Takeaways from Scott Berkun’s “The Dance of the Possible: The Mostly Honest Completely Irreverent Guide to Creativity”

How does one become a creative person? Are we only being creative when we’re delving into the realm of the arts? Why do we say that some people are more creative than others? Does creativity contribute to success? We admire accomplished illustrators, actors, programmers, singers, writers, painters, dancers, poets, and designers of all kinds because of their creativity in their chosen fields of endeavor, because we feel they have good taste in whatever it is that they do, and often we desire to be like them, wishing to churn out great pieces of work too in our lifetimes. But what does it really take to be creative? Scott Berkun gives his take on his latest book,  “The Dance of the Possible: The Mostly Honest Completely Irreverent Guide to Creativity“.

Personally, I don’t think much about what it means to be creative. I feel that thinking about its meaning doesn’t practically help me, because I’ve learned through experience that that only way to create good work is to do it, failing multiple times, learning along the way, and then succeeding. That’s what creativity has always meant for me – building things or solving problems that matter (to me or to other people I provide service to), whenever the itch is there or if the problems bug me enough. And reading Scott’s book felt like a confirmation of some sort of the beliefs I’ve had about creativity, plus a reminder to handle some of my habits better.

Here are some favorite lines from the book:

  • It’s far wiser to think about the effect you want an idea to have. If the goal is to make someone laugh, fix their car or increase the revenue of the widgets their company makes, that matters far more than how “creative” an idea is or is not.
  • We always have more freedom than we think, we just forget. We spend so much time trying to be efficient that doing anything interesting feels like a waste of time. And in this tendency is another misconception: creativity is rarely efficient. It always involves taking chances and trying things that might work but might not. The question then is: are we willing to spend time to be interesting, to think interesting thoughts and make interesting things? We all have the power, but perhaps not the willingness.
  • To create means to make something new, at least for you, and to do something new is like going off of the map, or more precisely, deliberately choosing to go to a part of the map that is unknown. In this case it rarely matters where or how you start.
  • You will, no matter how talented you are, have your finished works challenged and called not-so-good names. Good is surprisingly subjective, and the more creative the domain you work in, the more subjective it is.
  • The ability to see an idea, or a thing, from many different perspectives is among the greatest assets a thinking person can have. Of course you don’t have to agree with someone else’s perspective, but you owe it to yourself to try to see what they do. They may see something important you’ve never noticed before, however small, that can improve what you’re making or what you make in the future.
  • I don’t know a single productive creative person who doesn’t have a scrap pile of unfinished projects at different states of completion. This is not waste, but a precious archive of projects that might need to breathe, or of spare parts that may be perfect for other projects.
  • Some movies and books are poorly received when they’re released but become popular decades later. Others are big hits at first but fade over time. What is good? The answer depends on what your goals are and what problems you choose to solve.
  • No matter how great your idea is, there will be energy you have to spend, often on relatively ordinary work, to deliver it to the world.
  • Take pleasure in making things for the sake of making them: what a gift to have the time to make at all! If you were born 200 years ago, or to different parents in a different country, you wouldn’t have the time to feel bad about your work, because you wouldn’t have the wealth and time required to try. If you feel love for your craft, honor it by showing up, even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard. Working when it’s hardest often teaches rare lessons that will earn you easy rides now and then. Take pleasure in small progressions when you see them, and know those hard-won gains are the only way anyone in history has ever achieved anything noteworthy—for themselves or for the world.
  • If you truly love your craft, there is an infinite number of projects in your future. There will be other chapters. There will be other canvases and other songs. Perfection is a prison and a self- made one. Whatever you’re making, it doesn’t have to be perfect. Perfection is an illusion.
  • Expect to be rejected. You will be. It will happen no matter how successful you are.
  • Do one project for commerce and one for art. It’s an interesting approach: maybe the best work can only be made if it serves only one master at a time. It’s a healthy exercise to both make something entirely for yourself and entirely for other people. In each case you will stretch your boundaries for what you are capable of, as so often those conflicting desires of satisfying ourselves and satisfying other people bind us to conservative choices.
  • Too often we are distracted away from what we say is important by things that are more pleasurable or convenient. This means a central skill any creative person needs is a mastery of time, which means a mastery of habits. There will always be easier things in our lives than creative work. There will always be demands on our time that are more logical and lucrative than chasing an idea. If you are truly passionate about something you must be willing to make sacrifices to make it possible. What good is that passion if you can’t use it to help you do the work? Merely saying you are passionate, or feeling passionate, is not enough.
  • The simplest habit is to work on your project every day. If you don’t have a project, go to your private journal or drawing notebook daily until you do. It can be for ten minutes or an hour, but you must touch the work at least once a day. It can be in the morning, or late at night, or during your lunch break at work. At first when and where won’t matter. All that counts is that you commit to the discipline of honoring your ideas.
  • We all have the same time limit of 24 hours every day, which means the difference between a productive creative person and an unsatisfied dreamer is in how they choose to use it. Most of us forget how much of our time goes to entertainment, things we do purely for pleasure. We have plenty of time—it’s just we have to protect it for the things we claim are most important.
  • “Will anyone care about my work?” people often ask. Yes—you. It starts with you.