I’m not creative enough

I wrote an article for Communication Arts years ago entitled I’m not creative enough.  It has been the most republished piece I’ve ever written.  From what I hear it’s also the most photocopied of my writing as well, if I believe all the art professors and advertising instructors who tell me it’s required reading for their students.

I’ll tell you the punch line, if you’d like.  I believe the hollow feeling of creative uncertainty is one of the greatest forces one can have to fuel creative growth.  I believe it perpetuates the hunger.

I hadn’t read the piece in a number of years until just now, and you know what?  I still haven’t outgrown the deep, hollow hunger.  I hope I never will.  Because that will be the end of my creative growth. And as a new year is upon us it feels like a good time to reconfirm this resolution.

I’m not creative enough. 

As I sit down to write this article a cold shiver goes down the center of my back.

“What do I write about?”

“CA readers are a pretty savvy audience.”

“Will they like it?”

“Will it be meaningful?”

“Will it be valuable?”

“Will it be useful?”

“Will the column be good enough?”

“Am I creative enough?”

These are just a few of the frightful thoughts that flash through my mind, with a few side trips to my sweat glands.

The blank sheet of paper has been haunting writers and artists for centuries. Or, the blank canvas, or the solid slab of marble, or the empty stage…. All creative people have their boogiemen.

In fact, today, as I sit down at my PowerBook – screen glowing, machinery humming – with this subject on my mind, I feel the intimidation is even more present. When I turn on this device I’m even told how many megabytes are available, in effect reminded just how huge, in technological terms, this blank sheet of paper really is.

As an advertising writer for 20 years I’ve faced the blank sheet of paper on thousands of occasions. And each time I’ve asked myself the same question, “Am I creative enough?”

Yes, I’ve pulled through many, many times before. But each time it’s a new challenge. And each time I have to ask myself all over again, “Am I creative enough? Can I do it this time? Am I good enough?”

That’s the question, psychologists tell us, that plagues most people with “problems”.

“Am I good enough?”

Well, I’m not a psychologist. Will never pretend to be. And I don’t intend to make light of such a deep, potentially damaging notion as a human being asking for such an all-telling judgment.

But I will tell you that I believe the insecurity articulated in the expression “Am I creative enough?” can actually be one of the more powerful motivators in any creative pursuit.

I’ve always felt that the best creative people are an odd combination of security and insecurity. Secure in knowing what they want to do, insecure as to whether they’ve nailed it “this time”.

Always knowing that real creativity is the goal. Yet, forever asking, “Am I creative enough”.

Over the years as I’ve interviewed creative people for jobs I always looked for a degree of self-confidence. Because advertising is such a brutal business when it comes to ego assault that I feel people need a certain amount of emotional armor. But if that cocky side isn’t balanced by a shadow of doubt, I’m quite leery as to how creative the individual truly is.

You see, I believe, to be creative is to be insecure. Whether it’s worn on the outside or not, whether it’s recognized by others or not.

To be creative means you are forever stepping into the dark, uncharted unknown. That place I affectionately call “The Void”. (Welcoming concept, isn’t it?)

Few of us operate in “The Great Void,” where Einstein, da Vinci, Picasso and other masters played. But when we aim to do something truly creative, something the likes of which has never been done before, that means we are approaching The Void, or at least putting one foot into it.

The deep, dark Void. The territory where no one else has been before.

It’s a bit scary. And that’s understandable.

Now the reason it’s so scary being in or near The Void is because there are no signposts telling us where we are. And, if we are truly in The Void, there are also no indicators telling us that we’re doing something well or not. Good or bad… Right or wrong…

Have you ever come up with a concept and asked yourself, “is this any good?” If you had to ask, you were probably in or near The Void.

When you’re in or near The Void you’re where no one’s ever been, so you simply have little or no known criteria to evaluate how good it is. And that’s a good sign. A good sign that you really are doing something creative. Not necessarily a sign that it’s right or wrong.

When you come up with a concept and you don’t have to ask “Is this any good?”, because it’s pretty easy to tell, then I’m sorry to say you’re probably not being particularly creative.

Again, that doesn’t mean it’s right or wrong. It just means that if it’s easy to qualify, then it’s probably been done before, or at least it’s in a category of things that have been done before, so it’s really not very creative.

A conclusion? If you’re scared, that’s usually a good sign. If you’re not scared, then it’s usually a bad sign. When it comes to pure creativity, that is.

This is often a new concept to many people. But a welcomed one for most.

I’m doing more and more creative training these days. Companies or trade organizations bring me in to light a creative spark under their people.

I conduct creativity workshops. I don’t teach creativity. I don’t believe that can  be done. I believe creativity is in everyone, to varying degrees. I feel my job as a creative trainer is simply to help people access more of what they already have. In most cases it’s creativity that they had unlimited access to as children, but has since been locked away in the dark, damp corners created by years of judgment as adults. Years of training in insecurity.

One of the most valuable purposes my creative trainings serve is to help people break through the blocks that inhibit their creativity. Some people might help others achieve this by having them “conquer” their fears. I do it by helping people “see the value” of these gremlins.

When fear wells up in us (and it does for any mortal creative person), if we recognize that as a good sign, a sign that we might be approaching that deep, dark, mysterious unknown, The Void, the only place where true creativity ever happens, then perhaps we can see the usefulness of all this insecurity, make friends with it and use it to our advantage.

(Hey, maybe I am a Psychologist?)

Tom Monahan is Head Creative Thinking Coach at Before & After, Inc. Since 1993 B&A has been conducting precept-shattering training in the area of creativity and problem solving, as well as high-output brainstorming sessions at some of the greatest companies and ad agencies in the world, among them Target, Virgin, Novartis and Unilever

© Tom Monahan, Before & After, Inc.