Creative burnout

Creativity is often seen as a natural talent that comes with an infinite stream of inspiration, energy and execution. The thinking is along the lines of “either you got it, or you don’t”. It’s no coincidence that creativity has a shared history with the idea of Divine inspiration. 

The truth is that these ideas about creativity are more fairy tales than anything else. They provide oversimplified explanations that obfuscate the mechanics of creativity. 

A major consequence of an inaccurate understanding of creativity is that it yields unrealistic expectations on creative output.

Creativity in its true form is finite, temporary and elusive. It is not given but taken by those who wish to spend the time to mine it from the recesses of their mind. 

Speedingly jotting down notes as soon as the idea arrives, hoping to catch it before it leaves. Scrambling to remember what idea you had 30 minutes ago. Pacing back and forth trying to squeeze a thought out of your head.

Creativity is like a friend who is unpredictable, unreliable and occasionally helpful. 

The process of harnessing creativity can be tedious. Creators often labour through drafts, sketches, iterations, explorations in the pursuit of perfection. Sometimes the pressure a creator puts on themselves can be insurmountable. An embarrassing example is that I have been designing my blog for the past three years because I constantly trash my designs. 

Exerting the right amount of pressure can create a diamond of a solution. Too much pressure and the creator can break. 

This brings me to a phenomenon I’ve come to observe in others and experience in myself: creative burnout. 

Creative burnout is when a creator continues to work even when exhausted of all the energy, focus and motivation required to exert creativity. 

Like a muscle that’s given out or a car with no fuel, to persist is an error in judgement. Creating without creativity is not productive yet many creators including my self will persist for many different reasons.

For myself, I am deeply driven by the fear of losing creativity as I age. It’s the daily nightmare that delivers self-doubt, imposter syndrome and sometimes dread.  

The fear of losing creativity can prompt overcompensation and overreactions. I used to think if I spent more time creating, I would decrease the chances of losing my creativity. 

Years ago, I would work from 10 am - 2 am. Sometimes I was so tired I would design with one eye open. I thought by working more, my creative output would improve. I was wrong. My work plateaued and in some cases regressed. 

Fear of losing creativity is one of the main causes of creative burnout.  For many creators, the end of creativity prompts them to believe it could be the effective end of their careers.

The right thing to do is to rest. Rest provides rejuvenation of the senses. Rest gives a well-needed reset to approach what you’re solving with a fresh perspective. 

Talking walks. Playing video games. Talking to people. It sounds contrarian, but doing something unrelated to the task you’re solving is sometimes the best thing you can do. 

Creators must come to understand that they are not infinite vessels of creativity. We must be aware of limits, irrespective of what people project onto us. You should know when to begin and also when to stop.

For creators, be kind to your creative self. You are not a machine. Work hard, but don’t squeeze yourself in the process. Even high-performing weight lifters get a good night’s rest. 

A useful way to think about creativity is to think about it as an elastic force, like a spring or a rubber band. Our creativity can stretch us far and wide taking us places we couldn’t imagine. But there’s always an inflection point where it cannot be stretched any longer and we must return to our initial state. 

I’ll conclude with this quote by Bruce Lee: 

“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.

Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

― Bruce Lee