These days, I make a living doing some pretty creative stuff: producing videos, shooting and editing photos and writing scripts to name a few.
But I haven’t always considered myself to be “creative”. Growing up, I was good at science and maths classes. I enjoyed subjects like these with hard truths and straightforward answers. Never did I feel like I had any inclination for music, art or poetry. I truly believed that my brain was wired to work one way and not the other. The science seemed to back this up, with a long-standing theory suggesting that we’re either left-brained or right-brained.
I thought that creativity was some esoteric endowment from the universe, and I just didn’t have it: I was born left-brained: analytical, factual, logic based.
Over the last couple of years, since I started my career in photography and filmmaking, I’ve been wondering a lot about what makes certain people creative. Mostly out of my own fear that I wasn’t “creative” enough because I hadn’t been doing this from a young age like other successful filmmakers. I wanted to assuage the fears within me and convince myself that everything would work out. I’ve been asking questions like: where does creativity come from? And how do I get more of it?
It turns out, we get many notions of creativity wrong.
That scientific theory about brain sides? Well it turns out that’s actually based on research from the 1960’s and has been proven wrong. But the theory is still cited by a lot of people today, usually as a means to confirm a limiting belief that they can’t do one thing or another, like I did.
Here are some things I’ve learned from creative people that I look up to that have helped me along my own journey. Hopefully there’s something in there that can help you on your creative journey too.
Creativity as a Tap
I recently saw this video where Ed Sheeran gives advice to aspiring musicians. He likened creativity to a dirty tap (or a faucet if you’re North American): it spits out dirty water when you first turn it on. In your creative journey, this dirt is what you’re making when you first start out – you can’t paint, draw, sing or write well. But you’ve just gotta let it flow (i.e. practice) for a while and let the dirt get flushed out. Eventually, after the tap has been left on for a while it starts to run clean. This is when you start creating the really good stuff.
There’s also this video showing Ed playing a recording of him singing from when he was young and he sounded terrible: off-key, squealing, just bad. From here, he says that he just practiced and practiced. If the mighty Ed could go from bad to superstar, then that gives hope to all of us that we can make it too, with enough practice.
So now, I’m currently I’m doing my best to crank that dirty tap open and letting all that dirty water out. Let’s hope that one day it turns clear!
Document, don’t create
“I think it’s much smarter for you to talk to the world about your process going through this, than the advice that you think you should be giving them” – Gary Vaynerchuk
Another problem with our idea of creativity is that we think that everything we create has to be new and original. Most of us have been conditioned this way since school: “don’t copy”, we’re told by our teachers. Quite the contrary. According to the book Steal Like an Artist, it’s not that artists aren’t stealing from each other, its because they are and they’re just failing at it. This is where originality really comes from: stealing existing ideas and remixing them your own way.
“What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.” – Austin Kleon (Steal Like an Artist)
If you’re a modern content creator trying to make content for YouTube, Instagram or any other social media, rather than trying to think of fresh ideas all the time, instead focus on documenting your journey: what you’ve learned recently, failures you’ve had, how you’ve handled certain situations etc. What’s boring and obvious for you might be new and interesting for someone else. And if you’re interested in creating content, do what Gary Vee suggests and just focus on documenting your journey. There will inevitably be things that you learn that other people can learn from too.
Following this framework, I think that a “content creator” could be rebranded as more of a “consistent documenter”.
Creativity as a funnel
Here’s something that I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately. It’s the fact that as you look at anybody’s Instagram feed, Youtube Channel, portfolio, exhibition or any other body of work, all you’re seeing is the very tip of the iceberg of creative work they’ve produced. What you don’t see is the colossal mountain below the surface of failed attempts and just-not-good-enough pieces that were left on the cutting room floor.
I like to think back to an ad for John West tuna that I always saw on TV when I was growing up. In it, John West is holding a perfectly good tuna and throws it back into the sea. To which his friend asks him, “what did you do that for?” and he responds by saying that there was some minor imperfection on it that the viewer can’t even see. The and ends with the tagline “It’s what John West puts back that makes John West the best”. Like fishermen, creative pursuits like photography involve pulling up a lot of fish from the sea of potential photos, most of which we discard because they’re out of focus, not framed properly, etc. It’s all about the ones we that we post to Instagram or keep in our portfolio, that end up defining how great we are. So don’t be afraid to reel in plenty of bad fish before you decide which one to keep.
From my own experience, I can say that for every photo I’ve posted on to Instagram, I’ve probably taken at least a few thousand. Same thing for video: for every 3-minute video I’ve produced and released, there were probably 100-300+ minutes of footage I filmed that didn’t make the cut. This is pretty normal among photographers and filmmakers. The same is true for writers: the first draft tends to be rubbish. For painters: there are no doubt dozens of discarded rough sketches for every completed artwork.
If creativity is a tap, I like to think of it as one that fills up a funnel. The funnel gets continually filled and only a small amount comes out through the bottom. The small amount of water that ends up coming out the other end are the finished products you end up delivering to the world.
So don’t despair if you go out and take 100 photos and you don’t like any of them. If that happens, take 100 more and you might find that one is decent. If not, rinse and repeat until you find one you like. Leave that tap running, and let it fill that funnel. Eventually, you will get some sweet, beautiful nectar out the other end.
What all of this says is that creativity is lies more in the domain of being a skill, rather than innate talent. Just like throwing a baseball, singing or skiing. Sure, some people are born with more of an advantage than others. But ultimately one thing is true: if you practice, you WILL get better.
So to me, becoming a skilled creative boils down to two things:
- Create consistently and
- Keep trying to get better
That’s it. It might sound a bit harsh, but there’s no magic bullet or shortcut here. If you want to get good, practice a looooot and keep trying to improve. The flip side of all this is that yes, it is possible to “become” a creative person, if I’ve proved anything to myself over the last few years it is this.
So keep documenting. Keep that tap running. Keep filling that funnel. And don’t stop until you have a bucket of gold water so big, people think that you were born with it.