Inspiration is a mug, creativity is what happens when it overflows

My working metaphor for creativity is a mug.

When I start my day, the mug is empty. It’s hard to get started. But it’s easy to fill my cup. I read a few of my favorite email newsletters. I catch up on a few of my favorite blogs. I watch an interior design, board game, or cooking video on YouTube. Time passes—maybe 15 or 30 minutes. Occasionally longer.

I get antsy. Filling my mug gets harder. Starting gets easier. Eventually, my mug overflows, and I make the transition from consuming to producing.

Listening to Ezra Klein interview Jeff Tweedy, I was struck by Tweedy’s thoughts on inspiration. They sounded a lot like the mug metaphor. He says:

I think it’s just finding some balance between not overwhelming yourself with other people’s work and art and feeling like it’s a job to consume all of it, but just kind of faithfully understanding that when I need inspiration, it’s really never that far. We have such an immediate availability for discovering new music, discovering new authors, discovering poems…And my natural reaction to this has usually been, in my entire life, has been to kind of get excited somehow through this exploration of other people’s work up until the point I just can’t take it anymore and I want to do something, I want to make something. And it works every time. It just — it just always works.

What spurs me to create is not waking up in the morning with a great idea and an interminable impulse to do something with that idea. Inspiration and motivation come from seeing what others are doing and getting a little jealous—of their talent, of their productivity, of the fun they seem to be having. Eventually, as Tweedy says, I cannot take it anymore. I cannot hold back the feeling of wanting to join in and put something out into the world.

As Tweedy also hints at, inspiration need not come from the same pool in which you are swimming. It’s not that I read a blog post about creativity and then go write one. Rather, I see someone do X, which I think is cool and interesting and jealousy-inducing, and then I go off and create Z rather than X’ or Y.

Clive James, in his book Cultural Amnesia, talks about these diverse pathways of influence:

“Mechanisms of influence are hard to trace. Writers tend to think that the way they write was influenced by literature, and of course, scholars make a living by following the same assumption…I learned a lot about writing from watching an older friend sanding down the freshly dried paint on rebuilt motorbike so that he could give it another coat: he was after the deep, rich, pure glow.”

Inspiration can come from anywhere and need not stay in its own lane. In fact, attention to diverse influences might lead to more creative and original ideas. In his book Range, David Epstein notes that Nobel Prize-winning scientists are 22 times more likely to have a non-science hobby like dancing, acting, or magic.

When you fill your mug with these variegated sources, they all become one—an idiosyncratic mix that, when it overflows, will produce something you (nor anyone else) could not have otherwise created.