The most direct path to creative achievement without anxiety

So you’re driven to solve creative open-ended problems and you want to stand out in this field. My question for you is, “Why are you driven to create?”

As a creativity coach, the answer to this question tells me a lot about your motivation and it signals potential land mines you could run into.

Why did you get into this creative pursuit in the first place? Was it for the praise, the fame, the glory? Was it because you just can’t not do it? Or perhaps something else.

There is certainly glamour in a creative life – that is what first attracted me in this direction, I’ll admit. I wanted to be a famous actress. I dreamt of stylish photoshoots for magazines, elegant film sets and daring romances. I did not dream of early morning make-up sessions, living out of a trailer or harsh critical feedback and tiring acting lessons.

I’m sure I’m not alone.

I became obsessed. I would research actors and actresses endlessly, reading about how they got their break, what they believed. Could I see myself in their shoes? Was I as skinny, as elegant, as talented? I started to compare myself to my peers. What grade did I earn in drama? I wanted this more than them.

I avoided auditions, believing I would be ‘discovered’ or sought out if I was really brilliant enough (read: too scared to get out of my comfort zone to the point that a delusional excuse would do).

My acting dream died an untimely death. I convinced myself I was already too old (at 18), that I could not handle the inevitable rejection for things outside of my control like my eye colour or height.

Giving up too early is one fate of the obsessively passionate route to achieving our creative goals.

Is there a better way?

Obsessively Passionate Path Flow Chart
* Compelled to create by extrinsic factors > motivated by the promise of external rewards > achievements are a source of social acceptance or self-esteem > not in control of their passion > not integrated healthily into overall sense of self > avoiding challenges that could lead to further growth > ego leads to proving themselves to others, anxiety, pressure to outperform, pushing hard with little improvement, mental and physical illness, injury > lower levels of vitality, positive emotions and enjoyment > focus on extrinsic factors like fame, looking good and beating others. This loops continually on itself taking the person away from creative achievement and high performance.

According to the work of psychologist Robert Vallerand and his colleagues, there is. They make a clear distinction between what they term Obsessively Passionate and Harmoniously Passionate.

Obsessively Passionate people, as we’ve seen by my example, are compelled to create by extrinsic factors and motivated by external rewards. This road is paved with anxiety, competition and feeling out of control of your passion.

We choose the obsessively passionate road, when we set goals that focus on external factors – like achieving awards and accolades, beating others, looking good. These goals are win or lose, make or break, us or them. Which is fine if you’re achieving them. But if you don’t – it feels like all is lost, like you’ll never be good enough.

The Harmoniously Passionate, by contrast, are impelled to create, driven by the love of their craft. They are not afraid of challenges because they know these lead to greater growth. Rather than focussing on external rewards, they look for mastery, learning and growth. Instead of beating others through stiff competition, they seek to collaborate, be mentored, teach because it all leads to further developing their craft. This is the most direct path to creative achievement and high performance.

So how do they do it? 

Harmoniously Passionate Flow Chart
* Impelled to create > driven by love of craft > focus on mastery, learning and growth (effort, strategy and help from others) > take on challenges that could lead to more growth > fuelled by feelings of vitality, positive emotions and joy > feel in control of their passions and at one with their passion > craft is in harmony with authentic self and compatible with other meaningful activities in their life. It is the most direct path to creative achievement and high performance.

Rather than outcome focussed goals, they set learning goals. These are goals focusses around learning, improvement and deliberate practice. They seek feedback because, even though that might hurt their ego in the short-term, it might improve the way their craft lands for the audience in the long-term. They don’t just ask for feedback, the receive it – willingly and vulnerably.

We already know that creative open-ended questions have no predetermined outcome – there is no one ‘right’ answer. That’s what makes them so complex. It’s also the danger of the obsessively passionate road that tries to be the best and find the right answer to a question that is inherently multifaceted.

When we set learning goals, we allow ourselves to be pulled in the direction of the ‘right answer for us’. Our right answer, our best self. We can be #1 in the world and still set learning goals, still push the envelope of our craft.

So what does a learning goal look like? If an outcome goal is tied the outcome (eg, design 4 posters), a learning goal is tied to the improvement (eg, seek feedback from trusted mentor about 2 posters, make improvements and review with trusted mentor).

When choosing your learning focus, you can ask questions like:

  • Where is the biggest gap in my process?
  • How can I build my support network or receive feedback on my work?
  • What other creative activities am I interested in learning that could expand my creative lens?
  • What collaboration opportunities spark my curiosity?
  • How could this process be improved?

Anxiety comes from competitive pressure. Harmony comes from your own authentic measure.

This does not mean that the harmonious route to creative achievement is not difficult, learning and mastery are inherently challenging. But the motivation is in alignment with the goal and it’s not your self-worth on the line.

Creativity is something you can learn and develop. It helps if your focus is on growth.

Be brave and curious,

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