It’s tempting to think of improvement as constantly adding—applying a new insight, adding a new tool to our process, listening to more interviews—but there can be just as much value in reducing and letting go. Similarly, giving up often has a negative connotation—“Stick with it!” we say—but our tendency to quit can be extremely valuable if we use it to get to where we want to go.
Creativity is about channeling chaotic energy. It’s not about imposing structure and judgement in the beginning. For example, writing requires a very different mindset than editing. The conventional creative process involves four stages: preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification. The first three stages all involve varying degrees of work, but letting go of the outcome. That’s what this piece is about—preparing and cultivating creativity. Here are seven mindsets that sound like common sense, but actually get in the way of creativity:
1. Give up on sounding smart.
Instead, focus on expressing your perspective and experience.
It’s easy to buy into charisma and authority—but true credibility comes from what you’ve done and are doing now, and the results that came from it. So write about that. Failures still can add to credibility, if you’ve mined the experience for hard-earned perspective.
For example, consider Sahil’s and Rand’s stories of big failures (which are so dramatic that to get to the beginning of the story is a bit of success). But there’s also success in failure—and remember, everyone loves a good comeback story. It’s all material. And what happens next is up to you.
2. Give up on full citations.*
Instead, focus on showing and clearly describing the idea.
*Note: I know my previous editors at Lifehacker would kill me if they saw this, so I want to say with a caveat: if you’re writing anything related to science or academia or business, you need to cite primary research. However, if you’re just writing a blog post or doodling—a more private, less formal, medium—there’s no need for full citations the first time around.
Being creative often means just bouncing ideas around. For example, even the best authors all have nice ways of saying, “I have no fucking idea where I found this quote, so I have to say this with a degree of uncertainty.” Three examples:
- “Albert Einstein was an expert on time, and he is rumored to have said that compound interest ‘is the most powerful force in the universe.’ We doubt the authenticity of the quotation, but we do not doubt its veracity,” write John Boyd and Philip Zimbardo in The Time Paradox (p. 230)
- “Lacking any sources that tell us what he thought or did in the wake of this disappointment, most biographers, one borrowing from another, are apt to repeat the following speculations,” writes Erica Benner in Be Like the Fox (p. 311)
- “In one of his talks or interviews – I’ve never been able to trace where I first heard it – the author and podcaster Sam Harris recalls being in the middle of a long session of moaning to a friend, about all the crap he was dealing with at the time, when she interrupted him,” writes Oliver Burkeman in The Imperfectionist.
Obviously I’m not saying don’t try your best with research—but if you’ve already spent 3 hours trying to sift through obscure YouTube videos you’ve watched before to find the quote, drop it. If it’s important enough, and if memory serves you correctly, then readers and viewers will supplement your citation. And of course, tell the truth, which is you are making a claim with limited research—the line between imperfect citations and bullshit is paved with good intentions.
3. Give up on originality and being interesting.
Instead, get clear on what you actually want to say.
Don’t even worry about repeating yourself or someone else—chances are, most people have not read your old post. If it’s important enough, say it more than once. Allow authenticity to emerge in spurts and brief glimpses, and double down on those parts. If you have no idea “who you really are,” then ask a friend or ask someone experiencing your work! Focus on being yourself and developing your voice.
4. Give up on being popular.
Instead, focus on the craft—and on teaching, being useful or entertaining, to just one person.
At one point, I was obsessed with “building an audience.” That all stopped when I once had a dream about replying to a person who was popular on Twitter. I didn’t want to live my life like that, and it was seeping into my subconscious.
One consistent way to build an audience is one person at a time (was it Sahil that said on Twitter he has had thousands of coffees? Invoking rule 2…). This is worth longcutting.
Even with his vast audiences and accomplishments, Ryan Leslie still does 30 phone calls a day. So, that’s a good heuristic. For an upcoming Marker piece, I explored the economics of being a content creator, and 96.5% don’t make more than $16,000 per year doing it. If you’re playing the game, you need to know the odds. You can still do it, but know why you’re doing it, and make sure you can ride out what could be a long journey.
5. Give up on mindless routines.
Instead, focus on how new opportunities fit into the mission.
Every year, I set a few goals, and this year is probably the first one where I haven’t lost focus after January. But there are new opportunities coming up all the time—for example, Clubhouse being the most recent one—which require investigation. I feel pressure to make time for it, but the chaos inside is also… strangely energizing.
There are constantly new platforms emerging, on which no one has really figured something new out yet, so… who’s going to do it like Sarah Cooper on TikTok and break through with the equivalent to Donald Trump lip syncs? Each week, I make at least an hour to figure out what to do with my time.
6. Give up on perfection.
Instead, focus on making something acceptable.
Allow perfection to emerge. Perfection is a high-risk strategy—and if you want to be more creative, you need to allow yourself to make garbage too. Poet W.H. Auden says it best, in his Introduction to Nineteenth-Century British Minor Poets, “The chances are that, in the course of his lifetime, the major poet will write more bad poems than the minor.” Plus, a lot of people are not reliable judges of their own work, so it’s worth holding listening/reading/viewing parties to see what people think.
7. Give up on inspiration.
Instead, focus on process, practice, and discipline.
If there’s an idea tying everything together in this piece, it’s about letting go future expectations and focusing on the present. That is the most vicious virtue. But, it’s also important to be aware of when you’re forcing it and to slow down, and when you’re in the groove and to cancel plans. Be a vessel, but also work with your body. Like Big Mike said to me for the book, “Put the paint on the canvas!”
If you liked this piece, it’s worth checking out the one it was inspired by—Matt Webb’s 15 rules for blogging.
Don’t give up on reading though!
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