(This article contains reworked material from a post on my previous blog, ‘Cliffjump!’)
Steven Pressfield wrote a post yesterday called ‘Do It Anyway‘, which got me thinking. It’s about powering through the “first I have to…” conditions and excuses we create to justify putting off our creative work. I wrote a comment:
By giving any playtime whatsoever to the ‘first I have to’ demons, we are giving ourselves permission to delay, hedge our bets, stew a little while longer, and generally talk ourselves off the ledge of doing something that might put us at risk of being laughed at. This is directly at odds with the permission we actually need to give ourselves, which is to get on with it, to try and (possibly) fail – or, just as possibly, ace it.
… And then I realized I had more to say. I’m not sure it’s quite as easy as Just Doing It. If it were, a lot more work (creative and otherwise) would get done. The fears that hold us back are more complex than that, they are deep and deeply intertwined. And they become even more insidious when we reconstruct them into habits and systems of rationalized Resistance – to use Pressfield’s own term.
I am not convinced that brute force is the best way to break through these barriers. The excuses we make often cover up old, deep, or very raw wounds, and simply tearing off the bandages might not be wise, or even possible, for everyone. It might work sometimes, for some people, but for many I think it may take more than sheer force of will.
Set up the dominoes
I’ll be discussing this more, and offering my own ‘program’ for getting past barriers, in the upcoming Cliffjump! Manifesto. In the meantime, I’d like to offer one remedy that is perhaps a little easier to put into action than simply not making the excuses you’re currently making.
What’s the secret? Make a commitment for some point in the not-too-distant future. Rather than forcing yourself to sit down Right Now and Be Creative if you’re really not feeling it, build up to it by promising to do something at or by a specific time. Make yourself accountable.
In my own case, I have done this by planning a concert, and promoting it (usually not all that well, but I’m working on that!) so that people are expecting a performance. As much as I dislike starting something when I’m not Feeling The Flow, I dislike canceling my commitments even more. So I have to show up and be ready to get into it.
Some of these concerts are a little different in that they are completely improvised; I have essentially no idea, beforehand, what I will play. I literally walk out on stage, sit down at the piano and look for a friendly-looking note (or chord) to start out with. Then, if all goes well, a few more show up to make it a party.
Generally I am in an acute state of concentration for the first few moments, and whatever comes out as the first ‘idea’ becomes the motive or theme for everything that follows. Another way to look at it: the first few notes are the crystal around which the rest of the music forms.
It’s really a kind of leap into the unknown, a combination of faith and abandon, an act of trust that I will be able to get clear enough, ‘in the moment’ enough to allow something to come through. Making the commitment in advance, setting a date and making myself accountable to an audience, helps engage these energies – rather than their opposite, the inertia of not-doing that can be so difficult to confront directly.
The intimate, stripped-down setting (just me and a piano) also helps put me into a meditative space, and from this space surprising things can emerge. Often I have ‘looking-over-my-own-shoulder’ moments where I watch my hands and listen and think, hmm, that’s odd, I’m pretty sure I don’t know how to do that; in any case, I have never played anything like it before.
I should stress that this is very different than just sitting and playing freely for myself. It is a concert setting, there is an audience, and I am convinced that the presence and attention and energy they bring is essential to the experience, and to the music that is created in the process.
Several of these performances have been released as recordings: Click here to check them out!
On a related note, it’s interesting that Mr. Pressfield and I have also noted a corollary between creativity and running, specifically distance running and marathon training. For many, the best way to engage the energy required to carry out a successful training program and meet a major goal like running a marathon, is to simply sign up for one. Pay the entrance fee, put it on the calendar and start planning around it.
I propose that this is also a great way to get yourself out of a “First I have to” rut. Set the date, and then decide: if you really have to do X, Y or Z first, you’d better get on with it.
So, what about you? What’s your Creative Commitment?