To continue to train my writing muscles, I sat down today to begin writing the kind of words of encouragement that I myself need. Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll have a whole list of them that I can publish later. Maybe I won’t. Either way, today I gave myself a lesson on fighting fear.
Note: partially inspired by a small section of Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity by Charles Duhigg.
Getting comfortable with discomfort
The creative life is surprisingly hard. That’s not to say that having a regular practice of doing things that you love isn’t rewarding. It is. But being a creative professionally is very much about embracing your drive for excellence, and excellence is demanding.
In the 1950s, a biologist named Joseph Connell studied the conditions under which nature was most creative. (Alternative statement for my dad: the conditions under which the Great Engineer brought about the most biological diversity in nature.) It turns out, like Goldilocks, nature highly prefers the middle way. Too big a disturbance – a hurricane, a large-scale forest fire, human stripmining – biology falls to a single or small number of very resilient species. Too small a disturbance, or none at all, and one or two very successful species take over. In the middle, though, when a tree falls, disturbing the canopy and allowing sunlight to hit the ground, or when intermittent heavy storms hit a part of the coral reef, a huge assortment of species thrives. This is referred to as the intermediate disturbance hypothesis, and it’s a mainstay in biology.
Creativity is not just about making pretty things; it’s about combining ideas in novel ways, and allowing an assortment of point of views and thriving ideas along the way. Great work involves stepping back to see a wider view of the world, and the worlds you make. It is an assortment of views, a maelstrom of ideas, seen through the focusing impact of one person’s view and experience of the world. Or many, though that is always harder.
We, like the forests that Connell studied, do best under just a little threat. A little anxiety, a pressing deadline, the fear or the struggle of the creative process – these are necessary. When the storms of life come, sometimes they are too much for us. But neither is leisure good; we must learn to embrace the little stretches, the little discomforts, the little fears. When you sit at the keyboard, or when you sit in front of your easel or your notebook or your lectern, when the work is done – then, expect to be uncomfortable. The brain knows that creativity is not an activity of rest.
So when you sit down, and you face fear – breathe through the fear. Get comfortable with being a little uncomfortable. If you run from the small distresses, you run also from the big breakthroughs. If you run from the fear, you run from the opportunity for new and creative things to grow. So do not run; do not move away from the discomfort as if it were something unexpected and horrifying. Instead, greet the feelings as an old friend, a difficult relative, or boss who gets under your skin but demands your best work. The discomfort is part of the process. It is your teacher. It is the silent witness, the pressure, the falling tree that opens up the opportunity for a multitude of thriving, creative results.
It’s time to grow.
Alex R. says
Very well said. And I mostly agree. Except sometimes, if you get lucky, you pass through the discomfort and reach a blissful state of joy in your work, pleasure without the pain and produce something really, really great.
At least in theory. One assumes that some people actually enjoy what they do for a living.