This article, by Christopher R. Edgar, originally appeared on his Purpose Power Coaching site on 2/11/09.
One of the most liberating realizations I’ve had in my life is that I’m not responsible for my ideas. In other words, I can do very little to make myself become creative, except for keeping my mind open to receiving insights, and writing them down as they come up. In this post, I’ll talk about how I came to this perspective, and how it can give us more peace and productivity in our work.
This perspective dawned on me when I noticed my best ideas came to me while I was meditating. After each meditation session—even short, ten-minute ones—I’d find myself frantically scurrying to the keyboard to type up the inspiration that struck. This became so effective for me that I started a practice I call “staccato meditation,” where I meditate for five minutes for each half-hour of work. Writing proceeds so fluidly, I’ve found, when I work that way.
When this became clear, I noticed my experience was at odds with the conventional wisdom on creativity. Inspiration will arise, the common belief goes, if you keep your nose to the grindstone—the more time you spend in front of the computer, or wherever you do your work, the more likely you are to have a breakthrough idea. But that wasn’t how it seemed to work for me—instead, my imagination operated best when I stopped writing, sat quietly and just breathed.
Another thing I started to notice was that creativity arises suddenly and without warning. It’s not as if inspiration strikes at predictable times of day, or your left eyelid starts twitching madly to signal incoming ideas—you can never quite tell when they’re going to pop up. In short, creativity didn’t seem like something I could predict or control—at most, it was something I could stay open to through meditation, as if I were planting a lightning rod and waiting for a bolt to strike it.
The Surprising Implications
When I had these realizations, I got to thinking. If what I experienced is true for everyone—if we aren’t actually responsible for our ideas—why do we have a habit in our culture of putting famous creative people on a pedestal?
If I’m right about how creativity works, that means the well-known artists, writers, musicians and so on in our society didn’t really come up with the ideas that brought them fame—at best, they were just really good at transcribing and organizing the inspiration that struck them. Some artists recognize this themselves—look, for example, at J.K. Rowling’s statement that Harry Potter “just strolled into my head fully formed.” Our habit of treating these people like gods seems a bit silly from this perspective.
I also thought of how invested my ego can get in my creative projects. For example, when I’m working on a book or article, I sometimes find myself imagining that I’m telling others “yes, that’s right, that’s my work,” and feeling special. The downside is that, when my ego gets wrapped up in a project, I waste time obsessing over whether my ideas will look clever enough to my audience. I’ll bet that, if you’re a writer, you can relate.
If it’s true that I’m not responsible for my ideas, I recognized, I don’t have to endure the suffering that comes with seeking ego gratification through my work. It makes no sense for me to invest my ego in my projects, because the ideas at the core of my writing aren’t even “mine.” In other words, if I’m not responsible for the ideas I put on the page, it’s misguided for me to take credit for them, or beat myself up if they don’t seem good enough.
A “Productivity Anti-Hack” If I Ever Saw One
The greatest gift that came with this realization was a new sense of freedom in my work. When my ego became invested in a project, my work proceeded slowly and painfully. After all, in that frame of mind, my self-worth was, in a sense, riding on how my work would be received—of course I second-guessed myself and suffered from “analysis paralysis.”
But when I acknowledged I wasn’t responsible for the ideas in my writing—all I was really doing was transcribing them and showing them to the world—I understood that my value as a human being had no relationship to what I wrote. How could it, if the ideas weren’t even mine? As it no longer seemed like my writing could “make or break me” as a person, there was no need to endlessly second-guess my work. Words flowed most easily and naturally when I recognized my lack of responsibility for my creativity.
Read the rest of the article on Chris’s site.