The Creativity Paradox

(This column is posted at and Steve’s Tumblr)

There’s something horribly restrictive about creativity. Ever start something and feel trapped? Ever have an imaginative project become a burden? Why?

If you think of it, creativity means that you can do anything. The human mind can imagine things that were are are, never were but could be, and are not but shall be. In a creative act, from an add campaign to a novel, you could do anything.

Modern tools make things even easier. A decent set of CGI tools or self-publishing can bring any work to life.

Yet, why are creative works and acts so often frustrating, feeling like a trap? Why do we worry over writer’s block, argue about subjective artistic choices, or turn creative work into a death march? That’s because the sheer opportunity of creativity and all the options leads us to make bad choices.

When you can do anything, you can find new ways to screw it up.

The Choice of Paralysis

We all know writer’s and artists with too many ideas in their heads – indeed we may be one. They have all the opportunity in the world – and can’t decide what or how to do it. They are paralyzed by the very power they have to create.

Soon, nothing gets done because they can do anything. One choice is swapped for another, one color for another, and nothing truly finishes. It’s like constantly trying to adjust your thermostat.

(This is similar to the business term, “Paralysis through Analysis.”)

We can be free, only to be lost in a maze of maybes.

The Choice Of Fear

Having many ways to create, we also can see many paths to failure. Which is the right option out of an infinity? Which will get the job done? Which will at least keep people from getting angry at us?

Lost in fear, we loose our creative edge – it’s hard to imagine when you’re second-guessing everything. Creativity becomes a constant dodge of imagined failure and anger. At best, we imagine ways around problems we also imagined.

Fear is one of the causes of the Choice of Paralysis as well. Because we’re afraid, we’re endlessly using our imaginations to come up with things we then decide aren’t good enough.

Creatives are good at imagining, and often imagine worst cases.

The Choice Of Miscommunication

Communicating creative works is hard. There’s often something visceral, beyond words at the core of what we do. But we must also make it accessible to others – because our audience is often not us.

Yet with so many options, do we choose the one that helps people get it? I’m not talking about over-explaining, I’m talking about using our infinite choices to create a work that is accessible to the audience. It’s all well and good to have a great idea, but not if people can’t enjoy it.

At times, frustrated, we may avoid addressing miscommunication, because we expect to be “misunderstood.” We don’t have to.

At times, aloof, we may figure that we don’t have to work to be accessible, for the journey to understand our creations is part of them, right?

At times, we fear miscommunication – and the Choice of Fear catches us again.

We have infinite options, and sometimes choose the ones that lock people out or can never figure how to talk to them.

The Choice Of Restriction

When confronted with many options, some of us don’t choose to wander through creative options, we instead restrict our choices. Plans and plots, review sessions and sign-offs, imagination turned into a checklist. We try to restrict and channel creativity, to avoid both too many opportunities as well as the fear of failure.

In this case we probably stomp all the fun out of it – and make ourselves less creative. It’s hard to look forward to your next work when all you can see is lists and marketing data.

Worse, we often make the Choice of Restriction because it helps us deal with the other bad choices. If we build some elaborate system it’ll solve all our problems! Of course we then imagine a system that destroys the fun of creativity.

We try to control creativity and thus make it harder.

The Choice Of Safety

Confronted with many fears, with marketing needs, with needs for a paycheck, many creatives opt to play it safe. Make the same thing over and over. Don’t innovate too much. Recheck everything. Make it like last time.

We take all that potential and make it like te last thing we did. Some creatives are satisfied by this – and the paychecks – but not everyone. Besides “Survivor bias” paints a far rosier picture.

This is often the end result of the Choice Of Restriction. We give up on creativity entirely, and just make it into a machine. We may wonder, at times, why we’re so frustrated, but may lack the imagination to know why.

We can try to stop innovating, just to be safe. It somehow doesn’t feel safe.

Facing the Paradoxes

So now, facing these paradoxial choices – Paralysis, Fear, Miscommunication, Restriction, Safety, how do we creatives deal with them?

By getting ahead of them. You’re a creative person – you should be able to create ways AROUND these limits. You need to face them head on. Here’s a few things I found, but you’ll need to find your own methods:

Paralysis – Can be addressed by making and reviewing choices, accepting imperfections, and iterative improvement.
Fear – Can be addressed by diving in, producing, facing it. In a few cases personal support or even therapy may help, but don’t let fear rule you.

Miscommunication – Develop empathy with people. Learn to understand them. Also learn that you can’t please everyone – don’t be angry about that, accept it.

Restriction – Can be addressed by making it unnecessary as you’ve build in your own ways of channeling work, but giving yourself space.

Safety – Dealing with Safety requires us to regularly get out of our comfort zones. It doesn’t mean some radical push, it means regularly poking your head out a bit more, trying new things.

For me, using Agile methods have been my methods. Regular reviews help me stay on track. Setting out blocks of time gives me freedom. Staying in touch with my vision gives me guidance and inspiration. It’s worked for me – it may work for you.

But my methods or not, tackle these issues head on.

As a Creative, find your methods, your ways, to deal witht hese issues. They might be my ways, they may be someone elses, they may be yours. But when you address these Choices that make Creativity so paradoxial, then you can truly get amazing things done.

With less stress and less of the wrong kinds of paradoxes.

– Steve