Can making art (or any creative process) show us something about how to live a happier and more resilient life? As an artist who’s spent thousands of hours making things (and sometimes destroying them afterwards), I can definitely answer that question with a resounding yes. The qualities that are needed in creating something “from scratch” are the same qualities that will enable us to do well both in business and in our personal lives.
I’ve been making sanded collages for a few years now. It’s a process that I have very little control over, and that’s exactly why I love it. It helps me develop skills that directly add to my ability to live life with gusto, meeting the ups and downs with more flexibility, less resistance and lots more curiosity rather than judgment. With the collages, there are, of course, some things I do choose: the size of my paintbrushes, which paints and what shapes to use and the overall size of the piece - even what kind of an electric sander I use. But these are just the raw materials through which unexpected images and emotional experiences emerge as I work my way through the process of creation. It’s not unlike how we do anything in life: we get the raw materials given to us, we decide what we’re going to do with them, then we set out to create something that hasn’t been created before, seemingly out of thin air. One of the most important things I’ve learned is that:
I’m not in control of the outcome of what I set out to create.
I used to think I was, or that I could be if I just monitored the process closely, but I finally realized that there were far too many things that happen all the time which are beyond my control or my knowing in advance. And isn’t that true in whatever we put our efforts toward in life? I do my best; I rely on my in the moment, real-time ability to respond to whatever shows up (and we all do until we get hung up about something). I don’t need to impose tried and true formulas because I’ve seen how my ability to have new ideas and new solutions will kick in whenever it’s needed - if I don’t overthink it. I do my best to let go of expectations about the results I hope for and focus instead on the here-and-now process of making. If I think of it as allowing the process to unfold through me rather than having to make it happen, I can pay more attention to the miracle of what’s unfolding. There’s no need to force it to appear the way I think it should. And that’s part of the fun of creating. We get to be the midwife of our paintbrush, or our pen, or our laptop or even our business. We can relax and enjoy rather than stress and strain.
The second discovery I’ve made that’s actually related to the first one and is this:
Ideas don’t originate from the mental storage system of what we already know. They come from the Unknown, the place where new things are born.
Now that might sound a bit strange, but think about it for a minute. Do you know what your next thought will be? Do you know where it comes from? Can you make yourself think a thought? No - and nobody does! Thoughts “occur” to us - the “come to mind” - especially when we’re relaxed and open. Then we either act on them or we don’t. There are lots of stories out there about artists and scientists and other makers who intentionally make room in their heads for new thoughts. The most common ways we hear about how to get our overactive minds to stop trying to solve a problem are by taking a nap or a walk; anything to stop the wheels of thought and give our busy, solution-obsessed minds a break. If we’re aiming ourselves in a particular direction, just that act of aiming by itself invites the how of getting there. And the how of it comes from the fact that we’re hardwired to channel the infinite creative potential that exists in the universe. Yes, that means you. So if we know that our thoughts originate somewhere else, being receptive and willing to channel them is a key element in whatever we’re making. This is as true for creating art as it is for writing a report, leading a company, building a business or making dinner.
The third discovery I made that completely changed my experience of creating has to do with the value of suspending judgment. It has also revolutionized the way I approach my life. I’ve got stacks and stacks of artwork that I had convinced myself I couldn’t finish because they looked ugly to me. Something about the colors or the shapes or the composition was all wrong. I was caught between a rock and a hard place: I couldn’t throw them away but I couldn’t make them better. They were unredeemable but I couldn’t just throw them away. What kept me - and the paintings - in limbo was the fear of making an ugly painting. What would that say about me? Clearly, it would indicate I didn’t know what I was doing, I was a failure, a fraud, not worth paying the least attention to. All the fun of making had completely disappeared and the act itself devolved into being all about me, and if you haven’t yet figured this out, that’s the last place you want to be when you’re making something.
But guess what: making things really isn’t personal. It’s about being in service to an idea that wants to find expression and has chosen us as the vehicle. All we have to do is say yes, and keep saying yes until the idea emerges so we can see what wanted to be expressed. Of course it will have our unique lens through which it comes, but what I realized is:
What keeps our creations from emerging is judging it while it’s still in process.
If I thought something was ugly or wrong or bad, that judgment made it impossible to keep going without first trying to fix it. But when I was willing to be curious and just see what would happen, anything (often something that I had fretted might make it worse), a miracle happened! Something totally unexpected and wonderful appeared, much better than if I had tried to control every aspect or consequence. And if it wasn’t wonderful at first blush, it would lead to something else that could become wonderful.
Our lives can become so much more effortless and so much more interesting when we begin to let go of at least a few of the restraints we put on ourselves. Instead of a forced march to productivity or success, we can collaborate with inspiration and have an entirely new experience of what it is to be alive, to be fully engaged in what we are doing, and to be used by a force greater than ourselves (i.e., life).