Geetanjali Mukherjee

Monday, March 7, 2016

How To Know If You Are In A Creative Rut


As creative professionals, we assume that our biggest problem, will probably be that we are taking too many risks. The risk of not having financial security. The risk of doing work that makes people uncomfortable. The risk of not investing enough in marketing ourselves and our work. You may even think that being in a rut could never happen to you.

The funny thing about human beings is that we are incredible at adapting to our environment. We start off in a new situation, we are nervous, maybe scared, then we figure things out. Slowly the new situation becomes comfortable, we get the hang of it, and before we know it, we are in a rut. Actually, doing research for my most recent book, I learned how this really works in our brain. When we are doing something new, learning a new skill, adapting to a new environment, our brains need a way to create a shortcut, a way to remember and execute the actions we need to easily. So each time we do something new, maybe play a certain tune on the piano, or give a speech, we strengthen the white matter or myelin in our brains for that action (see the excellent The Talent Code) for a thorough explanation of this phenomenon. The more we strengthen the myelin, the easier it gets to play that particular tune or give that particular speech. 

So let's say the first few months or year of creating custom social media banners for clients, or designing infographics, you are challenging yourself, coming up with new ideas, really pushing the boundaries of your own skill set. Then, you start to get into a groove. Your work is appreciated, the checks keep coming in, and you are confident about your abilities. At this point you are feeling good. And the work is piling up, you don’t have time to look around, to see what is missing, what you are not doing.

But the problem you see is, that you might be in a rut, and you don’t even realize it. 

I was reading Shonda Rhimes' excellent memoir Year of Yes, and in the book, she talks about how although her creative career was going brilliantly, in every other aspect of her life, she was stuck in a rut. She was afraid of trying new things, of saying yes to new opportunities, from the fear of messing it up, or being vulnerable. I recognized myself in that description - I had become afraid to try anything new, to venture outside my comfort zone. The only difference is, that I was doing this in my creative life.

I have written 6 books so far, and all of them have been very different from each other. I haven’t just been doing the same thing over and over. So why do I think I haven’t taken the risks? Because I was afraid to write something that revealed more of myself, that meant I would have to be vulnerable. I wrote from my head, but not my heart. To some extent, in my most recent book, I did tap into beliefs that are really deeply held, and I think that’s why this book has been far better received than my previous ones. But I still haven’t really been able to take a risk and really share more of the real me. 

Not everyone gets creatively stuck in the same ways. For some people it could be that without realizing it, they have stopped trying to venture into different aspects of their field, and just keep doing the work that is safe and pays the bills. For others, it might mean that they are stuck reading the same books, meeting the same people, watching the same TV shows, and are not cultivating any new experiences. For some, it could even be something as simple as being unexcited about their work, being bored and wishing for something external to excite them again.

If you feel like you’re falling out of love with your work, or your life, sometimes all you need is a simple shift in perspective. In Rhimes’ memoir, she explains that her shift came when she realized that she simply needed to start saying yes to things, even or especially when, they scared her. For me, recently a shift in perspective happened when I decided to simply try things that I was interested in, without demanding that I do them brilliantly or that they were immediately successful. 

One of the results of this decision was that I finally started to do interviews of authors on my blog, something that I was really interested in doing, but avoided earlier for fear of adding to my workload and taking away from my book writing. Yes, it is a lot of work. But reaching out to so many different authors, I am learning a lot, and the whole process has been a blast. 

So if you are doing creative work of some kind, and feel like you have got into a rut, try to do something that you have always wanted to and haven’t either had the courage to do or made the time. Start a side project that has no commercial value. Do something that is just for you. Alternatively, mix up your creative inputs. Join a group where you are likely to meet totally different people. Read books in a genre you never considered before - maybe read non-fiction if you only fiction or the other way around. Ask friends for recommendations for good podcasts or shows that wouldn’t usually come up on your radar. Take an online course.

All of this is time-consuming and disruptive to your normal routine. And that is kind of the point. We are busy, more than ever, and there is a never-ending list of things to get done. But at the end of the day, what each of us really wants, is to do something inspiring, to leave a legacy, to touch someone, even just one person. In order to do this, we need to expand ourselves, get out of our own head and do something unexpected. We need to have what Zen Buddhists call “beginner’s mind”, where you look at something from a fresh perspective, when you are open to learning and to the possibility...of life. 

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