See What Sticks: On Unnecessary Creativity


My previous post highlighted an essay from 99U's anthology on productivity, Manage Your Day to Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative MindWhile I find a certain level of value in books like this, there's a small part of me that rails loudly against this mentality. Yes, we live in a world full of information and obligations. But doesn't such attention to squeezing the most out of our days rob us of the joy that comes from daydreaming, wondering, and occasional aimless living? It was with this contradiction in mind, that i stumbled upon Todd Henry's essay, "Creating for You, And You Alone." In it, he talks about cultivating the regular practice of unnecessary creation. Henry believes that these sorts of activities are "key to unlocking brilliant insight for the many people who have adopted it as a ritual."

Early on in our careers, it's easy to jump into the role at hand, particularly if our jobs are ones that we're passionate about. We live, eat, and breathe the trappings of our day-to-day jobs. And if we're not working? The search for that ideal job is what consumes us. This is a perfectly natural impulse to submit to. People far older than us define themselves in social settings by saying their name and their job; this tempts us into the belief that we must be just our work. But Henry pushes back on that assumption when speaking about unnecessary creation:

Consider, however, the opportunity cost of spending your life only on pragmatics. You dedicate your time to pleasing everyone else and delivering on their expectations, but you never get around to discovering your deeper aptitudes and creative capacities. Nothing is worth that. (emphasis added)

Henry goes on to list several other benefits of creating something just for yourself- something that won't make you money, won't get you a promotion, and might not even be seen by others. Among those points:

"Unnecessary Creation gives you the freedom to explore new possibilities and follow impractical curiosities." I'll give you an example: I surf. Not well, at all. But I do. I used to often tell myself I didn't have time to learn, that it wasn't something that would have any utility for me, and that it wasn't worth pursuing. But once I tried, I was hooked. It challenged me physically, allowed me to free myself mentally, and gave me a sense of accomplishment in a difficult task that emboldened me to take chances in other areas. I could work hard at something in the office that challenged me, because I fought waves to stand up on a board when I didn't think I could. We all have latent wishes or talents that we don't exercise anymore. Rather than asking yourself, "What use does that hobby have in my life," think instead, "What could pursuing this hobby give me where it 'counts'?"

"Unnecessary Creation allows you to take risks and develop new skills that can later be applied to your on-demand creativity." In an effort to try a type of writing that scares me a little, I recently started taking a sketchwriting class. While I'm never fully convinced that I'm funny, the discipline of being asked to create something from scratch on a regular basis (not unlike writing this feature, to be honest!) helps me get over the fear that used to paralyze me when I first started writing. Ray Bradbury, the author of Fahrenheit 451, once wrote,"Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you're doomed." His craft was writing, but this quote applies to a great many creative pursuits. Trying different things inoculates you against the terror that comes from sharing the fruits of your labor. The more you do, the better you get, and the less vulnerable that presentation element makes you feel. And like I mentioned in the last section- once you're confident in one arena, you can take that confidence "on tour" to other domains of your life.

"Unnecessary Creation provides a forum for the pursuit of voice, and a reminder that you are not the sum of what you make." Say it with me: you are bigger than the thing that earns you your paycheck. Unnecessary creation gives you a record by which to see that. Looking over my blog archive, photographs of me surfing or the food that I cook, and my book, remind me that there's more to me than what I do between the hours of 8:30 and 4:30 (plus some evenings and weekends, according to my official job description). Unnecessary creation doesn't just give you a playground to make you a better worker, it provides a playground to make you a better, fuller, and more fulfilled person.

I say often, I have no use for boring people. Unnecessary creation guards against becoming boredom. Whether you deem yourself creative or not (and we all can be!), taking time to indulge in creative pursuits can hold value for most anyone. Don't seek to find time for it, make time for it. Your work, your peers, and your inner self will thank you for it.