Our world is filled with distractions, but they may not be as detrimental to creativity as we think.
Our culture holds interesting beliefs about creatives: We like to think they are obsessively focused people. We get this belief by watching artists work—they become immersed and absorbed when they paint a masterwork, direct a film, or act on stage.
It makes sense that artists work better with more solitude and more focus. This matches well with our conception of the lonely artist. But do creative people function in this single-minded, fiercely concentrated way all the time?
In a study done at Harvard and the University of Toronto in June 2001, neuroscientists found that creative people are actually more distractible than non-creative people.
The researchers discovered that latent inhibition—a subconscious wall that blocks irrelevant thoughts and stimuli—is actually lower in people with higher test scores in creativity.
Image by Krikit (Creative Commons)
When you’re about to start a creative project, there’s going to be things holding you back. Self-doubt kicks in. You rationalize why you shouldn’t work on this project today—unfortunately these reasons are actually seductive and convincing. You can’t, for the life of you, drag your sorry self to practice.
You’re not alone. I’m right there with you—yapping excuses. I’ve got a stack full of them. But there’s a way we can beat this inner friction: momentum.
For artists, momentum works like this: It’s Monday—you have killer self-doubt about a project or task, but you plough through it anyway. You show up and perform. The work may turn out horribly, no matter. Doing the work is what matters.
You can build off something, but you can’t build off nothing. You can improve upon Monday’s work, but you can’t improve a blank script or an empty canvas.
Image by Steve Snodgrass (Creative Commons)
It’s 9 am.
I’m grumpy, agitated, drained.
A knot jumbles in my stomach. Self-doubt pumps itself through my veins. I’m anxious. I’ve taken a year off to write a book and I wonder—was it worth it?
Do I even have something unique to say? Was I meant to be a writer, or something else? My father is a handyman, my brother a skilled carpenter.
Is language my gift?
I don’t know.
I sip my second cup of bean coffee. I wonder how much more energy I have to schlep out another day at the desk.
Creative people thrive on mental clutter.
One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.
In a Big Think interview, author Malcolm Gladwell explains how important it is for creative people to welcome the irrelevant, the messy, and the chaotic things they come across.
He says that creative people’s brains are supposed to be chaotic and messy—it’s the landfill from which they invent and create.
The next time you catch yourself daydreaming, or find yourself in amusement of some small detail in nature—like a legion of ants crowding over an anthill—don’t censor it.
Let yourself wonder. And feel secure about it.
You never know when one junky idea might serve you. People who work in creative fields need to embrace chaos, not repress it.