“All creators need to be able to live in the shade of the big questions long enough for truly revolutionary ideas and insights to emerge.”
By Maria Popova
“You are what you settle for,” Janis Joplin admonished in her final interview. “You are ONLY as much as you settle for.” In Maximize Your Potential: Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks & Build an Incredible Career (public library), which comes on the heels of their indispensable guide to mastering the pace of productivity and honing your creative routine, editor Jocelyn Glei and her team at Behance’s 99U pull together another package of practical wisdom from 21 celebrated creative entrepreneurs. Despite the somewhat self-helpy, SEO-skewing title, this compendium of advice is anything but contrived. Rather, it’s a no-nonsense, experience-tested, life-approved cookbook for creative intelligence, exploring everything from harnessing the power of habit to cultivating meaningful relationships that enrich your work to overcoming the fear of failure.
In the introduction, Glei affirms the idea that, in the age of make-your-own-success and build-your-own-education, the onus and thrill of finding fulfilling work falls squarely on us, not on the “system”:
If the twentieth-century career was a ladder that we climbed from one predictable rung to the next, the twenty-first-century career is more like a broad rock face that we are all free-climbing. There’s no defined route, and we must use our own ingenuity, training, and strength to rise to the top. We must make our own luck.
Stressing the importance of staying open and alert in order to maximize your “luck quotient,” Glei cites Stanford’s Tina Seelig, who writes about the importance of cultivating awareness and embracing the unfamiliar in her book What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20:
Lucky people take advantage of chance occurrences that come their way. Instead of going through life on cruise control, they pay attention to what’s happening around them and, therefore, are able to extract greater value from each situation… Lucky people are also open to novel opportunities and willing to try things outside of their usual experiences. They’re more inclined to pick up a book on an unfamiliar subject, to travel to less familiar destinations, and to interact with people who are different than themselves.
But “luck,” it turns out, is a grab-bag term composed of many interrelated elements, each dissected in a different chapter. In a section on reprogramming your daily habits, Scott H. Young echoes William James and recaps the science of rewiring your “habit loops”, reminding us how routines dictate our days:
If you think hard about it, you’ll notice just how many “automatic” decisions you make each day. But these habits aren’t always as trivial as what you eat for breakfast. Your health, your productivity, and the growth of your career are all shaped by the things you do each day — most by habit, not by choice.
Even the choices you do make consciously are heavily influenced by automatic patterns. Researchers have found that our conscious mind is better understood as an explainer of our actions, not the cause of them. Instead of triggering the action itself, our consciousness tries to explain why we took the action after the fact, with varying degrees of success. This means that even the choices we do appear to make intentionally are at least somewhat influenced by unconscious patterns.
Given this, what you do every day is best seen as an iceberg, with a small fraction of conscious decision sitting atop a much larger foundation of habits and behaviors.
We can’t, however, simply will ourselves into better habits. Since willpower is a limited resource, whenever we’ve overexerted our self-discipline in one domain, a concept known as “ego depletion” kicks in and renders us mindless automata in another. Instead, Young suggests, the key to changing a habit is to invest heavily in the early stages of habit-formation so that the behavior becomes automated and we later default into it rather than exhausting our willpower wrestling with it. Young also cautions that it’s a self-defeating strategy to try changing several habits at once. Rather, he advises, spend one month on each habit alone before moving on to the next — a method reminiscent of the cognitive strategy of “chunking” that allows our brains to commit more new information to memory.
As both a lover of notable diaries and the daily keeper of a very unnotable one, I was especially delighted to find an entire section dedicated to how a diary boosts your creativity — something Virginia Woolf famously championed, later echoed by Anaïs Nin’s case for the diary as a vital sandbox for writing and Joan Didion’s conviction that keeping a notebook gives you better access to yourself.
Though the chapter, penned by Steven Kramer and Teresa Amabile of the Harvard Business School, co-authors of The Progress Principle, along with 13-year IDEO veteran Ela Ben-Ur, frames the primary benefit of a diary as a purely pragmatic record of your workday productivity and progress — while most dedicated diarists would counter that the core benefits are spiritual and psychoemotional — it does offer some valuable insight into the psychology of how journaling elevates our experience of everyday life:
This is one of the most important reasons to keep a diary: it can make you more aware of your own progress, thus becoming a wellspring of joy in your workday.
Citing their research into the journals of more than two hundred creative professionals, the authors point to a pattern that reveals the single most important motivator: palpable progress on meaningful work:
On the days when these professionals saw themselves moving forward on something they cared about — even if the progress was a seemingly incremental “small win” — they were more likely to be happy and deeply engaged in their work. And, being happier and more deeply engaged, they were more likely to come up with new ideas and solve problems creatively.
Even more importantly, however, they argue that a diary offers an invaluable feedback loop:
Although the act of reflecting and writing, in itself, can be beneficial, you’ll multiply the power of your diary if you review it regularly — if you listen to what your life has been telling you. Periodically, maybe once a month, set aside time to get comfortable and read back through your entries. And, on New Year’s Day, make an annual ritual of reading through the previous year.
This, they suggest, can yield profound insights into the inner workings of your own mind — especially if you look for specific clues and patterns, trying to identify the richest sources of meaning in your work and the types of projects that truly make your heart sing. Once you understand what motivates you most powerfully, you’ll be able to prioritize this type of work in going forward. Just as important, however, is cultivating a gratitude practice and acknowledging your own accomplishments in the diary:
This is your life; savor it. Hold on to the threads across days that, when woven together, reveal the rich tapestry of what you are achieving and who you are becoming. The best part is that, seeing the story line appearing, you can actively create what it — and you — will become.
The lack of a straight story line, however, might also be a good thing. That’s what Jonathan Fields, author of Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance and creator of the wonderful Good Life Project, explores in another chapter:
Every creative endeavor, from writing a book to designing a brand to launching a company, follows what’s known as an Uncertainty Curve. The beginning of a project is defined by maximum freedom, very little constraint, and high levels of uncertainty. Everything is possible; options, paths, ideas, variations, and directions are all on the table. At the same time, nobody knows exactly what the final output or outcome will be. And, at times, even whether it will be. Which is exactly the way it should be.
Echoing John Keats’s assertion that “negative capability” is essential to the creative process Rilke’s counsel to live the questions, Richard Feynman’s assertion that the role of great scientists is to remain uncertain, and Anaïs Nin’s insistence that inviting the unknown helps us live more richly, Fields reminds us of what Orson Welles so memorably termed “the gift of ignorance”:
Those who are doggedly attached to the idea they began with may well execute on that idea. And do it well and fast. But along the way, they often miss so many unanticipated possibilities, options, alternatives, and paths that would’ve taken them away from that linear focus on executing on the vision, and sent them back into a place of creative dissidence and uncertainty, but also very likely yielded something orders of magnitude better.
All creators need to be able to live in the shade of the big questions long enough for truly revolutionary ideas and insights to emerge. They need to stay and act in that place relentlessly through the first, most obvious wave of ideas.
Fields argues that if we move along the Uncertainty Curve either too fast or too slowly, we risk either robbing the project of its creative potential and ending up in mediocrity. Instead, becoming mindful of the psychology of that process allows us to pace ourselves better and master that vital osmosis between freedom and constraint. He sums up both the promise and the peril of this delicate dance beautifully:
Nothing truly innovative, nothing that has advanced art, business, design, or humanity , was ever created in the face of genuine certainty or perfect information. Because the only way to be certain before you begin is if the thing you seek to do has already been done.
In another section, Stanford psychology Ph.D. candidate Michael Schwalbe turns to the intricate dance of risk-taking and the fear of failure. Citing the work of psychologists Daniel Gilbert, whose exploration of the art-science of happiness remains indispensable, and Timothy Wilson, whose work has revolutionized the way we think about psychological change, Schwalbe reminds us of the “impact bias” — our tendency to greatly overestimate the intensity and extent of our emotional reactions, which causes us to expect failures to be more painful than they actually are and thus to fear them more than we should. Schwalbe explains:
Gilbert and Wilson highlight two phenomena to explain this bias. The first is immune neglect. Just as we have a physical immune system to fight threats to our body, we have a psychological immune system to fight threats to our mental health. We identify silver linings, rationalize our actions, and find meaning in our setbacks. We don’t realize how effective this immune system is, however, because it operates largely beneath our conscious awareness. When we think about taking a risk, we rarely consider how good we will be at reframing a disappointing outcome. In short, we underestimate our resilience.
The second reason is focalism. When we contemplate failure from afar, according to Gilbert and Wilson, we tend to overemphasize the focal event (i.e., failure) and overlook all the other episodic details of daily life that help us move on and feel better. The threat of failure is so vivid that it consumes our attention. This happens in part because the areas of the brain we use to perceive the present are the same ones we employ to imagine the future. When we feel afraid of failing at a new business or anxious about the shame of letting investors down and what our peers will think, it’s hard to also imagine the pleasure we will get from our next venture and the other everyday activities that are a necessary and enjoyable part of life.
And yet Schwalbe reminds us that social science has invariably recorded that what people regret the most as they look back on their lives isn’t what they attempted and failed at, but what they never tried in the first place:
Of the many regrets people describe, regrets of inaction outnumber those of action by nearly two to one. … We are left with a paradox of inaction. On one hand we instinctively tend to stick with the default, or go with the herd. Researchers call it the status quo bias. We feel safe in our comfort zones, where we can avoid the sting of regret. And yet, at the same time, we regret most those actions and risks we did not take.
The solution, as a wise woman poignantly put it, seems to be: “Work as hard as you can, imagine immensities, don’t compromise, and don’t waste time. Start now. Not 20 years from now, not two weeks from now. Now.”
Complement Maximize Your Potential with its equally insightful prequel, Manage Your Day-to-Day — but don’t let yourself forget that the good life, the meaningful life, the truly fulfilling life, is the life of presence, not of productivity.