4 Surprising Truths About the Creative Journey (Why It’s Almost Nothing Like La La Land)

Hollywood often portrays the creative process as a solitary journey toward a fixed dream. But artists, engineers, and innovators, often find that the creative journey is fluid, collaborative, and evolving.

john spencer teacher education pivoting creativity

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Here’s to the Ones Who Dream

Last night, 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 as I tapped away at the keyboard.

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.

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, 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.

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.

#1: The Power of 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 had happened for 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 37 years old, working as a professor and doing creative work that matters deeply to me.

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.

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: Always Choose Love (Why the Real Creative Journey Is All About People)

I recently wrote about this idea in a post 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. 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.

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.

The bottom line is this: 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. You can fight against and stick with a rigid picture of success. Or you can be open to the unexpected ways in which life will surprise you.

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.

More about John

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