The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another. – William James

Many creatives actually love the creative work they do. It’s what they’d do for free if they didn’t have to worry about the trivialities of bills.

Yet many of them are stressed about their work.

This creates an interesting apparent paradox: how can one love the work they do yet be stressed out about it?

There are quite a few ways this works out, but for this post, I want to focus on creativity and freedom. In my experience, one of the major stressors of creative work is people feeling like they have to work on something rather than get to work on it.

If we scratch a little deeper, we see that it’s not really about the substance of the work at all, but rather, about the belief that the work must be done for some reason or the other.

Here are some of the common stories I’ve heard in my work with creatives:

  1. If I don’t do it now, people will think I’m a flake.
  2. If I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it.
  3. If I don’t do it now, I’m not doing my part (to take care of my family or business) and I’m slacking off.
  4. If I don’t do it now, somebody else will and then it’ll just be an old idea.
  5. If I don’t do it now, I guess I’m really not a creative person and am just another wannabe (writer, painter, coder, entrepreneur, whatever) or that my past accomplishments were a fluke.

Granted, these are the distilled versions of the core beliefs that we often get to after 5–15 minutes of uncomfortable conversations, but I’ve heard them so many times that I can normally tell where the conversation is going. I’ve heard them from aspirational creatives and accomplished creatives in equal measures.

In case you’re curious, my responses are normally as follows, in the order of the beliefs above.

  1. Who is somebody? Name one legitimate person whose opinion you care about who thinks that. (Normally, they can’t.)
  2. Is your great work so insubstantial that it’ll perish on the vine without your attention? Perhaps the things that you haven’t or won’t do didn’t really need to be done in the first place.
  3. Are you giving yourself enough space to not-do? Part of the process of active creativity is intentional downtime or blank space.
  4. Are your voice and presence so easily displaced? Perhaps there’s room for the idea in your voice, from you, just the same. Also, dealing with copycats and idea thieves isn’t all that difficult.
  5. For early-career creatives: you become by doing, but you don’t have to do every day (see #3). For accomplished creatives: monuments of creativity don’t just happen on their own. Sure, a muse might do most of the creative heavy lifting, but you still showed up. What’s keeping you from showing up now?

No matter the conversational arcs, though, it usually comes back to one thing: choice. I say “usually” rather than “always” because there are some things that are harder to overcome than others; having dealt with the pain, body aches, and inability to focus or sit that came from having been in a car accident, I know what it’s like to not be able to do either the delicate dance of creativity or its crash-and-thrash variant.

But rather than just merely assert that it’s our choice to do our creative work, what is usually a more powerful consideration is whether we’ve given ourselves permission to not do our work. If we really haven’t given ourselves permission to not do it, we can’t give ourselves full permission to do it, either. When we write the story such that the work is a given and not doing it is a mark against our creative character, it is so easy for us to carry the shame, embarrassment, or anxiety that are the undercurrents of the first five beliefs above.

To dare greatly or do your great work must be a real choice, which means you have to give yourself the permission to not do it. This is not about letting yourself off the hook, but is instead about remembering that in this moment, you are actively choosing to create or that in this moment, you are choosing to do something else. The alternative choice could be just as important as what most people would count as work. Being a good parent is being productive. Short-circuiting a funk is important. Being reminded about the cost of material abundance is important.

Without a real choice, there is no creative freedom. Without creative freedom, there is little room for truly inspired, genius work largely because the feeling that we are unfree causes stress that is more noisy than the quiet chorus of creativity that plays within each of us.

Take a look at what you believe is your most important creative project. See if you can give yourself permission to not do it. What would happen if you didn’t do it? Would it matter in five or ten years? If you did something else instead, would the alternative outcomes matter more?

When it comes to creative work, it’s sometimes more important to choose freely than to choose wisely.

I’ll leave you with two final wrinkles. First, the work you’re meant to do is a boomerang that you can never rid yourself of; you can choose not to do it but not whether it comes back to you. Second, deep creative work creates eustress, but we often react to eustress as if it were distress and start the avoidance process. These two wrinkles combined mean that no matter what we choose, there will be some type of stress.

But choosing eustress is so much more nourishing, long term, than not-choosing and ending up in distress.

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