Most of the time when we’re looking to be more creative, we’re focused on addition.
We’re looking at possible ideas, techniques, tips, knowledge, equipment and materials we can add to our current repertoire to enable us to create more freely and more abundantly.
But there comes a point where, whatever we add, it’s only going to make things worse. It’s only going to further complicate your creative life, weigh you down and slowly suffocate your creativity.
I want to share a story that illustrates very clearly how this adding more and more doesn’t work.
This year I’m growing some home produce for the first time. We decided to grow potatoes in tubs, so part filled the tubs with soil, and planted the potatoes.
Once the shoots come up and you see leaves, you’re supposed to add another layer of soil over the top, wait for the shoots to appear again, and repeat this process until eventually the pot is full and you have a bumper crop of potatoes beneath the soil.
It went fine the first couple of times. Plus we were giving the potatoes plenty of water, as we’ve been experiencing a dry hot spell with little rain for weeks. This is easy, we thought, and began planning a few recipes for our impending crop.
But then we didn’t see any new shoots or leaves peeping out for a week or so.
Then a couple of weeks, then three. We just kept watering, thinking they’d poke through the soil again any day now.
After another week we wondered if we ever would see the green shoots and leaves again. So we decided to dig down a little and investigate.
The soil was completely waterlogged at the bottom, and smelt like a sewer. There were the soggy, dissolving remains of a couple of the potatoes we’d planted – the rest has rotted away completely.
In our enthusiasm to keep the potatoes covered and watered, we’d completely drowned them.
It didn’t matter how much more soil and water we added, those little plants we’re dying – they couldn’t breathe, they couldn’t see the sunlight and the excess water was choking them and causing them to rapidly decay.
We had to empty the pot, drill more holes to allow better drainage, get some fresh soil and new potato plants, and start again, hopefully learning from the experience of being potato plant murderers.
It struck me that this happens so often in our creative lives too.
We add more and more, we load ourselves up with new projects, new commitments, new equipment, thinking we’re doing the right thing and that any day now everything will just fall into place and we’ll suddenly be amazingly creative.
But underneath all these burdens, our creativity cannot breathe. It’s choking, and it’s drowning.
The more and more we add, the more our creativity struggles. It might not die completely, but it’s not going to be able to express itself at even a tiny fraction of what it could do in more conducive and caring conditions.
How does this relate to your creative life?
Do you feel overloaded and overwhelmed with choices, projects, obligations? Do you have no idea which project to work on first, is your focus completely scattered? Do you keep trying new stuff, adding more, hoping that suddenly you’ll become amazingly creative?
The first thing to do is stop.
Stop adding more and more.
The next step is to start subtracting.
Essentially you have two options here.
You can take off one layer – one project, one commitment, one pile of materials – at a time, until you feel you have just enough left to be able to give your full attention and focus to. That’s a great start and will certainly help.
But with our potatoes, it wouldn’t have mattered how much soil we removed, or how much moisture we drained from the pot. The potato plants were already dead and rotted away. The only option was to empty the tub, clean it out, and start afresh, adding only just as much soil and water as we needed.
Maybe this is the best approach for you too.
Maybe writing down everything, getting it all out on the table and looking at what you’ve got, then carefully and very discerningly just putting the very basics – the absolute essentials – back first is the way you need to go.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed and as if your creativity is way over capacity and choking, you need to do something. Today is a great time to do it.
The worst approach is to keep adding more and more. Stop. Start subtracting.
Or, wipe the canvas clean and start over again, adding only a little at a time, and not over-stretching, over-commiting and overwhelming yourself.
Killing potatoes plants is one thing. But killing your creativity? That’s a far more serious crime. It’s time for you to go straight.
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