Why Creativity Isn’t Always Sweetness and Light

One of my favorite lines in film is when Orson Welles improvised a scene while playing Harry Lime in “The Third Man” in 1949: “In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The Cuckoo clock.”  As creatives, we work hard trying to create a perfect world in which to work. We want all the best tools and resources, the right team around us, and leaders who understand us. We want people to be nice and supportive.

But the truth is, when you look at the pantheon of artistic work throughout the centuries, the greatest creativity was often expressed in the midst of war, economic uncertainty, fear, or through the haze of addiction, mental illness, or abuse. Sometimes it’s having to work under an incompetent, nasty, brutish boss.

Sure, great work has sometimes been done by rich people in cushy circumstances, or by normal people having a nice life. But when you compare that to the massive amount of creative work born from poverty, pain, frustration, and repression, it doesn’t really balance.

The lesson? For a creative person, the difficult circumstances you’re going through right now may be the greatest gift you’ve ever received.  Work to make things better. Rise up. Do what you can to relieve the pain. But the truth is, pain is often the foundry where great creative work is formed.

I know in my own life, looking back during times of fear, uncertainty, or pain were electric with possibilities. I was forced to express myself because there was no alternative. Creating with no safety net can be terrifying and exhilarating all at the same time.

Samuel Johnson said, “Nothing focuses the mind like a hanging.” When all the other options are gone, your creative horizon becomes very clear.

Today, stop complaining and start creating. Don’t celebrate the obstacles, but embrace them. Realizing that you stand in a long line of creative men and women who broke through the barriers – no matter how great – and created something for the ages.

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  1. The Third Man is one of my all time favourite movies. I love the cuckoo clock speech.

    Anyway, regarding the general thrust of this article, the best stuff I have written is a product of the darkest and most difficult events in my life.

    Here’s another example of the cuckoo clock principle:

    In 1977, George Lucas had a small budget, faced horrendous resistance and overwhelming odds when he put Star Wars together. He ended up with one of the greatest films of all time.

    In 1999, he had unlimited power, money, an army of yes men, and he ended up with The Phantom Menace.

  2. In my final design subject at university I had a terrible lecturer. He had no compassion, no filter and over-programmed the course. We all felt worthless and under extreme pressure. However, I did my best and sharpest design work in an effort to get good marks. I still didn’t get the marks that I felt I deserved but I knew in my heart of hearts that my designs were successful. It taught me a lot about how “it’s the details make the design”. That said, it did near break me as I spent triple the amount of time on the work than I probably should have!

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