the part of ‘being creative’ we don’t talk much about



“Far better to live your own path imperfectly than to live another’s perfectly.” -Bhagavad Gita

“Creativity comes from a conflict of ideas.” – Donatella Versace


So much of creative work feels like groping in the dark.

Jonathan Fields refers to it as “embracing the thrash” and Sally Hogshead to “sitting in the throne of agony.”

Both of them say the same thing: you gotta do it.

Embrace the thrash.

Sit in the chair, no matter how bad those electric shocks get.

It’s the part of the process we don’t talk much about. Ambiguity makes us uncomfortable; we want to resolve it fast, or skip it altogether.

We would like to think that someone’s sparkling, crystal-clear vision for their novel or product or company or life leaped magically out of their skull, like Athena born from Zeus’s forehead with nary a labor pain. (Of course, this was because Zeus ate her mother, but regardless.)

The first stage of creativity is a period of preparation: identifying and framing the problem, gathering all your materials, your knowledge and research and experiences.

Then you enter the stage of incubation: where those materials combine and recombine and meld and transfigure and wrestle and bake and thrash out into something new.

That ‘something new’ is the stage of illumination: the eureka moment, the insight, the vision.

(Then you head into the stages of tweaking, evaluation and revision, which I won’t go into here.)

The problem is — as Fields noted in his post — that when we tell the stories of the great creators (whether it’s Picasso or Steve Jobs or JK Rowling), we begin at their moment of illumination – their eureka – as if that was the beginning of their process. But in fact it’s midway through. They’d been learning and practicing and inquiring and seeking and wandering the wilderness for years.

They’d gone all the way up to their own personal cutting edge —

— and found what lay beyond.


In his new book, SO GOOD THEY CAN’T IGNORE YOU, Cal Newport refers to “the adjacent possible”, a term he took from Steven Johnson, who in turn took it from complex-system biologist Stuart Kauffman.

Johnson uses it to describe the formation of new ideas.

New ideas can only be made by combining ideas that already exist “in the space of the adjacent possible”, defined by the current structures of what we already see and think and measure and know.

To get to something new, we have to get to the very edge of those ideas — and go beyond.

“We take the ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape….The next big ideas in any field are found right beyond the current cutting edge, in the adjacent space that contains the possible new combinations of existing ideas.

The reason important discoveries often happen multiple times, therefore, is that they only become possible once they enter the adjacent possible, at which point anyone surveying this space – that is, those who are the current cutting edge – will notice the same innovations waiting to happen.”

Newport takes this idea and applies it to figuring out the mission, the vision, for your career.

(I would apply it to any breakthrough work of creativity.)

“A good mission…is an innovation waiting to be discovered in the adjacent possible of your field. If you want to identify a mission for your working life, therefore, you must first get to the cutting edge – the only place where these missions become visible.”

Otherwise all you do is reinvent the wheel. Lots of enthusiasm, as Newport points out, and little to show for it:

“If life-transforming missions could be found with just a little navel-gazing and an optimistic attitude, changing the world would be commonplace. But it’s not commonplace; it’s instead quite rare. This rareness….is because these breakthroughs require that you first get to the cutting edge, and this is hard – the type of hardness that most of us try to avoid in our working lives.”

In other words, you’re unlikely to hit on the compelling vision for your work — or your life — when you’re an undergraduate, or at the beginning of your working life, or simply coasting. You can’t see enough from that vantage point.

It’s only when you make it through the creative gap — do the stuff that other people won’t and master some niche in your field — explore and experiment and develop skills that create real, tangible value in the world — learn and practice and thrash and grope your way toward your own personal cutting edge.

Then you can look and – eureka – see what’s there.

What compels and inspires you.

What you can do, and contribute; how you can serve the world in a way that’s unique to you and necessary for the world; and for which you’ll be rewarded.

Sep 23, 2012

12 comments · Add Yours

I think creatives are in part to blame for this common misconception. Creative work is often held up us as some kind of mystical activity with talk of muses and inspiration and flights of fancy. However, real creative work is as much of a day job as any other. You show up, get to work and do what you can. As much as I like Steven Pressfield, I feel like his talk of the Resistance and Muses does quite a bit of damage to the budding creative. I much prefer Newport’s interpretation of the career craftsman. Creativity is fun and exciting, but it’s also a job, one that requires training, education and good old street smarts.


This post was right on time. I’m struggling with this right now. I just finished grad school. I’m job hunting, and I’m trying to get into freelancing. On top of that I’ve got the desire to write a book. Yet I’m still feeling a bit lost. I have yet to find my niche, but I won’t find it until I get to work.


Yep, I think that “wandering the wilderness” is key. The word “creative” has been in my professional job title for most of my career, so I’m used to other people’s mistaken expectations that I can pull a bunny out of my ass instantaneously on demand. I’ve done it, but it doesn’t usually happen that way. Mostly, it’s a long slog to get to the right solution. (Plus, I’ve always been a late bloomer in everything anyway.) But, sometimes, the wilderness I wander is actually one of too many new ideas at the beginning of my journey. So many that I struggle to hang on to just one. The muse does exist, and it doesn’t always wait. So, although rare, I do think that beginners in a field are just as capable of the big eureka moments. It’s just that other people don’t take them seriously, and they might not yet know how to execute. Many of us have probably thought of a new product or service only to see somebody else actually develop the idea and take it to market. That’s when I scream. :)


@Luke Redd “I do think that beginners in a field are just as capable of the big eureka moments…”

I do too, and I think that’s generally because they’re transferring knowledge or skills from one domain into another. In which case being ‘new’ — and not knowing what can and can’t be done — and not thinking in the same ways and categories as everybody else — and bringing a fresh set of ideas to mix up with the domain’s usual and familiar ones — is a huge advantage. They might be new to the *field*, but they’re also tapping into some skillset or natural talent they’ve been developing for a long time, possibly since childhood. They’re working in an intersection, a crossing of edges.

@Ash. I was thinking about that state of being lost — nearly opened the post with how I used to deliberately get lost when I was living in foreign cities in order to more deeply learn the neighborhoods. We put so much emphasis on clarity and emphasis and very little on the actual process of attaining that clarity. Which is why I like the phrase — picked up from Marie Forleo — “clarity through engagement”. You have to get out there, engage, learn, readjust, engage, learn…etc. You follow the glimmers of things that interest you and lean into your strengths, into the things that make you feel strong and alive and most like yourself. If we understood passion as a kind of ensemble that comes together slowly, over time and through action and experimentation, maybe we wouldn’t put so much pressure on ourselves to know RIGHT NOW what we’re supposed to be doing with the rest of our lives, and then feel like a loser when we don’t. Sometimes your purpose is to figure out your purpose, and that’s a worthy purpose in itself (so long as it’s not just an excuse to sit and watch reruns of The X Factor).


@Luke Redd Just to comment on what you said here:

“Many of us have probably thought of a new product or service only to see somebody else actually develop the idea and take it to market. That’s when I scream. :)”

Thing is, the idea is the easy part. Successfully executing it and bringing it to market can be incredibly difficult. We tend to romance the flash-of-inspiration part and gloss over the rest, but it’s the ‘rest’ that separates the few from the many.


@justine Oh, yeah, I definitely agree with all you’re saying. :) I guess what I was getting at is that somebody who has little or no experience in a field can have a potentially breakout idea, but it usually goes undeveloped because it requires help and/or additional education (not necessarily formal) to make it happen. Too often, we also romanticize the notion of taking an idea and going it alone. But we stop ourselves because we fear not being taken seriously by those we would approach to help us (because the idea is too “out there”) or we don’t have a plan of attack fully developed right away. We might live the creative life, but we don’t always have the same appetite for risk that entrepreneurs have. We need to step up and embrace the risk and seek help where we need it. Then hope we get lucky. Often, just starting in that direction is all it takes to begin finding the support and answers you thought you wouldn’t have.


That stage of illumination is what makes “the thrash” worth it. And in my experience, the worse the thrash is, the greater the illumination is.


Refreshing clarity


“It’s only when you make it through the creative gap — do the stuff that other people won’t and master some niche in your field — explore and experiment and develop skills that create real, tangible value in the world — learn and practice and thrash and grope your way toward your own personal cutting edge.”

Home run on that one. Robert Frost’s “Road Less Traveled” bedeviled me for years because I could not see it as it was commonly interpreted. There’s disappointment and frustration in that poem, not a happy dance down the road less traveled. The poem says the alternate path is grassy and wants wear, then later states both paths are equally worn, yet he takes the one last traveled. How can anyone possibly take a less traveled path if it’s equally worn, yet grassy and wanting wear? It’s the wandering in the wilderness, going back and forth before making any progress forward. It’s contemplation and mistakes and re-thinking and the frustration of watching new grass grow under your feet as you resist the temptation to sprint along on common thought with the herd. It’s the paradox of wandering a less traveled road while holding still in your own tangled web of unorthodox thought.

I’ve taken a lot of heat lately for refusing the more common path of happiness and a positive attitude. Sure, I like those things, but who wants to live in one state of being in perpetuity? No business or artist takes their audience to one point and leaves them there. It’s dull and puts the audience to sleep. Someone else wakes them up with a bit of drama and the darker side of things, the more difficult and perplexing journey, punctuated with rest stops of happiness. Even Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, which gave birth to the happiness movement, has remained receptive to new thought and had the courage to change his thinking. Happiness is not the goal, it’s well-being, and achieving well-being means discomfort and frustration while finding a path that brings meaning and significance into a well-designed life. A unique and gratifying life that brings new value to self and others out of stale brews. Unfortunately, his book explaining this shift was too heavy with jargon and veered into areas beyond quick-fix, self-help. “Forget your troubles, come on get happy!” remains the theme song of the day, and it cuts off the necessary steps of creation. The unpleasant parts get mowed down under our feet. It’s not the tortured artist syndrome. That’s just as boring and a path without fresh grass and disappearing into the undergrowth in the distance. It’s a chaotic balance,

Not many are willing to walk the cutting edge sticking up from the trash. Glad you’re on the job and making the journey. I hear there’s an intimate gathering of survivors just over the hill. They’re serving wine made from strawberries and beer brewed from grapes.


Thank you, Justine.
This post couldn’t have come at a better time for me. Having one of those “dark tea-time of the soul” moments and am trying to reconnect to the place where I can embrace the thrash again.
And such thought-provoking comments!


Wow. What an inspiring post. Thanks Justine.

Those finds…those creative moments of eureka and genius…are so quick that sometimes it’s like hitting a wormhole that may take a universe to explore. They can be eternally rewarding and happen in a scintilla of time.


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