The Unintended Consequences of Doing Creative Work

About seven months ago, I decided to start creating sketchy videos. I had created a three or four sporadically over the last few years. However, I wanted to take it to a new level. My first video took an entire day to make. I second-guessed my every move, but I still finished it and shared it on YouTube. Since then, I’ve worked on at least one video per week. Each time, I work on trying a new animation technique and, as a result, my videos have become more visually complex.

A few unexpected things happened along the way. My sketching abilities have improved — so much so that I am thinking about working this hybrid novel / graphic novel that I’ve always wanted to write. My sketch-noting has improved as well. I find myself getting ideas out visually in new ways. I’ve gotten faster at drawing, which is why I’ve abandoned photographs on my blog posts and I now create pictures from scratch. Then there are external things I had never anticipated, like people hiring me to make sketchy videos for them.

All of these things are unintended consequences of spending four or five hours per week making sketchy videos. This has me wondering . . . are there any universal unintended consequences of doing creative work? I could be wrong, but here are a few that I’ve noticed as an educator and as a maker.

Positive Unintended Consequences

  • You become a deeper thinker. Creative thinking often pushes you to see multiple perspectives and engage in connective thinking. It often pushes you to be both analytical and affective. In other words, creative work shapes the way you think in profound ways. I’ve been spending some time reading the research on this and it’s fascinating. 
  • You become a better consumer. I’ve written before that students should be better consumers. But I think the act of making is often what allows someone to appreciate the craft of another artist. 
  • It builds character. You grow more courageous as you take creative risks. You grow more patient as you screw up and learn from mistakes. You learn to handle criticism, because all creative work will, on some level, be criticized. 
  • Your current creative work makes you better at other creative work. Think of the sketchy video example. Sometimes, when you excel in one creative endeavor, those skills become transferrable to other areas. 
  • You become more empathetic. There’s a value in thinking about the audience. 

Negative Unintended Consequences

  • You start placing projects over people. I have had moments where I was so into a specific project that I would “zone out” as I was throwing a baseball back and forth with my sons. Or my daughter would say, as we played ponies, “Why aren’t you paying attention?” and I’d realize I was thinking about a creative project. 
  • You grow self-centered. Creative work often comes from an internal reservoir. Even when you work collaboratively, you draw your creative energy from somewhere inside yourself. But this can make you self-centered. 
  • You can get into a rut, where the magic of making is gone. There’s a great new TED Talk from Shonda Rhimes that touches on this point (as well as some of the other points mentioned here).
  • You forget to live. It’s the same ideas mentioned above. But it’s the idea that you spend so much time making stuff that you forget to stare at the stars or gaze into the one you love as you both sip coffee. 

So, what do we do with these realities? Can we avoid the negatives as we pursue the positives?

More often than not, the unintended consequences are actually both negative and positive at the same time. Being a better critical consumer can also make you a snob. But, if you are empathetic toward other artists, you can appreciate their craft in a deeper way. Developing a thicker skin can be great . . . until you become insensitive to the needs of others.

Maybe I can’t avoid the unintended consequences entirely. However, on my best days, I can be cognizant of how creative work shapes my worldview and my identity. I can celebrate creativity while also admitting when I’m screwing up. I can remind myself to have a life outside of my projects.

Maybe the answer is balance. Or maybe balance is an illusion. Maybe the good life is less like the graceful dance of a ballerina and more like a bumbling high school slow dance, where we never quite find our footing, but that’s okay, because the joy is in the movement and the music and the connection we have to one another. Maybe the answer isn’t about the balance or the negatives or the positives. Maybe it’s about finding joy in that awkward, clunky dance.

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

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