I’ve come to believe all creative work is a constant struggle between hope and fear. Hope that what I’m making will add value to the world. Hope that it will be accepted by the market. Hope that it will be interesting or resonate in a meaningful way. Fear that it won’t. Fear that everyone will laugh at me. Fear that people will call me names and think I’m an idiot for having made something so laughably dumb.
There’s a lot of fear. Especially when I let the noise in or get sucked into the trap of comparing myself to others.
But none of these fears outshines the biggest fear I have. Top billing is reserved for a fear that whispers to me in my quiet moments, the moments when I’m otherwise unencumbered and have some space to think: my fear of getting too comfortable. My fear that I’ll stop growing, which is the day a creative starts dying. The mere suggestion of such a stall scares me. But I remain hopeful.
I’ve come to realize that the moment-to-moment balance between hope and fear is a leading indicator of my momentum on a project. In any creative work, shit happens: features turn out to be much more difficult or impossible to implement, characters don’t develop predictably, plots change, timelines shift. Each of these moments feels like a miniature crisis, threatening the very life of my project itself and calling into question my sanity and capabilities. Over the course of a project this can happen tens or hundreds of times—and the effects are cumulative. If measurable, the psychological sum of these moments would represent a score indicating where on the fear–hope continuum I’m currently operating. The closer I am to fear, the more frantically and urgently I work. The more hopeful I am, the more space I feel to think and the more creative my solutions become (much more valuable, and I’m a lot nicer to work with).
Once I realized that where I am on the hope-fear continuum is the leading indicator of my momentum and quality of work, I started paying close attention to these psychological forks in the road. It turns out that if I’m aware the moment is happening, I’m able to recognize that I have a choice as to how I frame the situation and proceed. The choice determines everything that follows. These have been the moments when I’ve gotten the most direct, measurable value out of my meditation practice, as I am better able to recognize thoughts forming and [identify them as useful or not useful]((http://www.jamesaltucher.com/2011/07/the-power-of-negative-thinking/), and ignore or support them accordingly. But what I really found out was that the most important factor in my ability to productively navigate these mini-crucibles was my energy levels, or rather my ability to manage my energy levels.
Once I started paying attention to managing my energy levels—as opposed to over-managing my time—I realized that energy management was the most underrated skill a creative person has, and I went looking for answers. My search led me to a fantastic resource I want to recommend to you: The Power of Full Engagement, by Dr Jim Loehr, one of the sports psychologists whose work I most respect.
I’ll try to summarize Dr Loehr’s work with thousands of elite athletes and performers of the last 15 years: As organic creatures, humans have an energy that is rhythmic and oscillatory. It moves in sine waves, through peaks and valleys. We expend and then recover energy and repeat the cycle, and our ability to manage that cycle is what determines our engagement and the quality of our output. We have four different types of energy (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual) and a developed capacity for each, and this is reflected in energy levels. Low energy levels are often a result of not enough stress, rather than too much. Let’s explore this.
First, we are all operating simultaneously in four dimensions: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. We have different needs in each dimension, and have developed a different level of capacity in each dimension. To increase our capacity in any of the four, we must systematically expend enough energy to push beyond our current limits, and then recover. This is how all organic capacity for force develops: exert, recover, exert, recover. When I’m tired, my usual assumption was that I’d exerted too much energy. But Dr Loehrs research reveals a different, and more subtle, truth.
First, acknowledge that there is good stress (“eustress”) and bad stress (“distress”). Low energy levels are often a lack of eustress rather than a glut of distress. The typical person reading this has too much mental and emotional stress, and not enough physical or spiritual stress, and is a chronic state of overtraining half their capacity and under training the other half. I for one am overstressed mentally and emotionally, and am “under-training” physically and spiritually. I’m systematically working to correct that and better manage my energy, but simple awareness of the problem is the first step.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last year, it’s that the only way to a masterwork is through many marginal works. Creating anything meaningful is humbling, chaotic, messy, inspiring. And yes, scary at times. But the outputs of this process are worth it; they’re not just what I hope for, but arguably they are embodiment of all our hopes and the promise of a better future. And they depend, at the most basic level, on energy. So if you find that you’re not cycling between intensely expending energy & recovering it… You’ve probably gotten too comfortable. Watch out.