Sustainable Creativity Starter's Guide

It was your typical late December morning in the Midwest - kind of wet and coldish. Excitement, anxiety, and nerves gave slapped out high fives as they passed each other on their way up and down my spine. I hustled from my parking spot along the street in front of a long row of historic homes and ducked into the welcoming warmth of MoKaBe’s Coffeehouse. I ordered myself some coffee and began the hunt for a seat. I was finally getting to meet with a long-time inspiration of mine, Elizabeth Wiseman, a St. Louis based fashion photographer that totally ROCKS.

We met and discussed fashion, photography, career tracks within the industry, ways to grow professionally and creatively, and all manner of topics over the course of about an hour and half. It was incredible in a way that only a meeting of creative minds can be. Common thought processes and pursuits form a bond quickly that keeps conversation lively and exciting. I learned a lot and have forgotten a lot, but one thought stuck with me. We were discussing creative portfolios, photography projects, and using them to break into the fashion and commercial photography industry. She explained that when she and her team brainstormed and began planning a project, they would take the concept and all of the pieces as far as they absolutely could creatively. “Then, once we explore the furthest reaches of the idea, we bring it back a step or two.”

It’s simple, but profound.

How many creatives are blindsided by the “sinewy right hand” of their Muse, brainstorm like a fiend for hours or days, finally step away from their frantic planning and begin to try to put their plan into place only to have it fail spectacularly? I know this has happened to me more times than I can count! I knew there had to be a better way, but until that moment, I couldn’t uncover it. When Elizabeth said that, it was like light bulbs burst to life and balloons started falling from the ceiling or something. It was exciting and very much so an “aha!” moment. (Now that I think, I’m not sure where the balloons thing came from. I know that there are people out there that really like balloons, and that a celebration containing balloons will really resonate with them so I’m leaving the analogy for their benefit. Everyone else can move on. Thanks for your indulgence!)

With every “aha!” moment, I work diligently to understand what it means “in real life.” All too frequently, we hear catchy quotes or advice that don’t really take us anywhere and I hate that. So I try to make those pithy sayings into applicable steps that I can implement today. If I can’t, frequently I’ll move on. In this case, however, I can make it practical. If you find yourself wondering, how? Like this…


Let’s face it. This is the fun part of the creative process - where the dreaming, ideas, and creativity are allowed to soar through the air like Superman on a lark. During this stage, don’t restrain it! Let your ideas fly (like a lark), write them in mad scribbles across the pages of your journal, record them neatly in Evernote, in a Draft note, or spit them lovingly into the voice memo app on your smartphone. Plan everything! Let your creativity know no bounds during this stage. This is the part where you stretch yourself as an artist, where you practice creating, and is the foundation that every creative pursuit is built upon.

Pull Back

Once you’ve brainstormed your heart out, now is the time that you begin to take some steps back from your idea. Look at it critically and examine the idea at every level. Think about things like:

  • Social media -How your project can be used to grow your platform? What kinds of content can you create from it? If you’re a writer, can you find compelling photography to go along with the piece? A photographer, can you write a blog post to go with your images? Maybe some video? Spend some time thinking about this!

  • What are the moving pieces? Are you having to work with others? This can add stress and difficulty in pulling something off successfully. Take that into account!

  • What volume of work are you looking at for this project?

  • Is there a deadline? Is it seasonal or is there a particular time/date that you’d like to have it accomplished?

  • Does it require a creative skill outside your normal skillset? You’ll have to allow yourself time to learn or find someone to work with to make it happen.

  • Is there fabrication of some sort or additional resources needed?

All of these items “level up” the difficulty of your project. While stretching your creative muscles isn’t a bad thing AT ALL, it’s something that you want to be intentional and conscientious about. Being aware and taking the time to map out the processes involved, skills needed, and resources required will not hinder creativity, as many creatives are afraid will happen, it will actually enhance it and make your creations better!


Bodybuilders and strongmen don’t workout with their maximum weight. Their personal best is just that, a best. It’s not their working rate. Runners don’t sprint at 100% effort every single time they run. Pitchers don’t throw the ball as hard as they can every single repetition. Why do artists and creatives feel we must perform every single thing at maximum effort and the highest level of complexity? Like an athlete, we must learn when it is appropriate and effective to give 100%. We must also learn to find our “groove” that inspires sustainable excellence within in us without burning us out before we reach the finish line.

Our next step is to refine our brainstormed project and nail down the details. We’ll carve away everything extra, find people to help in the areas we are not strong and then dial the entire project BACK by a small margin. This will actually help ensure absolute excellence in every detail. You’ll be able to produce far more impressive results while also increasing your ability to do even more next time. Back to the weight lifter analogy - When a weight lifter is attempting to achieve their personal record (PR), it’s not a pretty sight. They are shaky, grunting, blood vessels are doing their own version of Dancing with the Stars, there’s yelling going on, and frankly, it’s downright nerve-wracking to watch.

However, if you watch a bodybuilder working out with weight that is lower than their max, you see the veins and musculature, but the process is smooth, controlled, and much more impressive to watch. The same is true with our creative process. When we try to do too much it’s painful. Not just for us, but for everyone we share it with. We’ve all seen singers that try too hard, read writers that took it a little far (I’ve done that!), and artwork that’s just not quite “there.” Through persistently refining our approach and demonstrating some discipline, everyone wins! Our art is more consistent, the level of excellence is on point, and we are happier with our creative pursuits.

(I know there are times where a risk or a maximum effort is a win. Granted...I’m talking about the majority of the time. Think of the weight lifter analogy again. Maximum effort all the time? Nope! Just some of the time, and those times are not what I’m covering in this article.)

So, allow me to recap in the simplest, most formulaic statement possible:

Max Effort - A Reasonably Prudent Approach = Increased Ability for Excellence & Consistency

Trust me when I say that I realize this is incredibly difficult to do sometimes. Most of the time, when inspiration hits, the tangential ideas come rolling in like the last subway car leaving Manhattan before a well forecasted King Kong attack. My mind goes crazy and all of a sudden I’m imagining myself painting landscapes while balanced on top of a saucer balanced on top of a stick with a group of reclusive painter monks. That is obviously completely ridiculous! There’s absolutely NO WAY I can balance on top of a saucer on a stick. So, I need to “pull back” my brainstorm and just be okay sitting on the ground next to the stick while I paint with the reclusive painter monks. See what I mean? Prudence and reasonableness, my two friends on the way to artistic success.

Now! Interaction time! Have you found yourself taking things a little overboard like I have sometimes? How do you handle it? What steps do you take to ensure you are successful?

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Thanks for reading! Times are busy, and your attention is much appreciated.