Martin Rue

I build things on the internet.

Creativity Is A Muscle

The word creativity isn't an easy one to pin down.

If you enter a room carrying a dictionary, you'll find that creativity heard you coming and is now hiding in the wardrobe, or rather pathetically behind the curtains as though we can't see its feet poking out.

In the literature there are many varying definitions that try to more precisely capture the nuance of what it is to be creative.

Personally I'm happy with some variation of “creates new and interesting or valuable things”.

And I don't even mean new new, just new enough to its creator or to the people perceiving the work that it's interesting. As the saying goes, there's nothing new new under the sun.

But what prompted this memoir of the synapse party I found among my grey cells this morning was the realisation that creativity is a lot like a muscle.

As with muscle growth, if you're not pushing your creative pursuits to a point that they challenge you, your creativity will begin to plateau. Doing the same well-known things over and over, I think we can agree, isn't really creativity.

The interesting thing about challenging yourself is that you improve. This improvement needs to be factored in the next time you go on a creative bender, or you're not putting yourself in the same position you grew from the last time.

In the gym this is called progressive overload. As you adapt to what it takes to move X amount of weight through a muscle, you intentionally increase the weight to account for the strength you've already gained. You're preventing adaptation so your body continues to respond and grow. Fail to do this and you adapt, you plateau, and you stop seeing results.

A good heuristic for whether you're doing this well is discomfort. If you're truly staying out of adaptation's iron grip (physically or mentally speaking), it will feel somewhat uncomfortable.

In the gym that's screaming out your last set. When it comes to your creativity muscle, it's overcoming the creative resistance to produce your best work.

Creativity is a muscle in another important way too – you need to rest it.

Over the last 2 weeks I've had a wave of fresh ideas and a renewed focus to pursue them.

My head is more empty at night and when I wake up, so I'm filling it more intentionally with things I actually want to do.

I'm waking up with excitement to jump back into projects because I've taken all the distractions away and I only have a few things to focus on.

How? I decided to turn off every single social media account I own and stop consuming things as an automatic default behaviour.

This wasn't my first rodeo. The first time turned out to be a great lesson in how important it is to go off grid occasionally and rest my mind.

I had reached the stage where I was doing the same thing every day. I'd check Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Mastodon, read through Hacker News and Lobsters, and fill my brain with distractions and other people's thoughts. Creatively I'd plateaued because I was doing the same thing every day.

I'd walk along the beautiful canal or through the city under an amazing blue sky, and rather than allow the atmosphere to give me good vibes and make me feel alive, I'd take a picture so I could share it. My thoughts would turn from enjoying the moment to thinking about sharing it.

I realised that I needed a rest to allow my creativity muscle to flourish again.

And of course that is exactly what we do with other muscles. Muscles don't grow in the gym, they grow while we rest, while we sleep. Ignore that and they don't.

Creativity is no different. If you're not resting it, it probably isn't improving. If you're really depriving it of rest via the multitude of ways the modern internet demands you do, you're probably no longer even taking it to the gym for a good workout.

Creativity is a muscle. Progressively overload it so it keeps growing, and whatever you do don't forget to rest it.