Read this before you walk out on your creative dreams
Got that squirrelling doubt you’re not actually that good at what you’re trying to do, or don’t know what to do next? Might ditch your big ideas because lately you’ve been curled-on-the-couch exhausted? Keep reading.
If you could be working on your current project right now, but you’ve landed here during a Netflix binge while scrolling on your phone (and told yourself it was all okay because you made a green juice 3 hours ago and haven’t succumbed to the leftover treat-night pizza in the fridge), I’ve been there.
Or, maybe you simply believe you ‘should be more practical’ and let the creative stuff go. That it’d be wise to stop pouring time, cash and effort into something that doesn’t seem to be getting you far. You have responsibilities, and that’s logical, right?
Perhaps. But tell me, would it quietly break your heart to do so?
This one’s for you, too.
I’ll guess part of you is also upset with yourself for acting and thinking this way.
That all this grates for a significant reason: you’re smart, dammit, and you know there are people all over the world doing the creative work you want to do, every day. If you’re honest, you can’t help wondering how, and, what’s so special about them…
Turn everything else off, grab a cup of tea or a glass of wine and get comfy. This is not a ‘quick fix’ article, it’s a read worth your time. It will also save you money and despair.
This is about helping you work with your creativity to get where you want to be — in a way that gives you energy, purpose and feels good.
And if it really is time to walk away? At the end of this, you’ll have a better understanding of why that may be, and how to make the call.
Here you’ll find the wins and ‘battle scars’ from the past 10 years of my (20-year) professional creative journey, transformed for you into a guide. I’ve primarily been a writer, later an editor; but have also pursued photography, drama and design.
Sure, your experience might be playing out a bit differently, but from what I’ve read, observed and corroborated from speaking to others over time — there’s much here that’s common to all of us.
You’ll find value whether you’re working on creative projects full time, part time, casually; if you’re being paid, or aspiring to be. What’s important is your determination underneath all that.
First, we’ll broadly examine:
why your drive to create matters
what to keep in mind when the project you’re working on sucks, or life gets rough
key traits that help you get where you want to be.
Then, we’ll take a more detailed look at a trove of lessons, and the actions I took while learning them.
I’ll reveal 3 core principles that emerged during 4 phases of 2008–2018. I’ve included sign posts to help you recognise which of these phases you may be in, and a handful of recommended books — that I read, or now wish I could have read, at the time.
Creative resilience and stamina is born from action and reflection.
This is a toolkit to help you do both well, in a way that works for you. Dig in. Steal. Adapt. Use what you can. We need you. You need you.
Why your drive to create matters
If you’re not creating — whatever you’re drawn to: books, music, film, photographs, paintings, websites, experiences, business, etc. — you’ll know:
the unpleasant knotting or squirming inside that’s only soothed by making something, or
the sleeplessness that strikes at 2am when you wonder how long you can go on like this, or
your life isn’t right but you’re just too tired and overwhelmed to change it.
I hear you.
Adam Grant notes in Originals: How non-conformists change the world, that psychologists have known for a long time there are 2 paths to achievement: conformity and originality; and originality has its origins in creativity. He adds in his overview:
“Ultimately, the people who choose to champion originality are the ones who propel us forward…they feel the same fear, the same doubt as the rest of us. What sets them apart is they take action anyway. They know in their hearts that failing would yield less regret than failing to try.”
While philanthropic leanings and staving off regret have been part of my momentum, I’ll admit my drive is mostly a self-satisfying one, melded with a firm belief we all have something to share:
When we create, we are the fabric of our being, in a way we can’t be anywhere else. Delight and invention thrive in that space.
When we create, we are embodying a gift and bringing it to the world.
Yes, even when we’re just beginning, in any medium, and our efforts are like a clay pot made by a 5 year old.
For most of us, it takes a while to discover and develop our gifts beyond any initial desire. There are varied accounts from master practitioners, throughout time and across creative disciplines, about their tendency to rarely feel confident.
They just keep practising.
As consummate storyteller Ira Glass, host and creator of NPR’s This American Life — a show which is also one of the world’s most-popular podcasts — said in an interview with Richard Fidler:
“It took me longer to get good than anyone I know. I was always a good editor; from the beginning that was instinctively the one skill I had, but everything else about being a journalist? I was terrible. I was a terrible writer…I was very awkward on the air performing and didn’t read well…Sometimes when I give these lectures, I’ll play clips of what I sounded like, and I don’t even bother with year 1 or 2 or 3 or 4 or 5, I jump in on year 7 and even that’s bad.”
There are always places from which to begin, then re-enter your work, that are obscured by uncertainty. Questions will arise about how to start and how to finish. You’ll doubt what you’re doing, and sometimes yourself. That’s normal.
How you define your success is up to you, but don’t be fooled into thinking ‘making it’ means eradicating doubt.
It’s inhabiting the shifting world of creation again and again that sharpens an artist’s nous.
When life gets rough
While I’m broadly fortunate — and I gratefully acknowledge that — multiple significant stressors have played out during the past decade or so, affecting me and those I love.
I won’t dwell on these events, but they’ve included: mental and physical health issues; weddings and divorces; deaths; multiple job changes and modes of employment (including being out of work); freelancing, business-building efforts and study for a career change. There’ve also been several house moves — across city and country — and for a 12-month period, others’ renovations making my apartment mostly unliveable.
That’s a lot. Sometimes it was bone wearying, brain frying and heart crushing.
And I can only say from a much better place now: This is life.
That sounds flippant and hurtful when you’re struggling, but I don’t mean it coldly; it’s illustrative.
Making any form of art and taking time to hone our talents can feel hard at the outset, because we relegate the act of creation and make it trivial against these big, difficult events.
We de-prioritise it amid persistent (often necessary) calls on our time from those to whom we have a true responsibility.
But we also have a responsibility within. To our self, as a human.
Amid it all, remember:
Creating what we’re driven to make is not trivial. It is also life.
It’s a path to exploration, joy and connection, in a way few other efforts provide.
Traits that help you get where you want to be
The specifics depend on which creative phase you’re in (we’ll get to this), and your life at the time, but the essential elements and traits that have enabled me to keep creating have been:
The occasional big insight is good fuel too.
I had a blissful stretch of about 6 weeks in 2016 when I worked on my first book, uninterrupted by distraction or calamity. This led to the most valuable realisation about the whole creative process. More on that later. (But to be clear now, I did not write a book in 6 weeks — it took more than 2 years. I was in new territory and on a mission to make it the best I could for my future readers.)
Maybe that’s all you needed to hear today?
If so, please, go and gleefully make something without thinking any further about it. Just act. Email me or tag me (@hellosaramoss) on social media afterwards and let me know what you did!
Next, we’ll deep dive to help you recognise where you’re at, and shortcut the discovery process regarding what you could do next.
4 major phases of my creative journey during the past 10 years (and their lessons)
Creative impulses don’t go away because you ignore them. No matter how much you may want them to; no matter how much simpler you think life would be if they did.
This isn’t actually bad news; you just need to know what to do with them — and with yourself — and that’s what we’ll examine as we move through the 4 phases:
Another world (2009–2012)
The pit of despair: labyrinth and dragon included (2013–2015)
The vigilant ascent (2016–2018)
Though I didn’t realise it at the start of the journey outlined here, there’s an important foundational principal that’s instrumental to anyone’s success:
Every day we are choosing
how we spend our time
(whether we realise it or not)
This is not a new idea but have you looked at its core?
We make the conscious (or sub-conscious) choice based on our values, responsibilities and desires.
If none of these has ever been examined, or tested for their truth, it’s difficult to know what to let go of, when and why. We’re more likely to feel akin to a passenger in a runaway car than an active participant in our own life.
While we certainly don’t always choose our circumstances, we can choose how we spend our time in response to them.
What are my values?
Who do I truly have a responsibility to? (Remember to include yourself.)
What are the top 3 things I want to work towards at the moment? Why? Am I allocating my time accordingly?
Phase 1 — Not.One.More.Thing (2008–2009)
You might be here if dawn to dusk is a battle. You often feel tired, frustrated and at the mercy of everyone else’s requests.
This phase is primarily about care and recovery.
When I was here, I never thought “I just need more time to make art”. It was a much more profane and exclamatory desire — the polite version was “Stop the damn world, I want to get off!”
Stepping away can seem impossible, but when we’re pushed to this “Stop!” point, we really need to take notice.
Key action: Relieve the overwhelm
When I was here — in roughly-recalled chronological order — I:
1. Silenced my mobile phone and turned off all notifications except visual ones for text messages. If something was important, the caller would leave a voicemail. I could monitor texts, missed calls and voicemails at my leisure. Getting through the work day was enough. I needed as much ‘blank space’ as I could get when I came home, and control over some of the inputs into my brain. (Contemporary update: turn off all social media notifications as well and be very mindful about screen time.)
2. Went to bed as early as I needed until I felt more rested. I slept in as much as I could, too. (Yes, this is tricky if you have kids — do what you can to maximise your rest.)
3. Quit watching the news.
4. Began to meditate. My first exploration was via a scratchy-radio early podcast by the Meditation Society of Australia. Great chunks of it were too esoteric and mystical for my taste then, but I could tell there was something in it; I found an ‘other place’ unlike any I’d experienced before. I wanted more of it. (Today, I use the Headspace app.)
5. Kept my commute for enrichment and things that made me smile: comedy and travel podcasts and audio books.
6. Walked as often as I could, without any devices, and practised being wholly present as I did so. I noticed my steps, my breathing; I reduced the world around me to child-like phrases that forged their own beauty, e.g. “The sky is blue; there are two girls on the swings; the cinema is up ahead; the air is cold; the sun is warm.”
7. Stopped hating my job because that was exhausting too. I marvelled at the ease I found when I just accepted it was temporary.
My top insights
It’s okay not to be available.
Not watching the news does not make me a bad person, nor does it dishonour the plights of others.
I have a body (I’m not just a thinking machine); it feels good when I move it and rest it and make it laugh.
Are you in this phase?
Try stepping back from all but your life-giving responsibilities and recover. Let me know how you go.
How to be Idle
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck
Phase 2 — Another world (2009–2012)
You might be here if you have been through some major life changes and/or you realise you can’t (and don’t want to) continue as you have done in the past. You want to understand how to reclaim your sense of self and find an expression for your creativity.
This phase is about removing barriers, self-permission and exploration.
Key action: Ask “What else is going on here?” then stay curious
When I was here — in roughly-recalled chronological order — I:
1. Saw a psychiatrist (voluntarily), who told me I wasn’t in need of her services but referred me to a counsellor, whom I then saw about a year later, and discovered I’d had intermittently problematic anxiety for a very long time. But, I could finally understand it and begin to learn to deal with it when it reared. (Scary? You bet, but singularly the most empowering thing I have ever done.)
2. Remembered I had far greater control than I’d been thinking; to a degree, I made my life via an alchemy of my thoughts, actions and chosen responses to external circumstance. Life wasn’t only happening to me.
3. Gave myself permission to make choices about how I spent my time. I had a deep sense I had creative work to do. (I still do. Then I was allowing myself time to just think — bliss! — and explore my varied interests without them necessarily needing to serve a purpose.)
4. Understood that in making choices, I was also making sacrifices. I came to see I’d probably always want more time with my family and friends, no matter what my work/life situation was. So I tried to stop beating myself up about sometimes choosing my creative work over time with them.
5. Supported my mindful time choices by simplifying life. I aimed to develop a virtuous circle of healthy habits for my body and mind, of which being creative was an essential ingredient. (I ‘fall off the wagon’ with the healthy habits all the time, but I’m clear on what makes a good foundation for me and I just keep starting over. I’ve mostly cut the negative self-talk around this sequence now, and know re-starting — over and over again — is the most important thing.)
6. Decided, after deep thought, but still with some difficulty, to let go of 2 major creative paths I realised weren’t for me, because they no longer aligned with the future I wanted for myself.
7. Trusted that despite the frustration and lack of clarity around creative direction that was a hallmark of much of this phase, if I kept exploring and noticing what I was drawn to and interested in, it would all make sense at some point. (Easy to say with hindsight; very hard to do in the present. But, I think, necessary. Rather than feeling ‘directionless’, it’s more about building a creative wellspring from which knowledge and patterns will emerge with time.)
My top insights
Sometimes we leave a creative path because we’ve gained a greater understanding of it, and outgrown the idea of the future we imagined it could provide.
Not writing or creating in a way I wanted to was excruciating for my soul. I had to work out how to make it part of my life.
I contracted as a communications professional during this time, so writing was my day job. But it wasn’t fulfilling. The more ‘trapped’ I’d felt at work, the more my out-of-hours creative output flourished: I learned how to make websites, filled notebooks with dream fragments, poetry, outlines of plays, and travel articles — some published, some not.
(See the other irony? There was no need to work out how to make creativity part of my life, it was already irrepressibly there. Just because I didn’t feel like I had enough time to be creative in the way I wanted to be, didn’t mean I wasn’t.)
Are you in this phase?
It’s so tempting to skip #1 here, but if you consciously or intuitively think you would benefit from talking to a professional counsellor/psychologist/psychiatrist: do it. Please. If a loved one whose opinion you value has suggested you talk to a professional: do it. Please.
Also, ask yourself if you’re actually already doing your ‘thing’? Or are you labouring under the potential mis-conception that being paid to do one element of your craft will solve your dilemmas around lack of time or creative fulfilment?
I Could Do Anything if Only I Knew What it Was
The Gifts of Imperfection
Phase 3 — The pit of despair: labyrinth and dragon included (2013–2015)
Beware: This is where most people give up. There are times of joy, but mostly it’s hard, confusing, disorienting and feels awful. Hence the great metaphor meld in this phase title.
You might be here if you have done a lot of internal work or reflection, found like minds — hooray! — and have been working supremely hard on your craft/project/endeavour but you’re not getting far, or it’s all going pear-shaped.
You’re definitely here if it seems nothing related to your creativity is working and it’s making you feel like a failure as a person.
This phase is about change and uncovering the true nature of a creative desire.
Key action: Commit, assess, then ask “What do I really want?”
This phase is unlike the previous ones because I can’t summon a roughly-recalled chronology for you — it’s still messy in my head. The best way I can help here, is to share retrospective insights that might resonate with you and expedite an ‘a-ha moment’.
1. A creative act does not require external validation to be important. It’s never made more worthy via the receipt of money.
2. But I wanted to make money using my creative skills or output, in my own business. The success of that endeavour, I came to (slowly) understand, would be a function of client/customer need, product or service market fit, effective promotion and consistent sales. Those spheres were all new to me, and my mastery — or lack thereof — within those domains, was entirely unrelated to my worth as an individual.
3. It’s possible to work hard and be a capable craftsperson, and still not achieve what you want. It’s unsexy and unsellable to talk about the degree to which luck plays a role in all our lives. Fortune favours the bold, sometimes.
4. People champion the speed of digital creation for various reasons. But an obsession with speed, I discovered, obscured an important point: maybe years of knowledge, perspective and skill acquisition would be needed to make what really mattered to me.
(I’ve since discovered the term ‘creative tortoise’ in Sarah Wilson’s best-selling book about anxiety, also an excellent read, First, We Make the Beast Beautiful, and it’s a perfect fit. It’s coined from her exploration of the time it takes to make worthwhile things happen: Sarah nods to multi-award-winning singers, songwriters and authors who’ve taken 5–7 years to write a song; 18 drafts for a novel. She adds a slew of multi-year efforts in her own history, regarding getting her university degree, writing books, navigating career changes, launching programs and, the longest of all — transforming her anxiety into a beautiful thing.)
5. It takes courage to admit when something isn’t working. We all have finite resources and it’s wise to regularly reassess how we’re using them.
6. I asked myself:
Are my creative and business goals still appropriate and sustainable?
Do those goals fit with what I want in other areas of my life?
Do I have the skills I need, and am I operating in a medium and/or a market that works for me?
‘No’ was the answer more often than not. I got more serious about the career change I’d been working towards on the side for several years: I was hooked on user experience (UX) design.
7. When I did this reassessment, I met ‘the dragon’: reeking, with flared nostrils, fire whorls and Devil eyes. He was all my fears. All of them. I discovered: the fear he invokes is real — but not necessarily true.
My top insight
In late 2015, I flew from Sydney, Australia, with an open mind and rather trampled heart, to Oregon, USA. There, I re-connected with status-quo-rebuffing folk at Chris Guillebeau’s small gathering for early-stage entrepreneurs, beautifully set at the foot of Mt Hood.
Thanks to keynote speaker Tara McMullin (then Tara Gentile), I understood my dragon was guarding something else. Something that would usher in a new, richer creative phase: the ‘treasure’ appeared when I relinquished all my mental ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’; it was the right time for what I suspected I wanted to do all along, but had never really taken seriously…
It was time to write my book.
Are you in this phase?
Unflinching honesty is needed to extract yourself from the pit. Only you can climb out; that’s why it’s difficult and lonely in there.
But once you hit upon a deeper creative goal, you’ll know it.
You’re likely to feel afraid to act upon it, but when you imagine it, the sensation of ease and flow you’re desperate for enlivens mind and body. You may feel a deep, grounded sense of truth and connectedness to the world that you’ve never felt before. (And unless you’ve experienced that sensation, this paragraph will likely sound like ‘woo-woo’ charlatan nonsense.)
The War of Art
Nothing is ever wasted
Phase 4 — The vigilant ascent (2016–2018)
You might be here if you’ve just realised you’ve been:
pursuing something tangential to a deeper creative goal
committed to a ‘placeholder’ goal (earnestly but not necessarily aligned with other elements of your life) while you were experimenting with what you really wanted to do
driven only by extrinsic motivations like money, status or power; or by some sense of obligation to others’ expectations.
This phase is primarily about concurrent release and focus.
Key action: Clarify and simplify the new creative goal. Commit. Again.
I’ve learned (and am continuing to do so):
1. Even for solitude-loving introverts: community is the ace up your sleeve. It’s powerful to find others who want to help you in stepping towards the grandest vision you can muster.
Upon deciding to write what would become GO: A memoir of wanderlust and anxiety, I gratefully received encouragement from a handful of lovely people in a few groups online. In person, this support came from friends I’d met in the Sydney branch of a worldwide group of big-hearted changemakers who gather under the Live Your Legend banner. But, even if you have 1 ‘cheerleader’ (thanks, Mum!), feeling you’re not alone is key.
2. Language matters. I stopped being my own gatekeeper and changed my phrasing in relation to my goal. I didn’t need to grant myself permission to write my book; it simply became something I must do. If my subconscious got stuck on the permission element, Elizabeth Gilbert reminded us in Big Magic that it exists by virtue of being alive.
3. The mantra ‘ditch, delegate, postpone — then simplify’ became endlessly useful when distractions began to crowd my time and muddy my goal (again).
4. Meditation helped enormously with showing up the page without any attachment to what had gone the day before, or what would come tomorrow, while still refining my craft as I did so.
5. It was beneficial to make peace with incremental progress. Those big leaps I wanted? They all — all — required considered, consistent action.
6. Constructive criticism can be your biggest fuel if you see it as a challenge to improve; to do your best, learn more then try again. There’s no shame in a learning curve. You can elicit a surprising amount of grit from competing against yourself.
I mentioned earlier that I experienced the delight of about 6 weeks in 2016 when I was uninterrupted by distraction or calamity. The bills were paid; all was quiet. There was nothing but me and my desk and time to write. Who could ask for more?
That was when I understood the most powerful element of all:
The true work of creation
is in facing yourself —
and continuing to show up.
With this depth came great solace. I approached my writing with renewed compassion and joy.
But something else happened during this phase which illuminated this principle from a different angle.
In 2017, I actually got my dream design job. After 5 years of ‘side hustling’ — going to workshops, meetups, conferences, solo study and a short-course scholarship — it happened. Then, after a short time, I walked away from it.
First: I realised I didn’t have it in me then to give all I wanted in that role — or all that would be expected. It was a rough year and some of those stressors outlined in the ‘When life gets rough’ section had been, and still were, playing out.
Second: I acknowledged experience design was still very important to me, not just personally but for society as a whole. However, I discovered my commitment to writing my book was deeper. And I didn’t think I could do both at the same time.
It was the book that, as Seth Godin would say, would have my ‘fingerprints’ all over it. The book was the most powerful thing that only I could make. It would be part of my creative legacy — a legacy that I dearly wanted others to glean joy and insight from.
Third: I asked myself:
“Can I live with walking away and still show up to face myself within the creative work ahead?”
“Is the book truly that important?”
I hit ‘pause’ on the career change and kept writing. I deeply appreciated that I had worked hard at developing the internal and external resources to do so.
My top insights
Sometimes we pause a creative goal we’ve been striving towards because we uncover a deeper drive.
The core act of creation is internal. We gain information, seek help and collaborate externally, but that’s a way to tap into what is already within us. (I never understood this before — I used to hear people say this sort of thing, and had no idea what they were talking about.)
My ‘job’ as a creator is to keep showing up: to keep making and sharing with love, without judgement of myself or expectation of others.
The real reward is in the work itself — it’s not accolades, money or fame.
Are you in this phase?
If you’re here, you may have learned enough by now to understand the need for being vigilant about not falling into old unhelpful habits or giving destructive ideas any breathing room. I am certain about nothing other than there being more difficulties — and bountiful insights — ahead. That knowledge is transformational.
It’s no longer about seeking plain sailing, or a plateau, or a never-ending flow state that ‘must be around here somewhere’ if you just look hard enough.
It’s about continuing to act and reflect, bringing all your lessons with you.
There is no path. You make it yourself.
Running Down a Dream
Life shifts. The world shakes.
Wonderful and atrocious things keep happening — to ourselves, our neighbours, people on the other side of the globe. Sometimes, a futility can weigh upon us; grief for strangers and loved ones lost, and for a slipping grip on covenants we expected to be unassailable by now.
But we are not powerless.
We can create: ideas, movements; works of art to enrich, not diminish.
For ourselves; for others, whichever drives us most. Either is okay.
You may know from experience, when you start a new project, work in a new medium, or branch into a different business endeavour, the creative phases outlined above are not discrete or necessarily linear. We can slip between them ridiculously quickly, but as long as we’re vigilant and continue to practise self-awareness, we’ll spot the move and course correct as needed.
One last book recommendation here, which I’ve found to be a disarmingly beautiful, enriching complement to this journey, is Wabi Sabi: Japanese wisdom for a perfectly imperfect life by Beth Kempton.
Now, I wish you all you need. May you slay your dragons and revel in your triumphs as you discover, over and over, more of who you are and what brings you alive.
Your voice is part of this remarkable planet and it matters.
What are you making at the moment?
Are you leaps ahead in these creative phases and do you have any (gentle) spoilers about what you’ve discovered?
Or did this article illuminate something you really needed to hear?
I’m looking forward to hearing from you!
If you found this useful, please share it.
I’d love your help to send this far and wide.
Kudos for making it to here! Let’s stay in touch, eh? Drop your details below for books you can’t put down + writing tips to help you finish your own. (This community will also be the first to hear about my book coaching offers in 2019.)
1: A Grant, Originals: How non-conformists change the world, Penguin Random House UK, London, 2016, p. 3
2: Grant, p. 28
3: Australian Broadcasting Corporation 2011, Conversations, accessed 1 November 2018, <http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2011/11/09/3360344.htm>
4: S Wilson, First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A new story about anxiety, Pan Macmillan Australia, Sydney, 2017, p. 200
5: E Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative living beyond fear, Bloomsbury Publishing UK, London, 2015, p. 88