One of the most liberating realizations I’ve had in my life is that I’m not responsible for my ideas. In other words, I can do very little to make myself become creative, except for keeping my mind open to receiving insights, and writing them down as they come up. In this post, I’ll talk about how I came to this perspective, and how it can give us more peace and productivity in our work.
This perspective dawned on me when I noticed my best ideas came to me while I was meditating. After each meditation session—even short, ten-minute ones—I’d find myself frantically scurrying to the keyboard to type up the inspiration that struck. This became so effective for me that I started a practice I call “staccato meditation,” where I meditate for five minutes for each half-hour of work. Writing proceeds so fluidly, I’ve found, when I work that way.
When this became clear, I noticed my experience was at odds with the conventional wisdom on creativity. Inspiration will arise, the common belief goes, if you keep your nose to the grindstone—the more time you spend in front of the computer, or wherever you do your work, the more likely you are to have a breakthrough idea. But that wasn’t how it seemed to work for me—instead, my imagination operated best when I stopped writing, sat quietly and just breathed.
Another thing I started to notice was that creativity arises suddenly and without warning. It’s not as if inspiration strikes at predictable times of day, or your left eyelid starts twitching madly to signal incoming ideas—you can never quite tell when they’re going to pop up. In short, creativity didn’t seem like something I could predict or control—at most, it was something I could stay open to through meditation, as if I were planting a lightning rod and waiting for a bolt to strike it.
The Surprising Implications
When I had these realizations, I got to thinking. If what I experienced is true for everyone—if we aren’t actually responsible for our ideas—why do we have a habit in our culture of putting famous creative people on a pedestal?
If I’m right about how creativity works, that means the well-known artists, writers, musicians and so on in our society didn’t really come up with the ideas that brought them fame—at best, they were just really good at transcribing and organizing the inspiration that struck them. Some artists recognize this themselves—look, for example, at J.K. Rowling’s statement that Harry Potter “just strolled into my head fully formed.” Our habit of treating these people like gods seems a bit silly from this perspective.
I also thought of how invested my ego can get in my creative projects. For example, when I’m working on a book or article, I sometimes find myself imagining that I’m telling others “yes, that’s right, that’s my work,” and feeling special. The downside is that, when my ego gets wrapped up in a project, I waste time obsessing over whether my ideas will look clever enough to my audience. I’ll bet that, if you’re a writer, you can relate.
If it’s true that I’m not responsible for my ideas, I recognized, I don’t have to endure the suffering that comes with seeking ego gratification through my work. It makes no sense for me to invest my ego in my projects, because the ideas at the core of my writing aren’t even “mine.” In other words, if I’m not responsible for the ideas I put on the page, it’s misguided for me to take credit for them, or beat myself up if they don’t seem good enough.
A “Productivity Anti-Hack” If I Ever Saw One
The greatest gift that came with this realization was a new sense of freedom in my work. When my ego became invested in a project, my work proceeded slowly and painfully. After all, in that frame of mind, my self-worth was, in a sense, riding on how my work would be received—of course I second-guessed myself and suffered from “analysis paralysis.”
But when I acknowledged I wasn’t responsible for the ideas in my writing—all I was really doing was transcribing them and showing them to the world—I understood that my value as a human being had no relationship to what I wrote. How could it, if the ideas weren’t even mine? As it no longer seemed like my writing could “make or break me” as a person, there was no need to endlessly second-guess my work. Words flowed most easily and naturally when I recognized my lack of responsibility for my creativity.
The increase in my productivity when I detached my ego from my creative work also seemed to defy the conventional wisdom. In our culture, we tend to assume the way to motivate yourself to do your best work is to imagine everybody praising you as wonderful and special for doing a good job. In other words, you should motivate yourself by visualizing the money, fame, relationships and so on you’ll get if your work “makes it big.” Accepting that my creativity had very little to do with “me” went against this approach. But it helped me get more done, and do higher-quality work.
Interestingly, I found, this is consistent with psychological research on creativity and productivity. For instance, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow: The Psychology Of Optimal Experience is about how people become able to enter a state of “flow,” or peak effectiveness, in their work and play.
In a “flow” state, Csikszentmihalyi writes, our attention is so focused on the task in front of us that we forget about ourselves and our concerns. We can’t enter this state if our attention is focused on how others will see, or what we’re going to get out of, our work—an “obstacle to experiencing flow is excessive self-consciousness,” and flow is inaccessible to a “person who is constantly worried about how others will perceive her.”
Thus it makes sense that, when we let go of the notion that the ideas in our writing are “ours,” our self-consciousness disappears and the flow state becomes available.
Seeing It For Yourself
If you aren’t sure what I’m saying resonates with you, I invite you to try a simple exercise to see for yourself whether it’s true. To begin, see if you can put aside any of your preconceived notions about how creativity works—how to stimulate it, what parts of the brain are responsible for it, and so on. Next, sit alone in a quiet place, close your eyes, and begin to breathe slowly and deeply. Simply allow whatever enters your mind to be there—don’t strive to find good ideas or make any other kind of effort. Continue for five to ten minutes, and then open your eyes.
I suspect that, during your brief meditation, some ideas arose in your mind. Perhaps they weren’t great or groundbreaking ideas—maybe the only things that came up were items to add to your shopping list. That doesn’t matter for the purposes of this exercise—the important point is that ideas came into being.
Now, notice that, between these ideas, there were periods of emptiness—moments when your mind was free of thought. These may be brief, but you can notice them if you pay close attention. Observe that you had no control over how long these gaps between ideas lasted—you couldn’t do anything to make the next idea arise more quickly. Notice that you also had no control over the content of the ideas that came up. You couldn’t choose whether your next idea would be about your shopping list, or the next classic of Western literature.
In short, notice how minor your role in the creative process actually was. All you did was pay attention and listen for ideas, as if you were listening to the radio. You didn’t decide on the content or timing of the ideas—instead, it was almost as if the ideas themselves made those decisions. In ordinary life, we don’t see that creativity works this way, as our minds are distracted by so much stimulation. Meditation allows us to see how little responsibility we really have for the ideas we usually call “our own.”
If you repeat this meditation over time, I think you’ll also start to notice another interesting thing: your ideas like to be listened to. Normally, when we’re working on a project and we’re feeling blocked, we tend to get angry at ourselves, demanding that our minds give us something useful and original. But when you become willing to simply listen to your ideas, without demanding or expecting anything, I think you’ll find that your imagination is at its liveliest. Your creativity flows most naturally and freely when you let go of it and allow it to do its work.
If I’m Not Responsible, Who Is?
I realize I haven’t addressed a question that might be on some people’s minds, which is: if the creative element of my work doesn’t come from me, where does it come from? To be honest, the reason I haven’t answered that question is that I don’t know. All I know is that, wherever it comes from, it doesn’t come from the bundle of thoughts, feelings and needs I usually call “me.”
If I were to give the source of our creativity a name, I’d call it “the universe,” “reality,” “truth,” or something else implying that it’s a force that’s all around us and accessible to all of us. I’m curious to hear how you think about it.