There’s Always Time to be Creative, even in the Face of Failure

Source: HBR, Dec 2015

… let go of the idea of passion and to focus instead on the idea of curiosity.

We live in a culture that says “passion, passion, passion”… but that can be hard to find when you’re tired and busy. Instead, ask yourself: “Is there anything that I’m even 1/8 of a percent curious about?” That idea doesn’t have to make you shave your head and change your name and quit your job; it’s more like a scavenger hunt, where you’re looking for tiny seeds.

If you can consistently do that, not just once or twice, but every single day, and be diligent about following your curiosity wherever it leads, you’ll find that creative spark.

A wise woman one asked me: “What are you willing to give up in order to have the life that you really want?” I said, “Wow, I guess I have to say no to things I don’t want to do.” And she said, “No, you have to say no to things you do want to do — that party on Saturday night that you really want to go to, that television series that you’re obsessed with … you’re not doing that anymore.”

In Big Magic, you write about what Einstein called “combinatory play” — the act of opening up one mental channel by dabbling in another. It’s why Einstein would often play the violin when he was having difficulty solving a math puzzle, and why you personally took a drawing class to help your writing. What are some other practical things that people can do to enhance their own creative thinking?

The best part of the phrase “combinatory play” is the word “play,” which is something we often stop doing at a young age. If you want to think more creatively, ask yourself “What do I want to play at?”

There’s a season of collection, and then a season of reflection — where you have to start saying no to social engagements, you don’t go to the bar, you stop the interviews, and you start processing. You close your door and turn off your electronics and go deep inside. I don’t think there’s a healthy way to live without one or the other — you need time for processing and reflection, but you can’t live constantly behind the closed door. There’s a time to step out and to step in.

When you’re doing something creative, you have to recognize that it makes you vulnerable, because you have to step forward into a realm that has an uncertain outcome. You’re possibly going to fail, and probably feeling exposed. And you know how you have that one person in your life who tells you to bounce your ideas off of her because she’ll be brutally honest in her feedback? Fuck her. Do not bring your first iteration of a dangerous new idea to someone who prides herself on being brutally honest.

In Big Magic, you’ve flipped the usual question, “What would you do if you could not fail?” around to “What would you do even if you knew you were going to fail?” As you say, when you’re acting on inspiration, the words failure and success become irrelevant; it’s the work itself that’s important.

their boss begins every meeting by saying: “You will never get in trouble in this organization for failing, as long as you fail in increasingly interesting ways. You will get in trouble for coasting …but if you try something and it bombs, you’ll probably get promoted.” That message has changed the entire culture of this organization. It’s why everyone wants to bring their best ideas. It’s why everyone wants to work there. And it’s why authors like me want to work with them.

The freedom to fail — as long as you’re failing in interesting ways — makes for tremendous success.


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