7 essential rules for creatives

1. Don’t do anything you don’t want to do

Desire is the fuel of creativity. Fear is its nemesis.

The only reason you do things you don’t want to do is fear.

Fear stifles your mind. Anxiety stunts your ability to make connections. Connections are the core of creativity. You can’t connect what you can’t see. When you’re afraid, your vision is limited. All you see is what you are afraid of. Your energy becomes desperate, manic, as you scan obsessively for escapes and solutions. This is what fear does to you.

If you want to do something but you also feel afraid of it, ask yourself questions: why am I afraid? What am I afraid of? Say your fears out loud. Write them down. Ask them for the worst-case scenarios. Then decide if it’s worth doing anyway. 

Fear cannot create. It can only resist. It cannot lead to connection. It can only separate and defend. When you do things you don’t want to do, you are motivated by fear: fear of others, fear of poverty, fear of disapproval, fear of being forgotten. Without fear, you’d never operate from anything but desire. Desire, by the way, is another way to say love.

2. Hold the vision lightly

You need to see before you can create.

No, you don’t have to see the final product; in fact, you never can. There’s a blindness to creating. That’s what makes it both surprising and upsetting.

You, the creator, have a vision and you pursue it. Your creation itself remains a mystery, however, even to you. Despite your faithfulness to the vision, what you create will emerge not as your vision, but as itself. How the creation differs from the vision can bring you joy or pain.

Hold the vision lightly. Let it guide but not stifle. A vision held lightly will open doors. A vision grasped, gripped in desperation will shut you down.  

You can’t see what you’re creating, but you can see the materials. You have to see the materials first: the colors, the images, the words and the feelings, the characters, the shapes. You have to see the elements, speak their language, so you can get them to work their individual magic. When you see the elements, you can bring them together. You can connect them. And that is the spark of creation.

3. Imagine creating without an audience

The ego always works from fear. If you follow the first rule, faithfully and honestly, you will always work from the true self. But the ego is tricky. It will get you hyped up, excited over the possibility of making a splash or getting attention. You will believe that this excitement is the same as desire. It isn’t. It will fuel you only so long. You will start a project and then hate it. This is a sign that it is not from your true self.

How do you know if an idea is from the true self before you start creating?

You put yourself in an imaginary vacuum.

If you would get no response, receive no acclaim, go without feedback, would you still create? Would you still create this piece, this project, still pursue this particular vision? If the appeal goes away when you are in the vacuum, the idea is from the ego. If, instead, you find that the vision becomes even clearer, it is your true self speaking.

4. See creation as transformation

You don’t call things into being out of thin air; you do something even more amazing. You take raw materials, tangible and intangible, and transform them. You see the potential of something that is; you see the potential it has to be something else, to be part of something else.

It’s far more difficult to transform out of raw material than it is to create out of thin air.

Recognize that the materials you use, the scope, the influences, the background, and the limits of time/energy/space all influence what you create. They are part of the creative process. They influence the transformation.

Think of how easy it is to sit and imagine something: without the limits of physicality, you can create effortlessly. If you had the ability to bring your mind-creations instantaneously into the world, the only skill you’d need would be idea generation. But creation isn’t like that. It’s more visceral, more intense, much more difficult. You must take your idea, apply it to the raw materials which are yours, and transform them into something close to your vision.

5. Embrace boundaries

Creativity loves boundaries.

You may not love boundaries when you’re creating. They make you sweat and struggle. The words won’t come. The shapes won’t align. The colors won’t cooperate. The topic is stupid. The deadline is too soon. The format is dumb.

But boundaries make your creative ability stronger.

If you’re struggling creatively, take things away: fewer options, less time. A smaller canvas and a single color. A 500-word story about a single character. A simple melody. Get basic and more basic, closing the boundaries in until your creative force feels safe and comes out to play.

Boundaries force you to find more connections.

You think the most important part of creating is having the idea. That’s not true. The important part is the conflict that will inevitably happen: the conflict between your ideas and your limitations. The most important part is how you handle that conflict.

6. Choose quality over quantity.

Yes, you want to create good work. Yes. Of course you do. But the standards for quality, the ones you have, the ones you impose upon yourself, are ever shifting.

They become standards of perfection, standards that are always a little bit further than you can go.

Those standards can be sources of inspiration or causes of desperation. If you impose too-high/perfectionist standards on your work, you won’t do the work. You’ll start and never finish. You’ll try and give up. You’ll procrastinate and hesitate.

Choose to pursue quantity of work over quality of work and see what happens. You will create some things that are terrible, but remember: you don’t have to release everything. The act of creating, in quantity, will build your confidence and build your skill. 

When you create in quantity, you can then go through your work, choose the best, refine it a bit more if needed, and release it.

7. Focus on your next move

This is not to say that creation must be extemporaneous.

Some creators like to wing it. Some like to plan. Both ways work.

But creation itself is fluid, and as we take one step forward we influence, effect, and thus, change, the array of possibilities for the step after. Your plan is relevant only if it is flexible, because reality will flex. You are the one flexing it.

Make a plan, but beyond the next step, keep the details vague and fill them in as you go. Focusing on all the steps beyond the next one creates anxiety: you’re establishing a “should trail,” a designated path to follow. But creativity  forges its own path. Let it. 

Creating makes some of us uncomfortable, very uncomfortable, even terrified, because of the uncertainty in it.

It isn’t predictable.

It is immersive.

To be surrounded by something that’s unpredictable scares us. That’s why creativity engenders resistance, and that’s why resisting the resistance – pushing past it, through it, and on to the next step – is the only way to keep creating.