Creativity Lessons Learned From Being A Potato Plant Murderer

Potato Crop
image: Perry French

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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6 thoughts on “Creativity Lessons Learned From Being A Potato Plant Murderer”

  1. I agree Dan and I love the way that nature provides these insights for us. I am constantly striving to keep things simple – because simplicity works for me. It is, however, an ongoing process i.e. we never ‘get there’. The journey is fun though.

    Recently I became aware that I was becoming distracted (and focusing on those distractions) by technology and other ‘stuff’ around the edges rather than focusing on what I do – which is write. It felt very liberating to refocus back onto what is important – to simplify – to write.



  2. I have noticed on seed packets and such, they always tell you to put them what at first seem like large distances from each other:)
    One easy threat to which many people succumb that keeps them from following their own creative projects and interests is that their friends suggest or challenge them with, ‘Hey, let’s everyone do/make this now.” So the book or painting that is in ones own heart gets set aside for however long.
    We could summarize this as “Be super wary of letting other people set your creative agenda for you.”


  3. Ah, yes. Time for me to “weed” out the distractions and focus on one creative project to completion.

    If it’s not to my satisfaction, rather than dwell on the failure part of it, move on to the next project with what I’ve learned from the first.

    There have been many times when I’ve been scattered, or procrastinated, and I think about your suggestions in the posts and creativity book which steers me back to the creative project. Thanks again for the “nudge.” 🙂


  4. Nice, Dan. It’s so true that simplicity is often the absolute best way to approach our creative projects–but creativity is hard! So we look for tools or shortcuts or a wide variety of project, and we end up obsessing over those rather than doing true creative work. Great analogy.

    It kind of reminds me of the writing advice to “Kill your Darlings.” (Meaning, any part of the writing you’ve overly petted because it’s your favorite is probably spoiled and should be cut from the rest.) Funny how creativity is so often about cutting and deleting rather than adding, like it seems to be.

    Awesome post! Thanks!


  5. Yeap great advice – even better timing. My answer to procrastination is overload. It’s the opposite but strangely has the same effect. Good to be reminded of that… cheers


  6. This is a wonderful analogy, Dan. It’s always good to be reminded to come up for air – either by eliminating the “physical” clutter, or the emotional clutter. Like potatoes, exposure to light is good for humans, too.

    Sorry about your potatoes. Hope the second try gives you a bumper crop!


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