Do you ever feel like you're creatively stuck? Like you're locked inside a room, wanting to open the door? Except the door's locked, preventing you from stepping through to the next level?
Sooner or later, most creative people hit the wall. That unhappy place where the exit door is locked and you're going nowhere fast. Even highly successful artists confront that locked door on occasion.
So how do we avoid artistic stagnancy? How do we keep our creative momentum going? By changing our mindset and abandoning these seven, destructive habits.
Stop practicing, start learning
When I was a boy my parents bought a beautiful, baby grand piano. It wasn't long before curiosity had me tinkling the ivories. My mother found an elderly Latvian woman in town named Mrs. Hincenbergs. She taught classical piano and mom signed me up.
I was expected to practice daily in preparation for Friday classes. Sometimes I practiced, other times I watched Star Trek. Mrs. Hincenbergs always knew the difference. Interestingly, it wasn't the practice that improved my playing the most.
Yes, practice helps. But direct learning helps more.
I remember trying to tackle Claude DeBussy's Clair de Lune. I practiced and was able to play the piece, but my performance was robotic. Mrs. Hincenbergs had me slide aside the piano bench, and she sat down to play.
I listened and watched as she performed Clair de Lune. Then she stopped and played different parts of the piece over again. "Softer here," Mrs. Hincernbergs said. "Don't pound on the keys. Sometimes gentle, sometimes more expressive. Feel the music, don't just play it."
One can practice writing, painting, or playing music. But practice does not insure growth. Especially when we are practicing wrong.
Observing and listening to Mrs. Hincenbergs play the piano taught me a great deal. Her playing and specific instructions are where my greatest learning came from. I didn't realize in my piano practice the areas that were lacking.
I've experienced the same thing with painting landscapes. I'd stay up at night in my studio practicing. Painting trees, rocks and skies over and over. I made progress, but it was slow.
Eventually, I began watching instructional videos, and was able to learn a great deal about proper values, design, color harmony and more.
There's a saying: "Self taught artists have a fool for their instructor." Practice without instruction is a slow path.
In high school I played varsity tennis. To prepare for various competitions and meets, everyone on the team would practice. We'd play against one another, rally and conduct drills to improve our serves and volleys.
Interestingly, some of my greatest growth as a tennis player was when my Dad sprung for private coaching lessons. My instructor, a large man named Charlie Sharples, used a ball machine to watch how I hit each return.
It didn't take long for Coach Sharples to spot the flaws in my swing and timing. Even though I was already a varsity player, I learned a great deal from Coach Sharples. Small, yet important tweaks that unlocked that door, allowing me to step through to the next level.
The habit of regular practice has its place, but focused learning is more powerful. Direct instruction, workshops, videos and books will accelerate your understanding and abilities. Focused learning can be arduous and exhausting at times, but you'll grow much faster.
Underestimating how long things take
Time is a funny thing. Seems most of us are constantly misjudging how long things take to complete. Whether it's estimating our time of arrival at an event, or how much time we need to complete a project.
We're overly optimistic, often because we don't want to disappoint others. Or, because we're over confident. Sometimes, it's because we don't want to disappoint ourselves. In the end, things frequently end badly.
A lot of artists and creatives build a bit of skill, put up a website and try selling their work. Their website generates crickets, sales are poor, and they become demoralized. The problem? They underestimated how long it takes to become really good at their craft.
There are millions of artists, writers and creatives out there. What separates the luminaries in each field from all the rest? They put in more time.
I'd love to paint figures like the artist Jeremy Lipking, or landscapes like Clyde Aspevig. But I haven't been at it as long as them. They've invested in the instruction and years of learned practice.
The author Malcolm Gladwell has written about the 10,000 hour rule. That most paths to mastery require this amount of time. Some disagree. The point is, if you want to see real creative growth, you need to stop underestimating how long it takes.
The hours of learning. The hours of guided practice. They take longer than you think. Every time you watch NCIS reruns, you sacrifice your progress. Every time you sleep in, you rob yourself of faster creative growth.
Stop underestimating time. Use it more wisely. More effectively. If you do, your creative growth will explode.
Everyone craves validation and approval. We want to know that the work we do matters. It's normal to seek positive feedback and recognition. The only problem is that flattery is highly unreliable.
People lie every day. Sometimes for sinister reasons, but often because it's expeditious and convenient. A quick compliment averts a longer conversation about the truth.
"Honey, does my butt look big in this dress?" she asks, already knowing the answer but seeking support. "No, you look terrific." Little fibs keep the peace. But they prevent us from hearing the truth.
Your family and friends will tell you that your paintings are terrific. Your poetry is moving. Your music is inspirational. But then, when you put it out there for public consumption, the response is discouraging. Flattery is seldom your friend.
Better to seek honest, constructive, real feedback from professionals in your creative discipline. You may not like what they have to say, but if you're serious about your creative growth, you need to hear it.
When I drew cartoons as a boy, I always showed them to my mother first. She'd rave about them. Reluctantly, I'd show them to my father. "Your perspective is off over here," he'd say, or, "I don't think you have enough contrast in your design." But whenever he'd say, "Well done!" I knew I had achieved something.
Shallow work and multi-tasking
Jonathan "Jony" Ive is Apple computer's chief designer. He is admired in the technology and design world for his work with every Apple product from the iPod and iPhone forward. He is also tasked with the design and creation of Apple's new headquarters, a 2.8-million-square-foot ringed building known as Apple Park.
According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal Magazine:
"The thousands of employees at Apple Park will need to bend slightly to Ive's vision of the workplace. Many will be seated in open space, not the small offices they're used to. Coders and programmers are concerned that their work surroundings will be too noisy and distracting."
For some time now, open office spaces have been the popular approach in high tech and start ups. Conventional wisdom dictated that the open designs would foster greater collaboration, synergy and productivity.
Except, it often doesn't work that way. While it's true that there is a place for meet-ups, brainstorming and collaboration, people are often far more productive when immersed in deep work. Away from distractions.
Best selling author Cal Newport addressed this in his book "Deep Work- Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World." As the Amazon description of Deep Work states:
"Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep-spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there's a better way."
If you want to increase your creative growth, you'll need to set aside the distractions. Don't try to watch NCIS reruns as you write your novel. Stop checking emails and texts while you try to paint. If you have a busy home life, you might have to work at the local library. Or lock your studio door.
Multi-tasking might be possible with shallow work, like sorting laundry while you listen to an audio book. But if you're serious about your creative growth, learn to embrace deep work.
Focused concentration and effort on your art (for a specified period of time) without distractions, will accelerate your growth.
Stop leaving your bed unmade
Four star Navy Admiral William H. McRaven (retired) is a long time navy seal who oversaw the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. He is now the chancellor at the University of Texas System.
He wrote the best-selling book "Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life...And Maybe the World." The book grew out of a popular commencement speech he gave to graduates of the University of Texas at Austin in 2014. He spoke about the 10 lessons he learned from Navy SEAL training.
The first lesson Admiral McRaven discussed was the requirement for each Navy Seal in training to make their beds perfectly each morning. Their trainers would inspect each bed, to insure it was done properly.
Making your bed is a small thing. But the little things in life matter. If you can't accomplish the little things in life, you're unlikely to succeed with the big things in life.
If you want to improve your creative growth, it's important to focus on the details. The little things. For example, when I studied landscape painting with American artist Scott L. Christensen, he often mentioned the importance of details. He urged his students to complete numerous, small studies of rocks, trees, and clouds before attempting to do a large landscape.
If you haven't mastered the basics of your creative passion, how can you expect to stand out with your art? Also, if you give in to laziness, then you won't produce your best work. Creating quality work means paying attention to the details. It means having the discipline to accomplish tasks.
Making your bed in the morning is a metaphor for personal discipline. Set the tone for the rest of your day. Create good habits and routines and you'll improve your creative growth.
Jack of all trades, master of none
If you're a creative person, you likely have several artistic pursuits. For instance, I enjoy writing, painting, cartooning, playing the piano, and singing. I'd love to take up sculpting, too. The problem is that spreading yourself thin across different creative pursuits can dilute your growth in each area.
Yes, having multiple creative passions can be helpful. It can enrich your life and sometimes one passion can complement another. The problem is that you're unlikely to achieve a high level of mastery.
Most highly successful artists are known for one thing. Tim McGraw may appear in some motion pictures, but he is mainly known as a country music star.
If you want to become really good at something and build an audience, you have to pick one thing. Some may disagree, but it's much harder to expect people to embrace all your dimensions. It may be fun to be a jack of all trades. But it's no fun when you haven't mastered any of them.
Figure out what your niche is. The one thing you're most passionate or talented at, and pursue that. There are surely others who follow the same niche. If you zero in on your main creative passion and hone your craft relentlessly, you will explode your creative growth.
Do you remember when Madonna and Michael Jackson used to be really big? Millions of young fans were running around in Madonna outfits and wearing Michael Jackson gloves. They wanted to be just like their idols. Except they can't.
You can squint in the mirror all you want, but you'll never be Clint Eastwood. You can try to perfect an Adele singing warble in your voice, but you'll never be Adele. Even if you sound just like her, you'll always be the knock off version.
Artists and creatives all have their heroes. When I was a teenager I loved the fantasy artwork of Frank Frazetta. I used to copy his style. Same thing with tennis. I fell in love with the dramatic, two-handed backhand of Jimmy Conners. So I emulated it to a tee. People used to say, "Wow, your backhand strokes look just like Jimmy Conners." It was fun, but not original.
Author Austin Kleon wrote a popular book titled, "Steel like an artist." He was encouraging creatives to borrow what has already been done, and then reinterpret it. Reinvent it.
There's nothing wrong with drawing inspiration from different and disparate sources. But eventually, you have to put all that inspiration into your creative mixing bowl.
You have to close your eyes and go deep. Listen to your creative muse, who resides in your soul. Listen to her whispers. Stay true to your heart. The reality is that you don't find your voice. It finds you.
Artistic idolatry is natural. We all find artists, writers, musicians and creative stars who inspire us. But the world is not waiting for a copy cat. The world is waiting for you. Your authentic, unique voice.
Putting it all together
If you're an artist or creative person, sooner or later you're going to find yourself locked in that room. Call it the writer's block or artist's block room. When that happens, take a deep breath and review the seven habits that might have gotten you there:
1. Stop practicing, start learning
2. Underestimating how long things take
3. Seeking flattery
4. Shallow work and multi-tasking
5. Stop leaving your bed unmade
6. Jack of all trades, master of none
7. Artistic idolatry
Finally, consider this extremely important positive habit: volume. How much work are you producing?
You are what you do. I meet a lot of people who claim to be artists and writers. Except they don't produce much artwork or writing. While it's true that practice without learning will slow your growth, it's also true that low volume will slow your growth.
The more you learnedly work on your craft and produce a high volume of work, the faster you'll grow. Dedication to craft means hunkering down and doing the work. Every day. Try to do your best work, but remember that "done trumps perfect."
Better to write twenty articles than labor for three months perfecting one. Increasing the volume of your work will move you forward.
Avoid the seven habits that are killing your creative growth, hone your craft, and increase the volume of your work. Do these things, and the world just might become your creative oyster!
(Photo image: shttefan)
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