If you’ve ever struggled to bring an idea to life, welcome to the club. Getting stuck in a creative rut is a rite of passage for most of us. It’s the rock bottom of the creative process where we sit — unhappily questioning our abilities and wallowing in self-doubt — until we remember that we are, in fact, great at what we do. Not only that, but we’ve yet to meet another person who hasn’t felt frustrated or overwhelmed by the creative process.
Ideation is simply a painstakingly difficult endeavor, and many creatives — an umbrella term that includes designers, writers, artists, and generally anyone who flexes their critical thinking skills on a daily basis — approach the process differently. Some wait for inspiration to strike, while others make small strides each day. Some work methodically, insisting on complete silence (yours truly); and still, yet, some insist on working in a tornadic cloud of chaos.
Of course, there’s no one “right” way to ascend the steep, rocky, and often overgrown footpath that leads to our untapped creative potential. But it never hurts to at least glance at a map. For me (a directionally challenged artist-turned-designer-turned-writer) that means frequently revisiting a few tried and true books. I’ve always been an avid reader, and I often refer to these favorites when I’m in need of a creative boost.
01. Feck Perfuction: Dangerous Ideas on the Business of Life by James Victore
If you don’t know James Victore, you should. Renowned artist, author, teacher, designer, and self-proclaimed hell-raiser, Victore is an ideating master who inspires you to be yourself — regardless of what others may think. Every chapter of Feck Perfuction: Dangerous Ideas on the Business of Life will challenge and inspire you to create both your best work and your best self. My favorite quote from the book:
“Being weird or different—even creative—should be not a source of shame or embarrassment but a torch to be held high. Weird is about the courage to be who you were born to be. Nerdy, goofy, fidgety; these are strengths. These are gifts! The things that made you weird as a kid are the source of your character and creative powers. These are the base elements of who you are. Not perfect. Not trying. Just yourself. If you hide them, you risk never knowing what you’re capable of.”
Get this book and find out what you’re capable of.
02. Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
If you’re ever curious about mechanisms of the mind and how they affect our creativity, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow is a fascinating read. This book explains the two systems that drive our thinking. System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional, while System 2 works more slowly — deliberately and logically contemplating and processing information. Kahneman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, shows us where we can and cannot trust our intuitions. At times, System 1 is great for creativity, but often, System 2 is responsible for polishing up those ideas. This book offers several mind exercises to help you with creative decisions. A quote that helps me during a creative slump:
“Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it.”
Give yourself a break, and remember this quote the next time you’re trying to come up with a big idea.
03. Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon
This book will mean something different for everyone depending on your background, profession, and passions. Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist is a short, practical guide for creativity in the digital age, and I find myself going back to this one more and more as I progress in my career. As the 5th tenet, Kleon highlights the importance of side projects and hobbies, and this is something I’ve only recently begun practicing. Early in my career, I put everything into my job and left no time for my own personal creativity. But once I began to make room for my art, I found that it helped me to grow in my professional work as well. So, no matter what you’re interested in, make sure you’re creating space within your life to do the things that bring you the most joy. And pick up this book — it’ll change the way you think about yourself and your work. I think of this quote every time I see (or hear) something I love:
“The artist is a collector… Your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.”
Start your collection with this book.
04. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
I wish I could buy a copy of this book for every one of my writing friends. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life is a beautiful, vulnerable, and compelling treasure trove of wisdom — both practical and profound — that teaches us the importance of creativity in crafting our understanding of the world. Lamott notes that she found reading to be a refuge and writing became a sensemaking mechanism by which she was able to find “some sort of creative or spiritual or aesthetic way of seeing the world and organizing it in [her] head.” In this book, Lamott emphasizes that, at the heart of writing, lies a quiet determination and a need to decondition our tendency to become overwhelmed by the vastness of the creative journey. I can hardly choose a favorite quote from this book, but one I think of often is:
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life.”
Remember this the next time you’re staring at a blank page.
05. Find Your Artistic Voice by Lisa Congdon
First of all, Lisa Congdon is a national treasure, and we should all take a moment to simply appreciate her existence and her willingness to share not only her art but her fount of creative genius from which we happily drink. Renowned for her colorful paintings and hand lettering, Congdon has built her career upon individualism and creativity, and this book shares some of her essential tips for helping us to figure out our own artistic voice. In Find Your Artistic Voice: An Essential Guide to Working Your Creative Magic, Congdon writes:
"The process of creating almost anything (and not just paintings) has a messy period where things feel like they are falling apart and we want to rip up the piece and throw it in the trash. But if you can work through that period, you are more likely to make a more refined, more complex piece of art in the end. Working through is essential to finding your voice. So get comfortable with feeling frustrated and keep going. It’s part of being an artist."
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