6 Ways to Cope with Creative Angst (and Why We're Not Just Chasing Unicorns)

“Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear?”—Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Creative angst is a dull pain. It gnaws and tugs and demands attention but not quite enough that you immediately know what do with it. Unsettled, ambitious, antsy, hungry. Hungry for meaning, hungry to create and yet lulled by resistance. I almost started this post with a joke about First World Problems.

But you know what?

This IS — literally — a first world problem:

  • Many (if not eventually all) jobs that do not require creativity and intellect are rapidly being automated, outsourced, and consolidated. Daniel Pink forecasted this years ago in his 2006 book A Whole New Mind.
  • A near majority (40%) of workers are estimated to be freelancers or contractors by the year 2020.
  • America has shifted from industrial factories making widgets to decision factories producing decisions, ideas, and expertise. Decision fatigue is real: our willpower reserves quickly run dry without proper refueling.
  • At the same time that we are emboldened by technology, we are exhausted by it. James Wilson coined the term “21st Century Stress Syndrome” to describe the adrenal fatigue that results from our always-on society. Even though we are more connected by technology, many people feel lonelier than ever. Americans are getting sick. Two thirds are overweight or obese.
  • Our society numbs out with TV and alcohol because we don’t yet know how to fully harness the cognitive surplus (Clay Shirky) that results from First World Free Time.

Creative angst is not merely the byproduct of entitled generations searching for unicorns in delusional greener-grass pastures, but rather an increasingly urgent response to the demands of our modern society.

Pink categorized this shift as leaving the Information Age for the Conceptual Age, which requires the following six right-brain skills: design, story, symphony, empathy, play and meaning.

So, if you feel stuck in a creative rut:

  1. Understand the broader cultural context that is precipitating it. You are not alone. You are not crazy. You are not entitled. You are not an idiot. You are not doing it wrong, and you are not barking up the wrong tree. You are following an instinct to evolve, and to adapt to the future of work. This is deeply uncomfortable for most of us because there is not a roadmap or one-size-fits-all template for it.
  2. Innovation, ideas and meaningful connections are king. Health is queen. Not everyone has to be an innovator in the traditional Albert Einstein sense. Some of you are brilliant interviewers, storytellers, curators, researchers, sythensizers, systematizers, designers, the list goes on. Idea capital is the new currency. The corollary is that all this intense brain work demands a fit system from which to function. How can we create if we are not healthy? If we are sick, numbed out, hungover? You don’t have to listen to me — experiment for yourself. What environments (body, mind, home, office) precipitate and encourage your best work?
  3. In a society that increasingly values creativity, prepare to feel increasingly uncertain. This is the name of the game (and truthfully, it always has been). No longer do we stay in jobs for 30 years with the safety of a pension plan waiting at the end. Everything is changing, and now more than ever the new skills to harness are resilience, adaptability and learning to live with immense uncertainty. See also: Jonathan Fields' amazing book on the subject.
  4. The way forward is thought leadership. Taking a stand. Pam Slim calls it building a body of work. Seth Godin calls it making art. We are all entrepreneurs now. Personal Brand used to be a trendy catch-phrase for enterprising go-getters. Now carving out a place online — whether it’s blogging, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr — is increasingly a must-have for all of us. We are all being called to take responsibility for our professional lives — to create, connect and add meaning to the world.
  5. Creativity is not a linear process (though your routines around it can be). In a way, creativity DOES grow on metaphorical trees — you can pluck ideas from your imagination and experiences all day long — and yet it is also a garden that must be tended, rotated, and pruned.
  6. You will experience dry seasons. We have Winter so that nature can renew herself. Bears hibernate so they can rest while their food supply replenishes. Snakes shed their skin. Birds molt their feathers. Prepare to feel naked. Prepare to feel bare, even as life experience accumulates and new ideas brew. Prepare to feel stuck and uninspired. This, for many of us, will be the new normal, just as we will also have seasons of immense productivity, inspiration, creation, connection and promotion.

Moving Forward, Inch by Inch

Other than learning to saddle up to my own creative rollercoaster of feeling angsty one day and inspired the next, I am focusing on following the quiet threads of what bring me joy: an insatiable love of reading, sharing, conversing, connecting and teaching.

I don’t know yet what outer-world business forms these will take next beyond my book, coaching and speaking, but I can tell you that I’m wholly uninterested in blindly following “what everyone else is doing” without questioning the hell out of it first to see whether it fits my life and my zone of genius.

When creatively stuck, I remind myself to return to writing (and thinking) worth reading. Form is irrelevant until the message can speak for itself. Rest is critical for replenishing my creative supply.

The way forward for you might be meeting new people, making connections across seemingly unrelated fields, telling meaningful stories, being vulnerable, finding your "right people" who can benefit most from your unique perspective, creating cool widgets, starting a company or working within big organizations to solve problems and lead teams. Or not.

You’re going to have to get down and dirty in the trenches of uncertainty to find out.

The World Cares About Art

"Trust, relevance and love matter . . . Everything can be art. Will you be missed? Fly closer to the sun." —Seth Godin, book trailer for Icarus Deception

I leave you with the video for Seth Godin's Icarus Deception – a great book on the connection economy, and the imperative to make art:

[youtube id="ZxQy8RJi1u8"] *Enormous thanks to Adam for inspiring many conversations related to today's post, and for letting me vicariously attend Parsons' Design Business program by sharing his abundance of reading assignments as brain fodder for my way forward. Happy Birthday, ABC!