Creativity: Flying the Plane While Building It

So you’ve set some goals, done some planning, and you’re determined not to get freaked out and self-sabotage before you reach success. Maybe you’ve decided to publish some poetry, create some meaningful work, start that novel, or start your own business. Go you!

And then maybe you find that despite all of your efforts, you’re still having trouble getting started. You start worrying that maybe you’re not a self-actualizing creative person after all. Creativity starts to seem like one of those things that only blesses the select few and you’re not one of them.

I believe that everyone has the capacity and ability to carry out creative life projects. Almost everything worth doing in life involves human creativity, whether its falling in love with someone, re-engineering your life after job loss or break up, raising kids, running a business, starting on your latest book chapter, moving to a new city, or making any of your creative dreams come true. Creativity, of course, springs from the act of creation, making something new where there wasn’t anything before. It’s exciting and more than a little bit scary, because you’re never quite sure where your creative process is going to end up. We often end up taking creative journeys quite different than the ones we had planned. Sometimes just the thought of things going a different way than we’d planned or not knowing the outcome can be enough to paralyze us.

Lots of people (self included) face self-imposed emotional roadblocks that we view as evidence that we are not “creatives” (as if one is somehow born a “creative” or not) as writers or people. People are creative. Full stop. When people claim that they “aren’t creative,” they usually mean that they doubt their ability to engage in their own creative process. They blame themselves for their perceived lack of creativity and the fact that they can’t figure out how to get around their own mental and emotional obstacles. “I’m not a creative person” is generally code for “I’m afraid I’m not good enough to have ideas.” Or “I’m so afraid that this idea won’t work and then everyone will know that I can’t do X” or “I have no idea where my creative idea will go so it’s better not to try.” Plenty of people shelve creativity in exchange for the comfortable illusion of safety.

Creativity often involves taking risks without any guarantee of a successful outcome. Sometimes the idea that we have to know everything all at once or have some idea of what the end product will look like stops us before we even begin.

Say you’ve decided to take some risks and exercise your personal power, creativity, and agency. When you start taking small steps towards making a life, career, community, or new creative project you love, you’re creating a new vehicle to take you both forward and upward. You might have the idea that to fly, you need to invent some wings. So you start with a really basic and little step forward. As you take more little steps, you begin propelling yourself fasterandfasterandfaster until you’re running and feel the wind under your little wings lifting you into the sky.  It’s exhilarating. It’s terrifying. Suddenly you’re airborne in a craft of your own making and not really sure how to fly the thing or have any idea where you’re going. Where are the controls? How do I steer? There’s no real map. You have no instruction manual. Against your better judgment, you look down and realize that you’re up way high. The ground seems very far away. You really are flying a half-finished (and one might say half-assed) aircraft of some sort.

Taking any kind of creative risk often feels a lot like this at first. You know just enough to be dangerous and you’re definitely nowhere near the mythical 10,000 hours required for mastery. Maybe you didn’t expect to really find yourself on your way to realizing your creative dreams and the fact that you even have lift has you completely freaked out. Your half-baked idea actually yielded some results and now you’re scared that you’re not entirely in control. Maybe you’ve decided to go for it and write that novel that you know you have in you but you have no idea how it ends. You can maybe picture the end result (a bestselling novel), but because you don’t have all of the steps, you feel paralyzed and can’t even figure out where to start or how to get there. There are too many things that you don’t know. Maybe you’ve decided that you’re starting a non-profit organization that you love but you have no idea if you’ll be able to get funding. Maybe you’re wrestling with a new idea in your research and you have no idea if its valid or even good or if you should run with it or throw it on the scrapheap of Bad Ideas.

You’re building your plane while flying it. If it feels terrifying, this is only to be expected. Fear and terror go hand in hand with creativity. You can, however, take some steps to make your metaphorical flight a little less scary. Maybe you notice that you’re losing altitude, so you redesign the wing to give you greater lift. Or you examine the tail of your craft and see that if you fixed it just a little, you’d have more control over lateral movement. You’re noticing what’s happening around you and making adjustments based on real-world information and feedback.

So maybe you decide to do some brainstorming about how your novel ends and how to write a plot to get you there. Or maybe you talk to some novelists about what they do when they don’t know the ending to the story they’re writing. Maybe you consult with some grant writing people about your non-profit and talking to some granting foundations about what they support. Maybe you call up a trusted friend and explain your research idea and get some feedback. You still don’t quite know where you’re going, but now you’ve got some ideas about how to figure out where you might be going.

Creative people don’t spend a ton of time thinking about why something can’t be done; they spend time thinking about how.

Your plane, a work in progress, might crash. Crashing is a risk that we take with flying or moving forward with our creative ideas. Or maybe on your first few attempts you only achieve liftoff for a few precious moments. Not all of your ideas are going to work. Some, in fact, might be spectacular failures. But maybe you really believe in some and you’re not ready to chuck them just yet. Learning from your crash landing is an important part of the process. Can you figure out what worked and try again?

In taking risks and practicing creativity, as in life, you don’t have to have all of the answers at once.

Keep building. Keep flying.