I was in a painting class day when another student asked for a painting lesson that would make demands of her. The instructor obliged by asking her to do a series of sketches of a still life.
She produced sketch after sketch, and each time he looked at an attempt, he pointed out what could make it better. Her growing frustration became apparent. Finally, she said, "I can't do this."
He asked, "Are you feeling frustrated? Confused? Lost?"
She agreed to all those descriptions.
"That's very good," he said.
This got my attention.
"Frustration and confusion are signs that you've left behind the familiar way you do things. You've abandoned the easy solutions that weren't producing the results you wanted. To produce those results, you have to step out into to the unknown. That's the creative zone."
I saw how this wisdom applied, not only to the design of a painting, but to any kind of effort to find a creative solution to a problem. Long after class (and, by the way, the student produced a painting that pleased her and left her with a feeling of accomplishment) I was still contemplating the instructor's words.
How Squirrels Do It
If you have a bird feeder, you probably know about the immense creativity of squirrels. In addition to my personal experiences, I also once saw a film about the ingenuity squirrels to get food.
One Manhattan squirrel had learned how to trip a candy machine in Times Square to allow a chocolate bar to land in the collection area. According to observers, it made the journey across busy Broadway several times a week.
Scientists designed a series of obstacles to prevent squirrels from reaching a bird feeder. These included revolving doors, chutes and ladders, and other intricate devices. It took them six months to design the obstacle course and took a squirrel less than one month to overcome every obstacle.
It's thus well established that in the bird feeder wars, when you pit humans against squirrels, the squirrels will win every time. Does this mean they're more intelligent? More creative?
I would say they make better use of their intelligence and creativity. Unlike us, they don't allow themselves to be undermined by habit and fear. They don't give up.
How We Do It
Life, like art, can either be designed in a creative manner or acted out in habitual ways. Most people live a lot of life out of habit. We do things the way we were trained or have trained ourselves to do them. Some people do things the way their parents did them (who in turn did things the way their parents did). They digested beliefs, attitudes, and resulting actions in the same they digested the food set before them, without thinking other items might be available on the menu.
Emotional habits have special power. We may think that being upset and worried shows that you love someone. If someone doesn't show love to us in this way, we believe they don't care.
Others may believe that love is best expressed through strict discipline and teaching one's children how to stay out of trouble. Children, however, often don't see the love that motivates authoritarian attitudes.
Imagine the sight of someone beating his head against a stone wall. You ask him what he's doing, and he says he's trying to batter a headache out of his head. You say, "But that's going to make your headache worse. Why don't you try something different?" He says, "Because this is what I know how to do."
A lot of life is lived this way.
The Pain of Innovation vs. the Pain of Non-innovation
It would be unimaginable for a squirrel not to keep on trying to acquire food. They may fail time after time, but if they don't try at all, they'll starve.
Those who hold themselves back from trying to create something new may not physically starve and they may avoid sharp, brief pangs of frustration. Quitting, however, doesn't eliminate frustration. It persists as a dull ache that may feel a lot like hunger.
Act Like a Squirrel-Or Like a Genius
I have quoted a famous statement by Thomas Edison before in this newsletter. It's the kind of quotation that deserves repetition.
He made about nine thousand attempts to invent a light bulb. After he finally succeeded, a reporter asked him how to felt to fail over nine thousand times. He said, "I was glad I found nine thousand ways not to invent the light bulb."
Like my fellow painting student, I used to get frustrated and annoyed when my first attempt to capture a subject failed. Over the years, three "p" words have helped me to adopt a different attitude: Practice, Persistence, and Patience.
In something like painting, practice improves technical facility. Practice improves one's performance in any area of life. Think of all the practice Thomas Edison got, and each attempt taught him something.
I've learned I often do a painting many times before I'm satisfied. Each "failure gets me more familiar with the features of what I'm painting and teaches me how not to do it the next time.
We don't get the chance to practice unless we persist. Keep on trying.
This is probably the most important fuel of creation. With patience, we are able to practice and persist.
In my early days of painting, I nearly quit many times. I could hardly stand to look at the truly terrible works I painted. Every blotch of paint felt like a stain on my self-esteem.
Finally, I convinced myself that it was all right to be a beginner and that with practice, I would get technically better. Once I was technically better, I would have created a channel for creativity.
Basically, it amounted to a pep talk I repeated to myself many times, until at last I believed it. This enabled me to relax, which in turn allowed creativity to flow more easily.
Once I understood the fear element, patience told me that fear was temporary and convinced me that when it subsided, exhilaration would replace it.
Finally, be patient with yourself. There are days when, despite your best efforts to encourage yourself, you can't get it together. (I had several days when I looked at this article and couldn't come up with one idea.)
Don't push yourself. Pushing against fear and frustration only make them worse. Sometimes you need time and space to distance yourself from a situation.
This is not the time to get angry with yourself because you haven't persisted. It's not the time to stomp on your self-esteem by calling yourself a quitter. It's also not the time to tell yourself that if you don't do something now, you never will.
It's a time to be kind to yourself, a time to tell yourself that you're a fine human being who's full of creativity and who needs a break from this particular project. You'll be back to it tomorrow, and, who knows, when you return to the challenge, refreshed and renewed, you may invent the light bulb-or shine some light on your life.
The Essence of Patience
Impatience is a tricky emotion. Although it can exist on its own, it often colors other emotions, such as anger, judgment, and discouragement. If you find that irritability accompanies another negative feeling, add the Bach Flower Remedy Impatiens to your mixture.
Gentian (Bach) is for discouragement, before it's reached the level of despair or hopelessness.
Because creativity means stepping (or plunging) into the unknown, the kind of fear that arises from the plunge can best be treated by Aspen (Bach), the remedy for unknown fears.
Iris (FES) draws down the spiritual essence of creativity. If you're feeling uninspired or dry in creative terms, this essence may help.
Rhodonite is the crystalline counterpart to Impatiens. It's one stone I believe in keeping close by at all times. You never know.
Picasso jasper has intricate and beautiful designs that read like pathways. By letting your eyes follow it, you may discover a new way to creativity.
Calcite's great gift is its ability to help one see things from a different perspective. See this article for the specific role each color plays.