When Comparison Kills Your Creativity

It’s been a bit of a weird week. I hadn’t posted anything on here in a few months because I was feeling in a bit of a creative drought. Then I felt pulled to comment on the whole VMA thing and touched on something pretty big. Over 900,000 hits in five days was completely unexpected — mind-blowing, actually. As soon as I started to see that post go crazy on Facebook and Twitter, I had two simultaneous, and equally frightening, questions pop up in my mind: 1) Why is this happening? and 2) What am I going to do next?

I’m sure I’ll go into the first question on many future posts, but for now we’ve arrived at the answer to the second question. What’s next? For me, it’s an exploration of comparison and creativity. I have been fervently reading through some of Brené Brown’s work and was reading up on this very topic.

As I was doing this, I received an e-mail from a woman named Kayleigh who wanted to share an article that brought up similar issues as my VMA post and, with it, she dropped some pretty incredible insight along the way. She said this:

“It is hard to be anyone in these days since comparison and the pursuit of ‘being worthy’ have become a blood sport.”

I’d never thought of comparison and the pursuit of being worthy as a blood sport, but she’s spot on. Comparison and countless attempts to prove our worth can easily draw blood and wound us. And with creative work, this is especially true. But the thing that’s different with creative work is that so many times our struggle is with self-comparison and attempts to prove our own worthiness to ourselves.

I was listening to an episode of the NPR show On Being where Krista Tippet interviews Brené Brown and a lot of this stuff comes up. Brown describes comparison as the thief of creativity. Comparison is the wet blanket that gets thrown over our creative fires — often of our own doing.

Any time we do anything creative, we put ourselves out there in a very tangible way. We write a play. We paint a portrait. We build something new. And we take a risk. Someone might look at it and reject it. And, in doing so, reject us.

How many times have you read a book and thought, “I’d love to write a book someday, but it’ll never be as good as this.”? Or listened to a song and thought, “You know I’d really like to write a song, but there’s no way to top this one.”?

As soon as we start that comparison game, our creativity starts to take a hit. Brown asserts that this is a primary entrance for shame. A lot of times our sense of self-worth can get tied into what we produce.

The adage goes like this: We’re worth something when we produce something. And not just anything, but something good. What we produce has to be worthwhile in order for us to be worthwhile. Sound familiar?

As a pastor, I feel this all the time around the sermons I write. If the sermon was really good, I think “I’m doing really great at this pastor thing.” If it falls flat, those voices of shame and inadequacy are right around the corner. And they get personal.

So how do we get out of this comparison spiral?

Make things. Build things. Create. Do.

Don’t let comparison get in the way of building what you yearn to build.

I posted a video of Ira Glass giving advice to creative people a while back. And it speaks so well to this conversation around creating outside of comparison. Check out the video here.
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[vimeo http://vimeo.com/24715531]
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Ira was particularly speaking to video producers, but it translates into any area of creativity. Build stuff. Do things. Write stories. Paint paintings. Put yourself out there. Create a HUGE volume of work.

Don’t listen to the comparison demons. Remember that creativity is a journey we’re all on in one way or another. Your creativity belongs to you and only you. So let’s get to it!

Oh, and be sure to check out Brené Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection for so much more good stuff. A lot of the ideas in this post are derived from Guidepost #6 of this book. But the whole book is so worthwhile.

Cheers,
Eric

P.S. For those of you who are like me and interested in nerdy studies, check out a paper called The Mindlessness of Social Comparisons and its Effect on Creativity by Harvard professor Ellen Langer, Stanford psychologist Laura Delizonna, and Fordham professor Michael Pirson.

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Why Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros Give Me Hope

First off, if you haven’t seen the video for Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros’ song “Man on Fire”, please take the 4 minutes to check it out. I promise you won’t regret it!

I think this video speaks a lot to the benefits of a creative outlet. What differentiates (wo)men from (wo)men on fire is that creative outlet. Odds are these kids have school all day, homework, chores, and all kinds of other things in their lives. That’s what makes them men or women. They have obligations and stuff going on.

But what sets them on fire is having an outlet for their creative energy.

I think, particularly in my corner of the Mainline Protestant church, we can lose sight of this fire. We can lose sight of being creative in favor of the comfort and nostalgia offered by the days of old. But if we are truly living as people of Pentecost, as people marked with tongues of fire, then we must find ways to become people on fire.

And I don’t necessarily mean in that “on fire for the Lord” kind of way because that always weirded me out. But we need to have the fires of creativity stoked in our congregations in order to escape this circular pattern of “just getting by” as churches. One way we can thrive is to engage the creative energy of people of all ages to express how they see themselves in the world around them.

This video gives me home because it’s happening. It’s happening all around us. We know that it is not out of our realm of possibility. We’re actually doing it everyday. But it is always such an incredible thing to see such creativity compiled together in a video like this.

So what’s your outlet, creative or otherwise? What do you do [that isn’t an obligation] that helps you become a person on fire?

Cheers,
Eric

The One Where I Stress the Importance of Sabbath

What is without periods of rest will not endure.” – Ovid

I’ll be the first to hop on board and tell you that I suck at Sabbath. Sure, I mean, I’m good at occasionally not accomplishing anything for a period of time. I’m great at neglecting some work to catch up on Breaking Bad or surf around my Google reader. But I’m not sure I could tell you the last time I took an intentional retreat time away from work and just focused on being.

One of the most commonly used words around our house is “screen time”. Almost always used in the context of “Wow, I’ve had way too much screen time today.” Or we’re asking if we have any ibuprofen because our head hurts from the close proximity of a bright screen.

Sound familiar?

In this month’s Atlantic, the cover story is a great write-up on the work/family balance that haunt a lot of career women. The writer talked about how she yearned for a time away from her work — whether in law firms, the Pentagon, or Academia. But even when she took this family time, her family was still running ragged.

I wonder what it would look like if we took time to be with ourselves. Granted, as an introvert, this is a particularly appealing notion to me. But when we break down the notion of Sabbath early on in Genesis, what is it? God spent six days intensely working to create, and then the Sabbath was initiated as a way of resting in creation.

Not only is Sabbath about rest, but it’s about keeping a finger on the rhythm of our lives.

It’s about settling down into an awareness of who we are, why we’re here, and ultimately gets us in tune with the very essence of our nature as human beings. It’s not just about time off, vacation, or not doing any work. It’s about resting. It’s about taking care of ourselves in meaningful ways.

But I’d like to take it a step further, particularly in our connected, technological age. I think today’s equivalent of the Jewish Sabbath would be Sabbaths from technology. I need this encouragement as much as anyone else.

Take a day — one full day — and set it aside as a time to rest, read, spend time with family and friends, drink wine. But with this one caveat. Try for a full day with as little screen time as possible. 

I’m embarking on a vacation back to the Midwest (as I type this, I’m just over 33,000 feet in the air probably somewhere above Utah). One of the primary things I’m planning on doing during this vacation is greatly reducing my amount of screen time. Even though in my carry-on I currently have an iPod, an iPhone, an iPad, and my Macbook. (It’s actually kind of sad when you list them all out like that)

But for a bulk of my trip, I’m going to cut down as much as I can. But we were not created to worry about our Klout score. I have some posts ready to go and I’ll be checking in periodically, but if you don’t hear from me, just picture me in a hammock by a lake. You might not be too far off.

I hope that if you need a Sabbath — even if just for 30 minutes — you’ll treat yourself to some rest. We work hard. We deserve a break every once in awhile. And don’t worry. The internet will be here when you get back.

Cheers,
Eric

How to Water A Creative Drought

“Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things” – Ray Bradbury

I can’t quite tell if it’s the warming of the weather, the time of the year, or something completely different, but I’ve had a really hard time being creative lately. The last few weeks have been full of false starts and frustrated crumpling of paper. Even my sermons these past few weeks have been nothing to write home about. It can get really discouraging. Part of being creative is experiencing the dry spells. They can be frequent and are always unwelcome, but they can also be beneficial in allowing us to re-focus.

Here are 5 things that can really help push through a creative drought.

1. Walk away – Step away from the computer, canvas, typewriter, piano, or whatever your creative medium is. If you’re spinning your wheels and not getting anywhere, walk away. Go do something else. Even if you’re on strict deadline, a 10 minute walk can clear your head and give you a fresh set of eyes to approach the task at hand.

2. Switch the routine – One of the things that was catching me up was I was trying to be creative in the afternoon. I would get my work done at the office in the morning and then come home and try to be creative. That was my routine and it was driving me into the ground. We’re all at our best in different parts of the day. For me, it’s mornings. So I’m trying something new: getting up early (before I go to work — novel idea, I know). I’ll let you know how it goes. Well… depending on how many posts come up in the next couple weeks, it’ll be fairly self-evident.

3. Change mediums – If you’re a writer, do something visual. Go visit an art museum. If you’re a painter, throw on some headphones and Coltrane and get lost. His album “A Love Supreme” is like seeing music in color. If you’re a musician, read some poetry — some Pablo Neruda or Adrienne Rich. Getting out of your familiar box can act as a reset button for your creativity. Plus it’s just fun.

4. Exercise – This goes along with the walking away. If you can walk, run, bike, or swim away, that’s all the better. When you get blood flowing and you get some new oxygen moving through your body, it is rejuvenating in a lot of ways — especially creativity. So if you have a creative block, get out and move a little.

5. Rest – Sometimes the best thing you can do for a creative block is to sleep. If you’re in creative work, odds are you don’t always get the sleep you need. So take a nap. Give yourself permission to go relax in a park. You can’t be on the go 24/7. There are some times when resting is just the best thing you can do.

What do you do to water your creative drought? What helps get your creative juices flowing? Leave a comment and let me know!

Cheers,
Eric

3 Things I Learned From “Where the Wild Things Are”

“I said anything I wanted because I don’t believe in children.
I don’t believe in childhood. I don’t believe that there’s a demarcation.
‘Oh you mustn’t tell them that. You mustn’t tell them that.’
You tell them anything you want. Just tell them if it’s true.
If it’s true you tell them.”  – Maurice Sendak

I woke up this morning to Steve Inskeep on NPR’s Morning Edition telling me that Maurice Sendak had passed away. Immediately I felt an unexpected, and perhaps unwarranted, bit of sadness. Where the Wild Things Are was, hands down, my favorite book growing up. I wanted it read every night. I learned to read with that book only because I had it memorized and could see what the different words looked like on a page.

As I’ve spent the morning thinking about it, I think I felt so sad because the person who created something so sacred and meaningful for me is gone. And that sucks. But, luckily for everyone who will ever live and read from now to eternity, the books survive even though the author does not.

So here are three of the many lessons I learned from Maurice Sendak, via Max and the Wild Things.

1) A good imagination is one of the most important things in the world.

This is one I still think about on at least a weekly basis. The importance of imagination cannot be overlooked. All of these events — the island, the wild things, the rumpus — took place within Max’s imagination. That kind of imagination can move mountains. Imagination is the source of all invention and innovation. I’m typing this on my Macbook, which wouldn’t exist, if not for an incredible imagination. Imagination is the power that enables us to empathize with humans — or wild things — whose experiences we have never shared. Imagination is essential for our survival.

2) Even the brave and courageous need love too.

I remember thinking how awesome it was when Max looked the Wild Things straight in their eyes and didn’t blink once. That’s the kind of guy I wanted to be. One who didn’t need anyone, but could stare monsters in the face and not blink. But then, when I was reading this to a pre-schooler while I was in college, a different part stuck out to me. “And Max, the king of all wild things, was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.” Even though I fell into the trap of thinking I could be an island, there’s still something missing if you are a king, but have no one with whom you can give and receive love.

3) At the bridge between childhood and adulthood, the best thing you can say is, “Let the wild rumpus start!”

My mom used to always let me say this part when we were reading this through as a kid. When I heard the page leading up to it I would stand up on my bed in anxious anticipation. (Keep in mind this was when I was around 4. This wasn’t last year or anything.) And when those words “‘And now’, cried Max” came out, I would throw both hands in the air and look at the ceiling and yell “Let the wild rumpus start!” Believe me, it was awesome.

When I was standing with my brother getting ready to walk down the aisle at my wedding last summer, we looked at each other and I said, “Well, let the wild rumpus start,” and headed down the aisle. I think it’s one of the best attitudes you can have. Yeah, things will always be a little crazy and won’t be 100% controllable. Some things will go well and some things won’t. But jumping in with both feet is the only way to go.

So, even though it’s with a bit of sadness that I write this today, the news that Maurice Sendak has died is eclipsed by better news than we could ever want: Maurice Sendak lived.

Cheers,
Eric

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