4 Surprising Truths About the Creative Journey

About a year ago, I watched La La Land for the first time. It was as enchanting and mesmerizing as people had told me. And it struck a chord, in terms of the deeply human longing to chase your dreams, captured in the lines:

Here’s to the ones who dream
Foolish as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that ache
Here’s to the mess we make

But something nagged at me the next morning when I trudged down the hallways and glanced around at the scattered mess of our living room floor. The place felt casual and lived in, with a footprint of the people I loved the most.

The creative life looks a lot more like my living room than the set of La La Land. 

Let me explain. Beneath the vibrant splashes of color and the brilliant bursts of jazz is a lonely story of the sacrifice of chasing one’s dream. It’s the idea that in order to pursue your dreams you have to put relationships aside and focus on the solitary effort of creative work. It’s what happens when Mia quits her job and spends weeks scratching out line after line of a one-woman play and what happens when Sebastian throws everything he has into jazz.

I don’t buy it.

Okay, maybe that’s a little too strong. Sometimes the creative journey works like this. There are moments when creative work is lonely or when people have to pursue their dreams at all costs; when they remain fixated on a single vision of what they will accomplish. But I think those stories are outliers. Often,  there’s often a second type of creative journey — one that is more fluid, more collaborative, and more like an evolution. For a film that often borrowed from a jazz motif, it’s surprising that the filmmakers missed both the social and the serendipitous side of imagination and dreams and creative work.

The real creative journey is less like a solitary march and more like an everchanging dance. It’s less like a rigid, solitary song and more like an ongoing jam session, where you have to iterate and improvise and trust the people around you.

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A Different Approach to the Creative Journey

I thought about that this morning as I sat in the car listening to the How I Built This podcast with my kids. It was the episode with Haim Saban, the media mogul most famous for creating the Power Rangers. His story was essentially the opposite of La La Land. He began as a musician in a band and then shifted to being a promoter before eventually writing theme songs and library music for cartoons and finally moving into full-blown media mogul. It was a story of pivoting, of collaboration, and of allowing dreams to evolve. And while every creative journey is different, I think it’s interesting how often the makers interviewed on How I Built This fit this more dynamic and evolutionary creative arc.

It has me thinking about a few trends I’ve seen in the creative journeys I’ve noticed in listening to How I Built This and in talking to entrepreneurs, artists, and makers in a broad range of industries. They nearly always have a journey that looks more like a jam session than a lonely march. Here’s what I mean.

#1: Creative Work Involves Frequent Pivoting

In La La Land, there is an obsession with staying singlemindedly focused on a specific external achievement. But often those who are successful in creative work are able to adapt and pivot and change their goals as they move along the journey.

Take Pixar. They began as a technology company. When newly-ousted Steve Jobs joined, they were going to be a competitor to Apple. But instead, they evolved into an entertainment company. They took their technological expertise and paired it with John Lasseter’s brilliant storytelling ability to revolutionize the cartoon industry and craft some of the greatest cultural myths we’ve seen in the last few decades.

Often, the creative process looks less like genius and more like tinkering, where the best ideas occur within the realm of the adjacent possible. Whether it’s an idea that feels drastically different or a slow evolution through iterations, innovation is less about something completely unheard of and more about applying a previous idea in a new way. It’s less like a leap into the unknown and more like a hopscotch around ideas.

In my own life, I think about my college dream of becoming a history professor. If I had moved on to graduate school, I would have experienced the Ph.D. grind and spent over a decade as an adjunct, hoping for a shot at a full-time position. I would have worked tirelessly with the uncertain hope of someday having a shot at my dream.

But I also would have missed out on 12 amazing years getting to teach middle school. I would have missed out on the chance to hone my craft each day as a teacher. I would have missed out on the discovery of project-based learning, student-centered learning, and design thinking. I would have missed out on the chance rekindle my love for creating art, writing fiction, and geeking out on the creative process. This moment would never have  happened to me:

If I had gone the graduate school route, I wouldn’t have blogged or written books for the sheer fun of writing. I wouldn’t have tried out Twitter and met some of the people who have become close friends. But here I am now, at 38 years old, working as a professor and doing the kind of creative work that matters deeply to me. Some days I make stuff. Some days I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

I’m so glad that I chose to pivot.

Consider this idea for a moment: What if La La Land ended differently? What if Mia realized, in writing a script, that she was actually a better screenwriter than an actress? What if she found that the little twists and turns from making stories as a child through bad auditions and up into the one-woman play had actually given her a broad range of talent that she could then use as a writer? What if she had ended up, not where she wanted to be, but where she was meant to be?

#2: Creative Work Is Inherently Collaborative

In La La Land, you have this idea that each individual has a creative dream that they simply have to go out and pursue on their own — even if it means pushing away the ones they love. But creative work is almost never like that. It’s almost always the result of relationships. People join communities, network with people, and end up collaborating on projects together. Even those in the traditionally solitary area of writing end up bouncing ideas off of close friends who offer critical feedback on their craft.

There’s power in reaching out to a trusted community and choosing to be vulnerable. As I interview entrepreneurs and artists, I’m struck by how often they are seeking input from a community. They join mastermind groups. They seek out mentors. They build a tribe of people who care about their work. They partner with like-minded people.

For a quick exploration of collaboration, check out this video:

Again, I find this same thing to be true in my own life. I didn’t have any success in creative work until I learned how to collaborate with others and embrace critical feedback.

#3: Makers Are Often “Jacks of All Trades”

There’s a popular idea that people should find a niche and stick to it. Figure out a passion, work tirelessly at perfecting it, and then find success in that narrow area. You see this with the jazz-obsessed Sebastian who not only won’t consider other genres but isn’t willing to pay any attention to the innovators in jazz from the sixties until now. You also see it in Mia, who spends every hour with a tunnel vision focus of improving her craft as an actress.

But there’s a cost to this approach. Often, those with a narrow niche become risk-averse and focus too much time and attention on what others in the field think of their work. They also fail to see how other disciplines can offer skills, ideas, and innovations that they haven’t considered.

Intellectual diversity often leads to innovation, because people connect seemingly disconnected ideas and practices (like the vacuum and hair trimmer in the Flowbee — okay, bad example). A classic case is Darwin, who studied geology but completely rocked the world of evolutionary biology. Experts often experience a tunnel vision built around the sheer amount they know about one domain. But reality is nearly always connective and domains rarely exist in silos.

There’s a great little book out of the Netherlands called Not Invented Here that explores the ways that makers borrow ideas from other domains and disciplines.

Again, I find it fascinating that many of the most innovative artists, entrepreneurs, and engineers have a DaVinci-like fascination with everything. They perfect a broad range of skills and those transfer over to new skills. They study ideas from unrelated fields and apply a new lens to a problem in their field.

#4: The Real Creative Journey Is All About People

A few years back, I wrote about choosing the right side of the list. It’s the idea that the epic life is found, not in chasing a dream of doing some big profound creative work, but in the little moments in life that draw you closer to people.

Here’s what I mean:

I find it fascinating that many of the most creative people were actually more productive and created more original work when they were connected to loving relationships and when they carved out space for rest, exercise, and play. It’s counterintuitive, but when you run or lift weights or spend time with friends or go on long walks, you are actually more productive and more likely to think divergently. So there’s a sense in which Mia and Sebastian might have both been more productive and more creative had they chosen to connect to a community or cultivate a world outside of their internal creativity.

Moreover, the quality of your creative work improves when you design with empathy in mind. When students begin with empathy, they are able to design products, services, and art that actually reflect the needs and desires of an authentic audience. The Stanford d.School begins their design thinking model with empathy. I love the way Tim Brown of IDEO describes it. “It’s not ‘us versus them’ or even ‘us on behalf of them.’ For a design thinker it has to be ‘us with them.’”

In the entrepreneurial world, they often talk about the “baby effect,” where people expect to accomplish less after they have a child only to realize that they are actually more focused, more driven, more efficient, and yet more creative after they have a kid. You become more driven because your work is now serving more than just yourself.

What This Means for Teachers

As we think about creativity in the classroom, there are a few implications for students:

  • Give students more opportunities to pivot by building
  • Incorporate interdependency into collaborative design
  • Integrated rest and even boredom into your units to build up divergent thinking
  • Model balance for your students
  • Help students see that great ideas often come from multiple disciplines and domains

But it also has me thinking about the craft of teaching. When you look at the teacher movies, they nearly always involve a solitary, Superman figure going out and saving the world. These protagonists live to teach, even if it means neglecting family and community. They push forward relentlessly in a non-stop march. However, the most innovative teachers I know are collaborative. They form mastermind groups, where they depend on other teachers for advice and support. These teachers spend hours of their free time engaged in creative work and chasing their own curiosity. In other words, they choose the jam session over the march. They understand that life is like free jazz. It is fluid, changing, evolving. It is relational and social. It is about the constant dance between hope and reality. They are open to the unexpected ways in which life will surprise them.

Note: This is an expanded and revised version of a post I wrote last year. 

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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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  1. […] 4 Surprising Truths About the Creative Journey– Another good post from John Spencer about creativity. […]

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