I recently had a conversation with someone who described themselves as a “100 percent left-brained thinker.” In a moment of honest but self-deprecating humor, he said, “I’ve tried to be creative. I’ve tried to sit down and do creative things. I’m just bad at it.”
Oversimplification of the right-brain/left brain dichotomy aside, I was a little taken aback. How can one be “bad at” being creative? Although it seemed absurd, it did get me thinking. What might cause this person to say that? After all, it’s difficult to judge creative products quantitatively. It’s certainly possible that this person produced something that was later quantitatively rated poorly. However, I think it’s more likely that the sentiment of being “bad at” creative endeavors was more a function of how they felt engaging in these activities, which is to say that the process felt unnatural and maybe even uncomfortable. It can certainly feel like we are bad at something when we are out of practice, similar to feeling the acute difficulty of a workout when we are out of shape. But even for the least athletically inclined of us, workouts get easier simply as a result of regular practice, independently of whether our results become objectively “better.” Likewise, having the ability to easily tune into one’s creativity requires regular practice, or at least regular attempts at showing up.
This is a subtle contrast to the popular psychology doctrines claiming that “[patience/willpower/insert quality here] is like a muscle.” These philosophies claim that with time, one’s capacity for that quality gets better and better. I don’t necessarily believe that one can achieve “better” creativity with regular workouts (What is “better” creativity, anyway? This seems precariously subjective.), but I do think that a creative state of mind can become easier to access with regular practice.
What’s the mechanism for this? One mechanism could be that regular engagement in creative activities allows us to identify the things that hold us back, the things that block our creativity, and subsequently let them go (cue the Frozen soundtrack). The most prominent example is fear. Fear surrounding creativity is insidious and comes in many flavors: fear of what others will think, fear of what you might think, fear of wasting time, and of course, fear of failure. All of these fears can be conquered with practice.
Regular engagement in creative endeavors can teach us through repeated exposure that failure (to produce something amazing, or to even produce something at all) is not that scary. A second mechanism by which regular engagement might boost creativity is that repeated sessions allow enough trial and error to teach us what works and doesn’t work to get into the zone. Getting into the zone is different than letting go of fear. While jettisoning fear is essential to finding your creative self, even the most fearless mind explorers may find themselves completely uninspired at times. The absence of fear might get you started, but it may not get you there. It is equally essential to find your personal muse, your catalyst, that takes you to your creative happy place.
Some things never get easier. The first moment of getting into a cold swimming pool. Resisting the box of donuts lurking in the office break room on a Friday morning. Dealing with difficult people. But some things do, and zoning into your creative mind is one of them. So next time you feel like there’s something holding you back from your best creative work, ask, “What’s keeping me from leaning into this creative moment?” And know that the simple act of answering that question gets easier each time you do it.