When we think about creativity and inspiration, we might picture an image of a spirit, a muse, that comes forth from the heavens and touches us in funny places at the most random of times imaginable.
But these moments aren’t random, and there really is no extraterrestrial or divine power fondling our brains. It’s all an illusion, a misunderstanding of causality and how our perception and thinking work.
While the idea of inspiration coming from outside of us isn’t that far from the truth — the building blocks of any idea are build, similarly to dreams, from our encounters with reality — it’s not the outside that needs to come into alignment for us to get a “great” idea.
It’s our insides.
Before writing this blog, I struggled with sitting down and doing my thing for about 4 hours; mindlessly scrolling Facebook, checking my podcast stats and Mailchimp settings and playing around with the WordPress installation of my website, all just trying to find something, anything that would make me sit down and actually get to work.
Well, it didn’t work — even though you’re reading my blog as always — it didn’t happen because I magically got inspiration from my YouTube analytics page. It happened because I went for a run.
Let me explain.
The creative “spirit” or, because I don’t believe in metaphysical phenomena, let’s call it creative thought, is a very primitive beast. Not as primitive as our most basic drives to eat, sleep and copulate, but it’s not the super-computer everybody thinks it is.
It’s a state.
And like with all human states, it needs to be cultivated, nourished and forced if necessary — because to be honest, 99% of us don’t need to be creative; we are well fed, we have clothes and a home and wi-fi and nice sneakers.
Many of us get through life without ever encountering real danger or opposition. And no, having a mean boss doesn’t count. Having a bad day at school doesn’t even come close and neither does your car breaking down, your favourite pair of pants ripping or your beloved Netflix show being cancelled.
Creativity is an evolutionary trait that came to be because we humans are a weak species when it comes to physical strength, speed and most other types of bodily capabilities that various other animal species possess to stay alive in this jungle that we call life.
So evolution, chance and a myriad of other forces produced in us a strong capacity to simulate — to think ahead and imagine what could be.
Alfred North Whitehead famously said: “the purpose of thinking is to let the ideas die instead of us dying” and he was right. In the olden times this was our only defence against going extinct; famine was prevented because people that used to live in my country decided to toil away on fields the whole summer, so that they could survive the harsh winters with the produce they cultivated.
Opposition back in the day was real and the threats were much harsher and more unforgiving that they are now — thanks to advances in politics, technology and medicine, not to say in our basic understanding of what humanity is all about.
Even just 70 years ago, my grandfather knew a completely different opposition from the ones we know today (at least in Europe and other developed countries).
He and a bunch of other men, women and even children stood half naked and sometimes barefoot in the coldest months of winter, clothed in semi-functional rags and maybe a pair of boots that were almost definitely too big or god forbid too small — much more likely, which usually meant they cut off the boots’ toes, effectively making them about as winter proof as a silk handkerchief — and waited to repel a foreign force that was armed with automatic machine guns, tanks and the belief that all slavs are wild beasts that need to be eradicated from the face of the earth so as to give the “true, rightful breed of humanity” the ability to rule the earth.
Many of them died. There was no “equality”, no ethics and no morality. No social services or HR person to complain to — the only human resources that were measured were the amounts of people that were sent into oblivion, because a few people decided that having a certain face shape and eye colour wasn’t exactly to god’s standard.
Not to get off track here, I myself am only an observer, so who am I to even judge or tell such tales, but I grew up with them and embodied them as a child. I only wish to propose them as a broad context for what I’d like to talk about today — discipline and adversity.
Not exactly the kind that the army enforces upon its members, but not exactly unalike either. Creative discipline is something a lot of us lack and more of us forget — even if just from time to time.
Nobody is born with it, nobody even remotely thinks they need it — especially us creative types, that want to be “free” and roam the pastures of life, exploring and playing around in our self-constructed heavens of the sublime.
Discipline is earned by hard work and lost by nothing more than a brief hiatus. But the biggest problem with creative discipline is, that unlike physical discipline — where the goal is to induce a moderate amount of pain and suffering to the practitioner, so that they may cultivate a masochistic part inside of them over the long run and enjoy the actively and predominantly self-induced pain and even find solace in it — creative discipline is harder to manifest. And even more so over the long run.
Creativity is play, not work. And as such, play must be free, undisturbed by any outside forces that might distort or even break the illusion that play provides for those that are partaking in it.
Think of a simple game like playing family (where children enact the power dynamics that unfold inside a family); one child will play the baby, one the mother and the other will play the father and/or mother and all the combinations in between — this is an open minded blog, so I have no idea what the “contemporary” family unit is comprised of in leftist-heavy places, but whatever it is, let’s also include that and any other ones into our example to not delve too deep into politics, as nobody cares about them, or closer to the truth, I don’t care about them; live and let live.
If someone disturbed this charade of social roles that is taking place; if the child playing the daddy decides he wants to be mommy now, they will break the spell of the game and playtime has ceased to be — even is just for a moment.
It’s the same if two teams play football and each team has one player that is absolutely horrendous at the sport — if they wish to make the game enjoyable for all the other players, they need to get rid of the bad ones, so that the flow of the game isn’t disturbed by anyone being out of line.
And there are many other ways of disturbing games — game theory being a wonderful field to have a go at for anyone interested — I just want to focus on the fact that one can break the game.
And to get back to discipline; discipline can break the game. Not in the same way as the two prior examples, but in an even more detrimental way. Unlike being bad at a game or one of the players deciding to boycott the game and kill the vibe for the other players, discipline kills the whole essence of a game.
That’s why learning anything new isn’t fun until you can at least do the basics. Nobody likes guitar if all they ever did was practice the G scale for 2 weeks. Nobody will like basketball if all they did was train how to dribble the ball for a month without ever actually playing the game.
Only the people that get to the point of proficiency, where they can at least semi-competently execute rudimentary instances of any game, get to the point of feeling a positive connection with it.
And the real goal is to balance the scale, so as to have enough discipline to never stop growing and always deliver whatever it is you should be delivering — it doesn’t have to be good, it only needs to be regular — and to never stop liking the game and enjoying it whenever possible, so as to not grow too far apart from the actual reason that made you start playing in the first place.
So, a run made me do this blog — and usually when I write my blunders, I do them in one take. One hour, sometimes two and that’s it. The hard part is never making them, but to start making them.
Therefore I started to discipline myself; I wrote daily for almost half a year until recently, when I had too many other responsibilities and work related things on my calendar, where I decided to only make one a week and rather than focusing on quantity, give quality priority.
But the main point for me is to run. Why?
Because I never liked it. To run was to me equal to wasting my life, a metaphor for running away from my responsibilities and issues and it felt not only demeaning, but boring. And it was the boredom that I couldn’t face.
But now I run three times a week, sometimes more and sometimes less, but I try to do about three each week. Because going for a run and consequently doing weight exercises doesn’t only give me a physical boost and a more health body — not saying having four times the stamina as I had a year ago isn’t a big plus — it gives me a strong kick in the ass to do what I otherwise wouldn’t do.
And it does it in perpetuity.
I know there are those of you that don’t need such regimes — and kudos to you all — but I do, and I bet there are a lot of us out there that would, for the love of god, rather smoke weed and drink cold ale all day than actually do what we love.
Not hate, or ought to, but love!
And now to why running works (for me). It might be sleeping for you for all I know, the point is, each of us has to find their own thing and stick to it.
Running for me makes me do something I don’t like (albeit to be fair, I have grown accustomed to doing it now and only partially hate it — I might even someday like it). And doing something I don’t like that much teaches my body not to whine and to act whenever it needs to, not only when it feels like it.
Because there is no real danger to my life (and believe me, our bodies know that running out of Snickers bars or tobacco isn’t the same as being chased by an angry Nazi or wild cat), my body starts to become dull, inattentive and unresponsive to stimuli — especially cognitive, coming from my own mind.
That’s the adversity that we’ve lost because of the safety we now enjoy in developed countries — and don’t get me wrong, I am incredibly grateful for it, but we have to pay the piper, too.
And because there is no real outside threat that we feel, our bodies become lazy and stubborn — why move if I can lay in bed all day? Why cook if I can order pizza? Why do anything, really? In the end, isn’t all life purposeless and void of meaning?
That’s when nihilism slowly seeps in and starts to gnaw at the soul. And the problem is, it’s not a fallacy — life is void of meaning in the grander scheme of things, and a dull and fatty body that only cares about instant gratification will always sway the mind to become at least in a way a proponent of nihilism — even for those of us that aren’t as attentive to know what nihilism is will tell you the populist version of it: They don’t give a fuck.
But this force is quite older than nihilism.
In his book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield describes it as The Resistance, but it had names even before plumbing was invented. The original Hebrew term sâtan is derived from a verb meaning primarily “to obstruct, oppose”. And if used with the definite article (ha-sâtan), it means the heavenly accuser himself — the devil. But you had Apep in Egypt and Erebus in Old Greece too.
The point is, the Obstructor has been around since the dawn of man, whispering and lightly influencing each and every decision our ancestors made. And he is still going strong.
When you don’t really feel like it and decide — 5 min before getting to work on your new painting — that you’ll rather start tomorrow, he’s there. When you then persuade yourself that starting tomorrow is actually better because of a lack of materials, your schedule, something about your spouse … he’s there too.
And he is absolutely there when the alarm goes off and you decide to “just close your eyes for a sec” the very next day. He practically invented the snooze button on your phone.
The question therefore is: What can we do when this immortal, supernatural force is exploiting our weaknesses and curating our demise?
It is really, really hard to go at it alone. But there is a trick that simplifies the process immensely. It is in fact so simple, it made the inventor of the cure one of the biggest names in our society and his products have been gathering a cult following for decades.
It’s even universal; works for painters the same as it does for musicians — even actors and actresses can use it. Hell, even bankers, busboys and businessmen can, it just works every single time.
Just do it.