As an airplane taxies down a runway, drag increases on the airframe as air pressure builds in relation to speed. Because it has wings—it’s an airplane!—lift also increases, and if it’s properly designed, there will be more lift from air passing over the wings than drag holding the whole thing back. What pushes the plane forward? The engines. They take energy—a lot of it—but pointed and propelled properly, they can push thousands of pounds of metal and people and packages of peanuts into the sky.
Creativity accrues drag as it gains speed, too. The bigger one’s ambitions, the more forces press against the pursuit of accomplishment, requiring ever increasing oomph from personal engines to lift a project and give it flight. Energy dumped into a creative endeavor needs to be focused like airplane engines, lest the whole thing just spew exhaust and noise and hardly move from its starting point. Like an airplane, a creative project can be sleek and lithe, or large and powerful, but the chances of success are always about the ratio of drag to lift rather than the absolute quantities of both.
Drags on creativity come in a million varieties. At the same time, creative people contend with a pressure inside the metaphoric flight cabin that may not apply equally to people less interested in flying. It’s this: creative people need to make things, and those “things” don’t need to be physical objects in space. For example, I regard Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders as creative people. They deployed smart, new strategies to persistent challenges and refined those strategies over time. The poet Marge Piercy described the needs of creative people like this: creative people have to like (the work) more than being loved. That work itself does not need to be pleasurable, per se, but for reasons conscious and unconscious, linear or tangled, the creative person needs to pursue it. (And this thought is definitely worth another blog post another day.)
But back to the distractions. (See what happens?) Endless things stand in the way of doing creative work. How is it possible to get your symphony finished if you’re barely keeping up with that all-consuming government contracting job? How is it possible to focus on your new CAD model for an improved lawn sprinkler when you’re sitting in traffic?
There’s more obligation facing most people these days than in decades gone by. Many people simply have less time to dream, to think, to focus, than they might have imagined. Where idle moments two decades might have meant a daydream at a window, they now mean a quick check of social media’s bottomless well. Where a quiet night at home might have yielded a book or a long magazine article for many, it’s now turned into a simultaneous, multi-screen jag of texting, tweeting, movie watching, and bill paying. In short, focused attention is the first casualty of endless options.
I would love to say that I have profound wisdom to impart here. I would love to say so because if I did, I could tell it to my myself. But I do have some strategies for your consideration.
If you’re serious about completing something creative, decide that the effort is a life priority, not a personal priority. It’s got to be on your schedule like a necessary part of your day, like brushing your teeth. Make it a priority, say “no” to a substantial portion of other things that might be interesting or pleasurable or even fun, and declare the time for your singular purpose.
Next—and you probably know this already—toss all the dead weight out of your plane. If you’re working with a team with only a small percentage of participants who do any appreciable work, focus on that small percentage. If you can extricate yourself from the others, even better.
When you declare time and space for yourself, teach the people around you that you’re serious. You can do this by your actions; you don’t need to make a sign or give a lecture. If you’re working on a project every Thursday night and Sunday morning, don’t lie to yourself and use that time to look at Facebook or Foursquare. Find a way to accept that tweets are going to continue to happen without your attention for while. Use the time to stay on task.
I didn’t say this would be easy, but there are no easy answers for valuable things.
Then: do it. Apply power to the engines. If you sit at the end of the runway, wishing for the plane to start moving, it simply isn’t going to move. You’ve got to apply power to the throttle, and you’ve got to start rolling down the runway. This will take fuel; this will make you tired; this will add risks to your day. But once you achieve flight speed, you’ll see the Earth fall away beneath you, and you’ll finally be headed somewhere. You’ll have overcome the drag of distractions. There’s no way to know if the journey is going to be good or bad, but over time you’ll get better at flight planning, and soon you’ll start visiting places you never thought you’d ever be able to go.