Creative people tend to have wide interests – it’s part of what makes us creative. But sometimes this blessing can turn into a curse, when we feel pulled in so many different directions that we don’t know which one to pick.
Any idea what one can do about having multiple, diverse ambitions and the insatiable desire to do them all at once? I feel like I can do many things: draw comics, write novels, perhaps even build an indie game-but whenever I start one I get inspired to try something else because of something I see. I can write, draw and do all kinds of digital work fairly well so I struggle with picking a single medium and sticking with a project until completion.
Thanks for writing in Jonathan. Without meeting you and learning more about your situation, it’s impossible to recommend any one path, but here are some options for you to consider.
Could it Just Be a Matter of Time?
It’s not obvious from your website what stage of your career you’re at. If you’re nearer the beginning than the end, then it could just be that you are the stage of exploring, experimenting and discovering what works.
Personally I’ve pursued all kinds of weird and wonderful creative and career interests, and it took a while before they coalesced into a meaningful pattern (and a viable business). So if you are in the early stages of your career, give yourself permission to explore different pathways and stop and smell the roses along the way.
If you’re further along in your career, then the question may feel more urgent, in which case you’ll want to explore the following options sooner rather than later.
Are You a Creative Generalist?
Creative generalists are people who are most comfortable and most creative when they have lots of different projects and interests on the go at once. Rather than restrict themselves to a single specialism, they have their fingers in lots of creative pies.
Some people criticise them for being shallow dilettantes, while others vigourously defend the value of creative generalism. There’s even an entire Creative Generalist blog, hosted by Steve Hardy.
Here’s a question to help you decide whether you are a creative generalist or not:
Does having multiple creative interests make you feel more comfortable or uncomfortable?
A true creative generalist will feel restricted by the idea of narrowing down his options to a few specialisms – you won’t feel comfortable without having several things on the go at once.
But if you are a specialist at heart, you are likely to feel overwhelmed by having too many interests, and it feels a relief when you pick one thing and focus on that.
(More on creative generalism vs specialism.)
Or Maybe You’re a Whirling Dervish?
In Carroll Lloyd’s superb career guide for creative people Creating a Life Worth Living she describes several different ways of organising your work around your creative ambitions. One of these is the whirling dervish.
A whirling dervish has several different creative careers, which complement and support each other, and which are pursued in rotation, over several weeks or months at a time.
I’m a bit of a whirling dervish. My interests include poetry; writing about creativity and business; one-to-one coaching; live training workshops; and e-learning. My work goes through phases, where each of these is centre stage for a while, then fades into the background.
I hate multitasking but I also get bored doing one thing all the time – the whirling dervish gives me the best of both worlds, since I get the stimulation of working in different fields, as well as the satisfaction of focusing on one thing at a time.
The whirling dervish has turned out to be a popular model for many of my students who cannot imagine focusing on less than three full careers at a time. What is important about the whirling dervish is that the three careers are interdependent on one another. They don’t pull you in three different directions, but spin you inward!
(Carol Lloyd, Creating a Life Worth Living)
Another important aspect of the whirling dervish is that you don’t just hop from beginning to beginning – you stick with each project to completion.
Okay, we’ve looked at two different options for keeping your options open – now let’s consider some ways you could narrow them down.
What Is in Your Bones?
Twyla Tharp is a world famous choreographer. But she could have been a painter. In her book The Creative Habit, she describes making sketches of dancers and their costumes and realising she was pretty good at it – and then banishing the thought because it interfered with her ambitions as a dancer.
It’s like a great high school athlete who plays football, basketball, and baseball equally well. If this athlete wants to continue playing sport at the highest collegiate level, at some point he will have to commit to one sport over the others … in the end the choice should be based on pure instinct and self-knowledge. What sport does he feel in his muscles and bones? What sport was he born to play?
When I was a kid, I used to draw all the time, and like Tharp, I enjoyed it and was pretty good at it. But it was nothing compared to discovering poetry. I enjoy visiting art galleries and I appreciate good visual design. But when I read a real poem, it goes through me like electricity. It wasn’t even a choice: poetry chose me.
Stop thinking about your choices and notice how your body responds when you’re engaged in each activity – drawing comics, novel writing, game design. Which one do you feel in your bones?
What Can You Be the Best in the World at?
In case you’re tempted to ignore your real passion in favour of something more ‘sensible’, consider Seth Godin’s proposition that each of us should aim to be the best in the world at what we do:
The secret to being the best in the world is to make the ‘world’ smaller.
Alan Scott was the best community-focused artisan pizza oven builder in the world. A niche that didn’t exist before he got there, but one that spread, that engaged people, that created a tribe and that supported him…
It’s entirely possible that you will choose a niche that’s too small. It’s much more likely you’ll shoot for something too big and become overwhelmed. When in doubt, overwhelm a small niche.
My original training was in psychotherapy. I’m good at it, and still enjoy working with therapy clients. But I’m never going to be the next Freud or Jung.
I used to work as a conventional business consultant, delivering coaching and training to large corporate organisations. My partners and I had a great little company, and we did a superb job for our clients, who loved us. But eventually I looked around and saw several other great little companies like ours, and realised that from the outside, we probably all looked the same.
I’ve always been good at academic studies. A few years ago I got a distinction for my Masters, and my tutor asked me if I’d like to do a PhD. Part of me was tempted, but I realised I didn’t have the passion to make it as a top academic.
It was only when I combined my different interests – in creativity, communication, psychology and business – that I was able to carve out a niche for myself as a business coach for creative people.
The world has plenty of psychotherapists, consultants, academics and even poets. There aren’t so many poet-coach-entrepreneurs.
Take some time to reflect on these questions:
Which of your interests could you be the best in the world at?
Could it be a subset of one of your interests?
Could it be a combination of several of your interests, rather than just one?
What Would You Most Regret NOT Doing?
If you’re still struggling to identify your best way forward, here’s my ultimate deadlock breaker.
Fast forward in your imagination until you can picture yourself at retirement age. This is the end of your career, when you’ve done all you were going to do. The choices have been made, the options closed down.
Pick each of your creative ambitions in turn, and imagine that you DIDN’T pursue it – then notice how that feels.
So for example, in one scenario you imagine having abandoned comics in favour of novel writing or gaming. How does that feel? How much do you regret never having created all the comics you were capable of producing?
Do this for each of your interests, and notice which one gives you the biggest feeling of regret.
Now do it the other way around – imagining you DID achieve each ambition, and noticing how much satisfaction it brings you.
Once you’ve done that, your choices should be a lot clearer.
Over to the Readers
Have you ever felt torn between different creative ambitions?
How did you make your decision?
What advice can you offer Jonathan?