Why waiting for the perfect creative conditions will leave you hungry

Young man waiting for his dinner

One practice that keeps me honest in my work is never asking my clients to do something that I am not willing to do myself.

It is quite annoying, really, since it is so much easier to dish out advice than receive it, right? 🙂 But truth in practice is the thing that keeps us strong in our craft. If we don’t believe enough in our own advice to give it, then who else should?

The myth of perfect conditions

My friend and coach Mark Otto delivered a tough (true) piece of feedback on our Monday call this week. If I want to accomplish my substantial goals in 2017 (and beyond), among other shifts in my leadership actions and behaviors, there are two specific things I need to acknowledge if I want a chance to be successful:

  • I do not need perfect conditions in order to create great things
  • I have to find a way to be comfortable with being uncomfortable

It is a hard thing to admit that I avoid doing things that make me uncomfortable on a regular basis. Sure, I get things done, but I also make a continual habit of de-prioritizing my most important creative and strategic work when given an alternative like:

  • Cleaning my desk
  • Replying to a bunch of emails
  • Messing around on Facebook
  • Calling someone to chat
  • Ordering printer ink
  • Cleaning the whiteboard at K’´e
  • Getting a cookie next door at Smitholator

The avoidance is insidious. It starts like a small distraction, just a few minutes doing something that feels important in the moment.

But over time, these little dalliances with non-urgent work and distractions add up, until there is a full-blown creative crisis.

The reason to examine these behaviors is not to judge ourselves or feel shame.

The reason is to discover the truth that keeps so many of us unfulfilled and hungry in our creative endeavors: we are afraid of discomfort.

Why are we so afraid of discomfort?

There are a lot of myths that lead us to believe that there is something wrong with us when we avoid the awkward, unpleasant and uncomfortable parts of doing creative work.

We think that the most productive people we know wake up with a spring in their step and genius flowing through their keyboards.

After studying with, supporting and observing some of the most successful people in the world over the last couple of decades, I have come to the conclusion that they don’t have any special genius. They are just great at creating really effective, boring habits. And they are not afraid of putting themselves in situations where they may feel discomfort or failure.

It is worth noting that as a white woman, I have also been socialized to seek comfort and peace as an ideal state. Our own cultural upbringing and social context have a lot to do with how we approach and internalize our relationship with discomfort (I would be curious how you were socialized, let me know!)

The reality is there can be no creativity without discomfort.

As I learned in natural childbirth, sometimes creativity involves a whole lot of pain! (Yowza, like the strength of a thousand volcanos and hurricanes. I had no idea!)

When you run towards this discomfort, instead of avoiding it at all costs, slowly, over time, you do feel a well of creative joy bubble up in your daily practice.

The myth of what hard work looks like

This discomfort of which I speak does not have to be soul-crushing and overwhelming.

It is the tiny habit of feeling some resistance and working anyway.

Or feeling a little hungry (like I am right now), and instead of going to the kitchen to chop up an apple, finishing the last touches on this piece.

It is looking your cute dog in the face and telling him you will take him for a walk in 20 minutes, not right now.

Every time you take a tiny step toward this discomfort, you become more friendly with it. It ceases to scare you.

Then, when your core work is done, by all means, seek out whatever you like that brings you joy.

I have been in the depths of creative despair, and it is an awful feeling.

The goal in these new habits is not perfection, it is progress.

A way you can help yourself succeed is to examine and adjust your systems of support.

Systems of support, not formulas

I understand why we love to follow the habits of our most admired teachers.

Maybe if I could just drink the same coffee and write every morning like Dan Pink, then all my books would hit the New York Times list.

Maybe if I worked out like Jermaine Griggs, then I would be a marketing automation genius.

Maybe if I prayed like Nancy Duarte, then I would develop a strong and resilient organization.

The downfall of this approach (while coffee, writing in the morning, working out and praying are all admirable things to do) is that these are systems of support that these master producers have put in place that match their own motivations and effective habits, not yours.

The key for each of us is to find the support structures and habits that work for us.

Some people like intense, harsh accountability. They want advice and support straight up and want to be called out when they are not following through on their promises.

My friend and former client Dawn Kotzer is passionate about supporting people who are not motivated by the “crush it” mentality (no offense, Gary V!). She works with people who are “Seeking a guide to help move them toward/into entrepreneurial success without sandblasting their soul.”

In my quest to run towards discomfort, instead of away from it, I have found the following things helpful:

  • Doing my early morning walk without fail
  • Eating things that fuel energy and health
  • Doing my planning work first thing in the morning
  • Listening to great music while working
  • Working with a tough and fair coach like Mark every week
  • Making the why of my work visible and central to everything I do (My purpose is helping small business owners realize their creative and leadership potential — when I see this happening, my creative fire roars)
  • Connecting to my inner old school martial artist, who values hard work, grit and being pushed out of my comfort zone
  • Not shaming myself if I fail in my daily goals. Each day is a new chance to practice good habits

How will you embrace the practice of getting to creative ease through the practice of acting with discomfort?

Mark always says that we put so much focus on what our goals and plans are that we neglect to critically examine what our own habits and practices are that will ultimately determine our success.

You can have the perfect word for the year, cleanest desk, a sparkly set of goals and motivational videos and slogans all around your office.

Without some clear examination of your ability to walk through the hard stuff, you may find yourself feeling creatively anemic, dissatisfied and frustrated.

So at this close to 2016, I encourage you to sit quietly and reflect on the truth of your resistance. It may not be comfortable, but speaking from experience, it is incredibly powerful.

You deserve a full, rich plate of creative bounty. Your people are waiting for it.

How do you get comfortable with discomfort? I would love to hear in the comments!

I would love to be part of your system of support for creative productivity in 2017! Here are some ways we can work together.


Reader Interactions


  1. Maria Duerr says

    I love this reflection, Pam. As I struggle with the last phase of writing my own book, I can see all my modes of resistance in full regalia… and it ain’t pretty! Some are very similar to yours — noodling around on Facebook, giving in to my sweet pup’s request for a walk (right now!), and distracting myself with snacks.

    Sometimes when I notice myself going to anyone of those strategies, I take a deep breath and simply ask myself, “What’s most important, right now?” In some cases, I do need to nourish body and mind and take a break… and in other cases, it’s clear to me that the writing needs to be done, I need to honor this process I’m in and finish it well.

    I also really appreciate that you brought in our conditioning as white folks, which is an often invisible strand. We are all subject to cultural conditioning (and by culture I mean not only our ethnic background but things like economic class, gender, and more), and the more we can become aware of this dimension of our life, the more we can make conscious choices.

    Happy new year to you and your family!

  2. Lisa Rothstein says

    This SO hits home. When I am motivated, I can be in the worst, noisiest conditions and I don’t even notice them. When I am looking for excuses to procrastinate, any “nagging” household chore (that I’ve put off for months with no problem) will do! Getting ideas from gurus and role models can help but nothing beat our own routine of showing up rain or shine and applying butt to seat. Having a no excuses policy of training no matter what works for athletes for a reason — it allows them to “win” by just having shown up. We creatives do well to model that system… because while we can’t always control whether the Muse makes an appearance, we have 100% control over whether WE do. Steven Pressfield write a lot about this in his wonderful “The War of Art”.
    Another book I’ve found oddly helpful around this lately is Scott Adams ‘(the Dilbert cartoonist!) “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.” He posits that using “systems” beats having goals for this same reason — especially with creative projects a goal can be out in the distant future (when the novel is finished) and you feel like a failure until you’ve succeeded, but a system (writing 3 pages a day after a morning run) is something anyone can do and feel like a success every day. Here is the link to the book: http://bit.ly/scottadamsbook

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *