Do you know how to work through an idea that might exist as a sentence or two that gives you goosebumps and make it a reality? First, you need a good idea, and that’s a different conversation, perhaps for another time or place.
There’s going to be a moment in any creative project where it feels like turning around and returning to where you came from would be the best idea. It’s when you’ve left the starting point, and you look behind you and can’t see where that was. It’s when you look forward and can’t see the end. Your first thought is, “I’m lost,” The most logical thing to do is retrace your steps and safely return to where you started. But sometimes, turning back isn’t an option, or it’s not the right option.
Sometimes, you’re just stuck in the middle, and you need to move forward. That’s because there’s no cookie-cutter process and no easy way out. This is where you have to summon the strength to keep going. Care. Care about the project. Where you’re going, it matters. Stand-up comedian Jerrod Carmichael mentions this moment during episode 3 of Shangri-La. He sums it up best; it goes something like this: You have to care. At some point, it’s going to be 4 am, it’s going to be do or die, and the person who cares the most will see the project through. That person is you. After all, you’re creating something from nothing. Why should it be easy?
The eating of self
Does everyone have their JXM-branded cell biology caps on? Great. I want to talk about autophagy for just a minute. Stay with me.
Autophagy is the natural, regulated mechanism of the cell that removes unnecessary or dysfunctional components. It allows the orderly degradation and recycling of cellular components.
There would be no need for this process if we were perfect beings in an ideal world, but we certainly aren’t. I see the autophagy process in our cells as an excellent metaphor for how we should approach our creative processes.
The similarities, to me, are undeniable. So break down your idea into bite-sized pieces.
One bite at a time
Complex projects require you to work on them over a long period of time. Naturally, the longer the journey, the more likely you will get lost. Another reason is that you’re tackling something new; you might make it up. Both happen a lot, especially in the realm of subjectivity.
Don’t get hung up worrying; blaze forward.
First, operating off the pretense is a natural side-effect of being innovative. Stop beating yourself up for that. Second, accept that you won’t see the end for a while, only the next stopping point. That signpost is all you need anyway. The process of making the idea a reality requires that you head out on a journey. Your bags are packed, and you’re hitting the proverbial road with an idea, concept, etc. Here’s the thing, though; not every journey is easy. Some are absolute slogs through places you’ve never seen before. Once they start, these journeys are about finding direction. Focus on the next exit, the next turn, not the final destination. Wrong turns, setbacks, traps, and wear and tear happen. You adapt, you adjust, and you eventually arrive. You’re never quite the same person as when you left.
Kill (or recycle) your darlings
Taking an iterative approach allows us the flexibility to work through an idea and make it truly outstanding. Time spent is essential and often improperly tracked or even overlooked. Here’s what gets me: in manufacturing, you plan for waste. In finance, you pad your numbers to account for unforeseen expenses. That all makes perfect sense.
In the creative process, it’s different because we’re not dealing with widgets or tangible items that can be quantified. Instead, it’s thoughts and ideas. They’re subjective, and the lift seems lighter to the casual observer. It isn’t. I can’t think of a single process I’ve been involved in that has gone as expected. That isn’t to say that it went sideways or didn’t work out, just that the outcome was different than I initially thought. This leads me to my next point.
Admit when you’re stuck.
I am notorious for not asking for help but stubbornly trying to figure it out myself. I don’t know if it’s hard-coded into me, but it’s a side-effect of my ambition. In the case of the former, I don’t have any control over that. In the case of the latter, well, that’s a different story. Sometimes admitting you’re stuck also means accepting you were wrong to be this ambitious. That’s not always easy, but the admission will get you to the next stage: resolve.
Find your resolve, then carry on.
If the project you’re stuck on or lost in really means enough to you, you’ll find a way to keep going. Go ahead, psych yourself up. Just know you need to address this thing head-on and fast. The longer you wait, the more you prolong the suffering. Start from the beginning. Revisit the brief if there is one. What were you trying to accomplish? How does your progress line up with that goal? What do you need to let go of? What do you need to keep?
It’s time to move forward. It’s okay; things need to be adjusted to get you back on track. Other times, the process needs improvement. Take the time to consider all the angles and decide if you need to adjust the course accordingly.
You see, we as people spend too much time in a hopeful state regarding our ideas. An idea never put into action is just an opinion. We all know what opinions are like, and most stink. It’s part of our American culture to look for the get-rich-quick scheme. An impatient lot, we want shortcuts on top of our fast tracks. The myth of the overnight success, the genius alone in the room lighting up lightbulbs, these things have thrown off our sense of direction. Don’t be precious about an idea. Being too hopeful might cause you to overlook a vital component of the process: the actual implementation of an idea into action.
Simply put, Ideas are inert. It takes energy to get them moving and time to bring that energy to bear on an idea. Be realistic. Be patient.