April 3, 2017

6 questions to keep yourself creative and shipping good work


A number of years ago, if you would have saw me working on my computer and said, “Hey, let me hear what you're listening to,” you would have heard some combination of dub-step trap, something with a hard, driving beat that I could use to ramp myself up. There were a couple of times that I faced big deadlines of some writing projects, and all of a sudden I didn’t have within me what I need to get across the finish line at the high level of quality that I wanted.

What I learned through those experiences was that I was getting to the other side of those projects and I was barely skidding in into the finish line. I would be depleted, exhausted, probably numb. I get through the creative push, but I'm actually losing my depth at being consistently creative, of having an expansive creativity because I'm shrinking it because I'm abusing who I am, I'm abusing the gift that I've been given.

I'm often asked, “How do you motivate yourself when you want to work hard?” You've got to understand the difference between hype and motivation. Hype is when you use external pressure to force yourself into try to doing something. Motivation renews you. It's when you learn who you are apart from what you're trying to do so that you can enjoy what you're actually trying to accomplish. If it's not something you're enjoying, then you need to ask yourself, “Am I supposed to be doing this? Does somebody else need to do this? Do I need to wait? Do I need to take a break?”

If you want to really get into depth, that inner working, those guts of who you are, you have to pause the mental mechanism that kicks in and says, “If I don't get this done, then they will think this about me,” “if I don't get this done then this means this this is true about me. They will think I'm inadequate, I don't have what it takes, I'm not needed around here.” Whatever it is, whatever your fear is.

What we need to learn to do is to pay attention to how we're going about doing something. If you’re trying to hype yourself up into it, and then dub-step may work great for you, that's fine. But what I can tell you is this, if you want to learn to motivate yourself to work hard, you have to pause the mental mechanism that kicks in and causes you to confuse who you are with what you do and how others will treat your work.

When you know who you are and you can pause that mental mechanism, you can really reflect. You can know that you are you, regardless of how this project turns out, you are you regardless of what people think about it. Then you get really honest about what's happening on the inside. Find that ability to consistently renew, to get after motivation. We don't know this very well. We know hype, we know carrot-on-a-stick rewards, we know pressure, we know fear, and it's a lie to say that we need all of that to be creative. Because it gets us across the finish line, but we've become less of who we truly are, less of who we're meant to be, less of a human being because we are deformed while we were doing it. We want to learn to re-humanize what's been dehumanized by learning to pay attention to what's motivating us. Then we can tap into those places where we want to work hard.


How can you come up with ways to be more creative? None of us have reached the edge of our abilities or ideas. We constantly can come up with new combinations, new ways to tap into resources, new things that we hadn't even imagined.

I'm so inspired by people like Leonardo da Vinci. Throughout human history, people that have used skills to do something different. At one point, he asked, "What does this color sound like? What does this color smell like? Were you combining senses?" I'm inspired by people like that, because they've said, "I give myself permission to not tap into the pressure around meto take this path, do this thing, make this look a certain way." It doesn't matter what field you're in. The conventional wisdom is usually wrong. There's all kinds of “shoulds" around us--"You should do this, you should do that."

Lawyers go to law school now. It used to be you could skip law school--it didn't exist--and just take the test to become a lawyer. We deal with different regulations in educational standards. The idea of a credit score. All these things that we use to keep people afraid, and keep people in line, that actually stifle our ability to be creative.

How can we come up with more ways to be creative? It's recognizing the pressure that's around us and in us. The strong voice of tradition. The strong voice of the other, and these powerful voices in our lives, wield pressure on us, and they shape us in certain ways. I talk with people that have chosen certain careers, and they've been in them for twenty years, because they felt like they should. Whatever this pressure is, you know it.

When you can escape the “should,” the creativity will be there, so you'll be able to come up with lots more ways to be creative, because you're removing the false barriers. Some people find a lot of help in doing something like James Altichur talks about, where generates ten ideas every day. Well, what gets you to the place that you can do that is removing that pressure that says, "I have to do this a certain way." What this is about is waking up and becoming aware that the strong voice of tradition or the other in your life only have power because there's a fear that says, "If you don't do what they're saying, this is going to happen. You're going to be left alone. You're not going to be able to take care of yourself. You're going to be found lacking, and inadequate, and you're going to be found out to be a fraud."

These are all shame-based lies. This is deep, but it's simple. If you escape the “should,” the shame-based lie, then you can literally stare at a blade of grass, and get inspired. You stare at something and you notice it because your brain isn't internally distracted with all of the fear and lies. No more comparison. No more shame. No more pressure. Just you, right where you are, soaking up this moment. It doesn't fit our culture, right? We think we got to power up, we got to push through.

Sometimes the most brilliant thing we can do to start opening ourselves up to creativity is to take a nap, so we have the internal fortitude to not build our identity around what others think of us. Then we start noticing creativity around us. I was watching Harry Potter with my kids last night. My daughters are ages 9, 11, and 12, and it's hard because I get so many ideas with them around. I'm not even trying to be creative, but I'm just so in the moment with them that I know I won't remember them, so I got to capture them, and what allows me to get that creativity is I'm there. I'm present with them in the moment. So find things that you can do that call you into full presence. Whatever those are, where you feel fully alive, you'll watch that creativity flourish.


Creativity has an enemy. I don't know if you've ever had an enemy before. I had a giant business deal go south one time and I can't talk about it in tons of details, but I had a guy who I just couldn't eve stand to see. I would see the kind of car he drove—it wasn’t even his car, I was states away from him at this point--and have this elevated heart rate. All of a sudden, I want to drive irrationally because there was this feeling like this guy was my enemy.

What a lot of people don't realize is that creativity has an enemy, and it's not what they think. It's not something external. It's not the fact that you're in a cubicle when you wish you had your own office. It's not that if the client could really get the vision of your work, everything would be fine.

The enemy to our creativity is fear. I know we've heard a lot about that, more and more in cultural dialogue around this idea about what it means to not be afraid and to move forward, but here's what most people don't understand when they talk about fear and creativity and that connection. They think the connection between fear and creativity is project-based. Like creativity is going to be there if you pursue that thing that you're afraid of doing.

I want you to think about it this way: there's who you ar,e and there's what you do. Yeah, that thing may make you afraid to get out and do that work because you don't know how it's going to go, so you don't know if you'll be found lacking. You don't know what the reception will be like. But it's not really that you're afraid of what happens with what you do, and you're not really afraid of how they receive you. There's a core fear there that's something about your identity. This is why all brilliant, creative work that's sustainable comes out of a secure identity.

Sometimes there's this narrative that says to be creative, you have to be an artist in pain. There has to be some kind of angst. Those are the kind of people that don't live a full life. They may do some great work out of their pain, but it's a spurt. It's a shot. It's not something that's continuing. I want to continue my creativity. I don't want to become some cartoony caricature of myself in the future because I'm not at the edge of my abilities. I'm not doing work that scares me.

For a lot of people, when they get stuck creatively, what they don't realize is you can’t force your way back to that creative state. You can’t be rigid or try to hype your way into it. It's also not an approach that you say, "I'm just going to passively resign and let let the muse just wash back over me at some point in the future."

If you haven't read, The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield, and his concept of resistance, I highly recommend it. What a powerful tool to get awareness of your fear. What blocks creativity? It could be something simple. You need more rest, some nutrition, your blood sugar's out of whack. It could be these underlying conditions.

At the core of what blocks a consistently creative state is how our fear is unknowingly driving us to try to do one of two things that blocks our creativity.

When fear is driving you, you have two responses that block your creativity. One is that you've got to prove something. You’ve got to get your respect. You have to earn your place in the world. You've got to tell them what they should believe about who you are and your ability to create. You have to prove it, because you don't believe it's true.

Or you're going to hide. You're going to disengage. You're going withdraw. You're going to bring the full weight of who you are into that solution. You know that you're creatively blocked up when you can't bring the unobstructed expression of who you are into what you do.

That doesn't matter whether you're being creative with something that people would look at as an actual creative enterprise, or whether it's solving the problems we all face day in and day out. What we want to do is get aware that when we're proving or hiding, our creativity is getting blocked up.

Now, how we get unblocked, is another issue. You  want to get awareness of the fear. "Hey, I'm proving or hiding. How do I come back to a state where I can relax my way into bringing who I am into what I do, into the solution part of that?" Some people say, "Well, I'm at the end of my creativity with this." Good. Get to the end of the creativity.

If somebody says to me, "I'm at the end of my patience with this issue," good. Get to the end of your patience. Then what? Don't try to reattach, don't try to get motivation for what you were doing five minutes ago or five days ago. All you can do is engage this moment as it is. This isn't some tactic that's hard to define. It is a real way our brain works.

I had taken my kids to the park one afternoon. In the area of Ohio I'm in, it gets cloudy and it can stay really gray in the winter. It had started getting warm and sunny, and the kids asked to go to the park, so I took them.

I have this zero gravity chair that I take, and I lay it out. It's like a recliner that you can take anywhere. I get some tunes playing, and I'm relaxed. It's like a zen moment. Basically, I'm fried, I need a little rest. I say to the kids, "Hey, go play, don't yell unless you're getting abducted or something."

They come back to the chair that I'm laying in about five minutes later and say, "Dad, Dad, we're hot. We want to go home."

I'm thinking, Ah, I just got to that state where everything kinda relaxed, and now they want to go. But I say, "That's okay," because I think I’ll go home and recreate this moment there. I take the kids home, and my wife wants to talk about some stuff. Which means I am not going to be having that moment anymore. Plus, seasonal allergies kicked up. The zen is gone.

This idea is that I couldn't go back and say, "I'm going to recreate rigidly and make this moment happen again exactly as it was." That moment is gone. All I can do is be in this moment.

Why we get blocked up? Because fear's at work in some way, causing us to prove or hide. Then how we get unblocked is by considering this moment now and bringing who we are, with nothing to prove, and nothing to hide.

What you can do is think about what you're working on, what you're doing. What are afraid of if it doesn't go the way you want it to? This fear is related to who you are. It blocks up you being you in this moment. You may be afraid that you're not going to be respected for your work. You're not going to get the attention. You're not going to be seen and known and heard for who you are. You're not going to have your place to belong. You're not going to be seen as special or unique. Maybe you're afraid that you can't be vulnerable in your expressions, in your creative work, because people will reject it. Whatever it is, that fear doesn't have to hold you back any more.

Props for you, working on your creativity. Look at this moment, no proving, no hiding, and engage.

How am I going to be consistently creative? It's not by just saying, "Oh, I'm afraid to tackle that project so I'm going to do it." It's about at the core of who I am, understanding that whether that project is completed or not, it doesn't change who I am.

If your identity is insecure, you say, "Well, if I get that work done and I get it done a certain way, or if people respond to me a certain way, then I can know that I am valuable. I can know that I'm loved. I can know that I'm secure. I can know that I'm not alone. I can know that my needs will be taken care of."

You can give yourself that gift now, and it's out of that abundance that you can continually innovate and be creative. There's a book called Creative Constraint, Beautiful Constraint. It talks about this idea that scarcity and abundance are an infinite loop. As soon as abundance is there, scarcity will threaten it. As soon as scarcity is there, you have a moment to find abundance.

You don't have to feel defeated. I can give to the world in abundance when I have a secure identity. Scarcity, I've given and I'm tired, right? It's an infinite loop. Every time you feel afraid in your identity, it's an opportunity to find abundance. When you find that abundance in who you are, you give that gift to yourself. You can say, "Hey, I may be physically alone, but internally I don't have to be alone." I know this sounds weird, but it's deep and changes everything when you get it.

I don't have to define my worth by the work that I do or by how people receive it. I've got to do the thing that's an extension of who I am. I want to bring the unobstructed creative expression of who I am into what I do. How are you going to get there? You've got to figure out who you are. The enemy of creativity is fear, but not a general fear in what you do or how people think of you. It's a fear about who you are.

Take a long walk in the woods and just contemplate this, wrestle with this. Think about this question: “What am I afraid of in who I am? What am I afraid of isn't true about me that I'd like to be true of me?” Then learn to give yourself that gift.


I had fixed oatmeal one morning for my kids. I have three daughters. Somehow, Saturday mornings have this expectation of a breakfast production. We were out of everything, so I thought I’d just throw some oatmeal together. Two of the three aren't really fans of the blessed oat, so I had to get creative. I put together a cinnamon oatmeal and I put it at the table and said, "Hey, guys, come get your cinnamon cookie oatmeal." I'm bragging to my wife and saying, "That's how it's done as a parent. You've just got to sell it."

My kids sit down, and one of them starts eating and she goes, "I don't like it." She didn't like oatmeal. It had the sweet stuff in it, but she still didn't want it and she was honest about that very quickly.

What happens when you're stuck creatively is that it allows you to get honest about what's actually happening on the inside. The power of “should” in our life is so pervasive. There are people that I know who are in careers, they have lots of school debt, and they're doing it because they should. Maybe there was parental pressure, maybe there was a societal narrative that they bought into, but they say, "I've got to do this job because of this."

Whatever that “should” is, you can even do it to yourself, and as much as you think you're a rebel or you're doing your own thing, when it comes to being creatively stuck, you have a moment to get actually honest about what is underneath. What are those desires, stripped free of the “shoulds?” The insight that can help us propel forward and get that momentum again is to think, "What if this is a signal to me about what I really don't want or what I really do want?"

My kids have played softball, and all of the parents had to share this rotation of working the snack shack. You've got to show up and work the snack shack once per season. I'm not signing my daughter up to play softball so I can go and serve lukewarm hot dogs. I'm at that game to watch her play and for no other reason. When she's up to bat, I'm not concerned with how well I'm delivering to the customer. Is their hot dog ready, am I even hitting the hot dog with the mustard? If she's up to bat, I'm trying to serve it, but I'm peeking around the corner the best I can to try to see what's actually happening in the game. My desires come through in that moment, regardless of any kind of obligation I have.

Here's what's happening right now. That project that you're in the midst of, that roadblock that you're at, that you're frustrated about--drop it and go play, just to change mental gears. That's pretty elementary as far as creative tips. But, here's what I want you to look for. You go play, you do something where you feel peaceful, where you feel safe, where you feel alive, or, all three of those, whatever helps your brain to actually relax and check out of the insecurity and anxiety of this creative project. You play, and then you come back to it and think about what you really want, what's the desire that's happening. It's manifesting itself, it's trying to break through that frustration that you're in the midst of.

Maybe you don't actually want to work with this client again, maybe you don't want to do these kinds of projects, maybe you don't want to take it in this direction. Maybe you have to go ahead and deliver it because the contract is signed. Maybe you can reach out to a client and see if a change in direction can happen. There's a lot of choices here. There's a lot of grey. There isn't necessarily black and white answers, but, every opportunity where you get stuck becomes an opportunity to explore who you are, what you're doing, and what's happening underneath the surface. Let those desires rage, and you get to be honest with yourself and be free of the “should.”


What's the best way to find other creatives like you? One of the things that I see a lot of people doing in creative work is they're insecurely trying to break into someone else's party, rather than building the party they want to be a part of and asking others to join it. Being ablut to create your own party comes from a secure identity.

A number of years ago, I was in a group and I had changed in the way I practiced something. This group didn't agree with it, so they asked me to leave. If I wouldn't have left, they would have kicked me out. It was a rude awakening to the fact that these were not my people and this was not my tribe.

You're not always going to get clear messages like that. Sometimes it just the feeling of being left out. What you want to learn to do is to live from your authentic voice. The more that you're not proving something and the more that you're not hiding, you will find people that you resonate with who also have similar authentic voices. The reality is, it's hard to connect and find your tribe creatively because a lot of people are so busy proving and hiding. They don't know who they are. They're insecure. They're discontented. They're distressed and they're afraid.

If you're going to take a journey of liberation, you've got to know that there's not going to be a large amount of people that are going to be able to get you at that level. You may impact a mass of people, you may lead a mass of people, but at that core, there's always going to be a need to build a group of people around you who get you, who get your shorthand texts, who know your weekly rhythm. I have that, and it's a beautiful thing. How did it happen? It happened by asking people to be a part of that with me. To join me. To know what it's like to take this creative journey where you're struggling and you're bringing who you are into what you do. As that group developed and as we spent a couple of years texting or hanging out and doing things, the relationship kept developing.

Here's how you do it: You put yourself out there. It's about stepping into your vulnerability. If you can do this relationally, then you can do this artistically. If you can do this artistically, then you can do this relationally. Just build a bridge between the skills. It's you being vulnerable and putting yourself out there, and not doing it in a weird way. Brené Brown talks about spotlighting, where you share too much too fast and freak people out. Find ways to look for places that you can develop connections with people and share with them your struggles. Share with them the struggles about what it's like to look for meaning in your work and to try to figure out who you are apart from what you do.

To share these kind of things takes time. You're not just meeting up for a drink and then BAM, dumping everything on them. You will find that the people that are hungry to take an authentic journey will resonate with you, and as you keep investing yourself in vulnerable relational work, you'll learn how to recognize where relationships can develop and flourish. You can foster things only where it's not going to last very long.

Find one thing you feel vulnerable about. Find a person that you think you'd resonate with and share it with them. You don't have to share the full intensity of it, but say, "Hey, I did this, what do you think? I feel afraid of this." Fill in the blanks. Take a stab at something. See what comes of it, and watch your tribe gather over time.


How can I overcome my fear of showing people my work or my ideas? It doesn't matter whether I'm making a request over email or whether I'm putting something together. Every time I leave a meeting where I'm coaching somebody, I ask myself, "Did I deliver value? Do they want to come back? Are they going to stop meeting?" It's recognizing that it is normal to feel vulnerable, exposed, and afraid when you put your work out there.

If you're going to succeed, if you're going to be able to keep doing the work that you love doing, you're going to have to put yourself out there in more and more authentic ways, but also being consistently creative in doing it. It's the ability to understand that you can feel two emotions at once that are the opposite. I remember one time I was talking to one of my kids about this, and I had asked her about an event coming up. She said, "Dad, I feel scared and excited." Whoa!

I went on a walk with her yesterday, and I'd had a little fight with my wife and I was trying to figure something out. I didn't realize it, but I felt two emotions at once. I was living out of insecure emotion, not paying attention to the fact that just I was excited about moving some things forward, but I was afraid of what it would mean for my involvement for stuff around the house. I realized I was feeling two things at once. I lived out of just that insecure emotion.

When I went on the second date with my wife, I was just nervous. It was three weeks since we'd had the first one. This is before Facebook, and I'm thinking, "I don't even remember what she looks like." On that date, I remember thinking, My heart's racing. It's learning to interpret or reinterpret your body's reactions. My heart can be racing before a big pitch or a big project where there's a lot on the line, and it was also racing on our second date. Both of those can be scared and excited moments.

For you, it's learning that you don't want to deny your emotions and stuff them. For the most part, people that are pursuing something creative are pretty good at that. A lot still struggle with it, but you also don't want to be dominated by it. You want to be aware and learning.

Take an emotional account of yourself as you put that work out there and what it feels like. "I'm excited! I hope they latch onto it. I'm afraid, and they may not." When you can learn to look at those emotions separate from who you are, then you're able to go, "Okay, I can learn from this. I can face critique. I can get insight on how to do it better. I can receive the feedback that I get and distill what of this needs to be rejected and what of this needs to be listened to, and I'm still going to know who I am separate from this work that I'm putting out. I get to look at it and understand that it's normal for me to feel both of these."

I think if we can just understand that it's normal that as we make it and after we put it out there to wonder how it’s going to be received. I still feel like that with the weekly emails I send out through my site. We can give ourselves permission to be in that moment, to not be dominated by it, to not stuff it, but to be aware and learning.

As we put ourselves out there and do that work, it is a depletion. We want to make sure that we're creating spaces in our lives that fill that emotional tank back up so we don't feel like we're doing anything that puts us on the line. I've got about seven or eight things I've listed out I need to have as a part of my rhythm, including reading and walking in the woods and trail running. If I have those as a part of my rhythm, then I'm able to gear up for the next time I'm going to put myself out there, and I'm able to recover from the times that I have done it.

Sometimes you just have to make something you want to make, market be damned. I released 2 books on the same day one time. One was a key piece of our deepest and initial coaching program. The other was an experiment narrative on 7 key mindsets. I'm so glad I made it. Here it is if you want to check it out. 

The Rider: Avoid Building a Life You Hate By Chris McAlister Buy on Amazon