Creative work is inherently fun. However, sometimes it’s also frustrating, slow, and difficult. In other words, it’s a lot like working out. We explore this connection in the following blog podcast, video, and blog post.
Listen to the Podcast
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How Creative Work Is Like Working Out
I love creative work. I spend hours sketching out pictures, editing them, and transforming it all into short videos. I get up at four each morning and plug away at a book or a new blog post. I geek out on the revision process.
On the other hand, I hate working out. I have never experienced the so-called “runner’s high” that people gush about. For me, it’s like Magic Eye. I’m sure it works for some people but not for me. I don’t get pumped about pumping iron. Hiking is amazing – though that’s mostly because I am consumed by the beauty of nature. If I could experience the beauty of it without having to exert myself physically, I might choose a lawn chair over a trail map.
In other words, the only way I enjoy exercise is if I’m completely distracted by the fact that I’m exercising.
Don’t get me wrong. I work out three to five times per week. But I don’t enjoy it. I don’t feel anything remotely close to a “runner’s high” and I certainly wouldn’t choose a vigorous workout over a reading a novel or watching a movie.
I choose it because it’s necessary.
I’ve noticed that exercise helps me in my creative work. I know, for example, that a long run creates a boredom-induced mental rest that often leads to creative breakthroughs. I know that weight-lifting makes me feel less stressed and more energized. I am more productive in my creative work when I am also sticking to an exercise regimen.
But it has me wondering if there are actually some overlaps between working out and creative work.
See, there’s a common myth out there that you should do creative work when you feel inspired. You get excited about an idea and then you throw yourself into the creative process until you have something you love. But creative work is still work. It’s fun. It’s enjoyable. But it’s also a discipline.
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#1: Creative work requires routines.
My friend Josh Stumpenhorst runs every day. Every. Day. It seems insane. If he’s on vacation he runs. If he’s speaking at a conference, he runs. If it’s the day after Thanksgiving and his body wants to hibernate and it’s already below freezing in Illinois, he goes out there and runs. This has become a habit for Josh and, while I think it’s somewhat crazy, it works.
I don’t have a run streak but I do have a creative routine. I get up at 4:00 a.m. every morning unless I’m on a vacation. I devote at least one hour to writing and then another hour to some other type of creative project. Recently, it was a set of STEM Challenges I created with Chris Kesler and A.J. Juliani. Sometimes it’s a sketch-note video.
Sometimes it’s working. I sit down and get to work and things just click. Other times, it’s a full hour of never quite getting into the groove. But the end result is nearly always a finished product that I’m proud of. And, more importantly, I have developed a creative habit.
#2: Creative work requires rest.
There’s an interesting study cited in the book Rest, where they looked at the productivity of professors who spent 10-60 hours per week on research. Those who spent beyond 30 hours a week on their research ended up producing fewer papers and having fewer creative breakthroughs.
Rest is vital for creativity. The down time we experience when we go for walks, exercise, or take naps allows our brains to process seemingly disconnected ideas. This mental rest also creates the space for us to solve complex problems in a relaxed way.
This is similar to the value of rest time in exercise. Recuperation allows the muscles to heal (the whole idea of muscle protein synthesis). It’s why people will wait 24 to 48 hours between workouts. Your body needs rest.
And I would argue that your mind needs rest as well.
#3: Creative work can feel uninspiring.
Inspiration is critical to creativity. Those little sparks of ideas often ignite a passion for a project. But then there’s this less inspiring element where you fan the flames and tend to the fire. You will hit moments of frustration and boredom. Your work doesn’t turn out right and you can’t figure out what you need to do to fix it. You make mistakes. Huge mistakes. And for all the talk of “embracing failure,” these moments still feel lousy.
You have days when you don’t feel like getting started. You have a show you can binge watch or you have to watch or dishes and it’s tempting to take the day off. In these moments, the creative work can feel like a run in the icy rain when all you want to do is wrap yourself in a blanket and read. These are the moments when creative work can feel like climbing a switchback without being able to see the summit.
But it’s always worth it in the end. Because, although it feels amazing to be inspired, it feels more amazing to finish a creative task when you didn’t feel like getting started.
#4: Creative work is difficult at the beginning.
Creative work is frustrating at first. You feel like you don’t know what you are doing and you constantly ask yourself if you’re doing it the right way. You’re also slower. You haven’t hit that place of creative fluency where you can spend hours lost in a task. Everything seems difficult. Chances are you’re not that good at it, either. So you are able to identify quality work in others but you can’t seem to pull it off on your own.
The same thing happens when you start lifting weights or running. You’re slow. You’re sloppy. Everything takes a long time. Progress seems painfully slow. You don’t have the capacity or the stamina. Everything seems new to you – but not in that cool, exciting novelty kind of way. You feel lost.
In other words, the early stages in your creative journey can feel like the first few weeks of getting into running or weight-lifting or yoga. It’s painful. It’s confusing. Everybody around you seems to know what they are doing.
But that leads to the next concept . . .
#5: You need a community
Individual sports are rarely as individual as they appear. For example, runners will join running clubs and participate in larger communities. They network with one another and geek out about what type of gels to use for refueling or how best to prevent shin splints. They realize something critical: even when you work alone you never want to be entirely isolated.
So back to creativity . . .
Creative work is often solitary. Even in collaborative projects, you will spend hours working alone. You will find that you need people to affirm you, challenge you, and share their insights with you. This is why I’m a big fan of mastermind groups. A mastermind group is a tight community where people share their creative journey with other members of the group. Typically, a mastermind group will do the following:
- Share your needs with others and ask for ideas or resources
- Share your frustrations (there’s a power to being vulnerable)
- Share your success stories
- Share your hopes and dreams that sound crazy to the world
- Share your goals and your progress toward those goals
- Share strategies with one another and solve problems together
- Share the emotional aspects of the creative journey
- Talk about potential collaboration options together
I’ve been a part of a mastermind group for about two years now and it’s been a powerful experience.
What Does This Mean for Schools?
Ultimately, creative work and working out are both habits and even disciplines. And they’re both vital to life.
But they both require time and effort. If we want students to grow into creative thinkers, they need more time to hit a state of creative fluency. Creative work can’t be a culminating activity or a fun project you do once the “real work” is finished. Creative work is the “real work.”
Teachers can’t control the bell schedule or the packed curriculum map. But they can still infuse their units with creative thinking. Project-based learning and design thinking are content-neutral (or maybe content universal). We, as educators, can incorporate creative thinking into our lessons if we’re willing to reimagine our lessons and units to provide as many creative opportunities as possible.
When this happens, it won’t always be pretty. Students will hit moments of boredom, frustration, and confusion. After all, it’s a lot like working out. But that’s part of the creative journey.