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Blog // Sounds // Thoughts
May 24, 2019

Creating Makes You More Creative

Conversations about being more creative often focus on feeling inspired. What gets overlooked is that the surest way to be more creative is just to create more often.

Over the years, I’ve become accustomed to listening for the familiar beat of people’s excuses for not being creative. Circumstances, lack of opportunity, other commitments – familiar refrains. Yes, life does knock you off your feet from time to time. But if you’re perpetually off your feet, maybe you’re standing in the wrong place.

Ten Years and Three Guitarists

In my late teens, I was something of a hotshot guitarist. I was hungry to learn and took lessons from the best players in town.

One was Jim Kelly, perhaps the best jazz guitarist of his generation in Australia. After a lesson one day, he commented on my potential.

‘Do you know the difference between you and Tommy Emmanuel?’ he asked, mentioning the famous guitarist who was already a legend in Australia and someone Kelly had often worked with. ‘No,’ I said, bracing myself for some kind of harsh comparison. ‘Ten years,’ said Kelly. ‘Ten years.’

Notice he said nothing about talent or technique. This wasn’t an observation about what I lacked. It was about what I needed.

Of course, I never got there. I thought about this a lot while watching Tommy play last night at Tokyo’s Blue Note jazz cafe. Tommy delivered a searing set to a sell-out audience who were cheering from the first song.

I could understand everything Tommy was doing. But there was so much going on in his playing. He played his version of the Beatles’ song ‘Michelle’. I first heard him play that when I was still a teenager. Last night’s version was similar, but also richer, deeper, full of new ideas. It had a freshness born of relentless creativity and hard work.

I still play every day. Sometimes well. But I didn’t spend the ten years Jim Kelly alluded to chasing the guitar-playing dream. I did other things. There were a few years when I played maybe a hundred gigs or so a year. Tommy has played over 200 gigs a year for most of the last 30 years. And I don’t play live anymore. That’s why the difference between his ability and mine isn’t ten years now. It’s a lifetime.

Creating Builds Creativity

A lot of this series on creative health has been about habits and mindset, and about building a body that’s ready to be creative. Nurturing our creativity is about how we take care of ourselves and how we craft our place in the universe.

But the missing piece is often this: the work makes us more creative. That’s where a lot of people get stuck. Waiting for inspiration. Waiting for their muse to turn up. This lets the fear in. Brings the blockage. And the familiar refrain of excuses.

I experience creativity as a kind of yin and yang. Two forces intertwined. Or maybe two energies. One is flirty, rebellious and suggestive. It sees non-obvious connections. This is the creative side.

The other is darker, more focussed. It likes repetition, rules and systems. It gets the work done. Over and over again. Not happy with one idea, it cranks out a hundred. Once it finishes something it wants to come back and do something else – better, faster. This is the creator.

Some people don’t see the second energy as ‘creative’. They’re wrong. Creative creators create.

Where Talent Comes From

It’s easy to look at someone like Tommy Emmanuel and say, ‘He’s so talented.’ That’s what my friend said after last night’s show. It’s true, but it’s only part of the story.

When we look at creative people we admire, our heroes, it’s easy to focus on the talent, to see it as some gift from the gods, and not see what the real difference is between them and us. Which is scale and speed. They have a vast body of work, and they make that work at a fast rate.

The only way to become a creative genius is to work at it every day. Otherwise it’s hard to make enough work to acquire the skills and techniques needed. It also means you will make a lot of mistakes. Because you’re trying new things. And you can’t get hung up about the mistakes. Because that will just slow you down. Which means you do less work. And your journey towards mastery stalls.

True geniuses generate. So, the longer you sit with your excuses and fears the faster the gap grows between you and your heroes. They are, in fact, accelerating and pulling away, faster and faster.

You Start Where You Are

Too often, when we restart after a dry spell or when we feel down about our creativity, we want to make something amazing. We’re trying to make up for the past and trying to win a glorious future.

On stage, Tommy still plays songs – old classic country and blues tunes – that he learnt as a teenager. So often great painters become comfortable as they age with simple, almost childlike lines and shapes in their work.

Walking home from last night’s gig, I didn’t feel bad. My path in life took me away from playing guitar all day every day. And while I’d like to give guitar a more prominent place in my life over the next few years, I won’t catch up to Tommy.

You can beat yourself up over this sort of thing. ‘What if’ and ‘if only’. But it never helps.

What you can do is pick up your guitar, or brush, or camera, or pen.
Just pick it up.
Don’t think about picking it up.
Pick it up.

And create something – anything. You can start wherever you are, and the more you create, staying in the present moment, the freer you will feel to keep creating.

Responses
Mark Beech 7 months ago

I love Malcolm Gladwell’s book which talks about 10,000 hours of practice. I don’t care what you do creatively, corporately or in the sports arena, to be successful you need to keep doing that thing repetitively. What separates the true talent is that they can keep doing that thing (whatever it is) when they don’t want to or tired and fatigued, whilst us mortals give up.

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