Andy J. Miller: How to Break Through Creative Anxiety
September 1, 2016
I believe that anxiety is the antithesis of creativity. Trying to be creative from a place of anxiety is like trying to plant a garden on concrete. Because, in order to be creative, you have to have a certain looseness of mind. And the tightness of anxiety* is the opposite to this feeling.
For commercial creatives, when money gets involved it can be especially difficult to deliberately stay loose and creative. These are tried and true practices that I’ve learned and that I employ on a regular basis to try to burst through that tightness of anxiety and make my best work:
1. Be Prepared
Pour your anxiety into practice and preparation. You can’t be economic with your creativity—saving it for when a big job comes in. You need to practice so you’re prepared when that work shows up—basically keeping yourself warmed up so you’re always ready to play. Figure out what you need to practice and create those things all the time. Then, that muscle will be ready when the ball gets thrown to you.
People talk about this idea of getting in the “flow state” where you get your best creativity. It’s when your subconscious takes over and starts creating for you. And that’s what you’re looking for; that mental muscle memory, where something other than your conscious willpower takes over, where your creativity leads the way in the moment. The only way to do that is to practice and be really prepared.
2. Play with No Endgame
Play has no purpose, it’s just for its own enjoyment. When you start to put the pressure of an endgame to it, it sucks all the joy out of it. John Cleese—one of the original Monty Python guys—has done a lot of work on creativity and a big part of his process is an idea of being in the “open mode.”
“Closed mode” is where you’re editing, deciding what’s good or bad as you go. “Open mode” is just getting into the flow, having a good time with no critical thought. I often think of it like this: Michael Jordan could never get into the flow if he also had to ref the game. The purpose of play or open mode is just to get into that flow.
John Cleese suggests doing “open mode” sessions for a couple of hours at a time. You do not have to create anything usable. The only thing that matters in the open mode is that you’re doing it. If you’re making something (anything) you’re succeeding. And it’s even bigger success if you enjoy it, if you really get into just being present in that mode.
And afterwards, when it’s all said and done, you can go back and edit. Sometimes there’s one thing you can actually turn into something. But even if there’s nothing usable, it’s still incredibly important to set aside time to just enjoy the process of creativity without worrying about whether the output is valuable or going to be profitable.
3. Do Multiple Takes
According to Seth Godin, the people with great ideas are also the people with the most bad ideas. The fact of the matter is they just come up with tons of things—it’s just a sheer numbers game. Sometimes for creative people, anxiety makes us want to run with the first idea we came up with. In college, that meant I was often already sketching the solution before we’d even fully articulated the problem we were trying to solve.
I recall one project where I went off to the races, poured all my time and energy into one idea. But we were supposed to actually present four completely different directions to solve the same problem. And in my infinite wisdom I came up with one brilliant idea thinking it was going to be the one. And then I just crammed three other ideas in. To be honest, I wanted those other ideas to pale in comparison to the first idea because that was the one I really wanted to do.
But as I lay there trying to come up with 3 more terrible ideas, the very last idea I came up with was an early version of the Indie Rock Colouring Book, which went on to be a pretty big success. So I really believe it’s important to come up with more ideas than you could possibly use because then you know lots of them can be trash. And when you create that framework, the tension evaporates and creative sparks can really fly.
4. Divorce Yourself From the End Result
One of the ways that I’ve dealt with the anxiety of public speaking and interviewing is by preparing insanely. But the hour before I actually perform I just set the notes and preparation aside. In the moment, I completely let it go and devote myself 100% to being present, connecting with my audience or with the individual I’m interviewing.
The point is that when it’s time to do the actual work, you have to divorce yourself from any particular outcome. If you want to be creative, you have to understand that you’re going to do it wrong, you’re going to be critiqued, you’re going to fail. But it’s all part of the process. Because making art is about being vulnerable to that. It’s about expressing who you are, what you’ve got inside you. And when you do that, you’re going to get bruised.
Brené Brown has done a lot of work on this idea of being vulnerable. She often mentions the Teddy Roosevelt quote that basically says if you’re going to step into the arena, you’re going to get bruised.
There’s a point where you have to put your best foot forward, “be on” as much as possible and do your best. And if you get the job, great. But if you don’t, it’s not meant to be. You need to detach yourself from controlling that final outcome.
5. See Anxiety as a Positive Sign
Lastly, take a more of a cosmic view of anxiety: Instead of seeing anxiety as a stumbling block or a reason to turn back, I’ve found it’s really helpful to see it as a sign I’m onto something. I try to see my own anxiety as even more reason to jump all in. Because, if I’m feeling vulnerable about the work I’m doing, it must be important.
A few episodes of my podcast ago, I was the most anxious I’d felt but it turned out to be the episode the most people responded to. I knew when I was feeling anxious about it, that it was a sign that the work was sincere, something I was pulling out of the depths of me. That was why it felt so vulnerable, but it was also why it turned out so impactful.
In Big Magic, Liz Gilbert reminds us that fear isn’t going anywhere. It’s part of our DNA and we should appreciate it; fear has kept us safe, after all. So when you feel that fear at the start of a project, acknowledge it, let it get in the car with you and go on that ride. But make it clear that it’s not going to be the one driving. For me personally that’s what it’s about; committing to creativity over the long haul. Even if it goes poorly, even if you make a mistake or do something bad.
I see many creative people not making their best work, not being authentic, not finishing things or maybe just making half-hearted work because they think it’s going sell. Whatever fear and anxiety causes you to do, commit to going through the creative process anyway. If anxiety is begging you to quit or deviate from your course, I encourage you to say, look we’re going whether you like it or not. And then just keep working, finishing your projects, being ready for the work you really want to do.
*Note: This article is about creative anxiety, but it’s not about how to rid significant anxiety or mental distress from your life. If you’re struggling with significant anxiety, please seek professional help beyond reading this.
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about the author
Andy J. Miller is a commercial artist who breathes life and weirdness into simple shapes. He specializes in brand collaborations, advertising illustration, kids market illustration, editorial illustration, gig posters, album art, hand lettering, mural design, visual development for animation and book design. Listen to his podcast, Creative Pep Talk.