To Learn Creative Skills, Develop “Self-Direction,” Not “Self-Discipline” or “Self-Control”

Man in underground tunnel digging with pickaxe towards a lightbulb in a small cave

If you want to do creative work at a high level, you need to spend significant time developing your skills. There is no substitute for practice. Some people would say you need self-discipline to develop the skills. Others would say you need self-control to put in systematic effort. I use neither of those terms because each of them smuggles in a mistaken perspective on effort that sabotages creative work.

Let's start with "self-discipline." The primary meaning of "discipline" is corrective punishment. The word "self-discipline" implies that you train yourself to do the right thing by punishing yourself when you do the wrong thing. Usually that punishment takes the form of self-criticism rather than direct physical self-harm, but it is self-sabotage nonetheless.

If you manage your effort through self-discipline, you will develop a highly-automatized self-critical voice that reinforces itself. Then when you go to direct your effort toward something truly creative, that self-critical voice will stop you in your tracks.

For example, I've been talking with some budding creatives in my Launch program: novelists, artists, even a cartoonist. More than one reported that they didn't enjoy doing the creative work because they are not yet at a master level. While they are doing the work, all they can think about is how it's not good enough. They are not where they want to be.

This makes no sense. You develop artistic skill by doing beginner and then intermediate work, which is necessarily primitive compared to a master's work. You need to automatize basic and intermediate skills before you can begin to learn master-level skills.

Everyone knows it is much easier to criticize something than it is to create it in the first place. And yet, if you activate a mindset that is focused on catching mistakes and punishing yourself if you make them, you program your mind to criticize every single thing you see that’s "wrong." This will automatically generalize so that whenever you see something less than perfect in your novel or drawing or cartoon, you criticize it. You look at what's wrong. And, since you are a beginner who likely doesn't know how to fix it, you will trigger frustration and self-doubt. You will be miserable. You will learn to hate working. If that's so, how will you ever put in the time to become good?

A proper creative process features reward, not punishment. It is designed so that you can see progress with each step. This allows you to get satisfaction from you work, even when you are a beginner or intermediate. Even when you see flaws, you can also see your own artistic expression unfurling before you. These self-reinforcing positives are essential to motivating yourself to put in the time to become a master.

"Self-control" is a better, more neutral term for skill at putting in effort where needed. At least the term leaves open how you take control. If you have read my recent article on emotional resilience, you know that when you feel contradictory impulses, I recommend you stay on track by suspending action. This gives you a moment to regroup to find a constructive way forward. This is the best way to take the reins when you feel pulled in two directions.

But thinking of this as "self-control" smuggles in some assumptions that are antithetical to creativity. The word "control" has an implication of restraining or regulating something. One dictionary's definition of self-control is "the power of controlling one's external reactions, emotions, etc." But you cannot control your automatized reactions, especially not your emotional reactions. And in creative work, you need to nurture and explore those reactions rather than control them.

For example, when writing, you need to be able to notice your emotional reactions to the piece as you work. Your feelings of joy and love and humor shine a light on elements that may be unexpectedly important. They point you to fresh new ideas. Your worries and frustrations are alerts to issues that need more attention. They help you decide how to edit. In creative work, you need objective self-awareness. You need to be sensitive to your feelings, curious about their causes, and purposeful in how you use the information to achieve your goal. You constantly dance between cognition, emotion, and action as you draw on your knowledge and skills to create the product you envision.

If you hold the mistaken idea that you can control your emotions, you will fail spectacularly at creative work. Confusing and contradictory emotions become the evidence that you do not, in fact, control them. But emotions are just alerts to values that are at stake in the moment. They are just messengers; there is no problem in feeling them. Quite the contrary. If you stop feeling them, you cut yourself off from that essential value information that is part of the creative process. You shouldn't try to control your feelings. Rather, you need to introspect them so that you can accurately interpret and judge the value information that underlies them.

In short, to be creative, you need to do more than spend time on the task and stick to a schedule. You need to be value-focused. You need to design the work to be rewarding. You need to embrace and learn from every contradictory emotion that you feel. Being value-focused permits you to stay agile so you can follow promising new leads and drop dead ends with ease.

For example, if you felt uneasy about a draft cartoon, you wouldn't know what that meant until you investigated that feeling further. If it came from a vague sense you'd seen the idea for the cartoon before, you might throw it out and start over. But if the problem is that you didn't quite capture the expression you wanted, your best next step might be to reach out to a cartoon coach for advice on how to improve the drawing.

This is why I recommend that creatives think of the skill they need as "self-direction," not "self-discipline" or "self-control."

"Self-direction" means you sustain a conscious purpose in the face of internal and external obstacles, especially contradictory emotions. It means you are free to adjust your course or step up the effort depending on your judgment call. You stay agile and open to new information. The hallmark of self-direction is that you ask yourself high-level questions such as, "Am I making sufficient progress for my effort?" "What values underlie my feelings?" "Am I experiencing an out-of-context emotion caused by some old baggage that is still lingering around?" "What progress have I made?" The answers to questions like these help you decide what matters most now.

When you are self-directed, you don't intend to do exactly what you said you'd do (as in self-discipline) or to keep your actions close to a predefined course (as in self-control). Instead, you maintain an intention to shine a light on your progress, assess any new information that comes up from unexpected difficulties, and decide based on that information whether to adjust your course, or strengthen your motivation by re-affirming your reasons, or step back and regroup.

This is how you create. This is how you turn a vision in your mind into something real in the world.

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