The most intimidating part of creation

If you’re doing it wrong, the most intimidating part of creation is starting. An empty page, a blank canvas, or the first entry of a diary terrifies you.

I said “doing it wrong” because the potential for creation should be inspiring. An empty page, a blank canvas, and the first entry of a diary should excite you, fill you with anticipation, and spark an impatience that you can’t start soon enough because the act of creation is more alluring than the end result. If you’re doing it right, the most intimidating part of creating is stopping.

When you’re doing it wrong, the act of creation is terrifying. You feel fear. You’re anxious. You procrastinate. You’re distractible. You’ll do anything but start. The only things you create are excuses.

“I’m tired.”
“I’ll do it later.”
“Just one more.”
“I’m not in the mood.”
“I need to decompress.”
“There’s not enough time.”
“I have to ______________ instead.”

Excuses and procrastination are acts of self-preservation guarding you from something worse than death: discomfort and isolation. But let’s back up and ask “why” a few times.

Why aren’t you creating?
Because I’m procrastinating.

Why are you procrastinating?
Because the empty page is intimidating.

Why is it intimidating?
Because I don’t know where to start.

Why don’t you know where to start?
Because I need to organize my thoughts and do my research.

Why do you need to organize your thoughts and do your research?
Because I need to be prepared.

Why do you need to be prepared?
If I’m not prepared, I might be doing something wrong. I might make a mistake.

Why would you avoid making a mistake?
Because mistakes are bad.

Why are mistakes bad?
Because mistakes lead to criticism and I don’t like criticism.

Why don’t you like criticism?
Because criticism is judgement. With judgement comes the potential of failure.

Why avoid failure?
Failure leads to rejection.

Why avoid rejection?
Rejection leads to isolation, discomfort, and a harder life.

The blank page is terrifying because you’ve judged your work and witnessed failure before you’ve even done anything. And what better way to avoid failure than abstaining from activities that bring failure?

What better way? How about reframing “mistake”, “failure”, and “criticism”, and embracing serendipity instead.

1. Redefine “mistake”
We’re taught from an early age to avoid mistakes. But mistakes are how we learn. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not learning. If you’re not learning, you’re not growing. Growth makes you better, resulting in better work.

“Mistake” can be subverted too: You’re not making mistakes, you’re experimenting.

2. Prioritize failure
Mistakes add up to failure and we’re taught from an early age to avoid failure.

Fail the test and you’ll get a bad grade. Enough bad grades and you’ll fail the class. Fail the class and you won’t get into university. Fail getting into university and you’ll fail at getting a well-paying job. Fail to make enough money and you FAIL AT LIFE.

It’s hard to shake the failure mindset because it’s taught at an early age and it helps us survive as a species. Consequences are severe when you fail at drinking water, crossing the street, or flossing and brushing your teeth. Consequences are not severe when writing a blog, drawing a picture, or journaling.

For everything you do, ask “How severe are the consequences of failing what I’m doing?” Most times the answer will be “Not at all.” It’s incredibly liberating.

3. Good criticism makes you better
Good criticism doesn’t judge. It allows other perspectives to reshape your work in ways you can’t. It helps you grow.

Here’s good criticism:
“This part is working for me because ______________. That part isn’t working for me because ______________. That’s my input and it’s your choice to use it or not.”

Here’s bad criticism:
“I don’t like it. This sucks. That’s stupid. You should do ______________ instead. ______________ would be better.”

Good criticism brings new perspectives, entices conversation, and builds trust. Bad criticism is bossy, judgmental, and hinders growth.

Reject bad criticism. Especially bad self-criticism.

4. Embrace serendipity
Removing expectations and allowing yourself to be taken in new unexpected directions results in great work. Expecting to create A and ending up with Z is one of the greatest outcomes of creation. You surprise yourself, you end up with something better than you expected, and you grow along the way. This is embracing serendipity, and it’s a lot easier when you redefine “mistake”, prioritize failure, and focus on good criticism.

This is my first post for Maker Year. It took me seven weeks to actually sit down and write it because I was intimidated by the blank page for all the reasons above. I started writing this with the expectation of creating A (sharing my plan for the year ahead). But by embracing serendipity, I unexpectedly wrote Z (what you just read), grew in the process, and got excited about creating again.

What do you want to create and what’s preventing you from starting?

4 thoughts on “The most intimidating part of creation”

  1. Nice post Jeff. You’ve hit the bullseye on tracing down fear of failure & criticism as being the cause for inaction. I’ve often asked myself ‘what’s the worst thing that could happen (if I did this)?’ Or as the posters in Facebook HQ often reminds employees -‘What would you do if you were not afraid? ‘

  2. Brilliant! One of my favourite quotes is “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step” – often I am so focussed on the destination I completely forget about the journey. And the journey is where, as you said, we learn, we grow, we just simply live. The destination is when we take stock of how we got there, important but maybe not as satisfying. Great excitement can be found in ‘that next step ‘ whether it’s forward or backward, it’s still movement.

  3. One of the things Caitlyn is struggling with in her homeschool is precisely this fear of failure. I read this post to her today and she found it compelling, especially:

    “Mistake” can be subverted too: You’re not making mistakes, you’re experimenting.

    Thank you! I look forward to your next post, no matter how stupid it may be. :-)

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