Do you need a creative outlet…for your creative outlet?

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The benefits of having a creative outlet have long been a popular subject of discussion. There are all kinds of positives cited for people investing time in this, including higher levels of success in life and work and both mental and physical health benefits.

A creative outlet is really a form of self-expression. But what happens when what once was your creative outlet becomes your job? In some ways that’s really great – you’re doing what you love (wasn’t that the plan?). If the creative outlet becomes less about being just that and more about the logistics of it all, however, it may not feel like a creative outlet anymore. In fact, many become so engulfed by everything that comes along with the career that they forget why they started their creative job in the first place.

This isn’t to say that doing what you love for work will ruin your love for it, but it may put a strain on your ability to enjoy that creative task as something you can do for the joy of self-expression. The solution: you might need a creative outlet for your creative outlet.

If doing creative things helps you to be more successful, which has been suggested by many and documented in studies such as this one that showed those with creative outlets performed better at work, then perhaps that’s just what your creative career needs as well – something outside of itself that allows you to continue to generate new thoughts, ideas, and solutions; something that makes you feel refreshed and invigorated and might lead to new perspectives or breakthroughs.

In 2004, I turned to painting as a secondary creative outlet. I was always a fan of arts and crafts and drawing when I was younger, and as I grew up and music became the obvious creative winner, my focus turned to that and my time spent drawing and making crafts slowly diminished until it was no more. By the time I was starting my doctorate, however, I had spent years on having my work as a performer judged as being right or wrong and falling into the trap of equating my success with those judgments. I loved being creative, but I really didn’t want to be judged on it for once. So I decided that I would paint abstracts in acrylic, a medium I’d never used.

I did not have (and still do not have) any formal training. I went to the store and bought a canvas and a bunch of tubes of paint. I remember spreading it all out on the counter in my apartment, wondering what was going to happen. I wasn’t apprehensive or nervous about the outcome, however, because I didn’t care how it turned out. If it sucked it didn’t matter. And even better, no one else could say whether it was right or wrong, for it was abstract! They could hate it, but they couldn’t say it was wrong.

That first work began a new love affair with abstract painting, thanks to the satisfaction of creating something out of nothing that still wasn’t anything, really. I turned out many more works over the years, each one looking absolutely nothing like I envisioned at the start and me being perfectly ok with that. I would enjoy sending a photo of the painting to my parents, who would argue over what it “looked” like. I loved hearing their differing opinions, and hearing their thoughts made me look at the painting in a different way than what I thought as well. In fact, everyone seemed to see something different – each person had his or her own unique experience. Love it or hate it, see this or that in it – the results were inconsequential, and always enlightening. It was the fact that it provoked some kind of thought that I enjoyed. And even if it didn’t, that was ok too. It wasn’t about that.

I painted abstracts exclusively for 10 years. I still enjoy painting them, but at the end of 2013 I took a risk and decided to paint something that wasn’t abstract. I was glad I had waited; thanks to ten years of enjoying differences of opinion, the lack of right or wrong in my artwork, appreciating that in the work of others, and quieting the mind to potential criticism, I realized that it didn’t really matter if this work was right or wrong either. I wanted to paint animals, but I didn’t know if I would be any good at it. I wanted to paint a portrait in memory of my partner Larry’s dog that had passed several years earlier. While this kind of painting had its own challenges, it turned out to be very enjoyable as well, and I did a pretty good job. I thought it looked like a dog, so mission accomplished!

I enjoyed creating the pet portraits. I decided to put in additional effort to get better because I wanted to paint more of them. A few months later I had gotten much better, and over the course of a year I painted quite a few of them.

The non-judgmental approach to my painting made my painting better, and it creeped into my performing. To say that it had a positive impact on my career would be an understatement: the less I cared about the judgments put upon me (including self-imposed ones), the better I sang. The better I did everything, actually. And so while my availability to paint has seen a diminish in the past year due to moving and buying a house and maintaining land and building my consulting work, it hasn’t gone away. In fact, it’s how I spent my fourth of July weekend.

I think it’s important to note that painting the abstracts brought me joy, and painting the animals – even at first when they were not as refined – also brought me joy. If it hadn’t, I would not have continued. This is not to be confused with not doing something because you’re not “good” at it. I used to LOVE to play racquetball – I was passionate about it – but I wasn’t very good. I still loved playing even though I usually lost, and I’d still be playing if I hadn’t had a recurring shoulder injury. The whole point to this secondary creative outlet is just to supplement your creativity in a different way.

I’ve seen many examples of this over the years: colleagues who knit while waiting backstage, voice students who study and compete in dance, music students who paint, performers who go rock climbing or running – it’s more than just finding something to do in your free time. It’s the cultivation of an activity that serves as another way for you to allow your creativity to flow.

So if you find that your creative outlet has turned into a job that feels a little less like an outlet for self-expression and more like a duty you’re fulfilling, it might be time to include something else. Find a hobby/activity that you enjoy, and make time to do it. Writing, journaling, martial arts, sports, knitting, scrapbooking, game playing, drawing, music, dancing, acting, improvising, cooking, photography, putting together a puzzle, meme master…whatever inspires you. Another something that brings you joy or brings joy back to you. And who knows, it might just improve the creative path you’re already on. 

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