Wednesday, June 8, 2011


Should Creativity Be Exhausting?
Eric Maisel

Hello, Dr. Maisel:
There’s so much talk everywhere about burnout, chronic fatigue, and overwhelm that I wonder if we are all doing too much or maybe we are just getting used to complaining about how much we do! If you love what you do and want to do it a lot, is it really so bad to exhaust yourself?
- Lisa R., Toronto

Thanks, Lisa! I think you may have your finger on something!

Who doesn’t wish that he would create more deeply and more often? Who doesn’t have a list as long as his arm of reasons and rationalizations why he’s produced only two paintings in two years—and neither of them quite satisfactory? Who doesn’t wince a bit as he thinks about his productivity over the past decade and feel a little blue as he tallies the ledger sheet of time lost versus time well spent? Virtually all the people I know, coach, or train are painfully aware that they haven’t fought the good fight often enough—the fight to prove the exception and to completely exhaust themselves in the service of their creative work. As you say, a little more exhaustion might be just the right thing!

It is good if we try harder to honor our ambitions and our inner obligations. But maybe you aren’t ready to take those vows. Maybe you have doubts about the wisdom of exhausting yourself in the service of your creative work, especially considering how exhausting life itself can feel. Maybe you think that you’ll be visited by some demon if you work that hard, maybe by Beethoven’s bouts of nervous irritability or Dostoevsky’s anxiety attacks. Maybe you doubt that you or your efforts matter enough to be worth such an expenditure of energy.

Those are legitimate worries, because devoting yourself to your creative work in the way that I have in mind can indeed take its toll on your physical and psychological health. Nevertheless, there are excellent reasons to commit to making the Herculean effort of exhausting yourself in the service of your art: that this is your time on earth, that this is your chance to create worthy things, that this is your opportunity to conceive a startling idea when, an instant before, nothing existed, and that this is your moment to represent yourself in ways that make you proud.

Many religions demand arduous practices like fasts and confessions from their flock. But it is for the clergy class of each religion that the hardest practices are reserved. As a member of the clergy you may be asked never to marry, never to have children, never to own worldly possessions, never to speak except to praise God. With respect to creativity, each of us is a member of the clergy class. We are each penitent and priest. Shouldn’t we demand of ourselves that we be as dedicated in our own way as any monk or priest? Is it too much to ask that we exhaust ourselves in the service of our creativity, since we are creativity’s leaders as well as its practitioners?

If the only reason you have for trekking across the desert is that has occurred to you to give it a shot, the obstacles that the desert presents are bound to wear you out in short order. But if you are crossing the desert with high purpose, because you have a vital message to deliver, a lost love to find, or a pledge to keep, you will go further and maybe arrive at your destination. Your high purpose does not guarantee success: the desert may still win. But your high purpose might make all the difference. Say, “Let me exhaust myself in the service of my painting. Isn’t that a key place where I’ve decided to invest meaning?” Remind yourself of your intentions and your ambitions; and then exhaust yourself in their service.

A while back I attended a book club meeting of San Francisco coaches where my book The Van Gogh Blues was being discussed. There was a hunger in the room to better understand the language of meaning that I’ve been promoting in books like The Van Gogh Blues and Coaching the Artist Within and to come to grips with phrases like making meaning, investing meaning, shoring up meaning leaks, maintaining meaning, and the like. I explained some of my ideas: that all meaning is subjective; that each of us must step up as the sole arbiter of meaning in our life; that each us must nominate ourselves as the hero of our own story; and so on.

It is encouraging to me that we are beginning to better understand what our basic attitude toward the universe must be: I am here; I have principles and ideals; I have desires and needs; I am not separate from or immune to the facts of existence; and, as a bottom line, I must make my meaning or experience a meaning shortfall. One of the ways that we honor our pledge to make personal meaning is to do the work required of us, even if that effort exhausts us. If it exhausts us, then we rest; but we do not let the fear of exhaustion prevent us from making our meaning.

One day soon, exhaust yourself in the service of your work. Start at sunrise and go until midnight, getting tired, confused, crazy, anxious, frayed, sad, and whatever else befalls you as you struggle to create. When, after several hours of doing battle, you can’t muster another thought or another brushstroke, scream, cry, feed the cat, do anything you like, but do not even think about throwing in the towel.

Paint a suite of paintings in that single day. Paint the painting that defines your genre or that integrates all that are, the painting that you’ve been meaning to start for years. Even if you can’t reach your goal, making that effort is remarkable and courageous and deserves a reward. Exhaust yourself in the service of your work and then reward yourself, at the very least with the compliment, “I worked hard, I didn’t fall apart, and I’m proud of my efforts.”

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