When I worked in advertising, my biggest fear was that I would run out of ideas. Every time the higher-ups briefed us on a new project, I’d go back to my desk and wonder how in the world I (or my team) would ever come up with the right creative solution. I would have daymares (like daydreams, but bad) of having to work all night, just spinning my wheels for lack of good ideas.
Reflecting on his career in comedy writing, Tom Koch, recalled that:
“People would say I must have had such a great life doing this…people who were engineers, doctors, insurance salesmen or whatever. But it was the kind of work where every morning I would wake up and think, ‘My God, I wonder if I can do it again today.’ There is no way you prepare to do it, or even know how you do it.”
And in a blog post called “Getting Things Done,” Austin Kleon summed up the situation:
Some people tell me they have all these great ideas, and they just can’t get it together enough to make them happen. I am envious of these people, because I do not feel full of great ideas. I have plenty of faith in my ability to do something with a great idea, should I have one, but what I do not have is any faith in my ability to actually generate that great idea. I spend almost all of my time trying to have an idea worth doing something about.
Of course, we always did come up with a solution. Rarely did I ever have to work late. In retrospect, the project was usually fun (as fun as working can be). And yet, the fear never went away.
That’s because you cannot force yourself to have a good idea in the way that you can force yourself to, say, play tennis. Sure, it’s physically and mentally taxing, but when Serena Williams steps onto the court at the appointed hour, she does not think to herself, “Gee, I hope tennis happens today.” She laces up her shoes and she plays.
When it comes to creativity, the best you can do is to create the conditions in which good ideas are more likely to happen. That means, first and foremost, showing up. Rather than treating creativity as some magical, mysterious process, you have to treat it like a job—as regular, mechanical work. It is not romantic, and it is not easy, but I like Tyler Cowen’s model:
“When it comes to writing, my production function is to write every day. Sundays, absolutely. Christmas, too. Whatever. A few days a year I am tied up in meetings all day and that is a kind of torture. Write even when you have nothing to say, because that is every day.”
If you want to come up with good ideas, if you want to be more creative, you have to become the Dunkin’ Donuts guy.
Inspired or not, you put your butt in the seat and you make the donuts.
Each Monday, I share strategies to help you pursue your passions. Try it. You’ll like it.