Creative Triggers

It feels wonderful to publish something.

It’s an experience I first had way back in high school, when the web was still young and when, despite having access to basic computer production software, my journalism class still taught the not-yet-phased-out craft of physically laying out a page—every line of text on every page of the paper, one by one—before sending it off to be printed for public consumption.

There was something very honest-feeling about that process, though I’ve come to learn in the years since that it’s possible to experience something similar using digital tools. It’s not the tangibility of these processes and materials that matters, but how invested you become in producing something that feels right, that is made with intention and purpose, that you’re proud to have played a role in making whether or not your name is on it somewhere.

I started out as a columnist and editorial cartoonist, and a year later, took on more responsibility as the Art and Design Editor. My written and illustrative work was periodically picked up and republished by the local, city paper, but although that was flattering, it didn’t offer the same creative resonance as the work published in our school paper: there was something special about having been involved with a project beginning to end, solving a million small problems, dealing with countless paper cuts and ink stains—publishing-related battle scars—in order to produce something of substance before sending it out into the world.

Like most school papers, ours wasn’t impressive by the standards of other, bigger, well-funded and managed and staffed publications. But it was ours, and it allowed us to see how effort and frustration and pushing oneself to one’s limits in terms of time and attention and skill can coalesce into a finished product; something you can marvel at in the aftermath and say, “I made this.”

I’d always enjoyed making things, but before that moment, before that collection of journalistic adventures and minor dramas, I didn’t realize just how much of a psychological trigger the act of producing and distributing would be for me. To make something, and to be able to share that thing.

My first business, started several years later while I was in college, was a culture magazine. I took what I learned back in my newspaper days, combined that knowledge with what I picked up while producing a pocketable, hand-made zine, and ran with it.

Running a business was not something to which I aspired. Entrepreneurship wasn’t a sexy thing yet—Facebook was still just starting to happen, and Silicon Valley was dominated by buffoonish-seeming post-Dotcom Bubble holdouts, not hot, young, digital rockstars—and all I really wanted to do was make something interesting and valuable and share it with people. The jobs I worked at the time, including doing all of the design work for a local glossy magazine, didn’t provide that outlet; getting into business was just a means to that end.

This drive of mine is still evident today in essentially everything I do. And recognizing it has provided me with a trigger I can pull any time I’m feeling sluggish or uninspired—intellectually disengaged or unsure of my next steps.

The simple act of making something, of creating things that wouldn’t have existed without my active effort and intention, feels good. It makes me feel alive.

Being capable of sharing that thing, that creation, amplifies this feeling. Not all creations need to be shared, and the majority of my work, be it visual or written or whatever else, is never seen by anyone but me. But knowing I can disseminate the good stuff that bubbles up out of my creative efforts makes the whole process more vibrant. It’s nice to think that I might be able to share some of that joy, some of that knowledge, some of that perspective with someone; perhaps many someones.

Growth in any aspect of our lives is partly dependent on our exploration and understanding of what motivates us, what drains us, what can snap us out of mental funks, and what can help us endure even the most arduous, tedious, perhaps even agonizing aspects of whatever it is we hope to achieve.

Everyone’s fueled by something different, but through self-reflection and experimentation it’s possible to come to know our levers and switches, and to slowly but surely label them for more convenient, future use.

There are many pre-packaged tools that can be helpful in this regard, but one-size-fits-all approaches to productivity and creative satisfaction are almost always non-ideal; at least in isolation.

It’s a good idea to experiment with the tools and techniques and lifehacks shared by others, but don’t become discouraged if they don’t work for you, don’t stick, or don’t align well with what you’re trying to achieve and how you’re trying to achieve it. Dabble and move on, and if you discover pieces of pre-packaged approaches that do help, or that nudge you in a positive direction, integrate them into your own custom-tailored method of making things without worrying about adopting that method in its entirety.

You needn’t fit cleanly under the cookie-cutter shape of someone else’s methods and habits—someone else’s triggers—just because they’ve turned them into an app, written a book about them, created a movement around them, or given them a name. Good branding doesn’t imply universal value or utility.

Alongside considering what’s been done before in this space, it’s worth taking the time to think deeply, to reflect on where you’ve been and what you’ve done, and on how you might do things better in the future.

It’s worth understanding who you are, who you might be, and your strengths and weaknesses—all without passing judgement.

Discovering and then intentionally utilizing your creative triggers allows you to leap any hurdles you might encounter, and to more confidently tap into and utilize your internal resources on demand.

This essay was sponsored by my wonderful patrons. Thanks very much, patrons :)

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