I’ve had a pretty long career, at this point, in the arts, both as a creative director, professionaly, and as a photographer, obsessively — it’s going on 30 years now. I see a real difference between those who are creative and those who are extremely creativity — another level of creativity that reaches a different height. Beyond just being fully committed, there’s an expectation and orientation around success in extreme creatives. This is different than the normal view of creativity: the ability to walk comfortably around in the dark of the creative abyss, easily pulling out incredible ideas like a magician. To me, this is our innate creativity — the one my 12 year old has — too often beat out of us, but which is always in us somewhere. There are a lot of lists explaining how to regain that innate creativity, but less on the harder core type I’m talking about.
Extreme creativity is different, as it's driven as much by the external need to have a great idea come to life, grow and find its place in the world as by personal growth. The extreme creative wants to create a legacy of work that makes a mark on the world.
In my view, these people understand the more rigorous parts of creativity, either through practice, or inherently. It’s not for everyone and one can certainly make a living in the arts without it. But if the pursuit of something more intense is on your list, here’s my list of what it takes to live a life of extreme creativity:
Spend more time alone. Being alone is hard, especially when everyone else is hanging out together, having a good time. Experience the difficulty of that, often. You’ll be bored. You’ll have FOMO. You’ll feel sorry for yourself. And those feelings, bizarrely, will lead directly to a creative mindset. You’ll learn to find satisfaction in the endeavors you do when you’re by yourself, which almost always will lead to making something. And over time, you’ll learn to value the creations born of isolation more than the comfort of group activities.
Spending time alone — and especially alone with your thoughts — is at risk of extinction. As this article on audiobooks discusses, all recent trends point toward more multitasking and less idle brain time. Reject all that. Be different. Do what you do, often and to the sacrifice of other things. Your creativity will soar, far above your contemporaries.
Drill down to creativity. People treat creativity as a generality, usually in the form of some version of “right brain thinking.” Don’t be a generalist. All the secrets of creativity are hidden deep down a well of singular activities — design, photography, drawing, painting, poetry, sculpting, writing, music, dancing, etc. Think of creativity as the mantle of earth, sitting fluid underneath the crust, accessible only from a deep dive within a single endeavor. It’s counter intuitive, but the better you get at one thing, the more creative you’ll become.
And even within your medium of choice, get more specific. In my own passion field of photography, for example, one can muse for years on the differences between being a street photographer or a photo journalist. These distinctions are true in every creative field. Choose and commit. Everything you are seeking is at the end of a road that starts with that choice.
Give zero fucks when you create. Give a million fucks when you edit. There are endless stories of very creative people who never find success (or lose it) and every one of those stories is about being a bad editor. The mentality of creating involves not caring about rules, standards and expectations of those around you — letting go into the flow. You have to know how to get into that place, by getting out of your rational, worried mind. But once you have a good idea, the crafting of it involves a totally different mentality. You have to become highly critical of your own idea and how it looks, reads or comes across. You have to be a ruthless editor. In this mindset, worrying is appropriate. It keeps you honest, diligent and good at your craft.
So often, though, when people get good, they want to spend less time in that second mentality of needing to edit like a fiend. Probably because it’s hard. You can stay good without a hardcore editing ethic, but you can’t be great.
Edit faster. Einstein’s brain had very fast synapses. He could come up with a hypothesis and then run down all the reasons it was worthy or faulty nearly instantaneously. All the highly-successful creative people I know also have a version of that capability. Not everyone is born with these fast synaptic capabilities (I wasn’t), but everyone can hone them — though it’s not easy. In essence, the more you know (and retain), the faster you can edit your own ideas and craft. Become an expert in your own field so that you can kill your own ideas faster. Anyone can come up with a random idea, extremely creative people come up with a hundred and whittle down to one, in short order.
Let obsession be your guide. A lot of people will tell you to “do what you love” or “follow your heart.” It’s not enough. There’s a deeper purpose for what you are doing, beyond simply loving it. There will be tough periods and setbacks. Times when you feel like you’re not as good as you thought you were. Maybe never will be. Ideas will die. You’ll feel like giving up and maybe even reinvent yourself in a new genre. Love is not enough to push through these times, but obsession is. You don’t fall in and out of obsession. You only fall forward. So, start with obsession. Obsession is your best friend in the pursuit extreme creativity.
One key in this: the opposite of obsession is jadedness. You can’t let yourself become jaded, tired or develop a know-it-all attitude. Stay a student of your medium, remain curious, interested and giddy at the discovery of new techniques and capabilities.
As a bonus, to both obsession and extreme creativity — this kind of passion toward what you do doesn’t just propel you to do incredible work, it is also the fountain of youth. Science shows that the active mind stays younger and more pliable. But, also, there’s nothing crustier and less attractive than a know-it-all.
What is your obsession?