  2. What wouldn’t you do because you think it’s been done already?
  3. What wouldn’t you do because you’re scared it’s too daunting?

Here’s an idea: make a list with those three questions, and answer them. Seriously. Just write down the first thing or two you think of for each question. Then, ask the obvious follow up questions:

1. What about that project makes you think it’s not your style?

Is your style so well defined that you can clearly rule out a project when you’re stuck or lacking inspiration? And even if your style is so well defined, is it something that cannot evolve? Why shouldn’t it evolve? Is your style a platonic ideal — a transcendental, unchanging form that is above all the motion of the rest of the world, and of everyone else’s struggles and evolutions? Of course not, why would it be?

Artists evolve. The best ones reinvent themselves and their work constantly. This extends far beyond just those who make art, but also those working with ideas. Thinkers of all kinds evolve — entertain new ideas and examine old phenomena from new angles. There will always be paths that don’t work out as well — or at all. These are merely phases in the evolution. The more crazy and out of place a phase seems, the smaller it may be in the grand scale of an evolution. To believe that you, as a creative, know what is “not your style” so well is a sneaky form of hubris. Don’t close off paths to yourself, it could be the difference between evolution and eternal frustration.

2. Are you sure it’s been done already?

I mean, how do you know — you haven’t actually done it! The devil — after all — is in the details. If you haven’t actually begun to make this thing, what are you even saying has been done? Think of how many movies about battles in space have been made — lots of them. And no one seems to be maligning any of the Star Wars films because Star Trek had already been made.

My point is that your fears that some thing you’ve conceived of has been done already are probably largely unfounded and definitely useless. You can’t know if something has been done already until you actually begin to make that something. So do that, then be the judge. The great thing is, if you start it and you see that it shows striking similarities to something else out there, change it. Tweak, adjust, change some things up, and make it different — just don’t make the mistake that so many of us closet perfectionists do, which is to beat ourselves up for not making something, but then tell ourselves not to make anything unless it’s totally perfect and totally original. Think of how insane that really is.

I’ve got news for you: the Mona Lisa didn’t start off original. It started off just like every other painting at the time. It was a blank canvas and some paint — just like every other painting, good or bad. Even as Leonardo Da Vinici started to lay down some color and trace out a face, the painting was the same as damn near every other portrait. But more than that, the very concept of the Mona Lisa is not original. It’s a portrait, like so many other portraits at the time. What ended up setting it apart is how well done it is. That took place over time, because Da Vinci was not concerned with whether what he was doing had already been done.

3. What is so daunting about an idea?

We almost all have a project or idea that we’ve thought of that is our equivalent to War and Peace. It’s an idea that seems so big and pie-in-the-sky that the thought of even getting started on it is enough to tire us out. Some flavor of this sentiment is attached to many ideas that we try to make real. It is a sneaky enemy to productivity in creative work; it is a mixture of good and bad. It is good because it rightly gives credence to ideas as valuable and worth doing, but it’s bad because it regards many ideas as just too much for you to do. But this is misguided.

No idea is too big to try. All it takes is one word, one brush-stroke, a few lines on paper, and the like. And, here’s the important part: it doesn’t have to be good. A bad first step — or first 100 steps — does not spoil the journey. In fact, the bad first steps will very likely be totally retraced or forgotten as the journey goes on. No one consuming the end result cares about that part of the journey — and if they do, they already understand that a crappy start is often par for the course when it comes to great creative work. If you are scared of having another unfinished project hanging around, have fun with that concept. Tell yourself that you’re starting this project just to make a crappy run at it — to do a really crappy job for just a little bit. Frame the crap; keep it for your records.

There are so many things we are not doing, but I think there are too many things we think we think we just wouldn’t do — more than we’re aware of. Being aware of these things, and the reasons we have, may just enlighten us to how much we allow our subconscious to limit our creativity. Those are limits we truly cannot afford. Shaking them off is part of the process of doing good creative work. It’s not glamorous, but it’s necessary.

Godspeed.

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Originally published at Your Fool Laureate.

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