It took a long time to sink in … but I finally got comfortable with this Creativity Paradox: Dream Big But Focus.
So often in life — as in our creative process — we assume things must be either one or the other. For instance: That person is either a bastard or a saint. A challenge is either easy or impossible. Conditions in life are either exactly the way we want them to be or exactly what we don’t want them to be. This is see-saw, one-or-the-other, dualistic, either-or thinking. And it’s hogwash. It’s merely a game the mind plays to distract us from seeing reality. Hey, Kids! Life is Paradox!
F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
Richard Rohr, a noted speaker and Franciscan monk, supports this notion. In his book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Rohr writes: “Our Western dualistic minds do not process paradoxes well. Without a contemplative mind, we do not know how to hold creative tensions. We are better at rushing to judgement and demanding a complete resolution of things before we have learned what they have to teach us … too-quick answers keep you from necessary searchings.” This “contemplative mind” Rohr speaks of is a state we reach when we accept that life isn’t either/or but both/and.
How does this work in practical terms? Remember that person I referenced above? The truth is, they’re probably not either a bastard or a saint, but both. Think about it. Doesn’t everyone has more than one side to their personality? Isn’t it also true that, given different contexts, we all show different faces to the world? By the same token, can’t it be true that a challenge is both enjoyable and impossible?
Take life itself, for example. Jim Morrison once said, “No one here gets out alive.” He was right. From a certain point of view, life is a bad movie where everyone dies in the end. That makes it an impossible situation. So does that mean we shouldn’t enjoy it? Hardly. And what about our conditions in life? Isn’t it common to want so much more … until we lose something precious? At which point, we prize the little things so much? So conditions aren’t either good or bad. They can be both/and.
“Both/and thinking” goes by many other names such as:, paradoxical thinking, non-dualistic thinking, contemplative thinking, and embracing the tension of opposites. And it’s very important to practice both/and thinking. Why? Because the more we embrace paradoxical thinking, the more we grow beyond our narrow, egoic confines and dispel our personal illusions about the world.
Shakespeare hit this right on the nose when he wrote: “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”
When we begin to remove our polarized illusions about life, we develop the flexibility and courage to see the world as it is — instead of the way we think it is. And once we see how the world truly is … only then we can start to change it. So how does this apply to artists? Let’s take a look.
This was my desk as it looked for a long, long time. Stop laughing. It took me a while to get it like this. Please take note of what I called my “Dream Wall.” You can’t miss it. It’s that wild collage of images, quotes, and memorabilia over the typewriter. For years, I made it my practice to affix whatever sparked my interest to the Wall. Pictures of awards I dreamed of winning? Check. Property I wanted to own someday? Double check. Evocative images of me in great relationships? Yup. Pictures of me and my son hanging out, doing fun activities? Got it.
My Dream Wall was a very “Oprah” activity. The idea behind it was this: Each time I’d sit down to work, I’d lift my head and glimpse images of the life I’ve always wanted staring back at me. And, by seeing these images over and over, I’d somehow draw those things to me, like a magnet draws paper clips.That’s the theory behind a vision board: the attractive power of visualization.
Look, I’m not saying that vision boards don’t work. But I am confessing that mine wasn’t working. And I think I know why. Like all the images up on my wall, my dreams were too scattered. Too hodgepodge. Too lumped together. That was the first problem.
The second, more important problem was, that I wasn’t respecting a paradox. You can dream but you still have to live in this world. You can wish but you still have to focus and work. Jim Carrey said this best one time. (Ironically, he was on the Oprah Winfrey Show when he said it.) “Visualization works if you work hard,” Oprah said. Carrey agreed. “Well, yeah. That’s the thing. You’ can’t just visualize then go eat a sandwich.” What I think Jim Carrey was saying was this: There’s a lot of magic in life … but the best kind of magic comes from taking action in ways that align with what you want. Have a dream … but focus to make that dream real. I realized I was putting more stock in my dreams than I was in the focus, the action, the work that was needed to make my dreams reality. I realized that something had to change.
Thanks to COVID-19, I had (ahem) … a bit more time on my hands. And I hadn’t been spending it all making crocks of pulled pork. So, one day, I took down my Dream Wall. At which point, the wall over my desk looked like this:
The next morning, I sat down to work and everything felt … well. Odd. I remember glancing up at my blank wall and feeling crestfallen. Damn it, I thought. Did I go too far? What happened to my dreams? I wondered. What about all those awards I’ve wanted to win? The properties? The relationships? Was I giving all that up? Not at all. Funny thing: As I stared at my freshly denuded wall, I could still see the images that had hung there. Still feel the impact they made on me. They weren’t up on the wall anymore. But somehow, I still carried them inside me. What the hell’s going on? I thought. It was almost like I didn’t need the wall anymore. Intrigued, I finished my pages that morning. Then I grabbed a pad of sticky notes and jotted down everything I wanted to get done that afternoon. I stuck each note to the wall over my desk. Like this:
Next to the sticky notes, I also posted my 2020 Census form — so I’d remember I had to complete that, too. I also hung up the one image I really want to focus on these days: a photo of someone handing a book off to someone else. Because that’s what I’m working on now: a new book.
But that’s it. Nothing else went up on the wall. And guess what? By the end of that day, all the pink sticky notes were gone. One by one, I’d done all the tasks they listed and taken them down. I’d also taken down my Census form. Turns out they do the Census by Internet these days. So filling out my information was easy. Another task done.
A couple of days went by. Each day I repeated the process. When my pages were done each morning, I’d write little tasks on fresh sticky notes and post them up on the wall. Then, all afternoon, I’d complete the tasks and take them down. Repeat, repeat. Without really trying too hard, I was getting more done than I’d ever dreamed possible. Then I had another idea. It was time to make my wall look a bit more official. I ordered a bulletin board.
This is what my crazy Dream Wall looks like now.
Another paradox: less is more. Though it looks very different, I’m still on the road to my dreams. If anything, I’m getting there faster now. Because I’m traveling lighter. So. What I did I learn overall? There’s a classic creativity paradox: “Dream Big But Focus.” Like any paradox, this one can be daunting at first. Our minds default to perceiving many situations as either one way or the other. But that’s a false dichotomy.
Paradox is one of life’s essential truths. And we can always embrace paradox with both/and thinking. For instance: It’s possible to be both a creative person and an organized person. It’s okay to both dream about things AND work to achieve them. Really creative people are both dreamers and focused “doers.” Really creative people possess both imagination and the will to enact their imaginings. We don’t reach heaven by wishing on stars. We do it by building ourselves rocket ships. This can take a long time, of course, which is why so few people bother to try it. Any endeavor worth dreaming about is worth focusing on, worth trials and failures. We put one foot in front of the other. Repeat, repeat — until we arrive. It’s possible to both dream big and focus.
This is the way of the true creative.