Where EVERYONE is a maker

Episode 7: Creativity is a Marathon, Not a Sprint

What the hell does running have to do with creativity? More than you realize! In this episode, we’ll talk about what happens when the motivation for your art falls off a cliff and how to prepare for the inevitable valleys of despair (aka creative blocks) that follow.

Plus I’ll share 5 tools I’ve gained from marathon running that will help you to go the distance when you really just want to give up already.

Scroll down for a full episode transcript.

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In this episode:

1:21 – The Dunning-Kruger Effect graph:

Other TMMP episodes mentioned in this episode:

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[00:00:02] Hola and welcome to The Maker Muse Podcast. I’m Paulette Erato, The Maker Muse. ¿Como estan mis amiges? Today, let’s talk about how creativity isn’t exactly constant. It’s more of like an ebb and flow. It’s actually like a marathon.

[00:00:16] And what exactly does running a race have to do with being creative? (I should have, or maybe I did warn you all that, I’m going to use a lot of food and workout metaphors during our time here.) So today we’re talking about running and creativity, and I’ll tell you right off the bat: I hate running. So I get it, if you don’t like these exercise metaphors. If you do like running, that’s cool no shade to you. It’s just not my preferred form of exercise. But really what does running have to do with creativity?

[00:00:47] Well, your creativity can feel like a marathon. It’s not something you want to speed through. I mean, yes, you might want to shorten the distance between where you are now and your happy place. Like, how can you sprint over there? And I gave you the answer to that in episode three, which is called, “getting to your happy place.”

[00:01:06] One tool you have in your creativity toolbox for that is listening to a hype song or a whole playlist. And also that playlist might actually look like your workout playlist. Have you ever wondered why? Because getting and staying motivated is much easier when the soundtrack that you’re consuming while doing the-thing-you-want-to-be-motivated-to-do keeps you focused and excited.

[00:01:31] So there’s something that can happen during our process of getting into creative flow. And it’s kind of related to the Dunning- Kruger effect. Okay. I’m going to get a little science-y on you again. Hang on, it’s actually going to make a lot of sense…hopefully. So the Dunning- Kruger effect is named after two psychologists, David Dunning, and Justin Kruger, who recognized that most people start off really excited about doing something until they realize there’s way more to this thing than they originally thought. And then their enthusiasm falls way off. There’s a lot more to it than that. It has to do with confidence climbing and plummeting against the backdrop of competence. But we’ll get to that.

[00:02:14] You already know you’re creative. You aren’t suddenly starting off on a climb up a mountain or worse a marathon race without training, right? So, what does this have to do with you? Let’s talk about what happens after the Dunning- Kruger effect.

[00:02:30] So a person starts off super motivated and excited. But after a little while all of that enthusiasm disappears and then they face a lot of frustration. It’s kind of like how people will jump into a new gym membership in January, but by February, they’ve stopped going to the gym. It isn’t on their radar anymore, despite the fact they’re still paying for it.

[00:02:52] That is what’s called the valley of despair. And it’s where the ebb to your creative flow can start. It can feel like a creative block. Or like you’re stuck in a rut. I’ll link to a picture of a really great graph representing this concept in the show notes, you can see very clearly the steep decline between the excitement at the beginning of a thing and the dive into the valley of despair. And in that picture, you’ll also see areas marked the slope of enlightenment and the plateau of sustainability, both of which I will get to.

[00:03:26] Then, how do you get out of this nightmare where your creativity seems to have abandoned you? Before I give you the complete answer. Let me tell you a story about my running days.

[00:03:35] So we’ve already established that I am not a runner, but I did run two half marathons in my twenties. That’s how I know I hate it. And it’s a good way to illustrate a few things.

[00:03:46] So to start off, you can’t run without learning to walk first. Back in episode four, we talked about baby steps and how those are the literal building blocks of walking. And you know what running is? It’s just an advanced form of walking that almost anyone can do. Even me who hates running. I know I can when I have to. Like, if there’s danger, I’m sure as hell running away from that.

[00:04:11] But you don’t know how to run until you walk. Okay? Good. A marathon or a half marathon, because that’s what I actually ran. Don’t be too disappointed.

[00:04:22] (As an aside, I’m probably going to be using those two terms interchangeably, even though I know they’re not the same thing. Runners, bear with me. If I say marathon you’ll know, I mean, half marathon.)

[00:04:32] Anyway, a half marathon, in case you didn’t know, is 13.1 miles or 21 kilometers long. It’s a truly grueling distance, but it starts the same for everyone. No matter who you are, from the first time runner to the elite-y-est of athletes, you start by taking one step forward. Then another. And another. And you keep repeating that for 13 miles. So fun.

[00:04:58] My point is that no matter how talented you are at this sport, you are doing the same thing as everyone around you. The elite athletes simply do it faster. But they didn’t get to that point without first having to take a step forward. Then another and another and rinse and repeat. Everyone starts at the starting line and they all finish at the finish line.

[00:05:22] There was something I learned during the running of these horrible events that relates really well to the creative journey. See, I’m going to tie it all together now.

[00:05:31] So to put this in racing terms: you begin at the starting line, maybe a little nervous, but motivated to do this. Then you get a few miles in and your energy starts to flag. You really start to question why you’re doing this. Your enthusiasm for it is gone and the only thing keeping you going is a little bit of discipline, but you’re tempted to throw it all out the window and just stop. Why are you still running? What is chasing you? These are the thoughts that went through my head.

[00:05:58] But then you hear someone cheering you on by name. What’s that? Oh, hey! Your friends came to watch you run and they’re yelling your name. Now all of a sudden you have a spike in energy. You saw a friendly face and they’re hyping you up just enough to keep you going for a little while longer.

[00:06:14] But a little later, you start losing gas again. Maybe you even need to pee (or poop that happens). There are some porta-potties so you take a break and it’s just long enough to catch your breath and reset a little. And off you go again. But then it happens again. Your energy is truly gone. You need something to eat. And because you thought this might happen (because of course you trained for it) you see all your friends again at the next mile marker. This time they have food and another water bottle to replenish your electrolytes. At this point, you’re way past the halfway point. You’re on the back end of this race. You just have to keep going until the finish line. You’ve got this, there’s a cheering squad. You’ve got some fuel in your body and you can do it! ¡Si se puede!

[00:07:00] When you finally do see that finish line, it trips something inside you that makes you pick up the pace just a little bit. It’s that last burn of energy. Maybe you want to shave off just one more second from your finish time.

[00:07:12] Whatever it is. You’re going, going, going, and then…it’s all over. Congratulations! And now you can wrap yourself up in foil and have a beer.

[00:07:22] So when I was doing it, my valleys of despair would happen right around miles four and nine. I knew from my training runs, I could go about four to five miles before my energy was fully depleted. The gas tank would be totally at zero. But if I got a fresh bottle of electrolytes and maybe a small peanut butter sandwich, then I’d be good to go. I’d climb out of that valley of despair up the slope of enlightenment to the plateau of sustainability, which lasted about four miles.

[00:07:51] So to make sure I didn’t abandon my races when I knew I’d be at my lowest points of motivation and energy, I strategically planted friends and family at those points in the race. They’d have water and food to refill my physical needs and friendly cheering faces to feed the motivational needs.

[00:08:09] Remember how we talked about the importance of celebration and cheering as incentives to continue doing the thing? In the episode about the happy place I described how football players celebrate every small play and it amplifies their drive to keep at it, to keep trying to score. I also mentioned how parents encourage their kids to learn to walk by applauding every little step.

[00:08:32] The small group of cheerleaders I had at mile markers four and nine served the same purpose. They hyped up my confidence as I was working on gaining the competence. See by mile four, you’re already one third of the way done with the race. You’ve run four entire miles. That’s not nothing. That’s cause to celebrate.

[00:08:55] And if you remember from that same episode, that competence gives you confidence. As you continue to run moving further up your slope of enlightenment, you’re gaining confidence by proving to your brain that you’re capable of this. As you reach the plateau of sustainability, your confidence in that is almost as high as when you started. But more importantly, and this is truly what keeps you going, this is the sustainable part, is that your levels of competence are just as high. As your competence increased, so did your confidence.

[00:09:29] Also rest is important. Sure elite athletes can finish a race without rest, but the rest of us non-elite athletes? We need breaks. So when your energy is lacking, you take a break to rest. Whether it’s to use the bathroom or to have a bite to eat.

[00:09:45] Another trick I used was to listen to music. I can never work out without some kind of music playing. And remember how we talked about a personal anthem or a hype song that gets you into creative flow, into your happy place? I had a whole playlist of hype songs. It was several hours long because yeah, that’s how long it took me to run a half marathon.

[00:10:06] As I was celebrating my small victories at miles four and nine, resting a little bit so I could refuel to get back out there and finish, what was happening in my head? My brain was tired for sure, but it was also seeing proof that I could run. At mile four, it was one thing. But by mile nine? We had a lot of proof that this was possible, and under race conditions. Hell we’d spent three entire months training for it. We’d run more than 13.1 miles together at this point. I knew I could do it because I had done it before and barring any injury. I was going to finish this damn race too. ¡Andale let’s go!

[00:10:44] And you know what happens at the end of a race? You get that satisfaction of finishing. And then you end up super excited and motivated to do it all over again sometimes. It’s, it’s kind of a weird thing. I remember signing up for my second race. It was scheduled for a month after the first one and little did I know that one was going to have an uphill finish. (Seriously that was the worst. And probably the reason I hate running so much.) Anyway, I told my mom I was excited to do it again. And her response, despite having been there and witnessing me do it the first time was, “ay mija, are you sure you can do that?” And me with my brain full of proof that yeah, I’m capable of it was like,” yeah, mom, I just did it last week.”

[00:11:25] So, what does all of this have to do with building your creative confidence? The Dunning- Kruger effect, the valley of despair, those things are real. But now that you know that you can prepare for them. You probably already know what your creative equivalent of miles four and nine are for you. So you can come up with a plan to keep yourself motivated to celebrate how far you’ve come.

[00:11:49] I’m going to give you a couple of ideas right now, and then, you know what, I think I’m going to dedicate a whole episode to this too. So stay tuned for that. To start off, why not reward yourself? At the end of the race, you get a medal. Give yourself something tangible, like new tools or supplies for reaching a milestone. It doesn’t have to be a new milestone, but maybe it looks like simply getting 30% through the project. Remember how mile four is about 30% of the way to the finish line.

[00:12:18] Here are a few others, and I’ve probably mentioned to them before. One have a hype song or an entire motivational playlist. Music is a great shortcut for getting into your happy place. If you want more help with that, listen to episode three again. It’s called “getting to your happy place.”

[00:12:35] Number two: have support people on hand. People you can talk to about your projects, who can help re-energize you when your creative bucket feels depleted, when you’re in that valley of despair. Do you know people who do something similar? Connect with them before you find yourself at the bottom of that valley of despair. A community of people who know the struggles you might encounter is invaluable for overcoming them. Why do you think so many people run in groups? Everyone needs a hype squad.

[00:13:04] Number three: drink water. Another thing that exercise and creativity have in common is that they’re both easier when they’re fueled by a healthy body. And that starts with making sure you’re hydrated. If you think of a creative rut as being a dried up desert, maybe this will make a lot more sense to you. So get your water. And I can already hear you now, but Paulette, I’m going to have to pee a lot. So what? That’s good. And it’ll help you with the next tip.

[00:13:33] Number four is move. See getting up to pee is a simple movement. The straightforward act of simply getting up if you’re sitting down, or vice versa, helps to interrupt the brain. So if you’re sitting, stand up. If you’re already standing, jump around. Wave your arms around like a wacky wavy guy! Go for a walk, play with the dog, cook a meal. Changing your state is amazing for short-circuiting bad thought patterns. It’s even better if you change your environment too, like going outside.

[00:14:04] So those were a few tips. What’s your strategy for getting past any valleys of despair that might derail you between here and your next finish line?

[00:14:12] What are the tools you can use between here and there, that can help you get all the way to and past it. If you have ideas, I’d love to hear them. Tag me on Instagram! And if I find any new ones before I record the next episode, I’ll add them in with a shout out to you. So follow me at the maker muse dot co (yes, dot co) on Instagram and tag me. That’s the maker muse dot co.

[00:14:37] So stay hydrated and that’s a burrito.

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