How I Lost the Joy in Creative Work

How turning creativity into "work" made miserable drudgery out of one of my life's greatest joys.

I feel sad to say this—in fact, it's scary for me to admit this—but, while I have a very full, pretty great life, I have derived little joy from my creative work, which is the part of my life I most identify myself with. In fact, my creative life has much more often been a source of pain, stress, and frustrated self-torture. There's a lot to say about this, but I think it's best to start at the beginning...

"The ghost of an ancient ninja roams these woods at night. The only way to find the Canopy of Wonders is to trap him with a snare and get him to reveal the location of the Opening."

I had recently discovered a book about knots in a dusty, fallen-down barn. I lacked the dexterity or spatial reasoning to tie any of them but I suspected that each knot would open a universe of capability.

"We'll need these three knots to build the snare."

My two comrades took turns looking at the fragrant, yellow-brown book. If anyone could figure the knots out, it would be them.

"Next, we'll need to lure the ninja into the snare. Ghosts don't eat, of course, but they can smell. We need to collect the sweet honeysuckle that grows in the family graveyard on the mound next to the opening to the catacombs... by the golf course."

Ben, Paul, and I stood on the soggy-squishy lawn, watching the aspen leaves quake above the entrance to the forest at the top of the hill. We had the whole day, and we were going to use it productively.

"Ben, let's ride over to the hardware store to get some rope. Paul, you head for the graveyard." (I was very bossy, if you hadn't picked up on that)

It was a typical Saturday in 1992 for 10-year-old me. Exploring in the woods. Riding bikes around the neighborhood. Crawling in the sewer (catacombs). And Making Things.

We made radio shows on a cassette recorder with recurring advertisements for carbonated milk broken up by En Vogue's "Never Gonna Get It (My Lovin')."

We fashioned bows and arrows out of sticks and dowels from True Value which we loaded into a quiver made of cardboard and (elven) satin.

We built not-architecturally-sound forts which were only prototypes of the magnificent treehouse fortresses to come.

Later that night, there would be a sleepover where we'd keep Ben up too late, make prank calls, and play Sega Genesis Mortal Kombat with the blood code on (ABACABB).

We would watch the same movies over and over again. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and an NFL Films piece that Ben and Paul hated.

We would play Dungeons & Dragons and trade Marvel Cards.

I realize we seem to be already knee-deep in the Simpler Times NostalgiaPond™️, but that's not really what I'm writing about.

In reality, I was a pretty disturbed kid. My mother had died suddenly a few years earlier. I had trouble making friends. I was mean and bossy and I couldn't modulate my emotions very well. I was precocious so teachers loved me until I would inevitably slash another kid with a microchip I brought for show-and-tell (true story, he's dead now, but not because of that).

But the reason I remember this whole period with such fondness is that my imagination, my creativity, was a joyful place back then. My difficulties notwithstanding, my days were full of exploring, feeling out the world around me, diving into books and movies and sports and leaves and insects and music and charcoal and clay and Hypercard.

The American Millennial Parent I am now is inclined to be horrified by some of the ways I spent my time as a kid. I'm not talking about the dangerous, crawling-in-the-sewer, riding-bikes-all-over-town-unsupervised stuff... No, I'm referring to the days when I spent ten hours watching Sister Act on repeat or playing Zelda.

But even measured against my Productively Optimized™️ Information Age-forged notions of Time Not Wasted™️, this horror would be completely unfounded, because I was prolific. I mean... crazy prolific.

  • I wrote short stories.
  • I copied hundreds of drawings of Marvel and Image characters.
  • I wrote a fantasy novel.
  • I created my own taxonomy and cosmology of the D&D world (which was too Tolkien-heavy, in my opinion).
  • My sister and I marketed our upcoming garage sales and lemonade stands with colorful posters and guerrilla advertising concepts.
  • I made an adventure game in Macromedia Director.
  • I wrote poems.
  • I wrote letters.
  • I played basketball for hours and hours.
  • I wrote, I wrote, I wrote.
  • So I set out

I made things. With joy. And without resistance. It was my automatic, natural way of being.

There was no pressure. There was nothing telling me to stop or to move faster, that something wasn't good enough or not strategically aligned with the right goals. There was no effort as i would later come to understand effort.

Fast-forward a quarter century (yikes) and I'm 15 years into a career as a writer, photographer, designer/developer, and commercial filmmaker. I've had opportunities to practice a range of creative disciplines, to write and direct commercials, to grow and lead a company that's now 15 strong, to learn about business, how complex systems work, to build a reputation as a creative director who cares a lot, and to become a halfway decent person. Along the way, I've gotten to dirty my hands in all kinds of creative work for many thousands of hours.

But there's something very wrong. Somewhere along the way, making things became a vicious brawl between should and want, even though both seemed on the surface to be aligned. This struggle between two parts of myself who ostensibly agree (I both want and need, emotionally and economically, to make things) gradually ossified into workaholism, perfectionism, and self-flagellation, to the point where I actually began to question whether I actually wanted any of it in the first place.

Then came the doubts: Are these creative dreams just the remnant fancies of a child who's now grown up? Maybe this is just about my ego. Maybe I never grew out of an unhealthy need for external validation. Maybe I don't really have anything to say. I'm just a boring stereotype now anyway...

Encouraged by a culture of, well, whatever it is this culture is made out of, I set out to make money "doing things I love" and wound up turning them into anxiety-inducing referenda on my failures to meet my potential and realize my value to society. Inside, I could still hear the whispers of that creative voice, but they were drowned out by a voice saying "Come on, let's GOOOOO."

I would experience fleeting moments of flow where a window cracked open and I was free from judgment, riding the waves to serendipitous connections just floating on the surface of the ocean of creative solutions that's just... there.

But then the window would slam shut, and as years passed and my "success" grew, glimpses of flow came less and less frequently.

So yeah, I've now led you chest-deep into the Woe-Is-Me Swamp™️, but that's not my point either.

There is satisfaction in doing a really great job for a customer. There is satisfaction in getting paid. There is satisfaction in recognition and accolades. There is satisfaction, I would even say great satisfaction, in good-old honest "hard work." And I've had plenty of all of that in my career.1

  1. Some of the greatest feelings of accomplishment I've ever had were leaving a restaurant kitchen at 2AM after a 500 dinner night, smelling like all the dishes and garbage cans of slop I emptied into the dumpster, knowing that the kitchen was spotless. ↩︎

But these satisfactions simply do not compare to the feeling of being deep in creative flow, making something, watching it come together, not knowing where any of it is coming from, deeply aware but not judging anything, because it doesn't even register that there's someTHING to judge. There's nothing like it.

As the time between satisfying creative sessions got longer, I became increasingly frustrated with myself and, naturally, responded with more pressure and optimization.

I learned keyboard shortcuts. I finally taught myself to touchtype (using the Dvorak keyboard layout). I read David Allen's Getting Things Done and formulated my own, more modern approach to contexts. I cleared out the Self-Help and Business sections at the book store. I listened to endless podcasts and seminars on productivity, creative output, lifehacks, and eventually, Deep Focus™️. I cycled between todo list apps, developed nuanced and sophisticated opinions about all of them, I switched to plain text, taught myself Vim, abandoned everything for pen and index cards (and a dumbphone), acquired an old library card catalog... I'll just stop here because I don't want to make anyone uncomfortable. We'll just say this is a single-digit percentage of what I did and we can move on.1

  1. For the record, I'm still happy for all the things I learned on this errand. Each of these skills, tools, and areas of inquiry, when applied to a human (and not a human trying to force himself to be a computer), has incredible utility. On some level, I think all of that frenzy of activity, learning tools, tinkering with code and index cards and typewriters was the one place where I allowed myself to play (because it had the vestiges of Productivity). ↩︎

I didn't realize it at the time, but what I was actually doing was attempting to put out the fire of creative resistance with kerosene. I was applying greater and greater force, when the state of flow is, definitionally, the absence of force.

To complicate matters further, I have a knack for turning anything I like into part of my job. Well, I love movies, stories, and music, so I soon got to the point where I couldn't even enjoy being a simple viewer or listener anymore. Everything I did became about "my work" and "my work" never got done (other than client work with deadlines, god bless deadlines). So I had now lost the ability even to do anything "for enjoyment," particularly reading or watching a movie. I needed to find some way to make it "productive."

"Maybe if I just study how Spielberg stages dialogue scenes while I'm watching this... I should really be capturing these clips somehow. I'll need to figure out Plex to get around DRM. You know, these streams really squeeze the color and dynamic range out of everything. I should really only be watching Blurays and Bluray rips. Damnit, why have I still not read Shot by Shot cover to cover and figured out how to draw in perspective. I'll never be a filmmaker if I can't explain my ideas better visually."

There is more than one problem with perfectionism, which I will note is a bullshit concept to begin with (just one tool in the ego's self-defense Swiss Army knife), but here's the worst part: It only strengthens as time passes.

"Now that I've gone ten years without making this feature, it really better be good."

The breaking point for me is when this mindset began to creep into my family life. "How can I make this time with my kids optimally productive. Maybe I can start working through the Miyazaki catalog with them, so I can finally know all those movies, because—" Stop. Just shut the fuck up.

Something's wrong with this. The reason I'm writing this is because I suspect I'm not the only one who is dealing with it. It appears to just be the result of following modern western cultural psychology to its most absurdist manifestation: Total Work as the prevailing consciousness: The religion is Work, the culture is Better, and success is Best (which, of course, can never be achieved).

Can you think of anything that could be further from creativity?

So where am I now?

One of my life experiences I haven't mentioned is overcoming my deadly addiction to drugs (at 19) through spiritual means, and I have been a seeker since that important milestone (July 27, 2002). So while spiraling deeper into dissatisfaction with my work, on a parallel track, I was growing in Awareness.

In this Awareness is where I ultimately discovered a valid ticket out of my self-stirred vortex. I'll write about that another day.

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