How to Be Constantly Creative
“My growth became defined by barrierlessness,” he writes. “Pure concentration didn’t allow thoughts or false constructions to impede my awareness, and I observed clear connections between different life experiences through the common mode of consciousness by which they were perceived. As I cultivated openness to these connections, my life became flooded with intense learning experiences.”
Waitzkin goes on to describe numerous instances through which his openness to learning reaped unexpected sparks. In one instance, he was sitting on a coastal cliff in Bermuda, watching the waves crash down, and suddenly the solution to a weeks-long chess conundrum came to him. He sparked a breakthrough in his Tai Chi mastery after studying a single chess position for eight hours. Shooting hoops in Manhattan helped him finally comprehend the Buddhist concept of fluidity.
“The world of actors and musicians is brimming with huge expectations, wild competitiveness and a tiny window of realistic possibility,” Waitzkin explains. “Two questions arise. First, what is the difference that allows some to fit into that narrow window to the top? And second, what is the point? ... In my opinion, the answer to both questions lies in a well-thought-out approach that inspires resilience, the ability to make connections between diverse pursuits and day-to-day enjoyment of the process.”
Waitzkin sums up this approach by pointing to the Zen Buddhist concept called shoshin, which renowned Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki first called “the beginner’s mind.”
The beginner’s mind isn’t difficult to understand. We’ve all been beginners at something, multiple times. But there’s a big difference between a beginner who actively learns versus one who accepts lessons only passively. Shoshin refers to the former. The beginner who is eager to learn remains open to many possibilities and, as a result, learns not only more, but in most cases more efficiently.
Why does the mindset you take into the creative process matter? Because the only way you fan initial sparks into new and improved products is through a commitment to learning.
If we aren’t eager and open to learn—if we don’t find and trust a learning process—we will either miss better opportunities like a hyper-focused Grinder or we will shortchange the original opportunity like an unwitting Igniter.
How can we know these opportunities will arise? We can’t. That’s why creativity requires trust.
How can we know these opportunities will arise? We can’t. That’s why creativity requires trust. But this trust never leaves us hollow. Even if we don’t seize that game-changing idea along the way, even if we don’t polish that viral product, we build our creative arsenal for the next opportunity. And we grow as creators with better senses about us.
“As a writer,” asks author and screenwriter Steven Pressfield, “how do I know what a character will say? I don’t. I have to trust… whatever comes through from the Muse, the unconscious, the Quantum Soup. I’ve tried patterning characters after real people, to help me get a feel for what they’ll say. It never works… My job is to find who each one is—and let that person come forward on his own.”
Picasso explained the process this way: “The painter goes through states of fullness and evacuation. That is the whole secret of art. I go for a walk in the forest of Fontainebleau. I get ‘green’ indigestion. I must get rid of this sensation into a picture. Green rules it. A painter paints to unload himself of feelings and visions.”
Trusting the creative process is like committing to an expedition in an uncharted land where beginning knowledge is limited and progress is governed by discoveries made, not distance covered. Your most important tools are observation and resourcefulness. There will be days when you can see where the path is heading and other days when the fog is so thick you can see little more than your hand in front of your face. On days when the horizon is visible, you lean forward and stride resourcefully, with observation as your constant companion. On days when there is no horizon, you lean back and stroll observantly, with resourcefulness as your constant companion. Although you might have certain expectations or hopes, there remains an implicit mystery about this journey. This is what drives you and every explorer before you: what might be.
When you have no clarity, you search fervently for the next spark, ready to grind after a promising one.
When you have a bead on clarity, you grind toward it, still aware of the sparks, not immune to them.
To be constantly creative, you must be both an Igniter and a Grinder—and you must understand when one role takes precedence over the other, without losing the other altogether. How? Practice. Your trust will grow as your creative prowess does. But don’t fool yourself. This isn’t that difficult.
If you lean toward being an Igniter, stop using brainstorming as a synonym for progress when you know it’s more akin to procrastination.
If you lean toward being a Grinder, stop using focus as an excuse to ignore other opportunities around you.
If you can agree to be real with where you are right now, you can find creative freedom and reap the creative benefits sooner. You can learn to live out of a spark-and-grind paradigm in which you give both equal value. Although this sort of accurate judgment of your reality might not come naturally or confidently to you right now, don’t let that keep you from seeking clarity. It’s that important to know where you truly stand so you remain neither naïve nor myopic. Don’t be afraid to ask people you trust to help you get real if need be. And don’t be shy or embarrassed about this. I didn’t see the fog my tendency had created. Had I seen it or had someone I trusted shown it to me, circumstances could have rapidly swung in my favor.
In their groundbreaking book Art & Fear, authors David Bayles and Ted Orland explain: “To all viewers but yourself, what matters is the product: the finished artwork. To you, and you alone, what matters is the process: the experience of shaping that artwork.” This is likely why Michelangelo is said to have confessed that if we knew how much work went into his art, we probably wouldn’t call it genius.
In 1990, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “flow” to describe the ideal state of creativity, in which a person’s best intentions and instincts play out in perfect harmony, resulting in joy and optimal results. The more colloquial phrase for flow is “being in the zone.” What ultimately happens when you are in the zone and experiencing flow is that you enjoy an activity for its own sake. As a result, you are able to suck every bit of beauty and joy and education from the experience. Csikszentmihalyi explains, “The key element of an optimal experience is that it is an end in itself. Even if initially undertaken for other reasons, the activity that consumes us becomes intrinsically rewarding.” In the flow state, constant creators come alive and find their rhythm.
Csikszentmihalyi uses the term “autotelic,” which is derived from two Greek words—auto, meaning “self,” and telos, meaning “goal”—to refer to a self-contained activity that is done for the reward of doing it. “Teaching children in order to turn them into good citizens is not autotelic, whereas teaching them because one enjoys interacting with children is,” he writes. “What transpires in the two situations is ostensibly identical; what differs is that when the experience is autotelic, the person is paying attention to the activity for its own sake; when it is not, the attention is focused on its consequences.”
The major benefit, says Csikszentmihalyi, is that an autotelic activity frees you up to sense all that is going on around you. Cue Waitzkin’s “openness” here. You are able to live fully in the moment and don’t miss the small details that enrich an experience. Imagine what this means for your creative endeavors.
What if you embarked on your next creative journey in an autotelic manner—whether it’s writing a blog, teaching a class or parenting a posse? What if you set out to simply enjoy being the best writer, teacher or parent you can be?
When you embrace the creative process, you enter into an activity with the freedom to experience and learn from all it has to offer. That includes the thrill of seeing the finished product, but is not restricted to it. From that place, you are able to seize the prime moments to lean in and grind, and you are able to sense when to step back and expand the original idea to fuel the process more. Expand and contract. Breathe in; breathe out.
Think of an elite athlete like Golden State Warriors’ superstar Stephen Curry. There are nights when he seems to be playing the game at a higher level than everyone else on the court. He passes without eyes. He shoots without thought. He dribbles with 10 hands. We say he’s in the zone. We call him an artist, a genius, a magician. We exclaim that he created “an unforgettable, unbelievable, undeniable masterpiece moment… Curry transcended the game.” LeBron James tweets: “@StephenCurry30 needs to stop it man!! He’s ridiculous man! Never before seen someone like him in the history of ball!”
Curry’s rise to the supernatural is all the more profound when you understand how he actually does it. He was not expected to amount to much at a mere 6 feet 3 inches and 185 pounds. The 2009 NBA Scouting Report on him read as follows:
Weaknesses: Far below NBA standard in regard to explosiveness and athleticism…. extremely small for the NBA shooting guard position, and it will likely keep him from being much of a defender at the next level…. not a natural point guard that an NBA team can rely on to run a team…. Can overshoot and rush into shots from time to time…. Will have to adjust to not being a volume shooter, which could have an effect on his effectiveness…. Doesn’t like when defenses are too physical with him…. Not a great finisher around the basket due to his size and physical attributes…. Makes some silly mistakes at the PG position.
The truth is, had Curry not learned to trust the creative process and evolve into who he is today, that scouting report would have likely proven accurate. But Curry has become what New York’s Drake Baer calls “an extreme outlier… in his ability to process sensory input... In simplistic terms, he’s seeing more of the game, allowing him to exploit opponents’ positioning to create shots, find passing lanes and force turnovers… Curry is something of [a] poster boy for a new era in sports, where superior neural circuitry is regarded as just as much of an advantage as a higher vertical or a sweeter jump shot.”
Steph Curry didn’t get this way overnight. He’s a Grinder who saw the need to become a different sort of player, a more cerebral one who can see more opportunities and seize more advantages than his opponents. Then he worked his butt off to get there. According to Curry, that hard work has allowed him to “feel more creative on the floor… so I can make better moves and have more control over my space out there.” In other words, says Baer, Curry has trained his brain and body to create opportunities out of thin air.
The sum of trusting a fluid creative process is that you set out to shape and become, rather than to solidify or confirm. This small difference is so impactful because it immediately changes your expectations.
Grinders transition away from expectations that are governed by the success and failure of individual products or pursuits. Instead, they are free to allow their work to gain more and more momentum, which evolves into something clearer, better and more affecting than the original results they sought.
Igniters transition away from unrealistic expectations that never materialize beyond the surfaces of whiteboards and Moleskines. Instead, they are free to constantly work out their big ideas, not only into tangible products, but also into products that ignite bigger and better ideas.
Both Grinders and Igniters transition into expectations that are governed by constant effort, education and growth.
Both Grinders and Igniters transition into expectations that are governed by constant effort, education and growth. You become, to use Dostoevsky’s phrase, “engaged in full-time engineering.” As a result, you are constantly learning, evolving and creating. The product in focus—if there currently is one—is not your end product and it does not define you. It is merely a measure of your progress, either through success or failure, along the frontier of constant iteration.
Early in his career, Nolan Bushnell—the co-founder of Atari—was a young Grinder who missed some big sparks that flew along the way. But it seems that by the time the Navigator came around, he’d learned to embrace the Igniter in him, too. Instead of solely focusing on the finish line or the manifestation of the original product, he and Stan Honey remained open to the expansion of the initial spark.
I learned a similar lesson after losing my business. I, too, was a young Grinder who missed the flying sparks along the way. Looking back, I can see now where I could have evolved my business to perhaps weather the dot-com storm and eventually realize the bounty that the top speakers’ bureaus are now reaping from today’s multibillion-dollar pot. But all I knew back then was hard work—and hard work wasn’t enough. Still, I don’t look back with regrets. I wouldn’t be where I am today without my oversight. Bushnell might say the same thing. Sure, I’d like to have figured out a way to keep that flame alive, but the truth is that the ashes of that blaze are what cleared the way for a bigger idea and greater growth.
Prescribed burns are controlled fires that remove dead material and increase the exposure of bare soil, the good stuff that allows widespread growth. In 2010, two researchers studied prescribed burns on Colorado’s Pawnee National Grassland and found that “except after severe drought, prescribed burns done during late winter… increase forage protein content, starting with the first spring after burning.” In a related earlier study, the same researchers found that prescribed burning actually enhanced the digestibility of certain grasses.
Controlled burning stimulates the germination of desirable forest trees, thus renewing the forest. In fact, some seeds, like that of the sequoia tree, remain dormant until fire breaks down the seed coating. Prescribed burns not only renew the earth’s soil so that new seeds can spring up; they also prevent catastrophic wildfires that destroy everything in their path.
In Florida, during the drought in 1998, wildfires incinerated hundreds of homes over the course of nearly two months. More than 45,000 people were evacuated and fire suppression organizations from 44 states responded. To reduce the damage as much as possible, Florida hosted the largest aerial suppression operation ever conducted in the United States. Largely because of this massive effort, protection of structures was quite successful, with only 337 homes damaged or destroyed and 33 businesses burned. However, the damage could have been far less; it could have even been eliminated entirely.
When the ash had finally settled, forestry managers in the area noted that the underlying cause was prior cessation of annual controlled burning. Many homeowners in the area had complained about the smoke smell in the air some five to 10 days per year. Out of courtesy, the controlled burns were stopped, leaving the area highly susceptible to damage and loss.
Don’t make the same mistake and shy away from greater ignition. Not only will you—like me—leave yourself susceptible to an enormous meltdown, you will stall and even stop the growth of better ideas inside and around you.
Whether you have no idea or a big idea you’re already grinding out, press forward. You have to regularly ignite fires to constantly unearth the best seeds. And you must also not forget to step back from the fire you’re fueling and look around. Within the scattered sparks and embers, new signs of growth and better paths for progress emerge.
Excerpted from The Spark and the Grind: Ignite the Power of Disciplined Creativity by Erik Wahl, in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Art is Freedom, LLC, 2017.