On my first day of writing class, my teacher said to us “writing is like a muscle, you have to use it every day to strengthen it.” I didn’t realize how true that was until I started writing regularly, by hand, and began to see how it became easier over time, and how ideas began to unlock themselves as I put pen to paper. I’ve never considered myself a very creative person, but I’ve begun to see how my creativity is like writing. It needs to be exercised and strengthened regularly.
In my work life, I’ve been an operations guy for years, building skills in functions like project management, goal setting, and communications, to the point that they became second nature, effortless. I’m the person that always has a detailed to-do list (with due dates of course), a folder for everything, an organized filing cabinet in my office. I’m proud of these skills, but I started to feel like success in these areas might have been coming at the expense of creativity in others. In our non-stop, “I’m so busy” lives, where everything is scheduled down to the minute, creativity is the victim. I used to schedule “brainstorm time” and “working time” on my calendar, just to have that time to think, but those blocks never worked well for me. Probably because I knew deep down that I was on the clock, and in 42 minutes I would have to change gears and focus on the next meeting.
What my writing class has reminded me of is that creativity doesn’t come from well-organized papers and collated binders. It doesn’t come from scheduling time to write, hitting the deadline, checking it off the to-do list. Creativity is fragile, often grows from a spark, requires different settings to allow it to flourish, and it can be disrupted easily in our constantly connected worlds. What I’ve learned about my own creative process is that I need to separate and disconnect from day-to-day stuff to help it flow, and that this incongruous action, so antithetical to the mind of an “ops” guy, is what allows my mind to wander and go down paths I wouldn’t expect. Like writing, creativity is a muscle that I need to strengthen intentionally.
A few months ago, I decided to leave the corporate world and explore launching a startup. I had some ideas, but I didn’t know if they would work. I had a problem statement but the solution wasn’t immediately clear or easy. I had good work experience to leverage, but I hadn’t started three businesses as a teenager, or been named a “30 Under 30 to Watch” by Crain’s Business Week. Was I crazy to leave it all behind and take a chance on an unknown path? Was I making the dumbest move of my career?
What I was facing, and didn’t realize at the time, was a lack of faith in my own creativity, and a lack of understanding on what changing my setting would accomplish. I didn’t trust in myself. What I did know though, is that sometimes you need to take a risk to open new doors, challenge yourself, find ways to learn new things. This was advice I had given to many colleagues many times. I had even followed it myself, by taking risky jobs, and moving across the country for a work opportunity. Everything had turned out ok. But, as you get older, it gets harder to take those risks. Your aversion grows. You have more responsibilities and people relying on you, in my case a partner, pets, more than one mortgage. It wasn’t crazy to ask these questions.
I took on that risk this year, and I’ve found that, like writing, creativity in the startup world is also something that needs to be exercised and setting matters. Ideas are everywhere, a dime a dozen as they say, but the trick sometimes is in changing your surroundings and the people you interact with to get exposure to them. This year, I changed my setting by joining a startup accelerator called Antler, to change the ideas and people I surround myself with. I pushed myself to make time for creativity by signing up for a writing class, which I almost didn’t do because I was scared I wouldn’t find anything to write about. I even started a new Instagram channel to share photos, a form of visual creativity, but even with this idea I faced moments of doubt; what’s the point of creating this anyway? It’s crazy how much we question every move, but I suspect I am not the only one who does it.
What I’ve found from these decisions is that new ideas come from everywhere, and from places you would least suspect. Being around creativity in other people, such as through writers, folks that are also exploring startups, people that are builders and makers and creators, has the power to help your own creativity flourish. I was scared that I wouldn’t achieve anything through the risk I took to explore these new areas. I was scared my writing would suck (and the truth is, the first drafts often do) but that’s why editors exist. I was scared, but I decided to take that leap, push through the fear, and have discovered how the incredible creativity of others fuels my own.
I’m going to keep strengthening that creative muscle by surrounding myself as much as possible by creativity in many forms, and reminding myself that the balance between creativity and other priorities is important to maintain. I’m excited to see what paths it will lead me down and what doors it may open in the future.