When you go into a project (or start working on something) with any expectation of how it will turn out, you’re limiting your potential.
Creativity thrives in the unknown. Expecting anything (good or bad) as an outcome of your efforts is locking you into those expectations.
Rather than thinking about how you could try something differently – incorporate something you encounter along the way or even seek outside help, as two examples ” you’re going to be thinking about how to align what you’re doing with what you’re expecting.
Which is a straight path to creative failure.
Instead, envision a broad direction and start moving towards it. If things change half-way through, at least you can adapt. Go into the process of creating with a big healthy dose of uncertainty and be prepared to adjust as necessary.
A better expectation for creative work would then be to simply explore, learn, grow.
Because the only ideas you can have are founded on what you already know.
You can’t dream up things that don’t exist if you don’t already know about the pieces required to make them up.
This explains why ideas rely on a certain state of culture and readily-available resources to come to fruition. The Internet wasn’t invented in the 1800s because the sum of it’s parts didn’t exist yet. Similarly, the iPhone, war drones, flower delivery services, the Nintendo Wii, and your grandparent’s famous oatmeal cookie recipe, all weren’t created before their time.
What you know is more powerful than your imagination, but imagination and having a lot of existing ideas is what makes it possible to have really big ideas.
The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table.
So yes, the best ideas you have are the ones you’ve already had, but you can get more by consuming more. Read more, walk more, talk to strangers more, click on weird links, share your ideas with others and invite them to share their ideas with you.
If you want to really have good ideas you’re going to have to consume and experiment occasionally too. Johnson’s second quote reminds us of this:
The patterns are simple, but followed together, they make for a whole that is wiser than the sum of its parts. Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle; reinvent. Build a tangled bank.
Hours or days or sometimes even weeks go into a project and, when I’m there at the end where the big picture is starting to seem a lot clearer and I’m only making small changes, I’ll start to get scared.
Like a runner who sees the finish line but doesn’t want to know his time or whether he’s in first place or last place, fearing it may be the latter.
When I’m just about to finish a project, I’ll start to run hypothetical scenarios through my head. I’ll think: what if nobody likes this? What if nobody wants it or understands it? What if I only hear about how awful it is or how I shouldn’t have wasted my time?
I feel like the cook who made all the preparations for a big dinner but then stopped and didn’t take the food out of the oven, fearing that I might have burnt it.
Undoubtedly the biggest fear I get is that of the critic, of the person who will say that what I’ve made is terrible, that it shouldn’t have ever been made. That my time was wasted.
I have to remind myself that the critical review isn’t important. What’s important is that I did the work, I made something. Something nobody else could have (or would have) made, because it’s got my unique stamp on it. So there’s value in getting it done, shipping it out, crossing that finish line.
Nobody else is going to create the dish you can create. They don’t have your experiences to build from, or your hands to build with, or your thoughts and perspective. You didn’t build the thing for the critics, you built it for those who want to enjoy it. So there’s really nothing to fear. The critics will come, but they always do.
What matters isn’t that they tell you what you’ve created is worthless. What matters is the people who love it telling you (and everyone they know) that they do.
The math is simple: no matter how big a critic’s platform, what moves markets are conversations. And we are far more likely to have conversations about something we’re raving about than something we didn’t like (because when we don’t like it, our friends never experience it and the conversation dies). The win, then, is creating raves, not avoiding pans.
But I won’t know what to make yet. It feels like I’ve got so much fuel to burn but no engine to put it in.
Or, better yet, it feels like I’ve got an itch on the one part of my back I can’t reach on my own, and it’s driving me crazy. What do we even call this feeling? Anticipation or anxiety? A blend of the two?
James Gunter suggested on Twitter that we call it “createstipation” because it’s the feeling you get when you’re creatively constipated.
Whenever I get this feeling, I have to remind myself that the best way to get the ideas out is to just do something. Anything, really.
Just like when you get an itch you can’t reach, finding a tool to help get the itch can be all you need. Or if the itch is really bad you can ask someone to help you get it, they might have an idea that’s ready to go and just needs your energy.
Whatever you do, don’t just sit on the itch. If your creativity gets stuck for too long it could be bad for your health.