All things begin as a thought.
Then, through a specific process, thoughts become things.
This process is the creative process, and it’s one of the most powerful and mysterious forces known to man.
Every single human on Earth has experienced it and been a part of it to varying degrees…
It’s perhaps the most powerful force in the Universe.
Whether you believe the origin of the Universe was the result of randomness or a creative process… the fact remains that without such a creative process, we would have no civilization, no smartphones, no airplanes, no cheeseburgers. No nuthin’.
Our creative expression is how we make our dent in the universe. It’s taking a little bit of ourselves and putting it out there.
There is something deeply important and deeply human about that. To me, it’s a kind of sacred ritual — it’s how human beings integrate with the world around them.
If you’ve ever felt that things like art and creativity are special and important in a way you couldn’t put your finger on, this is why.
So we are talking about this infinitely-powerful creative force that all of us are intimately familiar with…
… that somehow remains totally or partially mysterious to most people.
Artists and creative professionals have figured it out better than most. Their entire lives revolve around this process.
Everyone has their own approach. But I believe there are a few common principles that, once understood, can energize and accelerate this process for anyone.
As a lifelong creative professional (writer, marketer, DJ), here are a few things I have observed that may help you harness this force in your own life.
HOW TO BUILD A SKYSCRAPER
You ever seen the Burj Khalifa?
The crazy skyscraper in Dubai?
How do you think it was made?
Well… like most things that were made…
It started as a vague idea.
Then a rough sketch. And through repeated sketching and re-sketching, the vague idea turned into a slightly-less-vague idea… until it eventually became an accurate, to-scale drawing.
Those drawings became 3D computer renderings, then highly precise scale models.
Eventually, it became a real building in the real world. The tallest building in the world in fact.
I probably skipped a bunch of steps. I’m not an architect or engineer or construction-person. But you get my point. :-)
FROM THOUGHT TO THING
The realest thing you know started as a fuzzy, half-baked seed of an idea in someone’s possibly-inebriated head.
I see this process come to life every month through two specific creative processes I engage with on a regular basis, as a copywriter and as a DJ.
Actually, this is where this post comes from — from seeing these same patterns play out in a very similar way, in two areas of my life that are very different.
Let me explain:
Each month I have a copywriting project to complete for one of our clients. I have to write something called an advertorial to help sell one of their high-end educational programs. These pieces are typically around 3000-5000 words.
After 8 or 9 months of writing these every month, my business/writing partner and I have gotten really good at writing them.
It usually goes something like this:
We have a brainstorming session to come up with ideas, hooks and angles.
Then we start doing research - creative INPUT. This includes researching the customer we are writing to, the intended reader… and it also includes finding out the latest things going on in the client’s market… and then through the creative process, connecting those two things to create something new and compelling.
At this point, we are still in the “vague idea” stage.
We start jotting down ideas… we might have 10 different directions the piece could go. But by writing down, deleting, jotting down some more, editing, refining, reworking things… a clearer picture starts to emerge.
We’re starting to go from vague idea to precise idea…
Once we have a pretty good idea of the overall flow of the whole piece, we write an outline. Our “rough sketches” have become “highly-precise drawings.”
Finally, it’s SHOWTIME. The actual writing session. This is where you put your phone in airplane mode, lock the door, eliminate all distractions… set yourself a timer (30 or 50 minutes at a time work best, with 5-15 minute breaks between sessions)… and get crackin’.
Once the outline is in place, the actual writing usually only takes a few hours. The whole creative process from start to finish can take anything from one week to one month.
One final thing I’d like to point out is that you never know exactly what you’re going to write until you’re writing it.
That’s why I said “Showtime” — it’s the moment of truth. It’s when weeks or months of input, research, letting ideas simmer in your head… when it all comes together in a compressed timeframe… and it always comes out the way it wants to, sometimes in a way that’s even out of your control.
For thousands of years, artists have talked about how they are just the vessel for the divine. How they’re not really the doer, but how the art simply flows through them from a higher source. Or something along those lines.
Whether you believe in such higher powers or not, that’s certainly what it feels like when you fully surrender to the creative process.
It’s in that creative flow state that magic happens.
Compare that to how I prepare for a DJ set or a mix:
It starts with a VAGUE idea for a type of sound or vibe that I think would be cool.
As I’m digging for music, I’m listening to hundreds of songs per week. I end up downloading a handful that I think will go with that vague sound-idea I have in my head.
As I download more songs, it starts going from a vague idea to a more precise idea.
Eventually, the DJ set or mix starts coming together in my head. I can feel the vibe. I can picture the dance floor in front of me, and I feel confident about what type of vibe that a certain progression of a certain selection of a certain type of sound is going to create.
Then, finally, SHOWTIME. When weeks or months of creative INPUT gets expressed all at once during a compressed time-frame.
A few things to say about all of this:
BREATHE IN BREATHE OUT
Creative expression is only made visible during creative output — doing creative stuff — but in order for there to be output, we must also have input.
Just like you have to breathe in before you can breathe out.
It’s a contraction — an intake of energy… and an expansion, the expression of that built-up energy.
Sometimes the expansion can be short and intense and powerful, like a DJ set. Or it can be much longer, like writing a book.
It’s a delicate balance.
For a writer, an afternoon on the sofa with a good book is not just a relaxing way to kill some time, it’s an essential component of the creative process.
Too little input is usually not the problem though…
The vast majority of people are HEAVILY skewed on the input side. Most people breathe in a lot and breathe out very little.
In other words, we tend to consume much more than we create.
The first thing I want to say about this is that it FEELS GOOD to even out that balance. I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me when I am engaged in a creative process, it feels like I’m doing something I am supposed to do. There is a sense of rightness to it.
I don’t get this feeling from anything else. And days where I haven’t creatively expressed myself, it feels like something is missing.
This morning when I got up I felt like recording a video for my Instagram channel. I haven’t recorded or published a video in more than a year. I don’t know where the idea or the urge came from, but there it was. And now there is a new video on my Instagram page.
This highlights a few interesting aspects of the creative process:
ROUTINE IS EVERYTHING
The reason I stopped making videos is because I stopped feeling inspired to make them.
I always just made videos when I got an idea for one… but the reason I kept getting ideas was because I routinely engaged in the creative process of making videos.
The thing is that the commitment to the creative process comes FIRST.
Once you decide to start writing, making videos, or building skyscrapers, THEN the ideas will start coming.
If your reason for not starting is that you don’t have any ideas, you’re starting at the wrong end. You have to engage with the creative process, become part of it. Then the ideas become infinite and unlimited and easy to access.
THE IMPORTANCE OF TRAINING
Most forms of art are both art and science.
While creativity is unlimited, the structures within which that creative energy is expressed is not.
Developing your skills, mastering the fundamentals, perfecting your craft is not optional.
Whatever path you choose, invest in the best training, coaches, and mentors you can afford. Having someone who’s been down a road similar to the one you want to go — maybe a few years ahead of you — is the fastest way to level up your game.
Training and skill development is what paves the way for creative expression.
If you want to be a writer but don’t understand the basic structures of storytelling, you’re gonna have a hard time even getting past the starting line.
It’s like learning how to drive a car. In the beginning, you have to consciously focus on every little move you make and trying not to die.
As you get more comfortable, the mechanics of car-driving become muscle memory. You don’t have to think anymore. You just do. You just have an intent for where you want to go, and your body takes over and does the thing and gets you to your destination.
Before you can master the art, you must first understand the science of your craft.
With world-class training, mentoring, paired with repetition and practice, you’ll get GOOD in no-time.
(The reason a coach or mentor or a peer network is important is that it introduces the critical aspect of a feedback loop into the creative process. When someone can point out what you’re doing right and where you’re fucking up, and you can iterate and improve based on that feedback. You’ll cut years off your learning curve and dramatically accelerate your progress.)
RESISTANCE & COURAGE
Creativity and resistance go hand in hand.
What if I express myself honestly and people hate it?
This is the result of self-judgment, which leads to a fear of being judged by others.
Maybe you think your art, your writing, your ideas, your paintings, your videos are not good enough… that you will be judged and criticized for your creative expression…
That can make it feel like there’s no point of doing anything at all.
All of the above mental head-trash will shut down all your creative faculties before you even cross the starting line.
Overcoming that resistance and just doing the thing anyway is the daily practice of all creatives.
It’s a lot like working out: You know it’s good for you. You know you’ll feel better after you’ve done it. Yet there’s still a tremendous resistance to doing it.
If you’ve ever felt like staying in bed and ordering pizza instead of working out… and then grit your teeth, said “fuck it,” and went to the gym anyway… you know what it feels like to conquer resistance.
The more often you do it, the easier it gets. The same way that working out regularly gets easier once you get in the habit.
Overcoming resistance also requires courage. The courage to put yourself on the line and open yourself up to judgment. The courage to be seen and heard, come what may.
A simple shift in perspective that can help you overcome resistance is the realization that the reward of creativity is the process itself.
What’s that reward?
Every act of courageous self-expression helps us become a little bit more of ourselves. A little more integrated with our true nature.
If your goal is validation and approval from others, that resistance will bite you in the ass and hold you back, but only 100% of the time.
“Act, but do not reflect on the fruit of the act,” said Krishna.
IDEAS ARE SLIPPERY FISH
Before today, I hadn’t felt the urge to make a video in over a year. Then, suddenly, there it was. Why? Who knows? When inspiration strikes, follow it.
Earl Nightingale said ideas are like slippery fish. When they show up, you gotta stab ‘em with a pen, or they’ll slip away forever. (Paraphrasing!)
Over the years, I must have had thousands of ideas that I thought I would remember later and then immediately forgot about.
When you do feel inspired, you have to ACT. That moment, right there, is your shot at capturing your own creative expression. This is not the time to be lazy. You’ll be happy you did it.
DON’T FORGET THE DOWNTIME
In today’s hectic world, many of us feel like we always have to be doing something “useful.”
For creatives, things like going for long walks and taking naps are no longer a waste of time… they are of the essence.
One of the reasons that the creative process is so nebulous and mysterious is because a vast chunk of it takes place in the subconscious mind. The part of ourselves we can’t see.
We can’t observe it (that’s why it’s the subconscious), only what it comes up with.
From the outside it might look like taking a shower or standing in line at the post office… and then — out of nowhere — WHAM! A cloud of disconnected fragments of thought suddenly coalesce and coagulate into a single lucid concept.
Ironically, it only happens when you’re not trying to make it happen.
So if you depend on your own creativity to move your life forward (and we all do)… prioritizing downtime is not optional.
This is one aspect of the creative process I haven’t heard many people talk about.
To me, it’s the most interesting.
I started getting a much better understanding of it from DJing, and I can see the same principles at work in every other creative discipline. The extended period of INPUT followed by rapid output under a compressed timeframe.
My last gig before the current lockdown here in Bangkok was the Grow Room x Kolour 9-Year Anniversary Afterparty at Luna Lounge on December 19.
I had prepared for that set for about a month. That’s 4+ weeks of thinking about an hour and a half of creative output.
I still remember stepping into the DJ booth with no idea what I was going to play.
I never know exactly what I’m gonna play. That’s the point.
When you get to the SHOWTIME part of the creative process, you have to let go of trying to control the outcome and trust in your faculties, training, and intent.
This part of the process is where FLOW STATE comes in. This is where your mind completely surrenders to the present moment and you act without thinking. You lose track of time and you and your creative expression become one.
This is one of the most addictive states known to man. When you’re in a flow state, a powerful cocktail of chemicals get released in your brain that is more addictive than cocaine.
This is why some people uproot their whole lives, sell everything they own and move to the beach just so they can go surfing all day. Surfing is a well-documented flow-state activity. (If you want to know more about flow states and how to access them, check out Steven Kotler.)
Last night as I was writing this, this is about as far as I got.
Some friends came over to the house. I stopped writing for the day. Over the course of the rest of the evening, I kept thinking about how I was going to finish this letter.
At first, I was just going to wrap up with a short summary of what we’ve covered so far and call it a day.
Then, through discussing these ideas with some friends… getting some new perspectives… and then forgetting about it…
… allowing my subconscious mind to get to work…
It all came to me as I was trying to go to sleep. I had to pick up my phone maybe 6 or 7 times while lying in bed to jot down all the ideas that were showing up in my head.
Normally, when something like this happens, I would go back and edit and rewrite and organize it all into neatly structured ideas - a coherent piece of writing from beginning to end.
This time, I thought it would be more useful to write the article in the order that the ideas came to me, so you can see the creative process at work in the writing of this very letter.
Here’s what I came up with:
VISION & INTENT
One of the key driving forces of the creative process is your vision and intent.
Having a CLEAR VISION and powerful EMOTIONAL INTENT gives the creative process energy, purpose, and direction.
Without a clear vision and powerful intent, you don’t know where you are going, and you don’t have the energy to see the creative process to completion.
Through the “contraction” or “breathing in” process, you are investing your emotional energy and intent INTO this vision.
Through the “expansion” or “breathing out” process, all that energy gets released and made real.
The emotional investment coupled with a clear vision leads to an organized energetic expression of creative energy.
In the case of the DJ set I talked about earlier, through my entire month of preparing for that, I had a crystal-clear vision of the vibe I wanted to create in the room. Every track in my playlist, I could see and feel the effect it would have.
I didn’t know what I would play, but I knew what I was gonna do.
One of the fundamental laws to getting anywhere in life is knowing where you are going. If you don’t know, it’s hard to get there.
This is very basic. But ask a hundred people what they really want in life? I’d be surprised if 5 of them had a clear answer.
Whether you’re applying the creative process on a micro-level (such as writing an article) or a macro-level (like creating a vision for your life), you have to know where you are going.
What’s more, you also need to know what you’re going to FEEL like once you arrive. The more you can focus in on that emotional energy and bring it to the present, the faster that vision of the future will arrive.
YOUR INNER VS OUTER WORLD
You experience the world through the lens of your inner world.
This might sound obvious, but everything you experience takes place within your experiencing.
That includes the outer world. The only outer world you know is your experience of the outer world, filtered through your thoughts, beliefs, and emotions.
We experience pain or suffering when our inner world is in disharmony with the outer world.
For example, if you believe you should have more money, and you don’t, there’s a conflict between inner and outer worlds, and you experience pain or frustration.
(By the way, it is impossible to have more money than you have. Believing you should have more money than you do is fundamentally nonsensical. But that’s another article.)
What does this have to do with the creative process?
I believe that creative expression is our way of trying to create balance and harmony between the inside and outside worlds.
By putting a little bit of ourselves out there, we can become more integrated into the world around us.
MACRO & MICRO
We’re getting close to the end.
I want to leave you with this thought:
Have you ever noticed how you don’t know exactly what you’re going to say before you say it?
You start with a general INTENT about what you want to get across… then you open your mouth, and words come out.
You don’t consciously choose each word and arrange them in sequence. Even I didn’t know how that last sentence was going to end before I wrote it. Or that one.
That’s the creative process at work.
What’s so cool about it is that it’s fractal.
That means it applies equally to small and big things.
Every sentence you have ever uttered was a micro-expression of the creative process.
At the most MACRO level…
Every day, every minute you are a willing or unwilling participant in the creative process called Your Life.
It’s ALL a constant process.
Patterns within patterns within patterns.
Breathing in, breathing out.
Contraction and expansion. Build and release. A giving and a taking.
If you are not directing this process with your vision, emotion, and intent… your life isn’t really yours.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to take charge of and direct this creative process. Become the captain of your own ship.
If you don’t, you’re a rowboat with no oars. Bobbing aimlessly around the ocean wherever the wind blows.
— Linus Rylander