“Geez, these all look the same! How am I supposed to sort these?”
Every time I fold my laundry, I spend more time trying to tell apart my socks from one another than actually folding. They’re barely distinguishable.
(see what I’m dealing with here?)
Not too long ago, during a particularly tedious case of color-matching, a thought struck me:
“I wonder if my creative projects should be the same?”
Maybe having mostly black and dark blue socks wasn’t so bad. It might even make sense. After all, this makes it easy to instantly recognize them as my socks, yet with a little effort, I can still differentiate the various pairs.
In fact, as I reflected on my past creative pursuits, I realized most of them were like my socks: marginally different, but enough to tell them apart. I was startled. Considering how proud I am of how far I’ve come with my writing, I would have expected to look back at huge, clearly visible leaps in progress.
But there weren’t any. None of the arguably substantial progress I’ve made in the past two and a half years felt like substantial progress. Now I know why. And it’s a sign I’m on the right track.
A lot of the questions I receive from readers come down to “I procrastinate on X – what can I do?”
It almost feels as if people are asking me for permission, and in a sense they are, because procrastination is always a symptom of fear. It may be ancient and elemental, or modern and highly rationalized, but fear nonetheless.
Most of the projects fear handicaps us in are somewhat creative projects: people want to write books, start a blog or build a business (which might be the most creative thing you can do).
When you say you procrastinate, that makes it sound like a mere productivity problem. Implement a couple of tactics and you’re set. The deeper question that underpins this symptom, however, is much harder to even ask:
“How can I be less scared of being creative – of being different?”
The prevailing assumption is that being fearless makes a good artist. The expressionist painter has to be unafraid of opinions. How else would he paint expressionist art? The journalist fiercely stands her ground, confidently publishing her piece about gender inequality – right?
But what if it’s the other way around? Or at least reciprocal? When we see two things appearing simultaneously, our brains automatically assign cause to one and effect to the other. This is a heuristic at best and a false assumption at worst.
(what we see)
“I have to be less scared to become more original.”
That’s the go-to option, which sets you up with the comfortable excuse of several humongous fears you have to deal with – and that’s hard.
But what if you could just become more original to be less scared?
(what we might be missing)
I don’t recall feeling super confident about the first few articles I published. However, each one made it easier to publish the next. Practicing your creativity in a comfortable setting can do the same for you.
Hence, I’ll try to answer these two questions today:
- How can you practice creativity every day?
- How will this stop fear from paralyzing you?
If you’re a creative, this’ll help you do more of it. If you aren’t, but want to be, this’ll help you get started.
A Biology Lesson About Creativity
In 12th grade, one of the big, overarching subjects in my biology course was ecology. It’s the study of organisms and their relationships with each other, as well as the environment. One of the more memorable concepts we learned about was the “ecotone.”
A transitional zone between two ecological communities, as between a forest and grassland or a river and its estuary.
It’s the intersection of one biologically self-sufficient ecosystem and the next. Here’s me at an ecotone in Austria in 2014:
(random selfie – turned out well!)
There’s a lake, a forest, mountains, and they all clash. This makes mother nature creative, which is why interesting things start to happen:
- Grasses change color.
- Plants change shape.
- New species emerge.
- Exotic species multiply.
In any ecotone, there’s a lot of socializing going on, but the blurrier the barrier, the merrier the mingling.
(no. 7 is my favorite, what’s yours? – source)
Of course we live in an ecosystem too, but we rarely wander to the edges. Time to change that. Let’s find our ecotone!
When Grandma Whips Out The Sprinkles: Comfortably Creative
Unless you already live in one, you don’t have to move to a swamp to cash in on mother nature’s cocktail parties. You can do it right from the comfort of your very own ecosystem: your home. Everyday life offers plenty opportunities to practice being, as I call it, comfortably creative.
You’ve been on the receiving end more than once. When grandma suddenly puts sprinkles on top of her famous apple pie, there are only two possible reactions to her bold, creative move:
- “Ohh, this is yummy, you should always do it this way grandma.”
- “It’s alright, but I like it better the way you usually do it.”
The feedback you give her is either “cool, this tweak really works” or “no harm done, but let’s stick with what we know.” No sweeping declarations or extensive fear-busting exercises necessary.
Your everyday life is a safe zone, in which you can practice creativity without the real-world consequences. Let’s pick up the laundry again (ha!). What incremental changes could you make to this chore?
Here are some ideas:
- Use your left hand to turn your socks inside out.
- Think of a new technique to fold shirts.
- Try to get the wrinkles out of your shirts without ironing them (for example like this)
- Leave your sheets inside out and flip them right when you put them over your pillow and comforter.
…you get the idea. The important part is to come up with these yourself. Being comfortably creative comes down to continuing to change how you do the things you’re used to doing. Do what you always do, but do it in a slightly different way.
It’s about walking to the edges of your ecosystem, looking for the border and saying “Hey, what else can I do here?”
Life Around The Edges: Where Being Comfortably Creative Leads You In The Long Run
You could file this away under “fun exercises to try” and then never do it, but what if you really meant it this time? Let’s take a second to imagine your day-to-day in a 24-hour-circle. Inside, you’re cozy, you know everything well and there are no unpleasant surprises. On the outside, you have no clue what’s going on.
Let’s assume you spend most of your days doing the following eight things:
- Morning Routine
- Evening Routine
We can add them to the circle (obviously not spread evenly):
There’s a certain level on which you know how to do all of these things, and what you default to on most days is the most efficient version of each habit. Efficient doesn’t necessarily mean fast, just that it’s the variant that requires the least mental effort.
For example, your alarm might go off at 7 AM every day, at the gym you run three miles and your evening routine is to brush your teeth, read for 15 minutes, then go to bed.
On those days, you stroll along close to the center of the circle.
But not all days are like that. Sometimes, you might have to change your morning routine, get up earlier for work, use a different machine at the gym and cook what’s left over.
On some days, life pushes you to the edge of your safe zone. It nudges you away from the center of your circle and closer to your ecotone. You’re forced to walk to the border and peek outside.
What you’re doing is barely distinguishable from what you’re used to, yet slightly different. Your brain makes new connections, but feels familiar enough to not set off your overly sensitive fear sensors. You have to put in a bit of effort, but you can handle it.
What if, instead of waiting until life forces you to, you deliberately chose to live your life around the edges?
You could voluntarily push your circle to the outside. When you’re in charge, when you’re the one thinking of the tweaks, changing the alarm, cooking a new recipe, or reading standing up, change isn’t stressful. It’s fun.
Plus, you can always come back. Circle the center for a while. Recharge. Walk to the edge. Then come back again.
Each step is a foot set halfway between what’s familiar and what’s uncomfortable. Some might call this half-assing what you’re capable of, but it’s also half-beating your fears, building your confidence in increments.
When you cross the point where your confidence to try the next thing consistently beats the fear of failing in front of others, exploring becomes your default state, experimenting your status quo.
You start living entirely in your ecotone.
And that’s when the snowball turns into an avalanche.
The Fairy Dust Of Creativity: The Adjacent Possible
Before long, pushing the boundaries of your circle will become so habitual you can’t not do it.
As your circle gets bigger and bigger, you’ll spend a lot of your time very close to what Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, calls the adjacent possible.
The adjacent possible awaits right outside the edges of your circle, containing all potential things, ideas and concepts, which could be created with humanity’s current level of expertise and technology, but haven’t been thought of.
It’s what’s conceivable, but yet hasn’t been conceived.
This is wonderful, because as you hang around the edges, being comfortably creative, you become more original by creating more opportunities to be original. It’s a bit like stepping into dust, where each step whirls up more dust and shuffles the particles again.
The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations.
As you cast off your fears, wrap yourself in confidence and become your own renewable source of creativity, you’ll grasp the true craft all creatives must master: the art of reinventing yourself.