I was recently asked at an event I attended for a short list of things every creative should know. I like very narrow questions like this that attempt to make big statements on universal principles because it is absurd to think I could articulate something definitive about what it means to be creative or make art. Because I know the question is crazy to start with, I have the freedom to just riff on the idea, throw caution to the wind and give my best guess. I'm so presumptuous that I proposed a different list to try and answer the question, not a list of things creative should know but in homage to Mr. Duhig and Mr. Covey, I came up with five habits that I think are universally good for creative people. I've paid no real attention to the legitimacy of my claim, it's solely based on my experience and personal research, so here we go!
1. A Good Art and Idea Diet
Just like a healthy diet is vital for a physical body, Creatives need "nutrient-rich" art to metabolize in order to produce meaningful work. There is no standard or prescription for this, it's not like you need to go to art galleries all the time and listen to classical music non-stop, it's more a matter of being thoughtful to the balance of art/media/content you're allowing into your mind. You must genuinely enjoy what you are consuming. In other words, it needs to have some kind of taste that pleasant or, but you need to reserve at least a small place in your time to absorb art you don't understand. I think about this when it comes to the 1-3 hours of video-time I have every day. Christa and I sometimes have different preferences from the shows and movies we watch at the end of the day. I'm often in the mood for a "heavy meal" (darker subject or more complex) while she is usually ready for an escape or something comforting. This does in no way mean that all she watches is fluff and all I watch is serious art. We do both and often skip the video altogether and read or listen to a podcast or audiobook. We also go regularly to museums, plays, concerts. The critical principle is here is to make sure you are engaging with stuff that's more than merely entertaining but is transformative.
2. Pray or Meditate
Just to be clear, the prayer I'm referring to here is not the kind of petitioning prayer when you pray FOR something. The prayer I'm talking about is mostly about listening. It comes in a variety of methods but as far as I have experienced, and from the other research I have done, it has two essential ingredients, stillness and focus. This might mean that your body is physically still or you are focused on an inner stillness for an intentional period. For example, my prayer life often involves running. The movement of my body in a steady rhythm allows me to find stillness in my mind (more like wrestle with stillness in my mind). True prayer will push against the noise in your head. it is, as Fr. Richard Rohr says, an exercise in "assured failure." It's not hard to find resources that will educate you on the mental, emotional, spiritual and creative benefits of this kind of prayer and meditation, however, I recommend that you read "How God Changes Your Brain" by Dr. Andrew Newberg.
3. Stick to a Routine (but cheat sometimes.)
Creative work is problem-solving, and problem-solving is decision making. I'm one of those people whose will power and decision making ability decreases as the day goes on, so, one of the practices that I've found to be helpful is that of minimizing the number of decisions I need to make on a given day. I can't remember when it clicked for me that planning and scheduling; the type of work that is often thought of as "non-creative," is indeed the practice that makes creativity possible. Establishing some kind of rhythm or routine combats a reactive orientation to life and makes a deliberate path toward the space needed to foster more profound creative work. One of the small yet "big" habits I've found over the years was laying out the clothes I'm going to wear the night before. I even go so far as to unlace my shoes and set them by the toilet in the bathroom. This way, I'm more likely to go running which will, in turn, make it more likely to shower and since it will still be early, I'll be right by my office so I can sit and write/strategize/create for about an hour before breakfast. It doesn't work all the time, but most days I do this. The regularity of the habit has made it, so I don't use an alarm clock anymore. I know I will wake up at the same time every morning. I don't give my mind a chance to decide about it, It's already been done, and I can create some space to keep struggling with the more significant problems I'm working on. By the way, I know we're not all morning people, my wife has a very different schedule for when she is more productive and creative. One book related to this that I would recommend is Daniel Pink's "When."
4. Show it to Someone
1. I think I'm one of those unsurprising "creatives" who can sometimes/all-the-time get stuck in my head with esoteric and abstract ideas that never come down out of the clouds into something tangible. I'm especially susceptible to the narrative in our society that glorifies the "starter" over the "finisher." One of the big areas that I'm trying to work on in myself is how to stay present in the work I am doing. Often when a project gets to its half-way point, I begin to lose interest unless the project changes. It's a miracle I finish anything! I think the only reason I have finished the projects I've worked on is that I was responsible to deliver the results to another person. So, I for those things that I truly want to finish, I look for people I can trust to include in the process and promise to show them my work at a specified time. Not that it has to be finished or even show substantial progress, it's just a way to invite a friend into helping me take a stand for something I want. I'm inclined to believe that the idea you have doesn't become art until you show it to someone. Thinking and talking about it doesn't make it art, only taking the risk to labor with it and give it birth will make art. Making the thing and being vulnerable and brave enough to show it is all that counts.
5. Have a De-centering and Cognitive Disfluency Practice.
I saved this one for last since I believe this is the principle that supports these other four habits. While I believe that it is essential to health and flourishing that you find practices and habits that make you feel grounded, centered and safe, I believe it is equally important to have a practice that cultivates your resilience, flexibility and (get ready for this snooty-ass word) epistemological flexibility. These qualities can only be refined within varying degrees of suffering. In other words, you need to expose yourself to stuff you don't understand, the stuff that pokes at the wounds you want to forget, the thing that asks the questions you're afraid to ask. You need to get knocked on your ass a little. It's not fun, but it's where the best learning happens, and it can be cultivated into a practice. The goal of this kind of exercise is not to make you immune to suffering, doubt, and fear but to see those emotions as misunderstood friends with valuable gifts to give. This could look like being curious about the beliefs of people that make you angry or afraid. It might involve visiting a mosque or going to a drag show, it might mean going back to church or reading that book that your Christian aunt gave you. The one necessary ingredient with this habit is that it must be difficult. Difficulty allows you to get into a space that educators call "Cognitive Disfluency."
Cognitive Disfluency is a principle that asserts the theory that when something is learned easily, it is forgotten just as easily so when something is made intentionally difficult, it can increase the long-term learning and retention. Some simple ways to incorporate this is writing your notes long-hand on paper before transferring them to type or spending time learning a new musical instrument. Sometimes I like getting lost while I'm driving and see if I can figure out how to get to my destination without turning on my GPS. I think being brave with food is another way of doing something uncomfortable that will open up a new creative spectrum. That is all this habit is about, creating environments where surprise is possible.
That's my list! I'd love to hear from you about it! Do you agree? Disagree? What if you were to take the challenge of making a "five habits list?" What would your five habits be for?
Thanks for reading!