Pushing Isn’t Pushing

We’re all familiar with pushing ourselves. Upping caffeine, lowering sleep, focusing intently, and sometimes actually getting something done before we burn out and pretend it was worth it. Creatives also push themselves, but I think we’re facing double trouble when we do – because there’s pushing yourself and pushing yourself creatively.

Pushing ourselves alone is a gamble – as I sarcastically noted above. You can try to go above and beyond in effort and hours, but also risk burning yourself out for nothing. Many a creative has a sketch or rough draft that makes them wonder “what the hell was I thinking” during their last caffeine-and-dubstep binge.

(I just assume dubstep keeps you going. Look, I’m in a retro jazz/exotica phase right now.)

But pushing oneself creatively and just pushing oneself in general is not the same thing and I think many a creative confuses the two. To push oneself creatively is to try new things, imagine different, try a new style. It’s to go to the edge of what we can do and dare to step over into unknown territory. It’s not the same as just plain long-haul overtime.

In fact, I’d say treating pushing yourself creatively as some punishing march produces too little payoff for the damage and gets it wrong.

Pushing oneself creatively is a case of openness, of wandering, of experimentation. You have to do things more, different, and in other directions. Yes you may have to push yourself effort-wise, but it’s to push past boundaries and blockages and habits, not just sheer head-against-wall effort. Treating it as some kind of struggle like a marathon studying session puts you in the wrong mindset and focusing in the wrong thing.

Pushing yourself creatively always has an element of unsurety, of play, of going in circles for the sake of seeing what happens after a few rotations. Turning it into a grind, of “I have to ram through this,” or “I have to try these six different things no matter what” really just means you stop focusing on creativity and focus on metrics or just plain making sure you suffer appropriately. It’s not going to make you more creative, it’s going to make you more miserable.

There’s a time in place for a creative to push themselves in sheer effort. Sometimes it can help creativity, with some boundaries, like seeing how fast you can write, or trying a scene differently, or, hell, ALL of NaNoWriMo. But you need to have the space to push your creativity by being creative and that doesn’t always lend itself to the grindset mindset.

In closing, let me recall a friend who went through some tough times. They focused on their creative projects, which did take effort, but they kept that state of play. They not only improved on their own projects, it also got them through said tough times. It was a push, but a push that was fun and actually sustained them.

Next time you’re on the creative grind, ask just what you’re trying to do. You might do more with less pushing. In fact, you might find it’s time to get more done by playing.

Steven Savage