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A User's Guide to Creative Tension
You create creative tension when you clearly articulate your vision and your current reality, and the gap between your vision and your current reality becomes apparent.
In my last post here, I spoke about creative tension, and a bunch of people said they'd never heard of it and asked me to share more about what creative tension is and how to use it. So here we go…
The concept of creative tension is talked about by Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline. Robert Fritz also has some great stuff about creative tension in his book, The Path of Least Resistance.
Creative tension is essentially a structure that helps to facilitate creativity and change. (Tweet this.)
You create creative tension when you clearly articulate your vision and your current reality, and the gap between your vision and your current reality becomes apparent. This gap creates an emotional and energetic tension that seeks to be resolved.
Fritz calls this a tension-resolution system and he gives the example of stretching a rubber band – as you stretch it, this creates tension, and the tendency of the rubber band is to pull back to resolve the tension in the system. Imagine that your vision is represented by your right hand, and your current reality is represented by your left hand and you have a rubber band around both hands. The greater the gap between your vision and your reality, the more the rubber band will stretch, the greater the tension that will develop, and the stronger the motivation and energy will be to resolve that tension.
Creative tension helps you to be more creative
Our minds don't like the cognitive dissonance in saying "This is what I want" and recognizing that we don't have it. Your mind is highly motivated to relieve that cognitive dissonance by closing the gap between your current reality and your vision, and so this allows you to release more energy, resources, and creativity into finding ways to close that gap.
Another principle that's probably contributing to the usefulness of creative tension is the Zeigarnik Effect, which says that when we have an unresolved question or problem, we continue holding that problem in our minds - sometimes only unconsciously.
This also fits with the Scrooge Principle that Dan Coyle talks about in The Talent Code and the theory behind eustress. Our minds and bodies seek to preserve energy, but when we're faced with an unresolved issue, a big challenge, or the tension of the gap between our vision and our reality, this triggers us to release more energy and attention into dealing with the problem and generating solutions and we perform at our peak.
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Betty Edwards, in her awesome book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, talks about how we usually tackle problems with our left-brain-directed thinking first, and only if the left brain can't solve the problem, or if it's a problem that the left brain doesn't like to work with, will the left brain hand the problem over to the right brain. When we create creative tension, the left brain is more willing to hand the problem over for the right brain to get involved as well, and that's when you start to find more creative solutions.
So there are lots of different names for creative tension and lots of different models that fit with it and seem to support the idea of creative tension. At the end of the day, what these models are all saying is that creative tension is based on an understanding of how our minds control the management of our attention, energy, and creativity, and then using that understanding to create a structure that creates an energy that seeks to be resolved – what Fritz calls the "path of least resistance" – and to flick the switch so that we can apply our best thinking to the issue.
How we relieve creative tension
Creative tension can feel pretty nasty - especially if you're not well practiced in using it. It can feel a lot like anxiety and it can be easy to feed this anxiety with all your reptile fears, to start to get anxious about your anxiety, and to get wound up with so much anxiety and stress that you can't think clearly and it all just feels really bad.
Creative tension motivates us to act with urgency to reduce the tension by resolving the issue somehow. The problem is that most of us relieve creative tension by lowering our vision so that we reduce the gap between our vision and our current reality. This successfully reduces the tension, but it also reduces your motivation and creativity to make your vision a reality, and of course, you're not going to create what you really want - at best, you'll be successful in creating the "reduced" version of your vision.
What you need to do, if you want to successfully create and use creative tension, is to focus on the following three things:
1) Clearly articulate your vision in as much detail as you can.
Don't worry about using metrics and goals. Just ask yourself the question, "How will I know I have it?" It's also important that you're describing a vision, and not an anti-vision. A vision talks about what you want, while an anti-vision is focused on what you don't want. Focusing on what you don't want makes your mind associate back into your current problems, and even your past problems, so it serves to reinforce the problem and it's not effective for creating creative tension.
2) Observe your current reality honestly.
If you're trying to pretend that you're somewhere you're not, you'll reduce the creative tension and risk choosing irrelevant strategies for resolving creative tension. Watch and listen and pay attention to your present. Ask for feedback and opinions of your current reality from other people to get more angles on your understanding of your reality. Question all your stories about reality so that you can peel away the self-deception and the stuff that's interpretive and get to the core truth of what your current reality is all about.
3) Notice what next obvious steps for bridging your vision and your current reality come to mind and do those.
You won't necessarily know the full "how" at the outset, but as you keep refining and articulating your perception of reality and your vision and keep taking the next obvious step, you can trust that the creative tension will seek to resolve itself by getting you to where you want to be.
Creative tension, stress, frustration, and attachment
One of the tricky things about creative tension is that there's a sweet spot where the anxiety levels are "just right" to release your peak performance and best thinking. As some people highlighted in the comments on my last post, as with most things, there's a balanced place, a middle ground where you'll do and feel your best.
Too much stress and anxiety and you'll drop into distress, and your performance and the quality of your thinking will plummet with it. So don't go pushing yourself to articulate a ridiculously huge vision in the hope that creative tension will get you there. Bigger, faster and harder is not necessarily better.
Linked to this is the problem of over-attachment and frustration. Spending a lot of time refining and focusing on your vision can lead to over-attachment and frustration when you haven't got it yet, and this frustration can cause you to be more impulsive and urgent in your decision-making and behavior, and to shut down your open-focused creativity and miss unconventional opportunities to make your vision a reality. Creative tension shouldn't make you feel frustrated. That's not useful.
Here are some ways that you can prevent creative tension from becoming over-attachment, frustration and stress:
Hold a playful attitude. You can be clear on what you're aiming for, but don't take yourself too seriously. Try to see obstacles and failures as being all part of the game, making the game more interesting.
Don't beat yourself up or dwell on mistakes or failures. Negative self-talk can quickly tip you over from eustress into distress, where your performance and the quality of your thinking drop.
Look after yourself and schedule time for rest and pure play. You can't be in the optimum creative zone all the time (Charlie talks about this a lot). Dan Coyle says we seem to be capable of between 60 and 180 minutes of deep practice and then we need a decent break. Make sure you eat, sleep, exercise, and rest well.
Notice when you're resisting reality and practice letting go of the need to force things to go your way. (Yeah, I know this is a whole post by itself!)
Stay open to different ways that you could close the gap between reality and your vision. Hold fast to your "what" -- your vision of what you want to create -- but be very loose about your "how" -- how you create it. Make sure that your vision is a genuine "what" and not a "how." Check this by asking yourself, "And what will that get me?" a few times and ensuring that you've chunked up to the highest level of what you want.
Don't entertain feedback and anxiety from other people who are struggling to tolerate the gap between your reality and your vision. Their anxiety about the presence of that gap can make you overly anxious about it, which can tip you from eustress into stress. Hang out with people who can tolerate creative tension and who won't try to talk you into lowering your vision just so they can feel more comfortable about your choices.
Resist complaining about not being where you want to be - to yourself or to other people. This increases frustration and can make the creative tension unbearable.
Thanks to all of you who asked for further clarity on creative tension - I really enjoyed thinking this through and getting it down on (virtual) paper.
I'd love to hear from you… how have you used creative tension? How's it working out for you? Any other questions about creative tension?