While creativity is often seen as the domain of artists, most of us, from plumbers to CEOs, need to use at least a little creativity in our jobs every day. That said, when it comes to tapping into our creativity, it’s perhaps artists who can teach us the most.
If you’re struggling with a project or idea, or just need to overcome the tyranny of the blank page, take heart! Some of the most creative minds in history have been there before, and lived to tell the tale.
Here are 10 tips from famous artists, writers, and designers on how to beat that creative block once and for all.
- Don’t Wait for Inspiration
A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood. – Tchaikovsky
If there’s one thing that artists from Tchaikovsky to Chuck Close have taught us, it’s that if you wait around for inspiration to strike, you won’t achieve very much at all. While you might think you need a good idea to get started, the most important thing is just to get started full stop.
If the only thing that comes out of you brain is a clunky sentence, an ugly design, or a mediocre idea, don’t worry too much. Just push through—you can always come back and fix it later. Instead, focus on creating a work routine and sticking to it.
Don’t believe me? It’s been the secret behind the success of innumerable creative people like Haruki Murakami, George Gershwin, Wiliam Faulker, and many many more.
- Take a Risk
We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down. – Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
Think about how boring the world would be if people in business or art just stuck to projects with predictable outcomes. Most likely, there’d be no touch screens, no abstract painting, no space travel… the list goes on. Don’t let an idea that seems overly ambitious, or out of your depth, paralyze you with fear.
Just because something seems crazy doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it. The difference between a great mind and a mediocre one is the willingness to embrace the unknown—even when the risk of failure is high.
- Copy Someone Else
Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. – Jim Jarmusch
We live in a society that claims to prize originality, and looks down upon “fakes” and copycats. But the truth is, nothing it truly original. Famed fashion designer Rick Owens once revealed in an interview that he learned how to make patterns by making knock-off Versace jackets. T.S. Eliot even took it so far as to say, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” While outright plagiarism is a no-no, there’s no shame in copying something else. In fact, imitating the best is a great way to figure out how they do it.
- Reject Perfection
I think perfection is ugly. Somewhere in the things humans make, I want to see scars, failure, disorder, distortion. – Yohji Yamamoto
Whether it’s a proposal for a new client or the first draft of a novel, we often want things to be perfect the first time we do them. While striving for perfection seems admirable, it can often be counterproductive. There’s no doubt it’s good to have high standards, but humans are not machines. Flaws, mistakes, and failures are just part of our natural process. They can even spur us on in unexpected directions, stimulating new and better ideas in the process. Holding ourselves to unattainable standards can also cause anxiety, and leave us disillusioned when we fail to reach our lofty ideals.
- Get Irrational
“You have to systematically create confusion, it sets creativity free. Everything that is contradictory creates life.” – Salvador Dali
If things just aren’t working, try throwing something random into the mix. As the Surrealists knew, sticking unexpected elements together, such as in the game of Exquisite Corpse, can create something new and unexpected, while techniques like automatic writing allow you to give up conscious control and take your imagination on a wild adventure.
Another, perhaps more practical version of this approach is Brian Eno’s deck of cards, Oblique Strategies (now available as an app), a set of prompts which he used when he got stuck while composing music.
- Break the Rules
Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist. ― Pablo Picasso
There are many rules that guide how we create, both external and internal. These can come in the form of common sense, rules we inherited from bosses, parents, or society in general. Over the years, our habits can even harden into rigid ways of working.
While rules can be useful, they can also lead to safe or predictable results and stop you from creating something truly great. Sometimes, it’s refreshing to take your accepted wisdom, throw it out the window, and start from the beginning again.
- Create New Rules
Constraints are felicitous, generous, and are in fact literature itself. – Jean Lescure
While rules can often seem oppressive, total freedom can often be just as paralysing. If you’ve ever sat staring at a blank page for hours not knowing where to start, then you’ll know exactly what I mean.
If this is a problem for you, take a leaf out of the Oulipo movement’s book. This French writer’s group used constraints to help them come up with new and innovative ideas. For example, Georges Perec’s A Void, written in 1969 is a 300-page novel which never uses the letter “e” once. Another constraint used by the group was called “N+7” where every noun in a sentence was replaced with the seventh noun after it in the dictionary.
While you might not need to get as crazy as the Oulipo, even the most arbitrary rules can guide you into unexpected territory.
- Embrace the Power of Willpower
“There is no such thing as a great talent without great willpower.” – Balzac
When all else fails, you sometimes have to fall back on pure will. It might be painful, but often it’s necessary to grit your teeth, make another cup of coffee, and simply push through the pain barrier. There are points in every project where the whole thing might seem pointless and you want to throw in the towel. In these moments, often the only thing that can get your through is power of your own will.
- Trust Yourself
“The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” – Sylvia Plath
Whether it’s triggered by the criticisms of others, or our own internal fears, self-doubt can be paralyzing. Even the most successful people experience self-doubt. The difference is, they never let it stop them from achieving their goals.
Instead of letting self-doubt get the better of you, try and focus on your immediate goals. If others are getting you down, surround yourself with people you trust, or look to past successes or positive feedback to help build confidence.
- Confront Your Fears
“Until you’re ready to look foolish, you’ll never have the possibility of being great.” – Cher
Is there something lurking deep in the back of your mind that’s holding you back? Perhaps you’re afraid of failing, of being misunderstood—or worse, humiliating yourself. Instead of running away from the thing that scares you most. Embrace it, interrogate it, and use it to motivate you in your work. Write down your biggest creative fears, then try forcing yourself to do them. You’ll probably find that once you break them down, they’re not that scary after all.