Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Larry Robertson.
If you’ve ever dreamed of creating something new, you’ve probably wondered some or all of the following: How do I start? How do I finish? And what do I do in between the two?
When we are pushed to the edge between what’s familiar and what’s possible by questions like these, it feels uncomfortable at best, forbidden at worst. Such emotions are precisely why so many often turn back. But that edge is the very place where we form the habits of creativity. It’s also the ground on which we hone the skills necessary to start, finish, and grow.
In such moments we are presented with two alternatives: come closer to the edge, explore, and grow or back away and return to the known. If your dream is creating something new, you simply can’t pick the second alternative (and you know it). But advancing forward, coming closer to the edge of what’s possible, can seem daunting. We picture the creative edge like a cliff. In reality, it’s more like stepping off a curb — if you understand and employ three essential acts of creation: choice, reaction, and improvisation.
In every single thing we do we possess a great power: choice. (Tweet this!)
It is no different in the rote actions we take every day (rising to the alarm clock before the sun comes up to work out, rather than hitting the snooze button; or reaching out to someone to ask for help, when that self-satisfied little voice inside our heads says, “Meh. Why bother?”) than it is with the seemingly bigger choice to pursue something new. The only difference is being conscious of choice or not.
Each and every choice we make is a two-branched decision tree: one direction is a choice to move forward, the other to stay put. In those instances when we choose to move forward, we do so with the hope that it will bring us something better. But in truth, we ought to apply this same analysis to any decision, including the decision to stay put. Even sticking with things we know has consequences. Assumptions we made in the past, facts we considered, even the value we derive from doing what we do is subject to change. Without reconsideration of all this, making a decision to stay put could be as risky as a decision to move forward to something new.
Choice is powerful. And when we are conscious of it and active in making it, choice begins to establish the fertile ground necessary for creative thoughts and actions.
Think about any time you’ve made the decision to try something new. What got you past your fear? Odds are it was the expectation of something good following that choice. But there’s no guarantee. What if the outcome isn’t good, then what? For that matter, what if it is? Again, then what? It’s stunning how often we fail to see reaction as a conscious act, just like choice. But reaction is just as vital to your ability to create and advance.
Suppose you choose to do something new, expecting the outcome to be good … and then it’s not. Say the whole thing falls flat on its face or worse, you get burned or laughed at. What happens next? If you haven’t thought about reaction, there’s a good chance you’ll never make the same choice again and retreat back into what you know. What a shame!
But if you’re unconscious about the reaction that follows a choice, the outcome could be just as bad if everything that follows your choice goes right. When things go right we have a great tendency to exhale, take it easy, get lazy, or otherwise lose the focus we brought to the initial choice. In short, it’s easy to let your guard down. When you do, you are almost guaranteed to be less tuned into possibilities, less open to new information and new ways, and as a result, more likely to drift away from the possible and back toward the familiar. Reaction, and treating it as thoughtfully as choice, matters. It is effectively another form of choice to advance and explore.
Being conscious of choice and reaction is powerful elixir when it comes to creating something new. It isn’t, however, a precise answer to the questions of how to start, how to finish, and what to do in between. There are no such answers. Disappointing as the truth may feel at first, knowing and embracing that there are no precise answers is where things get creative and fun.
But first a quick explanation as to why there are no preset answers: because the territory is new! You’re not supposed to know for sure. If someone could tell you exactly what to do, it wouldn’t be new. And if you knew what the outcome would be, you’d be clairvoyant.
But here’s the rub: even though you intuitively already know this, there’s a good chance you’re still operating as if how to proceed should be knowable like some kind of tried and true recipe awaits you if you can only find it. Stop. Improvise instead.
When you step across the edge into a new land, you invariably bring with you the habits of the world you know so well. That includes the habit of thinking you ought to know everything well and have clear paths and answers at the ready. But traveling in new territory requires you to do some testing. You take what you know but then you have to bend it, augment it, and reshape it to meet the situation.
Want some good news? We, humans, are built for this. Secretly, we long for it. It’s in our evolutionary make-up. But having the ability to improvise naturally in our toolkit doesn’t mean it’s a skill ready to go and turnkey with a moment’s notice. Improvisation takes practice, but it’s also about play.
As much as we may anticipate it with fear, coming to the edge has an innate element of fun. Tapping into that by being ready and willing to improvise, actually increases the odds of success. When there’s fun we are better able to see the upside and attraction of launching into something new. When our approach is purposeful yet playful, we are also able to weather and react to the natural cycle of stumbling around a bit, adjusting, and re-engaging.
This is the nature of the land of the new. We wonder, we choose to explore, we prepare to react so that we are ready to reconfigure and re-engage, and along the way we develop something original, wholly ours, and satisfying. What fun!
Choosing to pursue things new is serious business. But in order to realize what we dream of creating, we can’t let the seriousness of our purpose strangle our innate ability to shape something novel. It’s a balance. Always. But in the end, it’s why we’re here — to perpetually choose a path, old or new, that moves us forward. It’s how our lives answer that vital question of what it means to be human.