The fruits of creativity may look all neat and cleanly packaged by the time they reach the public, but the creative process, itself, is not usually that kind. In fact, it can be annoying, frustrating, painful, agonizing, and even paralyzing.
When you cast your lot with creativity, be prepared to paint yourself into a corner – often. And though that sounds (and feels) really bad, it's actually golden. In the desperation of those moments, you're likely to discover tolerances and capabilities you never knew you had, and worlds you never imagined. You'll learn that fear is just another signpost on your path, not the end of it. The empowerment that results from the experience will be truly liberating.
The first time this happened to me, I was a twenty-year-old climbing at Seneca Rocks in northwestern Maryland. After we'd been there an hour or so, a few of us set off to explore the stream flowing in our narrow little valley. We followed the valley upstream, gradually descending to meet the water. Then, we followed the stream, itself, back down. When the time came to go home, we were surprised to find ourselves hundreds of feet below where we'd started from, and out of sight of our party. That meant more climbing, so we set off up the valley slope towards our friends (and our rides home to Pittsburgh).
About two thirds of the way up, we got stuck. Sideways and up were all dirt and flaky rocks that gave no foothold whatsoever. And down was a long rolling fall to severe injury or death. We were missing, and not likely to be found before sundown. I remember the moment vividly. There were no options, my body was on the line, and I was probably going to die. I tried to climb up one more time and instead lost ground in a dangerous slide.
That situation illustrated creative inquiry perfectly. I explored, I encountered the unexpected, and I faced annihilation. In creative inquiry, the next step is liberation. I found mine when I abandoned my youthful athletic grace and, out of sheer desperation, scrambled like a rodent fleeing a predator. I scratched my way up the slope, inches at a time, with my feet and hands moving in rapid short strokes. I used every surface of my body to gain traction, including my fingernails. If my body could have spoken, it would have screamed "Yeeeiiiiooooow!" like some action comic hero. I was scared and thoroughly humiliated. But just one minute of scrambling got me over those few rough vertical yards, and the rest of the way up was easy.
I didn't know I had that reserve of determination in me, and I'm glad I found out, because I've had to rely on it again and again. In fact, I'm having to rely on it today, as current economic conditions have put my business plans in serious jeopardy. I'm not in purely physical danger, but in some ways it feels like I am. And I'm scrambling. Perhaps you are, too – in a job search, career change, or business survival challenge of your own.
In my scramble today, I'm having to resort to business strategies I'd never have seriously considered before. They're not unethical by any means, or dishonest, or even disingenuous. In fact, there's nothing wrong with them at all except that I find them distasteful. As I face them I have to force myself to remember that they hold the gold – that only by scrambling through my distaste will I find relief and empowerment.
These challenges of mine, and those of yours, are part of the human condition. We've all faced them, invited or not. They illustrate my contention that we are all creative. We explore, we're challenged, we scramble, and we grow.
I'm reminded of learning to eat fish, one of my favorite foods: it takes a while to develop a taste for fish, and it stinks the whole time until you do. Sushi, anyone?