In his TED talk, Phil Hansen shares how his physical limitations ultimately became the source of his greatest creativity.
This idea of limitations as a creative source is a time-honored one, well understood by anyone who’s ever created to a prompt. An invitation to “create anything” is utterly paralyzing–with infinite choice we have no idea where to start. A prompt of “Write 850 words about blocks,” on the other hand, sets out parameters that give our creative minds a much-needed focal point.
Limitless, we’re like untethered astronauts, floating helplessly in space. Limitations are like gravity; they ground us and provide a surface for traction.
Resistance springs not from a lack of desire, but from an abundance of it. — Melissa Dinwiddie
So yes, embracing our limitations can be a powerful source of creativity, but I’d go one step further to argue that the same can be said of that bane of every creator on the planet: the creative block.
That’s right: just as Phil Hansen “embraced the shake,” I urge you to embrace your blocks.
Read on, and I’ll explain what I mean.
As an artist and professional creativity instigator, my mission is to help people feed their creative hungers. “I’m stuck,” is a common client complaint, “I just can’t get myself to create.”
Perhaps a well-meaning friend has even suggested that the fact that they’re not writing/painting/making music/etc. must mean that they don’t really want it that badly.
Such advice may be well-intentioned, but it misses a critical point: resistance springs not from a lack of desire, but from an abundance of it.
The truth is, the more important something is to us, the more likely we are to resist it.
Why would we avoid the thing we want most fervently? Underneath the resistance is always some kind of (often unacknowledged) fear.
Fear that I’ll never live up to my dreams. Fear that I’ll fall on my face and make a fool of myself. Fear that I’ll prove, once and for all, that I’m a fraud…
If you desperately long to write (or paint, or sing, etc…) but are afraid your writing (or painting, or singing, etc…) will never be good enough, it can feel easier not to try in the first place. So you freeze.
I call this “perfectionist paralysis.”
This is exactly what happened to me almost twenty years ago, when I decided I wanted to be a writer. I’d always gotten good grades on my college essays, so I figured this would be a snap.
Wrong! Every time I sat down to write, I drew a blank. If I managed to actually eke out a sentence, I’d immediately delete it, disgusted by how stupid or awful it was.
Writing felt excruciating. It seemed painfully clear that I must not be any good at this thing after all, so I took the obvious path: I quit.
It wasn’t until fifteen years later, when I started my blog, Living A Creative Life, that I realized that my block wasn’t a message to stop; although I misinterpreted it at the time, I understand now that my “writer’s block” was a message to let go of my expectations of perfection and just keep going!
The truth is that blocks are not blocks to creativity–it’s pushing through the block that is the creativity.
And releasing the pressure to do “great work” gives us the freedom to try anything.
We can see the truth of this in Phil Hansen’s TED talk: pushing through the physical block that kept him from doing the art he’d always done opened the floodgates to new creative ideas. And letting go of expectations allowed him to try things that he might have dismissed as silly or stupid before, starting with scribbling!
It’s the same with any creative block: remove the pressure of expectations, put your foot on the gas pedal, and you’ll soon find the block dissolving away all by itself.
This is important, because blocks are an integral part of the creative process. They are not going away. Yet as we all know, blocks are painful and profoundly uncomfortable.
Part of what’s so uncomfortable is that pushing through a block usually means making some pretty crappy stuff at the outset. But again, this is a necessary part of the process.
Think of Thomas Edison, who made at least 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb. When a reporter asked, “How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?” Edison replied, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”
In other words, if you’re afraid of creating crap, remember, we need the crap to fertilize the good stuff!
Giving yourself permission to create crap may not be comfortable, but creating isn’t always comfortable! In fact, the most important thing that any would-be creator can do is learn to get comfortable with discomfort.
And the truth is, if you allow yourself to create crap, it doesn’t mean that you will, it just means you’ll create.
So embrace your blocks, and join me in a movement of imperfectionists. Rather than seeing blocks as stop signs, imagine them as bright, green lights, inciting you to let go, and go, go, go.
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