Have you ever talked with an artist or a painter about the creative process? I have – scores of times. Not to mention that I too create and observe how this magical process unfolds within myself. While creation and inspiration varies for all of us, do you know what remains the same? None of us artists know quite what the end result will be of our creation, ever. When you sit down to a blank canvas, or a white sheet of paper or you step unto the dance floor “you never know what you gonna get” (to quote Forrest Gump). We may have an intention or an idea, we may even be so arrogant as to think that we can direct our brushstroke or our words in a particular fashion…but the truth is we really don’t know what we’ll end up with.
This is both exhilaration and terrifying to the human psyche, naturally.
In my experience and discussions with other artists this means two things about attitude need to shift, and big time. First off, if the end destination is unknown, its time and place a mystery, there is no way that we can focus on it. The journey becomes the purpose because there is no other focus to be found. Being in the now goes beyond Eckhart Tolle’s suggestions for a happy life and becomes a necessity. If you try the opposite, to fixate on the end goal, that constantly shifting, uncontrollable end-goal, joy evaporates, stress clouds your mind and you end up stuck in judgment and paralysis afraid to take the first step. If you do force yourself to step anyway then each continuous step hurts. This is not fun. It may be a necessary part of your evolution in unleashing your creativity, and for many of us it is (for me: letting go of my judgment!). What we want however, what the wild one in us is calling us to do, is to let go of the idea of the end result and to enjoy each moment. It takes tremendous courage, but we can learn to follow this age-old call.
The second attitude shift required are huge amounts of trust. Buckets and truck-loads of trust – you need to bathe yourself in trust and in trusting the creative process unfolding in and around you. It reminds me of riding a run-away horse and holding on for dear life as the beast gallops away. Staying level-headed and calm can only help you; panic certainly worsens things. Prayer becomes your greatest ally. And if you’re astute enough to remember to focus on your breath then you find your salvation. You are a feather on the wind and while your attempts to influence your fate are cute (read: foolish), the wind will do what he wishes with you all the same. All you can do is trust.
Thus dismantling the grasping, controlling and end-result oriented mind we arrive at the beginning of a creation process shaking and begging for mercy. Yet a part of us is also thrilled to be in the thick of things instead of peering into the arena with the longing wish that we could find the courage to get back up into the saddle.
I have a point to make with all of this, and here it is. I am discovering this creative process applied to creation, yes, but also to business and practical projects and I’m enjoying it very much. While it is scary at times (again that pesky, grasping, controlling mind!), it is a hundred times more enjoyable than conventional “plan and execute” approaches.
Let me tell you about a couple that I know who are finishing their first house together. They’re in the thick of a project both creative and practical while they choose, purchase and install (sometimes on their own, sometimes with the help of builders, carpenters and electricians) the flooring, sockets, cabinets, appliances, lighting and more in their new home. It’s not an easy project to handle especially if it’s your first. Yet they are handling it quite well.
I was frankly surprised by how much they are enjoying this new project. I’ll grant them that they are not in a rush or in a financial pinch. This means that they have the time and means to do things how they want to. This is a luxurious situation, yes, yet I have met other couples who had similar circumstances and still found the finishing process stressful and heavy. Yells, fights and tension all make one wonder how some couples survive such a collaboration! There is ripe opportunity for disagreements about tile choices, anxiety around delivery or installation delays and huge amounts of uncertainty bouncing off of both partners like fleas. “Is it going to look good?”, “Is it going to work well?”, and the classic “are we making the right choice???”. No wonder given this kind of stress one starts wishing for the project to be done and finished. Please let’s just arrive at the destination, the mind cries out, as we shut our tired eyes to the beauty of the journey on the way.
I’m not judging this approach, but I know from personal experience how bland and heavy it feels. Destinations when focused on too much always feel anti-climatic once reached. Ok, so you arrived where you were going, good for you, and now what? The “now what?” always comes quicker than we thought it would. Surprise, surprise: happiness is not something we can turn on like a sink faucet. It needs to be cared for, curated and practiced regularly.
I sat down with these folks and asked them to share their secrets of actually enjoying the house-building project. Here’s what they said:
Focus on only one step (max 2) at a time
“Had we known how much work it is to finish a house – we probably would never have bought one!” laughed the couple. Ignorance can be bliss, in so many ways. How many of us have dived headlong into a brand new business or family project only to realise when we’re already in it how demanding it really is! Yet, when our heart was the one leading the way in the first place, we never end up regretting all of the work. Rather, we bless our mind and our lucky stars for not knowing in advance about steps 1 through 599. We’re glad we only thought as far as steps 1-10 and then focused on 1 and 2. And once 1 and 2 were finished we moved on to 3 and 4… and so on. We die a thousand deaths inside before we ever reach any true problem. It reminds me of the following:
“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”Mark Twain
Sounds simple? We know it isn’t, in practice. A big project like a house requires some big-picture planning otherwise certain elements won’t match together. A certain style needs to be decided upon before hand. Surprisingly though, not that much long-term planning is needed. Furthermore, in my interviewees experience, trying to coordinate the fireplace, flooring and fridge (early-stage steps) to match your dreamed of couch (last-stage step) just doesn’t make sense. Embrace the idea that you may like something, but that it’s not worth the stress and pain to hold on to single ideas and confuse all the other parts of the process. Let go. Find a few other couches that you like too, just in case couch #1 doesn’t match. It might just be the key to enjoying the journey again.
Which leads me to:
Trust the process
“Trust your process has also turned into trusting each other”, the couple remarked. They are human after all and noticed that they slipped into the blaming-game a few times. It’s easy to point fingers at our counterpart when a job has been botched or a delay is becoming a bottleneck in the process. It became their saving grace to highlight everything which was going well, and all of the steps, big and small, that they were making to move the house project forward. Instead of letting frustration take hold, they double checked that they were doing what is humanly possible, and when delays persisted they would 1. focus on small things that they could work on at any time (ex. the garden, patio furniture), and 2. Recognise the wisdom of the delay as it gave them time to work on other non-house related projects too. Or, sometime they just took the opportunity to go for a walk in the forest (score, enjoyment). Keep in mind that this project was also happening during covid-19 lockdowns where stores and home hardware stores would occasionally be closed. The context wasn’t an easy one.
Back in Senegal folks like to say “On ne peut pas aller plus vite que la musique.” which means “you can’t go faster than the music.” As an impatient Westerner this is easy for me to understand and very difficult to apply. Quick-fix culture if you stay in it for too long will mess with your head. Does it make us happier? After listening to these two, I’ve decided that “trust the process” brings me a lot more gentleness and joy then getting everything I think I want right away.
Speaking of joy…
Let joy be your guide
This one surprised me, as the couple remarked that one or both of them would visit the house regularly, almost daily, and put in a few hours of work. However, when the work became too tiresome, the project felt too overwhelming or decision-fatigue set in (I mean seriously, choosing 1 from 200 sink choices is exhausting), they would simply stop for the day. As simple as that. Stopping. Sometimes just a short break was required and sometimes more time and rest was needed. “We decided to let joy be our guide and we didn’t continue work that day if we felt depressed or frustrated about the project.” Sounds utopic, yes? Perhaps it is and perhaps it isn’t. According to these two project managers there was something more important than pushing themselves hard.
Consistency is more important than intensity
“You can let time be your friend. If you regularly and continuously revisit the same project it will eventually come to a completion.” commented the couple. As someone who has about 50 hobbies and hundreds of half-baked creative pursuits, I squirmed in my seat when I heard this. I’ve always enjoyed the cliché image of an artist throwing themselves, quite suddenly, into a whirlwind not-sleeping and not-eating creative process that lasts several days if not weeks and during which they are lost to the world. They eventually emerge, unwashed and hungry, triumphantly grasping their finished creation. This seems to be a popular theme in movies, but in my real-life I’ve never managed this intensity yet. I guess I enjoy showers and food too much. I am coming to the slow and painful realisation that while I may become lost to the world for several hours while I’m creating, it’s unlikely that I can finish anything bigger or slightly bigger (book, painting, play, this blog post lol) in one sitting. Therefore, I too can see that consistency is a lot more important than intensity.
Unfortunately (or not?) consistency isn’t very sexy. There’s something so alluring about the cliché artistic intensity described above. If you are the one in a thousand and you can manage it – good on you. Seriously. If you live in the neighbourhood, I’d even happily bring you food and water during your whirlwind of madness to support your process. I am however seeing myself and most “normal” folks around me incapable of this kind of disruption of routine. Plus, clearly, when one has children, pets or even house plants, it’s also not a kind approach to those with whom we live. So we return to consistency, the patient mare that trots on, and eventually arrives at her destination.
“On some days I would visit the house and I wouldn’t even know what I’d be working on next”, commented the gentleman. He said that he didn’t necessarily have to have a fixed idea of what he would be doing that day. It was more important to show up and to have a look around. Always, in a natural way, a useful task would present itself (a floor to be primed, an electric socket to be fixed, etc.). He found that the consistency “showing up to work” was what really moved the project forward not the planning nor the intensity of the work.
It all sounds so simple, right? And yet, as with so many simple things, to put these ideas into practice when human impatience, control and ego get involved is a whole other story. Yet, we certainly can practice and we can learn from folks like this couple and their house project. I for one am not worried that they will feel a sense of deflation when they can finally move into their new home.
They’re working on enjoying the journey. When you do this the destination just doesn’t matter so much.
Thank you KJ Styles on Unsplash for the feature image: https://unsplash.com/photos/eQ-8iUrb07g