The essence of creative work is the immersion of body, mind, and spirit in a state of flow. It is a form of deep engagement with an activity you are passionate about. To engage in creative work, you must enter a zone of complete awareness free from distraction. Your work and your being flow together in an inspired effort to create something meaningful. Concentration feels natural and effortless. Your powers of discernment increase. Constellations of ideas seem to make themselves known on their own accord. At its summit, creative work is a deeply felt conversation with reality.
Creative work is unique. It has its own requirements. Work is often associated with business environments and traditional systems of productivity. While creatives need structure, standard approaches to time management do not support creative work because they focus on getting tasks done rather than cultivating quality of engagement. There is a great deal of uncertainty in creative work. You do not know where it will take you until you are there. You will pursue directions that may or may not work out. New priorities may suddenly emerge. For a creative, productivity is not about checking off tasks, it’s about depth of engagement with work that takes you to unexpected places. While creative work does not lend itself to traditional productivity systems, but it does require the practice of core disciplines.
The connection between creativity and discipline may feel counterintuitive. Some people believe that creativity requires complete freedom. Creative work requires constraints and discipline. Without constraints, creative work wallows in the shallows and the creative will flit around from here to there never focusing their energy on developing something in depth. Without discipline, creative work becomes a collection of abandoned and undeveloped ideas. For a creative, core disciplines are natural and normal modes of being. They engage in routines and temporal patterns that inspire a state of flow. In this sense, they are highly productive while placing faith in their creative process, not in the achievement of predetermined outcomes. In creative work, the experience of creating is always the primary objective.
What makes work creative? Entering a state of flow is prerequisite to creative work. Creativity happens the moment you discover an insight, pattern, connection, relationship, interaction, influence, effect, possibility, or source of potential you were previously unaware of. Your discovery may not be new to the world, nor does it need to be. Originality, in the sense of creating something that has never been created before, is not a requirement. However, originality in the sense of discovering something that may only be new to you is the essence of creative work. The outcome of creative work is authentic because you created it on your own terms.
What are the tangible outcomes of creative work? Creatives express themselves in various ways. In the arts, creatives produce artwork, including writing, paintings, sculptures, music, dramatic performances, and mixed media installations. Throughout Exploring Life, the focus is producing creative work using subjective experience as raw material. The tangible outcome of deep creativity is an expanded feeling of being alive. In other words, deep creativity encourages creative work that helps you to feel more fully alive. It is a way of approaching your life as art.
Creative work cannot be reduced to a method, process, or template. You must find your own way and not follow the ways recommended by others. It may be helpful to understand how creatives engage in creative work as a way of gathering ideas to improve your own practice. Some common traits or disciplines associated with creative people are: go for a walks, get enough sleep, have routines to keep yourself on track, eat good food, do your deep creative work in the morning, give yourself breaks, read a lot of books, write in your journal, practice meditation or mindfulness, build relationships and make friends with interesting people, follow your own voice , find a way to pursue your own calling in life, learn new knowledge or skills in unfamiliar areas, collect and organize interesting things to inspire ideas, enter a state of flow, and go for another walk. These are the same self-help generalizations we encounter in other domains such as spirituality or wellbeing. The key is to find practical, concrete, and observable ways to integrate core disciplines into your own life and improve the quality of engagement with your creative work.
Creative work is, in part, a private space in which you confront yourself with yourself. Initially, you must go alone. Creativity has a solitary dimension in which you engage in working with our own abilities and capacities to create something that had value, even if that value matters only to you. There is no need for other people to acknowledge or appreciate your work. There is no requirement for you to share your work, although, sharing and connecting with other is another vital dimension of creative work. When you produce work that helps you to connect with others it is cause for celebration.
Finally, deep creative work is grounded in a pervasive and insatiable curiosity about life; that is, exploring the shock and mystery of being here. John O’Donohue said, “the mystery never leaves you alone.” This statement reveals the essence of creative work. A creative perceives the experience of being alive as a fleeting, fragile, and uncertain conversation with reality, and therefore with the impenetrable mysteries of impermanence. In this sense, creative work is not about solving the mystery, it is about honoring it, adding depth to it, expanding it, and, most of all, finding your own unique path of fulfillment that will, in the end, culminate in your death.
- The idea of flow is fundamental to creative work. In his TED Talk, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi asks, “What makes a life worth living?” The answer to this question lies in our quality of engagement with life, or what he describes as flow. Flow is not a new idea. Ancient contemplative traditions and practices have long embraced this state of being under the guise of different labels, such as meditation and mindfulness. Creative work is, in a sense, an active and dynamic form of meditation.
- I am starting a project called, productivity for creatives. Although the creativity and productivity seem opposed, the reality is that unfocused wildly free creativity rarely results in anything that matters. However, a creative trying to use a rigid business-like system of productivity to improve creative work is doomed to fail. My creative work is a hybrid.
- The Google search result for “how creative people work” returns 1.2 billion results. This is remarkably unhelpful. There are numerous listicles, which are articles that list traits, habits, or characteristics of creative people and creative work. They often suffer from superficiality. I found three articles of interest: a) Working With Creatives: A Short Guide For Everyone Else, which explores the positive and negative qualities of creatives; b) In The Second Principle, character traits are discussed as clusters: “In essence, all of these descriptors simply indicate that highly creative persons tend to think for themselves, they are not easily influenced or swayed by others, and they can easily think outside the proverbial box.” and the simplicity of c) The Messy Minds of Creative People and the reminder that: “Creativity is very messy.”
- The pursuit of originality, in the sense of creating something entirely new, inhibits creative work. In “Steal Like an Artist,” Austin Kleon offers an entertaining exploration of the relationship between art and theft. “Every artist gets asked the question, Where do you get your ideas? The honest artist answers, I steal them.” There is always an antecedent to any idea you can possibly think of. The real crime is laying claim to being completely original.
- John O’Donohue is, for me, an exemplar of the wisdom of deep creativity. In the opening paragraph of Anam Cara, he offers a profound thought that makes the book impossible to put down: “It is strange to be here. The mystery never leaves you alone. Behind your image, below your words, above your thoughts, the silence of another world waits. A world lives within you. No one else can bring you news of this inner world. Through the opening of the mouth, we bring out sounds from the mountain beneath the soul. These sounds are words. The world is full of words. There are so many talking all the time, loudly, in rooms, on streets, on television, on radio, in the paper, in books. The noise of words keeps what we call the world there for us. We take each other’s sounds and make patterns, predictions, benedictions, and blasphemies. Each day, our tribe of language holds what we call the world together. Yet the uttering of the word reveals how each of us relentlessly creates. Everyone is an artist. Each person brings sound out of silence and coaxes the invisible to become visible.”