Creativity and self-concern – a 3-step guide to getting out of your own way
I often associate fluorescent lighting with hospitals, dentists, or just about anywhere you go to have something done, or looked at, or fixed. It seems to be an unspoken rule that these harsh lighting strips only illuminate the places you really don’t want to be. Making everything seem so much worse as you view it in all its crisp, clear detail.
I’ve been on quite a journey recently, one that’s shone that same, stark, uncomfortable light onto the way I think, and the habitual patterns I often fall into. Launching a new business, it’s been a tough few months; with all of the worry, anxiety, and waking up in the middle of the night thinking why the hell am I doing this?! However, I’d like to think that I’ve returned from that place of discomfort all the better for it.
With nowhere to hide from the fluorescent gaze of ‘risk takers uncertainty’, my habitual patterns of thinking, my indecisiveness, my lack of confidence and basically anything holding me back from believing in myself, was brought to the front and centre of my awareness. At times, I was so busy travelling that merry go round of insecure thought, that I was distracted from genuine deadlines, budgets and the ‘getting stuff done’ that needs to take place when you’re launching a new idea.
It became clear to me that if I was really going to make this work, I had to stop focusing on my self-concern.
Now, you may be wondering what I mean by self-concern. For me, self-concern will often show up as the following series of looping questions: What will people think of this? Will they like it? What will people think of my abilities? Can I do this? Maybe I shouldn’t change? What’s wrong with the way things are? Worry, anxiety, insecurity, indecisiveness, thinking, thinking, thinking.
Thought is powerful. By now, we’ve all read enough articles about how having the right mindset can positively affect almost every aspect of our lives. Its even becoming more accepted that attitude and outlook contribute to the success of medical treatment; the more positive the patient, the more likely they are to heal. On the flip side, negative thoughts can take you from hero to zero pretty quickly, especially if you’ve developed a few bad habits that take your brain hostage.
Humans are uniquely placed to be able to solve complex problems with imagination, flexibility and creativity. We use those same skills to tell captivating stories, write music, launch a new business, or create artworks out of toast – whatever tickles your fancy. During my most recent period of self-concern, I was not able to be creative. My thinking would change from day to day, hour to hour, with thoughts I saw to be true, dampening the excitement of my idea and harming my outlook for its success.
I noticed how these negative thoughts and feelings could dictate my day. I was either productive, engaged and in the zone, or retreating from my ideas and questioning my decisions, all the while doing my best to feel miserable about as many things as I could. My worries were jumping like fleas, from one unrelated issue to the next, in a fairly unrelenting wave of negativity.
It became obvious that I’d developed a few habitual thinking patterns that were doing me no good, and it was high time I started to take responsibility for the way I thought. Especially as those thoughts were inhibiting the potential of everything I was working towards.
Now, we all have fears and insecurities, that’s for sure and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s been scientifically proven that insecure people are often more creative. However, when you tell yourself day in and day out, that you are not good enough to be successful, that you aren’t talented enough to be creative, that you are simply wasting your time and everyone knows it? The cheeky ounce of healthy negativity that’s been inspiring you to better yourself, has turned into a full-blown, gloom-ridden road block, stopping you and your creativity dead it’s tracks.
Luckily, I have brilliant friends and peers who are able to pull me out of a funk but I’ve also lived enough life to know that 9 times out of 10, the opinion of my self-concerns are not shared by others. Think about your worries for a moment, if you’re anything like me, less than a quarter of all of the things you’ve ever worried about have actually happened. Now, I’m no Sherlock Holmes, but that certainly seems to point a big finger toward the fact that our negative thoughts aren’t actually true, and that maybe we should stop paying sooo much attention to them!
Think about your idols: no doubt they’re a group of brilliantly talented, outstandingly creative people. I also bet the majority of them are slightly neurotic, anxious, and had to put a little bit of work into believing in themselves long enough to let their creativity flow and the good times roll. So, the next time you feel yourself slipping into a self-concern blackhole, pick yourself up, take a walk around the block, and think about the following three insights:
1. Take notice of where you are expending your energy
Have you noticed yourself taking two weeks to complete a task that should really have only taken two hours? Do you get completely caught up in a particular job, especially if it doesn’t turn out ‘perfectly’ even on the third or fourth tries? Are you ignoring an important email in your inbox because you know that if you answer it, something will be set in motion that you no longer have control over?
If any of the above ring true, it’s likely that you have listened to the voice of self-concern and are becoming insecure about your choices. This can lead to procrastination, and becoming bogged down in the tiniest of details. This is a big roadblock to your creativity and it can leave you chasing your own tail.
Take a breath, think about the bigger picture, and listen to your instincts. Be strategic, and assess where you need to be directing your energy. I’m a big fan of lists; write everything down, absolutely every single thing, including anything personally pressing that is at the forefront of your mind (need to buy loo roll on the way home? Write it on the list).
Now, prioritise that list. You’ve done this a thousand times, you know how to do it, its probably second nature to you by now. Pick the three things that you have to do today, because if you don’t do them, all is lost and you might as well throw the towel in right now.
Remember: you have the power to focus your attention to where it needs to be to get the job done. No one else is controlling you, or your time. Check in with yourself and ask yourself ‘where can I best focus my attention to move this forward.’
2. Take notice of your mood
It’s Thursday morning, you possibly had one too many drinks at the pub last night, you’re generally feeling a bit under the weather, and you’re annoyed because you ran out of milk so you’ve not even had a cup of tea yet. You know that you’re being slightly sensitive about certain issues, and it feels a bit like everything is about to get to you. You’ve got so much to do, but don’t have the energy or willpower to get started.
Unless you have a hard deadline, today might not be the best day to tackle that really challenging thing that you have to do. You could soldier on, stiff upper lip and all, only to find yourself re-doing the work tomorrow. I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to waste the day!
Take today to do those slightly mind-numbing things you’ve been putting off for a while. Organise your inbox, tidy your desk, arrange meetings with clients or partners. It’s likely you’ll end the day in a better mood than when you started, because you’ve actually achieved something, however small.
If you allow yourself to wait until you’re in the right frame of mind, you’ll be able to tackle that big challenge well and constructively. Be kind to yourself; no one is superhuman. Understand what you can achieve, and do that instead.
3. Detach and get out of your own way
Elizabeth Gilbert puts it brilliantly in her book Big Magic:
“Ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will. Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest.”
Gilbert gives a marvellous example of how she is convinced that, while she was not acting on the inspiration of an idea, she met another author, Ann Patchett, at an event. As she kissed Patchett’s cheek to say hello, Gilbert is convinced that the idea she was ignoring, chose to jump from one woman and to the other, and later became Patchett’s book State of Wonder. Whether you believe this story or not, we can take away a useful lesson; sometimes its good to detach yourself from your idea, so that the idea can take on a life of its own. Don’t let your identity become entwined with the idea, much like you wouldn’t want to lose your sense of self when you’re in a relationship with someone else. Take some space, and slow down. As long as you don’t put the idea down completely, like Gilbert did before her idea jumped away from her, taking it off the boil can give you the perspective you need. Trust in the idea, and trust in yourself to be the main conduit for it; you have no need to rush. Speak to others, cast a wide net for inspiration, and keep your eyes on the prize. Don’t lose hope, but do give yourself a break; when the time is right, you will know.
Of course, I still have moments of feeling nervous and fearful about the road ahead, but it’s been a big relief to get that attention seeking gremlin – self-concern, outta my head and outta the way, so that I can remain clear and focused on my vision. I hope these steps can help you too, on whatever road you are walking.