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David Usher on Creativity OR Letting the Elephants Run

May 4, 2015

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The myth of the artist involves different variations of the same story: we sit, deep in concentration, waiting for divine inspiration to arrive and, over the next few hours, the piece is complete: the book, the script, the song and, taken into a different context – the start-up, the career change, etc.

We get up from the proverbial bench, wipe off the dust and carry on into our new, glittering lives. Until, maybe one or two years down the road, when we need to sit down to start the whole, enchanted process over again.

We know, intellectually, that this is nonsense: that we need to work to achieve anything, that it takes time. Emotionally, it’s a different story. We feel frustrated staring at the blinking cursor, at the blank page, having to do something that requires time and patience. We sometimes feel anxious or depressed about it.

Yet, we don’t go and listen to a fantastic piano player and think that he / she woke up that morning with the revelation: ‘Yup. I’m going to play the piano today.’

We manage to extend this understanding to others: marveling at the hard work that went into cultivating a certain expertise but, when it comes to ourselves, we don’t extend the same kindness or patience. We want it done and we want it done now.

We don’t want to do the work but we really want the outcome.

David Usher, in his talk at Montreal’s Blue Metropolis festival, explored the contradictory sides of the demands of creativity.

The epically cool Canadian singer-songwriter has managed to whittle his ideas on the creative process down into a (slightly larger-than-normal) book: Let the Elephants Run: Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything. 

‘Creativity is an investment of time,’ he says: ‘it’s about finding and following your curiosity.’ While he explains that this part may seem self-evident, he goes on to describe the more ‘scientific’ approach to the methodology of creativity or, as he calls it ‘the application of ideas.’

One cannot produce a creative work without these two in balance.

He continues: ‘there’s an incredible work ethic to creativity’ (despite what most of us imagine). At the same time he doesn’t want to dispel ‘the magic of the myth of creativity,’ he’s just encouraging us to shift our expectations of the entire process.

He discusses the thirty-five drafts of ‘St-Lawrence River’ he wrote before he got it right. ‘It’s not about your idea; it’s about the ability to deliver on the idea.’

Creative works tend to exist in their own, mystical land; we don’t look at musical pieces and novels as existing in the same realm as creating a business or starting an organization but there are a lot of similarities between the two, seemingly opposing spheres: both take a lot of work.

At the end of the day, there’s no getting around the work required. Unfortunately. ‘Most of the process is the un-fun stuff. ‘[….] The structural part of creativity is the hard part.’

He invites the audience to ponder: ‘is creativity an expense or an investment in the future?’ Hopefully, it’s the latter.

The systematic approach he identifies as getting back one’s creativity includes understanding how: ‘School and life beat the creativity out of us.’

Underlying the whole talk is the idea that you have to have an unbelievable amount of faith that what you’re working on, even though it’s just a drop in a bucket, will eventually gather up enough water.

He encourages people to view ‘interactions as possibilities.’ – to see the world as interconnected. Without doing X, Y wouldn’t have happened, and so on and so forth.

While none of this is groundbreaking, there’s a belief and quiet confidence in Usher that the book (part self-help, part creative direction, part artistic manifesto) exudes as well.

Overall, his sincerity is apparent.

If you are interested in discovering more about his ideas on creativity, check out the book.

However, no matter how many books we read for inspiration (and Usher is most certainly an inspiring speaker) at the end of the day, we’re left alone with our desire to create. And the only way out of that is to sit back down on the proverbial bench, expecting to work to reach the magic.

If we work hard enough, some of us will.

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