On Being a Creator

On Being a Creator

For much of my adult life, I’ve struggled with the desire to be creative and make original works versus the difficulty of following through with it. It takes me a lot of time, which seemed to say that maybe I wasn’t cut out to be an artist. However, acknowledging that the creative act is time-intensive and knowing that I have to make a choice has given me clarity. Yep, I’m an artist, weird as that sounds to my ears.

My resistance to labeling myself an artist comes from several directions:

  • I thought that creative people were different, born into it and rightfully entitled to the Artist title.
  • I found making things to be very difficult to learn, which seemed to indicate that I wasn’t a creative person by birthright.
  • I don’t actually make a lot of things that could be called “artistic”. Semantics!

This image of creativity stuck with me for years because it seemed that there were plenty who were far more comfortable calling themselves “artists” than I. I never felt I’d earned the label, either through the making of something “worthy” or by choosing to be in that community. The closest I’ve come was to say I was a designer, which to me implies the solving of down-to-earth problems rather than loftily claiming to express the something far more sublime.

However, I’ve come across other people like me, who through circumstance of upbringing and/or long involvement with fields considered non-artistic, that don’t consider themselves artistic or creative. The assumption is that creative people are visual artists, performers, or workers in media-related businesses. And yet, I’ve felt for a long time that there were similarities in how I live my life and those of “real artists”.

I got a glimpse of the answer on today’s episode of “All Things Considered”. A country singer had written a song about Ernest Hemingway, and was relating to the struggle of being an artist, how the time and effort it took took its toll. It brought to mind the struggle of being an entrepreneur, and how earlier I as just battling half-a-dozen technical challenges so I could create a future moment of concentrated insight and truth; the amount of time it takes to create one good moment is considerable, and not a lot of people understand what it takes.

It occurred to me that the creative life could be defined as the application of effort to creating a kind of future epiphany or meaningful experience that adds to the quality of our life. It’s a choice that perhaps is made for us; some of us find ourselves drawn strongly in that direction, because being part of that experience is how we define our quality of life.

This might be clearer if you imagine for a moment that there are two ways you can improve the quality of your existence here on Earth: consuming and creating. In consumer mode, we satisfy our desires with whatever meets our criteria and is readily available. When we are creating, though, we are doing the opposite: we’re harnessing our desires and directing our energies toward a greater payoff that is not yet within our grasp.

Let’s also presume that we are all looking for the best experience on Earth we can get our hands on, and consider each approach:

  • When you are consuming, we look for quality indicators: luxuriousness of material, intricacy, rarity, relative strength, and so on. This has the effect of compressing more goodness into the same experience, and we humans are total experience junkies. We want the best for the least. If nothing is available that meets our criteria, we satisfice.

  • When you are creating, you are acknowledging that the current experience is lacking. To create the same compression of goodness, we have to use the assets we have available: time, skill, and personal experience. These are the building blocks we use to build the experience we want to have, the EUREKA moment, when we recognize that we have made what was previously lacking. And I think the Eureka Moment is valued EVEN MORE than mere “quality experience”. A quality experience makes us feel good, but it fades. A Eureka Moment gives meaning to the rest of our life. It’s the moment when the events of the past 5 years come together and show you what you are about. It’s realizing that you can’t live without ice cream or tall trees in your backyard. It’s the moment when you fall in love and are forever changed.


p>We are awash in the luxury of highly-refined experiences: the thousands of man-years of refinement that went into the iPhone, for example, to make that first minute of use seem magical. On a more mundane level, we can get clean water out of a pipe that goes right to our house and eat pears that were shipped to us from thousands of miles away. We can consume magnificently for scant dollars. And despite this, there are some of us who choose to create, because it seems like this is what we want to do, to create that moment where 1 + 1 = 1,000,000.

You may not know what your passion is or what it is called. I’m stuck here too. However, knowing that I have the desire in the first place is proof enough. Next, you have a choice: create or consume. Either way can be satisfying, depending on how much struggle you are willing to put up with. Creating well is hard, if you are going for more than mere cleverness. The “eureka moment”, though, is intoxicating once you have experienced it.

And so…yes, I’m an artist. I’m idealistic enough to want to be part of that cycle in whatever way I can.


  1. pavs 13 years ago

    David have you read this piece by Merlin Mann? I think this might be relevant to your dilemma.


  2. jimmydddd 13 years ago

    Nice. Reminded me a bit of this from Seth Godin.

    Making art My definition of art contains three elements:

    Art is made by a human being. Art is created to have an impact, to change someone else. Art is a gift. You can sell the souvenir, the canvas, the recording… but the idea itself is free, and the generosity is a critical part of making art.

    By my definition, most art has nothing to do with oil paint or marble. Art is what we’re doing when we do our best work.


  3. Stephen Smith 13 years ago

    Hey Dave, if the PCEO series of tools isn’t an artistic accomplishment, then I will eat my hat. Remember, real art isn’t pretentious, or snobby, or defined by a self-proclaimed elite. Real art is something that captures your attention and moves something inside you.

    My wife was watching “Next Top Model” this morning and I could not help but feel pity for the girls that are putting themselves through this wringer, this gauntlet of humiliation set up by “the modeling elite” who feel that they alone have the ability to tell which girl is pretty enough to be a “real” model.

    I urge you to stop waiting for permission from your Tyra Banks to make something amazing.

  4. Amanda Pingel 13 years ago

    @Jimmy: Thanks for digging up that Godin post — I thought exactly the same thing, but was not looking forward to finding the link.

    @Dave: You’re totally an artist. Heck, you even get pretty pieces of paper at the end of your creative effort, which puts you a lot closer than my exquisitely-programmed spreadsheets (Trust me… they’re beautiful… on the inside!)

    Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance also makes a distinction between Romantic beauty (pretty to the eye or ear), and Classic beauty (elegant, well-constructed, pretty to the mind). Paintings, symphonies, and sculpture can have romantic beauty. Software code, procedure manuals, and combat drop mission plans can have classical beauty. Artists of classical beauty are often ignored or derided, but Pirsig argues that their art is just as valuable.

    I like your forms because they have both classical beauty (they help me organize my day, they provide an elegant solution to the complex problem of productivity) and romantic beauty (they have nice colors and the sheets are well-balanced and attractive).

    Sounds like you expected someone to come along and dub you an “artist”. Maybe you should design a certificate. ;)


  5. Family Lifeboat 13 years ago

    There’s another one to remember. Kathy Sierra had a great one: Be brave or go home. http://headrush.typepad.com/creating_passionate_users/2005/01/be_brave.html

  6. Author
    Dave Seah 13 years ago

    Those are all great, classic posts…thanks! I also heard a great recorded talk from Merlin Mann at dconstruct 2010 (thanks Colleen) today; look at the bottom of this linked page for the talk is at the bottom of the page.

    Basically, my takeaway is that I’m a nerd, in pursuit of greater connection with the subject matter I hold dear.

    Steve, Amanda: I don’t think I’m really looking for permission as much as I struggle with self-categorization. My definition of art is fairly inclusive, but as far as my relationship to it is concerned, it comes down to making a choice of what is important to me. Whether this fits within the general audience’s view of art is questionable; I’d say most people think of visual expression and lifestyle, but not purpose. There is also the matter of acknowledging that it’s ok to pursue my greatest, most selfish personal desires.

    Tyra Banks is awesome too…she really knows her stuff, and owns it completely! Hopefully those girls on America’s Next Top Model learn something from her.