How to Jumpstart Your Creativity (or, How Tiny Drawings Changed My Life)
Here’s something you may not know about me: I have an almost irrationally powerful aversion to wasting paper. Here’s something I did not know about me until recently: said aversion would pave the way for my biggest creative breakthrough in a very long time. It started like this: I had a stack of tiny pieces of paper, and I didn’t know what to do with them.
Back when I started my MBA, we were required to order business cards. Which, y’know, made sense. But the minimum order was huge; I can’t remember the number, but it was an amount of cards that no mortal could dream of giving out over two years, short of making it rain business cards at a party or something along those lines. So, when I graduated, I had a lot left over. And I didn’t want to just recycle them – there’d have been so much wasted space on the backs! I started using the blank sides of the cards as tiny to-do lists, which worked fine for a while.
Then, one day, I was on hold with some customer service rep and started doodling on the back of one of them. That was kinda fun, I thought. I left the card on my desk and forgot about it for a little while.
Fast forward to the end of 2014, when I made a simple pact with a supercreative genius friend: we would make more things in 2015, and we’d show them to more people. Then, because holidays are bonkers, it was January 1 all of a sudden. I’d toyed with the idea of starting some kind of daily creative project this year, but it was 10 PM already! What could I do?! I looked around my desk, and saw the stack of business cards. It dawned on me that I finally had a way to put them to use: I could draw on them! Every day! Bingo.
Then, I came to the same impasse I’d face most days after that: what do I draw? I went with the obvious: a little decorative 2015. I threw the card up on Instagram, announced my intention of drawing on the entire bunch of cards until they were gone, and named it The Bizcard Project.
Then, I just kept going. I’ve been making and sharing little drawings almost every day since then, with a little bit of leeway for the unpredictability of life. For me, this was a training project; I needed help generally letting go of trying to make my work perfect before I shared it with anyone, and I needed to practice creativity on a schedule. So I made two ground rules. First, I can’t sketch on the cards. The pen hits the paper and that’s it. Second, there are no do-overs. If I screw up (which, believe me, I have), I have to roll with it. And the what do I draw? question never really goes away: every day is a challenge in terms of finding subject matter from the things around me, or letting my strange brain bounce ideas off of itself until something gels (a memory from my travels, a song stuck in my head, or questions like “what if the ocean were made of muscles?”). I also keep a list handy on my phone in case inspiration strikes at random times, which it definitely does. Google Image searches help me answer things like “wait, what does a Venus flytrap look like?” Somehow, this mashup of things real and imagined, serious and irreverent, always throws something my way. Even when I’m scared that it won’t.
I started The Bizcard Project as an exercise, a kind of no-risk trial for the kind of work I wanted to do in other areas of my life. I wouldn’t have called myself a visual artist before; I just like to draw. But I’m on day 73 today, and some really amazing things have happened since I let myself get a bit vulnerable and share my imperfect, idiosyncratic little creations. Things I never expected. People have expressed in buying my work in various forms; someone suggested an exhibition at my alma mater; someone commissioned me to paint one card as a mural in her house; an art consultant-y friend offered to come help me brainstorm ways to make this a financially sustainable practice. I don’t really know where this is going, but I’m honestly pretty floored, and very grateful.
Beyond the potential for making more art, one of the coolest things to come out of this project has been the opportunity to help others find or rediscover a creative project that works for them: one friend bought a book of mandala patterns and now colors one every night; another started making comic-style portraits again. If I can do it, so can you. If you’re toying with the idea of opening some new door of creativity in your life, here are a few suggestions:
- Do it every day. To whatever extent you can, do something every day. Not only does this make you feel like a person who draws/paints/writes/sings (that self-identification is critical), you’ll begin to regard it as a normal part of life much more quickly. If you miss a day, forgive yourself and get back to it.
- Start small. I’ve taken that literally with this project; it would have been completely overwhelming to paint a 4 x 6’ canvas every day. Drawing on a tiny piece of paper was perfect for me. Maybe you can write one sentence, film five seconds of something (try the Epic Events app for this), capture one moment with a photo, or play the piano for ten minutes every day.
- Create some kind of reward for yourself. Maybe you can’t have coffee until after you write five sentences. Maybe you can’t go to bed until you’ve sketched something. Maybe all you need is the delicious incentive of crossing whatever-it-is off of a daily to-do list.
- Have someone else (or lots of someone elses) keep you accountable. Apps like Instagram are great for this kind of thing, depending on what you’re up to; the feedback can be really fun. If you’re a little more private, find one person that you can check in with (even if it’s just a daily text message saying “I did it!”).
- Think about how to bundle it at the end. This doesn’t have to be clear as you start, but it can help to keep a potential end product in mind. Jonathan Mann wrote a song a day, made videos for them, and threw ‘em all on Youtube; he released the best ones, and then made another video about the process. Karen Cheng made a timelapse video about her (very successful!) effort to learn how to dance in a year. Can you create a book of the haikus you’ve been writing, or a huge map of an imaginary country that you expand bit by bit? Imagining the final fruit(s) of your labors can be super motivating.
Even if you do all of the above, it can still be really hard to take on a daily creative challenge. I’ve struggled with making myself draw when I’m tired, when I can’t think of anything, when I’m sad, when I’m overwhelmed with work, when I don’t think I’m any good at this. But if I can take the first step – sit down and look at the blank space I’ve decided to fill – I’ve already overcome most of the resistance. Little by little, the stack of blank-backed business cards gets smaller, and the stack of tiny drawings gets bigger. I still have a lot of cards left in the to-draw stack, but this project has already showed me the following:
- Despite the doubts in my head, I can follow through. I’ve never felt very adept at doing anything on a daily basis beyond brushing my teeth and showering, but committing to this project has shown me that I am, indeed, capable of doing so. It’s given me more confidence in my professional life, helping me see new possibilities when I’m not entirely in my comfort zone; it’s also given me the determination to start similar projects around songwriting and business goals.
- I look at the world differently. As the project progresses, I’m constantly looking for inspiration in patterns and objects and questions everywhere I go now; I snap pictures of things that move me all the time. I may not end up drawing all of them, but I’m definitely more attentive to the interestingness all around me.
- Most importantly, I see myself differently. On a very personal level, this project was a reflection of transformation: moving from my old identity as a business school student to a new one as an independent creative. The old identity comes with a great number of rules, norms, and guides; the latter is a jungle with no path marked out for me. Embracing that uncertainty in a concrete way every day helps me do the same in the more abstract where-is-this-all-going sense. Even when I don’t know that answer, I’m still excited to ask the question.
If you’ve read this far and still balk at the idea of making your ideas come to life because you’re “not creative,” please take to heart this little nugget from Steven Pressfield’s brilliant The War of Art: “We’re all creatives. We all have the same psyche. The same everyday miracles are happening in all our heads day by day, minute by minute.” Give yourself the time and space to let your miracles out. You never know what might change as a result, and the only way to find out is to give it a shot. Now, do the world a solid and go take the first step.