Wondering what’s standing between you and creative gold? Andy J. Miller shares some ideas, with a fun Harry Potter spin!
Let’s talk about one of my favorite things: Harry Potter! In particular, I want to talk about the first book—the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone as it was called in the UK).
One of the properties of the Sorcerer’s Stone is that it can be used for alchemy—it can take regular metals and turn them into gold. I’ve always thought that creativity is even better than alchemy—even better than this fantastical idea of turning regular metals into gold. Here’s why: In creativity you don’t even have to have metal. You can take a blank sheet of paper and turn it into money.
Think about a franchise like Disney, how that started with creativity and became a billion dollar business. And though that’s not the point for most creatives, it is worth understanding and appreciating that magical force and how it can become an economic force too.
Today, I want to talk about what the obstacles are between you and creative gold. Just like in the Sorcerer’s Stone, we’re going to go through the series of obstacles that are stopping you from doing your best work.
1. You’re Banking on Too Few Ideas
In the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry and his friends have to face obstacles to get to the Sorcerer’s Stone. One of the obstacles is a room full of flying keys. Now, they don’t just start grabbing keys and trying them. Instead, they stand back and survey the room to figure out which of all these keys is the right one.
This is the first obstacle to your creative gold: You have too few ideas. You’re trying to work smart instead of working hard. And you’re grabbing the first and fastest ideas that come to you and hoping they turn into gold.
But creativity mostly doesn’t work that way: You need the freedom to throw tons of ideas out there and then watch them all fly around a room and stand back and survey what’s the best. Seth Godin says it like this: The people who have great ideas have more terrible ideas than anybody else. They just have more of all sorts of ideas on a more regular basis.
The people who have great ideas have more terrible ideas than anybody else. They just have more of all sorts of ideas on a more regular basis.
In my own life this has always been true. When I get an illustration job, my temptation is to send over one sketch because I get one idea, I’m excited by it and I think I’ve nailed it. But if I force myself to come up with more ideas; I almost never pick that first idea that I was so in love with at the start.
And here’s why I think that is: I think the first idea is created under pressure. But if you keep going, knowing you’re going to throw ideas away, you can let go and get into a more creative flow. You can start to become playful, silly and take risks. And that’s where you’re really going to find something cool.
Where it comes back to Harry and the flying keys is how you stand back and survey all those ideas when you’ve made them and decide which one is the potential right one.
2. You’re Trying Too Hard
Another obstacle that Harry, Hermione and Ron face is the Devil’s Snare. It works a lot like quicksand; the more you squirm, the more it squeezes.
I think this struggle is a lot like the anxiety of the creative mind. It’s the part of your brain that produced that white-knuckle feeling. But when you make creative work in this kind of panicked state, your work is going to suffer. It’s like trying too hard to have fun—a weird reverse logic. Alan Watts talks about this kind of reverse logic in the The Wisdom of Insecurity.
There are some things you’ve got to approach in an upside-down way and I believe creativity is just like that. The thing to focus on is not the outcome but the making of the work.
In my own life, I see this again and again. At the start of my career, I was so desperate to make my creativity into a living. The harder I tried, the worse the work got. So I had to find ways to give me the right perspective, even when the pressure was on.
At one point, I got a job at a juvenile detention centre. And it gave me the perspective on how lucky I was and how hard it could be. I locked into a new mindset: Instead of that white-knuckle pressure, I wanted to simply and gratefully make things, regardless of that bigger outcome. And it was in that space that I found my “open mode” to make work from a perspective of fun.
Here’s what I want to say: If you’re in a place that you don’t want to be and you think your creative work is the ticket out, don’t work from a place of desperation. Allow your creativity to be an outlet for your fun and expression. And that’s how you get out of the Devil’s Snare.
3. You’re Your Own Biggest Obstacle
The last obstacle in the way before Harry can obtain the Sorcerer’s Stone is the Mirror of Erised. For you, it’s the same: The biggest thing stopping your creative gold is that thing in the mirror: You.
“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.”
Here’s the thing: It’s ALL a mindgame. The entire human pursuit is about beating your brain into submission and not allowing that part of your mind to hold you back.
The part of your brain that holds you back wants to keep you safe, wants you to do the same thing you’ve always done. It serves a purpose… but it also gets in the way of what you want.
In the spirit of Harry Potter, let’s go to J.K. Rowling for this: “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.”
If you want to learn more about this, read Mindset by Dr. Carol Dweck. It goes deep into the concept of the fixed mindset versus the growth mindset. If you have a fixed mindset, your IQ, ability, personality, habits etc. are fixed; you don’t have the ability to grow those things. So every new opportunity doesn’t become something you get to try out and improve at, it becomes a litmus test of how good you are.
So every test becomes a test of your inherent value that you don’t get to change. This is such a daunting way to view adventure—no wonder people run, hide and do the safe, proven things! Instead, adopt a growth mindset if you’re going to find your creative gold. It will help you believe in your expansive ability to learn over an entire lifetime.
For example, I used to avoid conceptual illustration. I had even come up with lots of reasons why it was something that just wasn’t for me, didn’t matter, was over-celebrated. But the truth was, I was hiding from the challenge of getting good at it. Now, 10 years later, it’s my favourite kind of work. And I still fail at it sometimes, but it’s the work that matters the most to me. And I would have kept avoiding it if I has stayed in a fixed mindset.
So, what’s that thing that’s looking back at you from the mirror? It’s the obstacle in your search for creative gold.
Conclusion: Make Things That Are Novel Then Useful
You’ll encounter these obstacles over and over again. I just recently went through this busy phase and realized I had stopped having fun.
There’s this idea about creativity being both novel and useful. And I think I had become obsessed with the usefulness side of my creativity, but I was neglecting the novel part. Now, I’ve started to think about it this way: It’s not novel and useful… it’s novel then useful.
This is really is the biggest lesson here: When you go to make your creative work, when you’re working through these obstacles, think about being novel in your approach first. Think about enjoying, even having fun, during that adventure rather than just reaching the end and getting your hands on the Sorcerer’s Stone.
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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.