A reflection on resolving the creative paradox
What if the secret to creativity is…
Bear with me, I’m going somewhere.
It’s well known that it’s hard to be creative when our inner critic is in full force. Ideas are fragile things, especially when they’re new or still forming, and they don’t long withstand the withering gaze of criticism. Like the seeds they are, they need the dark, away from direct sunlight, while they take shape in the soil of our minds.
Except, that’s a lot of effort to put into something you’re not sure will prove useful.
What if, though, there’s another way to think about it?
What if ideas have to be nurtured, not because we know for sure they’ll be valuable, but precisely because we don’t?
What makes you make things?
I’ve had many periods of questioning myself—write or create in any medium long enough, and self-doubt is inevitable. I mean, I just went through a whole year of not writing, triggered by an inability to believe my words were worth much. I stopped planting idea-seeds.
Here’s the thing, though: when I started writing again, it wasn’t out of any great increase in my self-confidence. No, I started writing again because I missed it. I missed thinking about ideas, missed trying to articulate them, missed putting them out, and missed the surprise of seeing what people responded to and how. I missed it all, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
I stopped because I felt uncertain of the outcome, but it was missing the process that brought me back.
People create for different reasons, but a common theme is simply the need to create. Even creatives who make money from their work often long did it for free, did it simply because they could—or maybe more accurately, couldn’t but. It’s why creatives can seem a little weird: making anything, whether it’s food or fine art, is intensive to a degree that makes no sense if you don’t enjoy the process itself.
There’s a circularity to creativity: we make because we love making.
But there’s also a paradox to it. I’ve written before about art and its audience. You must consider the audience for what you make (even if that audience is just you). Yet, you also can’t afford, while you make, to think too much about them.
The paradox of creating is that you must simultaneously consider and ignore those you make for.
It’s in balancing that tension that humility comes in.
Only one way to find out…
The humility I mean here isn’t a false modesty or an unhealthy self-derogation. No, none of that here.
I’m talking about epistemic humility: a combination of the ability to admit what you don’t know and the willingness to act anyway.
It probably won’t surprise you that I easily tend toward the melancholy. It’s not hard for me to imagine worst-case scenarios and get down on things. Somehow, though, people perceive me as naturally optimistic. That used to surprise me until I realised why: I am optimistic in reverse. What I mean is, I don’t assume things will be great, but because I know how easy I can see the negative, I’ve learned to regularly remind myself that I don’t know for sure that they’ll be bad.
That’s why my favourite thing to say, in conversations about what will happen, is: “There’s only one way to find out.”
Because there really is.
What I’m describing here is really an application of antifragility, a now-popular term first coined by writer and popular philosopher, Nassim Nicholas Taleb. In Antifragile, he explains that it’s arrogant of us to think we can understand complex systems by simply thinking about them. The only way, he insists, to figure complex realities out is to take small actions and see what happens and learn from that until you build up a sense of how things work. In short, humility—the admission of what you don’t know, and admitting that the only way to know is to give it a go and see what happens. And with complex realities, there’s always a lot you don’t know.
If art, then, isn’t a complex system, I don’t know what is. You never quite know how people will respond to anything you create and share, and although it doesn’t feel like arrogance, it’s claiming more than you can know to assert your desire to create isn’t worth it. That’s what the voice of your inner critic would have you believe: that you’re wasting your time, that no one will care, that failure is guaranteed.
Every so often you try to push back against that voice by shouting back that the opposite, that we’re on the right path, and that success is, in fact, guaranteed and we are not wasting our time. That sometimes works, and you’re actually able to believe it. But if you’re like me, more frequently the attempt falls flat, and you might find yourself unable to buy your attempt at self-propaganda.
In that moment, your strongest weapon against that voice might well be simply to focus on two things that are 100% true. One, you know for sure that you want to make something. And two, on whether that will work out or not, the truth is you simply don’t know that.
And there’s only one way to find out.