Getting Your Creative Motivation Back After A Long Dry Spell?
May 7, 2013 9:56 AM   Subscribe

I went on a long, long break form my creative career cause I was feeling burnt out due to some failures and now I can't seem to get back into it, possibly because I no longer have a financial incentive to do so. How can I fix this? Warning: Long, super privileged person problems.

Back-story: Due to some very lucky sets of circumstances I got to basically retire at 30. If I keep my expenses small and baring some horrible catastrophe, I don't really *have* to work ever again. I can devote all my time to my creative career(s). To celebrate this, I took a six-month break from working.

During this break I wasn't eating bon bons on the couch - I learned how to cook, to clean, to garden, went to the gym five days a week, got boots on the ground involved in politics, I helped friends out with their creative projects, spent a lot of time with my SO, and traveled around the world.

I had a set time to end this "vacation" where I didn't think of or work on anything "important". It passed three months ago. I still can't concentrate on my work. I sit with my brain and go "This is what we are doing now. We are working on THIS now."

And I can't. It's not block, I know what block feels like. It's not depression, I know what that feels like. I know exactly what I have to do and made charts and graphs and research notes for years and then I sit down and a fog descends over me and I can't physically make myself think about what I have to do. It's a complete and total fear response. Just thinking about the work ahead makes me literally start to sweat and want to flee the room.

My last two/three big projects have been flops or didn't perform as well as expected and now people are starting to not return my calls/e-mails. I've had success before, I know I'm not untalented. I know I am good at this. But I'm not getting a lot of ....external validation that I should keep trying now that I no longer *have to* for economic reasons.

What do you do when one of the one things you're really very good at just stops being fun? Like at all? I'm getting a little tight-chested just writing this but I can't take another failure, it takes so much effort for so little reward, and it makes me feel weak and self-involved that I'm hurt so much by professional rejection or lack of recognition.

And then I feel guilty for being such a whiny bitch who has a perfect fucking life and is totally an ideal situation to do whatever they want that people would kill for so buck up, shut up, and just do it. Everyday spent avoiding it is another day wasted.

And then I don't do it and feel worse. I'm terrible with self imposed deadlines cause I know I can ignore them and that makes me feel even worse. All my other successful projects have been contract work, with strict deadlines attached. Now I'm doing mostly spec and it's impossible to visualize the end-game.

So, how do I get myself out of this funk? And it really feels like a funk, like I crashed from the highs of the vacation and now can't will myself out of no matter how I try and chant CBT slogans to myself. How do I get my desire to work back? How can make myself do things I don't *have* to do? Where did my ambition go and how can I get it back?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (18 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Do something else. What do you feel like doing that's creative? Cooking? Gardening? Painting?
posted by infini at 10:00 AM on May 7, 2013

I'm terrible with self imposed deadlines cause I know I can ignore them and that makes me feel even worse.

This is so, so common it ought to be on every list of "what to expect when you're an adult."

What you need is a sense of purpose. You don't *have to* work so you don't believe your work is necessary. That's gotta suck but try to recognize that it has nothing to do with you personally, or your skills, or your ability to get the job done. It's just that wherever it is that you have previously and are now directing your efforts may not be where they're most needed.

What did you do on these underperforming projects? Say you were writing plays. Well, right now there are a lot of plays out there, there are lots of playwrights feverishly working in damp attic spaces just to pay the rent; they're driven by need to get their plays out the door.

But there's a high school trying to do West Side Story and they need to costume about 40 kids for $100. Research & write a grant! Or, there are lots of small businesses and nonprofits that are paying advertising agencies ridiculous hourly rates to manage their social media presence ... offer that for free to some Main Street shops that do/sell something you love.

I'm not getting a lot of ....external validation

When it's an avocation instead of a vocation, external validation isn't necessary. You don't *have to* work to survive, but you *have to* contribute to thrive. Figure out what will make you thrive. It may not be what you've done before.

My brother wants to make his millions by 40 so he can quit and start up a Big Brothers-type of nonprofit in his town. He has never done mentoring or race relations or nonprofit work or anything else related, he is just a hell of a manager with vision.

Good luck, I am sure you will be able to do some good, important work once you figure out your next step.
posted by headnsouth at 10:16 AM on May 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

This sounds a bit like the lives of lottery winners. You need meaning in your life then goals. Doing the same stuff you did before your windfall sounds like a kind of default. I wonder if your heart is in it. I also wonder if this a spiritual (in the broadest sense) issue. I would try to get some time with "wise" person, whether that is a therapist, a cleric, a philosopher or just a grounded friend.
I can say that a lot if people get meaning and satisfaction in helping others. Might be time for a career change. You can try "Man's Search For Meaning" but ultimately you need to spend some time looking inside yourself.
I wish you well in your search.
posted by PickeringPete at 10:17 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

You should impose some structure on your days through volunteer work. it's hard to sit down by yourself every day and work on a personal project that is sort of optional, and I can imagine it would be lonely and frustrating to do so without a community/network to share with.

Sign up for courses so that you have external deadlines and classmates and a teacher to give you the structure you need.
posted by winterportage at 10:20 AM on May 7, 2013

Also, read the Artist's Way.
posted by winterportage at 10:23 AM on May 7, 2013

Some things that have helped me reset and get grounded:

Anne Lamott's book Bird by Bird

Annie Dillard's book Teaching a Stone to Talk

I work at a Creative Agency and after 12 years here, it's a trip to watch people rise and fall as life mixes together with the demand to be creative and produce on demand.

Creative jobs have a really high burnout rate, you have to take a lot of punches to get to a win. One of the best things you can do to find your fire again is collaborate. Get people to chime in and critique during your process, even if it annoys you.

Some of my best ideas have come from my reactions to other people's stupid input. "I'll show them!"

Take on a small project that is meaningful to you and put your superpowers to work for that. It's amazing at how much harder we work on things we actually care about and feel connected to.

You have a gift, and retirement is bullshit. The world needs more creators, keep going and teach some others if you can.
posted by bobdow at 10:34 AM on May 7, 2013 [6 favorites]

And then I feel guilty for being such a whiny bitch who has a perfect fucking life and is totally an ideal situation to do whatever they want that people would kill for so buck up, shut up, and just do it. Everyday spent avoiding it is another day wasted.

Stop giving yourself such a hard time! I actually think that while it is great that you recognize you are fortunate, you're ALLOWED to have a hard time with re-entry after taking six months off. You're spiraling because you feel like this ought to be easy because it's a luxury because you don't need the money it might make you, but creative work is NEVER EASY. ESPECIALLY when you are out of the process of motivating yourself (and having to hustle to pay the rent is a great and easy motivator; other forms of motivation aren't nearly as effective, generally, in terms of that MUST GET RESULTS NOW feeling). Beating yourself up is a waste of energy that you could be using to work on your project. Everyone has motivation problems creatively every now and then: you, me, Baz Luhrmann, whoever. It's not because you're ungrateful or have a moral failing, so stop beating yourself up about it.

My feeling is that maybe you're also just not that into whatever project you're working on. I know that when I have a creative project that I am jazzed about, it's pretty easy to work on. So maybe you just need more time percolating on whatever it is you're supposed to be working on until you can't wait to get to work on it. THAT is also part of the process and you ARE lucky that you have the luxury to do that part of it at your own pace.

Re; deadlines. Do you have an agent, or someone who sells your stuff? (Hard to tell what your creative work is.) MAKE THEM give you a deadline once you've come up with an idea you really love.

Good luck!
posted by Countess Sandwich at 10:37 AM on May 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't know if you're referring to visual arts because you tagged the words painting and design, or maybe those are just related to typical creative plans and you're trying to get any answers that are related(the charts and graphs threw me off)..but with drawing/painting/other artistic endeavors, I usually don't wait to create something good or a complete idea. If I can't think of anything, I just tell myself I need to work on technique and will make myself draw five hands, work on color, or study anatomy books for example. It makes you feel more productive and is actually really effective because with these things, you need to work on fundamentals and the tedious things that really aren't that creative before making anything good, so you're benefitting your future product by honing your technical skills. It's not always supposed to be fun. It is work. And break it down by what small goal you want to achieve. You'll feel better even getting in a half an hour of something small but related.

So many artists have reflected on how you shouldn't wait for inspiration. You just do work, and results will follow.

Also what motivates me is comparing myself to what I want to achieve. Suddenly I feel the urgency to work on my goals and improve. If you're referring to writing or something, I'm sure there are technical exercises you need to put yourself through as well. I don't really "write" so I wouldn't know exactly.

Blogs that have a following of people who expect you to post are also motivators. And if you have the money, then take classes.
posted by wholecornandsalt at 10:47 AM on May 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

If you can do whatever you want right now, why are you pushing yourself so hard to do something you don't actually want to do?

I have a semi-career in one of the arts, and I can tell you, if I took 6 months off, I would have done SO MUCH MORE of it. Not stopped! The thing about a creative skill is that it sort of eats its way out of you and you can't stop it. If you're having to force it, there's something wrong there.

So, never mind "retiring". Bobdow is right, retirement IS bullshit. All the people I know who have a "creative" career have no plans to retire, because why stop doing something which you don't want to stop doing? Or can't?

So.... why do you want to do this thing so bad? How would it feel to call it a hobby instead of a career? What did you really enjoy doing during that time off? Make that your career instead. You'll be much happier.
posted by greenish at 10:52 AM on May 7, 2013

Maybe you could hire a life coach to help you rekindle that fire. Or you can try to impose an external deadline by working with a collaborator. Or sign up for an expensive workshop across the country.
posted by dragonplayer at 10:53 AM on May 7, 2013

Bring somebody else in who does need this as work. Since you're not on the hook for this work, having something at stake is going to be a valuable component, and the well-being of someone who is relying on you to produce might just be it.
posted by xingcat at 11:02 AM on May 7, 2013

I learned how to cook, to clean, to garden, went to the gym five days a week, got boots on the ground involved in politics, I helped friends out with their creative projects, spent a lot of time with my SO, and traveled around the world.

That is a lot to get through in six months. Maybe you need some time to eat bon bons on the couch. I think creativity is an organic thing that can't be forced or turned off and on. It sounds like you put yourself under pressure to succeed at any given task and the beauty of creative acts is that they allow for failure. The fantastic situation you are in is that failure has no implications on you financially.

If I were in your place I would make or do things for my own pleasure first and foremost. Things I would never show to others. I think that will draw you to where the fire in your belly is and what you really enjoy.
posted by 0 answers at 11:05 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Creativity is not tied to just one way of expression. It sounds as though you may need to find something you feel passionate about.

Look for something that intrigues you and explore it to the max. Your curiosity and interest will bring you to a point where your creative drive kicks in.

Not having to worry about money allows you to explore new areas. The old field may just not be the one that is going to excite you now.

Sometimes the brain gets in the way. It is too easy for it to settle into a pattern of thought which blocks new concepts. That's when just doing something, any thing is needed. Activity primes the pump and distracts the brain from it's unproductive patterns. Clean the studio, go to a gallery, try something new, revisit a book that influenced you, teach a class, anything to get out of your head so new concepts can begin to percolate!
posted by cat_link at 11:33 AM on May 7, 2013

Art is feeling. You're not feeling the drive now because you don't have struggles... you have time, money and a relationship. So many needs are met! So put yourself in situations that are actually very emotionally hard for you (whatever they are), to get the feeling juice going, and then create from there. Maybe failure is the hard one for you. Maybe it's rejection and loss of esteem of others. So keep failing at your art. Also, make a schedule and keep at it, make shit art, and more shit art until it's not so shitty anymore. Also, bonbons on the couch when you're done making the shit art. From boredom also comes art. And finally, hang around hippie art people. Not shitty artists, but people who speak in non-linearities that make your head want to explode. And in that explosion... with the people you can't stand the most... make more shit art.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:34 AM on May 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

The thing is, working for yourself is really different than working for someone else. But because your creative goals are the still the same, you're assuming that you haven't really changed careers, so all of your old skills should transfer and you should be able to just effortlessly pick up where you left off six months ago before everything changed.

I think you'd do better to this of this as completely starting over. In a lot of ways, you have just changed careers, so you've got to cut yourself some slack while you figure out how everything works. Did you show up at your first job after college and immediately start producing amazing creative things? Or did you have to spend a while messing around the office, trying to figure out how to navigate office politics and make the copy machine work and meet your boss's deadlines? I imagine it was the latter.

What makes working for yourself so hard is that you're simultaneously the new person in the office and your one and only boss and co-worker. Since you're now your one and only co-worker, bake yourself some brownies as a "Welcome to the team!" sort of thing. And then eat them all yourself! Ahem. Anyway, you've got to organize your own work life now and create new systems, without any help from friendly co-workers or bosses. That all takes more than 6 months. We, the people from the internet, can give you suggestions and things to think about, but you're going to have to do all of the heavy lifting yourself. Be nice to yourself in the meantime. You're not an idiot or a whiny bitch. You're just trying to do something hard.

So. Here are the inter-related things you've got to get figured out before you can start being truly productive again, I think. I tend to frame things in terms of writing, hence all the references to the computer and empty pages, but adapt as needed to your own medium:

1. You've got to figure out when and how you can trick yourself into being productive without any outside structure or immediate rewards. Get up early and go straight to the computer? Go to a coffee shop (if your work is writing of some sort) and work there for a few hours every afternoon? Tell yourself you're just going to sit down and work on your project for 10 minutes (it's only 10 minutes, right) before you do anything else? Find a sunny spot in the public library? Give yourself the day free, but close the door after dinner and work until midnight? In some places, you can rent a desk in a collective office space, just so you can still go to work.

2. You've got to figure out how to judge the quality of your own work without a boss, or whoever, to say, "Yes, no, no, yes, a little more there, a little less there, good." The white-knuckle version of this is to just get used to saying, "Fuck it, I think it's good," and send your project out into the world when you think it's finished. This requires a high tolerance for other people's indifference and/or outright rejection. If you want to work your way up to that, find a creative workshop group or a creative buddy (either in person or online) who is willing to exchange feedback with you for a while.

3. You've got to figure out how what your internal deadlines actually are, and how to make yourself stick to them. This is related to the first problem, tricking yourself into being productive. It invovles getting better at fighting your inner inertia, the marshmallow inside you that would rather do anything, anything, than actually sit down and face your blank page. Sometimes just making yourself sit in your chair in front of the computer for an hour every day, like you're trying to potty-train a toddler, can help. Sometimes I think about Paul Rudnick: "Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials." Sometimes I think about Macbeth: "Screw your courage to the sticking place."

If you've worked from home before (I can't quite tell from your question), you may have figured these things out already, but if not, here are two other things you'll need to learn:

4. If work is no longer a reason for leaving the house and interacting with people, you've got to figure out how you're going to fill the need, however large or small it is, to be a social animal. Unrelated hobbies are good for this: book clubs, classes, volunteer work. If you live in a city with lots of people who are either under-employed or freelancing, lunch dates or other excursions during the work can can also be good: go to art exhibits, concerts, etc.

5. You've got to figure out how to separate work and home, when both things are in the same place, so that you don't spend all of your free time feeling guilty about not working. Do you need a study? The above mentioned communal office space? A page limit: e.g. if you get 4 pages written in one day, then you're done for the day, no matter how long that took you? Or a time limit: if you've worked on a project for 4 hours, then you're free for the rest of the day? This involves figuring out how fast you can actually work on something, and if you do better with one long stretch, or with a couple of different work periods through the day.
posted by colfax at 11:43 AM on May 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

I don't like working for free because subconsciously it makes me feel like my work has no values. Maybe you don't need a 9-5, or a boss, or to be out there hustling...but that doesn't mean you shouldn't be getting paid for what you do! Getting paid is a sign that the market values your contribution.

I'm not sure what you do, but find a way to let other people show you how much they value it by paying you for it. Set up an Etsy shop, get a coffee shop to hang your paintings or photos on the wall, send you stories or essays to literary magazines or start a blog that you promote (ad revenue!), take your works to local art galleries.
posted by amaire at 12:17 PM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

What do you do when one of the one things you're really very good at just stops being fun? Like at all? I'm getting a little tight-chested just writing this but I can't take another failure, it takes so much effort for so little reward, and it makes me feel weak and self-involved that I'm hurt so much by professional rejection or lack of recognition.

Since I have it on the brain right now, I'm thinking about this in terms of how a director might coach an actor through this kind of thing -- when the scene isn't fun and the actor's just focusing on the risk of failure and stopping up their creativity.

In that situation I'd look for ways to take the pressure off, not pile it on. Like, do the scene with silly voices; do it while throwing a ball back and forth; do it five times in a row as fast as possible; say "OK, I think we've got it, let's just do one more for fun". Make the thing they're afraid of (failure?) inevitable so they can move past it.

So I don't know what your field is, but my suggestion is to spend this month failing at it as fast as you can. If you're a painter or photographer, do a series on bus-station toilets. If you're a director, write and direct a play in one weekend and put it on in the park. If you're a designer, spend a few days entering the most ridiculous designs you can think of on 99 Designs. Feel free to PM me if you want an assignment and accountability -- or find a friend in a creative field, and take turns giving each other assignments.

Basically it sounds like the combination of high expectations and no constraints is killing you here -- so start screwing with the assumptions.
posted by jhc at 12:59 PM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I spent a few years being paid excessively well to work on cool stuff that stretched me in interesting ways, on my own time and my own schedule, and then that work dried up.

So I took a job in a cube farm, convincing myself that even though the technical aspects of the job were mundane, the social processes of the job were interesting enough that I'd find plenty of challenge and interest in trying to dig through those and improve those processes.

I was wrong. Not all challenges are equal. Practicing my craft under a set of technical constraints is not the same as practicing my craft under a set of social constraints.

I thought I was doing something I was really very good, something fun, but it's subtly different from that. To the outside observer I'm still sitting at a desk in front of a screen programming, or discussing requirements and getting input from potential stakeholders, and then turning their needs into software, but in practice I'm finding that because I don't have a whole lot of input into the processes that would actually change things, I'm bored and distractable.

In my case, I'm going off and learning a whole bunch about transportation and regional planning issues, talking with people interested in that sort of economics. Completely outside of my software development field. I'm getting some kudos, not, I think, because I'm particularly insightful, but because I'm insightful for a beginner in the field, I'm able to bring some freshness to the conversations I'm having.

So maybe... pick a field you're interested in, you know something about, but is very different from what you're doing. Maybe see if you can get someone to hire you as a consultant to do some research for them on that project (yay biking, the new golf!). You can use the tools of your existing field to leverage your work in the new one, but don't try to get the recognition or look to the other professionals in the field you've already done work in. Start over again.

This will get you interested in learning again, and give you the beginner's boost in terms of making sure you can get some recognition and attaboys from your new peers. Then when you've started to bring those insights into that new field, you can see how you can tie your abilities into the previous field into those new endeavours.
posted by straw at 4:58 PM on May 8, 2013

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