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Martin Spitznagel – Conquering Creative Inertia
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Conquering Creative Inertia

Creative Inertia

May 19, 2015 The Creative Life 2 Comments

“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”

— Dale Carnegie

One of the best parts of giving a piano performance is interacting with the audience afterwards. It’s a moment of genuine connection with others, a chance to hear how they have connected the experience of your music to their lives. Sure, you hear a lot of odd things… I never quite know how to respond when someone tells me about the neighbor’s son who plays the saxophone. (In my head I always respond, “What do you want me to do about that?”) Ultimately, though, you come to appreciate people communicating a connection in the way they know how.

In those glowing moments after a show, you hear some sad things, too. People will relate how a deceased loved one used to play the piano, or would have loved the show if they could only be here. One of saddest things you hear is, “I wish I’d never stopped playing the piano.” The defeat in the voice always gets me, because I know firsthand how much joy and release playing the piano can bring to a person. I know what they’ve missed out on, and it’s substantial. It’s worth mourning that loss. I take a minute to be sad with them, and then I cheer them on: “It’s never too late to start again!”

The problem is, the longer you remain inactive, the harder action becomes. “Inertia is the antithesis of creativity,” writes Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative. “It’s all about staying in motion.”

Inertia is the antithesis of creativity.”

— Austin Kleon

 Here’s an example from my own experience. I haven’t updated this website since 2012. Each day that passed without an update made it exponentially more difficult for me to write a new post. The time between updates became a breeding ground for doubt, fear, and guilt. Instead of actually working on writing, these thoughts cropped up instead:

I should write more, but I don’t have anything to write about.
There are too many blogs already. I don’t have anything to add.
I know it would feel good to write, but I’m so busy… I just don’t have the time.
I never had much of an audience anyways. Who cares that I’m not writing more?

As the weeks and months passed, the fear of action became so strong that I started making excuses for giving up:

I haven’t updated the site in forever. Anyone who was reading it regularly gave up a long time ago.
I’m out of practice. If I tried to write now, it would just come out bad.
I’ll get to it when I have more free time.
I must not be interested in that anymore. If I were, I’d still do it.

Go long enough, and thoughts like this one take root:

I never finish the things I start.

Once that seed is planted, it is very, very hard to weed it out.

This is why I feel so bad for people who tell me, “I wish I hadn’t stopped playing the piano.” Regret plants itself in very fertile soil. If enough years go by, the weeds grow so thick it’ll come to seem impossible to clear them all.

We’re only given a spark of madness. We mustn’t lose it.

— Robin Williams

Now, before we move on, let’s be clear: Sometimes it’s okay to put things down and move on. Interests change. Passions shift. What got you excited at 13 might not rev your engines at 31. If you’re at peace with it, there’s nothing here to fix. It’s also childish to argue with the practical considerations that drive us to choose between our passions and responsibilities. Bills must be paid, food must be gathered, college must be saved for, and roofs must be repaired. But like Robin Williams said, “We’re only given a spark of madness. We mustn’t lose it.”

Something is irretrievably lost when we choose making money over making our music, and so we end up in a kind of no-man’s-land between action and inaction, caring too much to give up on the idea but not enough to actually do anything about it. This fallow field between action and inaction is a breeding ground for fear, doubt, and self-loathing, and its steward has a name – Creative Inertia, the mortal enemy of all creative people. He is strong, but he can be conquered, or at least managed, if you can muster the will to “go out and get busy.”

Get Busy

The word “inertia” comes from the Latin word, iners, which means “idle” or “sluggish.” In physics, inertia is a measure of an object’s resistance to changes in velocity. In other words, an object, given its druthers, will indefinitely preserve its present state of rest or constant state of velocity until acted on by an external force.

Creative Inertia: The Graph!

Creative Inertia: The Graph!

Picture throwing a baseball in the vacuum of space. With no wind resistance, that ball will fly forever in a straight line at the velocity at which you threw it until some external force – say, the gravity of a moon – acts upon it and changes its course.

Similarly, an object at rest will stay at rest. Creative Inertia is your creative energy at rest, and it will persist in that state until you willfully work to change its course. The problem is that unlike the baseball in space, the amount of force it takes to “get busy” increases exponentially the longer you let your creativity sit still.

Imagine yourself kneeling on the floor of a comfy room. Sunlight drizzles in from large windows, and a lazy ceiling fan coaxes the air over your skin. You’ve done hot yoga, you’ve hydrated, and you’ve eaten your Wheaties. You kneel in that position for five minutes and stand up like a champ.

Now imagine you kneel in that same position all day. The sun goes down, and moonlight casts stark shadows through the windowpanes. You go to stand up, and what happens? Your legs are asleep, you have to grab onto something to steady yourself, your joints are tight and don’t want to bend, you groan audibly and, worst of all, you feel terribly, completely old.

It’s the same action in both cases. All that is different is the amount of time you stayed still. This is how Creative Inertia works.

One of the reasons I chafed against piano lessons as a kid was because my teacher insisted that I practice my exercises a little bit each day. At the time, I couldn’t see the point – Forget technique, I thought, I want to learn the “Bumble Boogie”!

What I didn’t understand at the time was that daily practice doesn’t just build technique, it builds momentum. Momentum is what enables you to persevere through the crumbly bits of life – day job, children, school, taxes, etc. – and continue to create. Momentum is what helps you prioritize putting an hour into your novel instead of vegging out in front the TV, what convinces you to do the exercise tape at 9:30 PM even though you’re exhausted, what pushes you to write that blog post even though you’re terrified it’ll be awful. Whether you’re learning or an instrument, writing a book, getting in shape, or tackling a recipe book, momentum is what you lose when you stop creating, and the longer you go with making things, the more energy it takes to get you moving again.

It’s something I wrestle with a lot, and by no means have I solved the riddle. I do, however, have a list of five things I try to do when I find myself creatively immobilized.

  1. Forgive yourself.

    You can’t solve a problem with the same mind that created it. The mind that made the choices, compromises, concessions, and mistakes that brought you to this point cannot help you take the next step. You’ve got to get a new mindset, and the first step in getting a new mindset is forgiving yourself for the old one. Dwelling on lost returns isn’t going to get you anywhere. Forgive yourself. Accept yourself. Right now, as you are and where you are. And then resolve to do better.

  2. Imagine success.

    At this point, you’re probably expecting me to suggest you set a specific goal, and that is indeed important. But you can’t set a goal until you honestly assess which goal will make you feel sufficiently successful. Will you only feel successful if you’re playing a Chopin recital at Carnegie Hall, or will you be content to blaze through “Maple Leaf Rag” like a boss? On the surface, these goals are similar – “I want to get better at playing the piano” – but they require drastically different degrees of effort to achieve. That doesn’t make one better or more worthy than the other; what’s important here is how it will make you feel about yourself.

    Imagining success is about more than setting goals. It’s about actively and vividly imagining yourself feeling successful – looking in the mental mirror and seeing every crack and crevice of that success so clearly that you’re able to believe it’s possible – and then working backwards from there. It may sound corny, but you need to see it before can you be it.

  3. Shatter it into tiny pieces.

    Why, Scott Joplin? WHY?!

    Why, Scott Joplin? WHY?!

    Once you’ve settled on a goal and vividly imagined yourself having achieved it, it’s time to break that goal into small, achievable pieces. It helps to start small. I remember the first time I looked at the sheet music to “Maple Leaf Rag.” It looked like a fountain pen had sneezed onto a piece of paper. Taking on a goal all at once is a recipe for paralysis and disaster.

    If you’ve taken piano lessons, you’ve likely been told to “practice each hand separately.” This is the way I practice, and the way every pianist I know practices. Why? Because it’s a proven way to break the ultimate goal of performing the piece into more manageably sized chunks. By focusing on one hand at a time, one measure at a time, you’re able to tackle more difficult passages, building the requisite muscle memory that you’ll need when it comes time to practice the hands together.

    No matter your goal, you can effectively “practice each hand separately” by looking at what you want to achieve and breaking it down into small, distinct tasks, and then checking them off as you make progress.

    Remember that person who comes up to me after a concert and says, “I wish I’d never stopped playing”? Let’s say that person is you, and you believe me when I tell you that it’s never too late to start again. Your first instinct might be: “I need to find a piano teacher and take lessons again!” But if you’re like most people, you won’t take that next step. Why? Is it because you is fundamentally flawed as a human being and can’t will yourself to do the things you’re interested in?

    No. It’s because what you think is a simple task is actually very complex. If you live in a relatively populated area, there are likely hundreds of piano teachers within a reachable radius, each with their own approach, preferences, beliefs, and strengths. How do you choose the right one? And even when you do find a teacher, lessons are a significant commitment of time and money. If you haven’t had time to even touch a piano in twenty years, what makes you think you’re going to magically have the time, money, and motivation to do it now?

    Dream big but start small. Let’s say you are okay eschewing Carnegie Hall, and instead really want to learn to play “Maple Leaf Rag.” You makes a list, and it looks like this:

    • Buy the sheet music.
    • Find a teacher.
    • Practice.
    • Win at life.

    Is this list wrong? No – these are, ostensibly, the steps you will take, winning included, but the chunks are so big, you will have a much harder time staying with it.

    A much better starting point would be something far smaller and far simpler: “Find a piano and noodle around on it for 20 minutes.” This is specific, small, and achievable. Go to a friend’s house, go to a piano store, visit a college campus, dust off the key cover of the upright in the basement, whatever. Just find a piano and press the keys. Challenge yourself to delight in what you remember instead of lamenting what you’ve lost. Just the simple act of forcing yourself to sit at a piano will help you begin to imagine success, even if all you can remember is Every Good Boy Does Fine.

    Make a list of all of the small tasks you can think of that will contribute to your larger goal. Ask a friend to help you. Make a spreadsheet. And don’t be afraid to make the to-dos comically simple. Something as simple as, “Take the crap off the top of the piano and dust the piano and keys off” is worth putting on that list. The most helpful part of a checklist isn’t the list itself; it’s the empty box you get to check off at the end. I struggled so much with taking action in college that there were days that I would add, “Take a shower” or, “Check my e-mail” to my day’s to-do list. I needed to put these items on my list for the sole purpose of being able to check them off. Then I could look at the list and go, “Hey! One down! I can do this!” Knowing I’d already started tackling items on the list made it easier to take on the things that required more effort or persistence.

    Remember, what we’re trying to build here is momentum, and momentum comes from motion. You don’t need to make progress at first so much as you need to get in motion, and having small steps you can take without investing a huge amount of time and effort is critical to building up to your eventual awesomeness.

  4. Tell somebody.

    Me trying to put my money where my mouth is...

    Me trying to put my money where my mouth is…

    One of the most useful things I’ve learned is that the peer pressure that harried you as a young person can actually be used to your own advantage as an adult. Billy Joel had it right: “Tell her about it. Tell her all your crazy dreams.” Communicating your goal to others is an incredibly helpful strategy for maintaining momentum for the simple reason that it is much easier to keep promises to others than it is to our selves.

    I think this is true, in part, because it’s much easier to ignore the social contract with our selves than it is with our friends and loved ones. Ignore your promises to yourself and guess what: You still get to be with yourself tomorrow. Ignore the promises to your friends and family, and there’s a lot more to lose.

    By communicating your goal to a friend or your Facebook page, you’re implicitly asking the people who know you and care about you to invest in this outcome along with you. No matter what your goal is, you need a cheering section. If you post to Facebook and announce, “I’ve resolved to learn a Chopin etude this year. Don’t let me wiggle out of it!” you’ve just created a powerful set of conditions for maintaining momentum.

    “But what will people think of me if I don’t accomplish it?” you might ask. And that’s exactly the point. Fear of letting our friends down can be a powerful motivator, too.

  5. Don’t quit.

    It is so easy to mistrust your own inner voice, especially in the face of challenges and setbacks and things that don’t go your way. But if you’ve gotten this far, it is because whether you believe it or not, you have a real interest in the goal you’re pursuing. You might change goals along the way, or adjust your timeframe, or take longer on some items than you’d like, but ultimately you’ve walked this far because a part of you felt compelled to do it. If you feel you’re coming to a breaking point and you’re starting to feel helpless, see Step 1, and keep going.

    The paradox of giving up on something you value is: We quit because we are afraid to fail, but we fail because we quit. We quit on our art because we feel like we have something to lose. In the most powerful speech he ever gave, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs said, “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.” You are going to die. I am going to die. The end. Finito. That’s all folks. Your creative energy is one of the most precious gifts life has bestowed upon you. What feels like a monumental, identity-defining failure in this moment is really just a comically undersized semicolon in the story of your creative life.

    Don’t quit on what you love. Ever. For any reason. Because love begets love, and love is what the world needs more than ever.

  6. Celebrate.

    Compliments make me uncomfortable. I crave them. I need them. I hunt them like missing socks. And I collect them like I collect a piece of sheet music: I get one, take one look at it, put it in a box in the basement and never look at it again. Criticism? Criticism I post on my mental fridge like it’s a finger-painting from my son and look at it every time I go to get a glass of milk.

    Most creative people I know are self-conscious and predisposed to thinking bad things about themselves and their art, but a big part of building and maintaining momentum is reinforcing the positive feelings that progress brings. This means giving yourself permission to feel good about the steps you’re taking towards your goal, no matter how small, and celebrating each little milestone.

    Your whole life you’ve probably heard the phrase, “Hard work is its own reward.” I’ve found that statement to be especially true of the hard work I put into the things that I love. With momentum comes joy, peace, and the thrill of being more today than you were yesterday.

    Will you stumble? Yes. Will you falter? Yes. Will you doubt yourself? Absolutely. But will you be happier knowing that you’re in motion again? You will.


An entire industry has been built around helping others find the motivation to be their true selves and pursue what they love in spite of the challenges. This article on procrastination from Wait But Why is one of the most useful I’ve read this year.

Here is what I know. Creative Inertia is only as real as we let it be. When you stumble, forgive yourself. Stumbling just means that the task you’re trying to step over is too big. Shatter it into tiny pieces and check those pieces off one by one. Find a cheering section, make yourself accountable to people you respect, and don’t give up. And when you find yourself doing the thing that you thought you couldn’t do, I want you to do this: Stop critiquing yourself for a moment. Look down at your hands. Think to yourself, “Wow. I can’t believe I’m doing this!” And feel blessed to have the privilege of bringing joy to others by finding it in yourself.

Now go out and get busy.

2 Comments to “Conquering Creative Inertia”

  1. Brandon Byrne
    Martin, This is a wonderful, inspiring post. Thank you. I will take it to heart myself and share it with my students. Brandon Byrne
  2. Lindsay Edmunds
    Great post, well worth reading. I discovered your music one day when "The Smoky Rose" floated by on Pandora. Had to buy the album. Thank you for being so good at what you do.

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