Freedom, Constriction, and Creativity

You probably don’t know who Jack White is. Then again, maybe you do. So let me say it this way, until earlier this morning I didn’t know who Jack White is. But I’ve recently learned something important from him, something I want to share about creativity through this 2-minute except of an interview with him. It’s actually something I know to be true from my own experience, but I seem regularly to forget, and so I appreciated the clear reminder about the relationship between creativity and freedom.

Before getting to his insight, though, consider this description of Jack from Wikipedia:

He has been ranked No. 17 on Rolling Stone’s list of “The 100 Greatest Guitarists”. White’s popular and critical success with The White Stripes enabled him to collaborate as a solo artist with other renowned musicians, such as Beck, the Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck, Alicia Keys, Bob Dylan, Wanda Jackson, Electric Six, and Loretta Lynn, whose 2004 album Van Lear Rose he produced and performed on. In 2006, White became a founding member of the rock band the Raconteurs. In 2009, he became a founding member and drummer of his third commercially successful group, the Dead Weather. He was awarded the title of “Nashville Music City Ambassador” by the Nashville mayor Karl Dean in 2011. He is a board member of theLibrary of Congress’ National Recording Preservation Foundation, a music historian, collector and philanthropist, as well as an advocate for analog technology and recording techniques.

Yeah, that’s right. Not yet 40, he’s started three commercially successful bands, worked with some of the world’s most famous musicians, and written some rockin’ great songs. Not back when it comes to creativity.

And his insight: that constriction, not freedom, is the best friend of creativity.

Why? Because creativity is 99% hard work and only about 1% sheer inspiration. And it’s precisely when we tell ourselves we have all the time in the world that we don’t feel the need to work all that hard. But when you’ve got limited time…and are under pressure to get something – maybe anything – done…and have some clear limits around you that force you to produce…then it’s amazing just how creative you can be.

In my own life, I recognized years ago two things about my work along these lines. First, I’m very goal-oriented. It helps me immensely to have a concrete end or objective in mind. I find it hard, in other words, to be creative in general, but when I set a clear and concrete goal – be it to write an article, think up a new organizational structure, or plan a conference – then the creative juices get flowing. 2) I’m incredibly deadline-driven. I wish I wasn’t. It drives me – and sometimes those around me – a little crazy. But the thing is, I can flit and flirt with the work and hardly get anything done until the deadline looms and that restriction forces me to push distractions to the side and get the thing – whatever it is! – done.

That’s why, I think, I like the discipline of writing a weekly letter on the lectionary and daily blog posts on faith & life. Because even if these are artificial deadlines – no one is paying me to do this and so no one would fire me if I didn’t – yet they still force me to get to work and in actually doing the work – not in thinking about the work or dreaming about it or planning for it, but in actually showing up and doing it – comes the creativity.

Thanks for the reminder, Jack!

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