the life-or-death pursuit of creative-badass joy (+ why we’re all entrepreneurs now)
When Jen Louden invited me to blog about creative joy, I couldn’t help thinking about how we have yet to put creativity — as a value, as a practice –at the center of our lives, our families, our culture.
We’re trained to be productive. We have to put food on the table. Who can afford the time and money to be creative, especially with all that daydreaming involved, that pointless wandering around? We’re coming out of an Industrial Age that trained us to be factory workers, sensible professionals, linear thinkers. Creativity had little to do with any of this. It was banished to the sidelines otherwise known as Bohemia, not exactly known for a flourishing economy.
But now, as we enter this post-consumer era where we differentiate ourselves not through our factories, but our ideas, the question has flipped upside over. As we step into The Creative Age, who can afford not to be creative?
Creativity is the ability to find new solutions to old problems, to make something new from what is. To see new patterns beyond the existing ones. To rethink one or more aspects of what is given. — from the book WELCOME TO THE CREATIVE AGE by Mark Earls
Whether the problem is personal (finding a job, juggling work and family, losing weight, getting out of debt) or global (fighting poverty, fighting human trafficking, fighting the oppression of girls and women, fighting climate change), the ability to find new solutions seems, shall we say, damn crucial.
One could even say that our survival as a species depends on it.
I consider myself a fan — and a friend — of Silicon Valley whizkid Ben Casnocha, who just came out with a book called THE START-UP OF YOU. The book suggests that in a world like ours, laughing hysterically at the very notion of a five-year plan, we are all entrepreneurs now: of our own lives, innovating and creating and co-creating as we go.
I like the analogy.
A startup isn’t a company so much as a loose organization in search of a business model that will make it a company. It has to figure out what it does best (as opposed to what it thinks it does best), how it can solve a problem or fulfill a need in the real world (and not just in theory); it has to stay open and flexible and quick on its feet, absorbing what doesn’t work and leaning into what does. It starts out with Plan A, comes into new information (the kind that less-entrepreneurial types might perceive as ‘mistakes’ or ‘failures’), and pivots to Plan B. Or Plan M or Q or Z. It observes, tests itself against the world, learns, tests itself some more, learns more, and through a series of calculated risks — small experiments and little bets — moves toward that sweetspot where what it is and what it does intersects with what the world needs. And everyone is better off.
Successfully navigating a world of constant change, where things are one way one moment and another way the next, is a deeply creative act.
After all, the only way to stay ahead of the future is to invent it.
(Before your resources run out.)
I think about this when I look at my sons, now five and a half and eight years old. How to prepare them for a future when you don’t even know what the future is going to look like? How to prepare them for careers that could become obsolete or don’t exist yet? What if preparing them now means equipping them with the skills and tools to invent and create? To combine ideas, reframe problems and solve them in new ways?
Am I doing that? Am I cultivating their creativity, their curiosity?
Am I setting an example?
I am no photographer by any means — my digital camera defeats me — but dude, do I love Instagram for Android. I love to compose shots, or crop and edit existing shots; I love to run them through the different filters and see what results. I started playing with Instagram while waiting for a website to load (my Internet was having a very slow night) and then, when I looked up, two hours had passed.
My initial response was to berate myself for wasting time. It’s not like those two hours had advanced my life in any obvious or clearcut way. I had done something just for the doing of it. The creative joy.
(It deepens and rounds out your day. It’s like disappearing into the moment and touching some mystical ground, then surfacing, restored. I felt a calm that I would take into the ‘real’ work of my writing or my interactions with my kids.)
And yet. I know that you don’t live your life in neat little compartments. The brain is wired to seek patterns and meaning, and what it learns in one domain it transfers to another. I am developing my eye, my aesthetic, and I am learning about the self that reflects back from the images I make. I am also learning about how you change ‘reality’ just by the angle or the light, or a shift in perspective. There’s no telling how this will influence other areas of my life, but I know that it will; how you do one thing is how you do everything.
Just because something doesn’t seem relevant now, doesn’t mean it won’t prove relevant later, as various authors point out in the book JUST START:
When you’re operating in the unknown…It is not always clear beforehand which pieces of information, or which potential assets, are worth paying attention to and which are not. This means everything is potentially important, at least initially. It is only later (or after the fact) that we know which things were critical and which were superfluous.
Steve Jobs dropped out of college so (ironically) he could just go to the classes that interested him. One involved calligraphy, an ancient art form not exactly in demand in the workaday world. But it helped Jobs develop a formidable sense for beauty and design that, ten years later, he would build into a company called Apple. (“Taste,” Jobs once said, “is trying to expose yourself to the best things humans have done and then trying to bring those things into what you are doing.”)
Jobs’ interest in calligraphy was a dot that connected up with other dots. It became relevant. In hindsight, the connection of those dots seems logical. Back then, people no doubt thought he was nuts, a dilettante, drifting and wasting time.
It turns out that emotion is not divorced from reason. Emotion enables reason. Emotion acts as a kind of mental GPS, leading us toward what helps and away from what hurts. Emotion enables us to assign things their proper weight and make decisions accordingly. Without it, saving a child from a burning building would imprint itself on your brain with the same importance, or unimportance, as tripping over your shoelace. It isn’t emotional people but unemotional people who make decisions that strike others as irrational — or who can’t make them at all.
…emotions are rooted in the predictions of highly flexible brain cells which are constantly adjusting their connections to reflect reality. Every time you make a mistake or encounter something new, your brain cells are busy changing themselves. Emotions are profoundly smart and constantly learning, they are not simply animal instincts that must be tamed.
Creative joy, then, is an arrow pointing us toward what helps. It evolved as part of a system of emotions that mapped out our survival. Creative joy reveals our interests and hints at our abilities. It demonstrates our strengths. It shows us who we are. As Andrew Halfacre points out, often it’s not a single overriding passion that defines you but “a patchwork of passions which you stitch together to keep you warm”: not one dot, but many.
Creative joy — if you’re willing to listen to it — is the unifying thread that leads you from one dot to the other to the other until you can connect them or “stitch together” into a greater whole. It’s not a quick process. It might take twenty years. So maybe nature instilled a more immediate reward to keep us involved and on track: the joy of the act itself. Turning our backs on that — dismissing it as a frivolous or “selfish” use of time — could mean rejecting life itself.
And wouldn’t that be tragic.
tweetable: “creative joy is an arrow that points us to meaning” click to tweet
Check out the Creative Joy Retreat led by some favorites of mine: Jennifer Louden, Marianne Elliot and Susannah Conway.