Debunking the Myth of Writer’s Block

What workplace productivity can teach us about achieving individual goals

Why do we celebrate artists, authors, creators like Vincent van Gogh, Toni Morrison, and Martin Scorsese?

For one, they create amazing work that moves us.  But perhaps more importantly, they are able to do something that so many of us struggle to do — to complete creative works.  

And it’s not surprising we admire them given that so many of us try our hands at creative pursuits from writing a novel or creating a short film.  But few of us are able to complete these endeavors.  In fact the New York Times found that less than two percent of people who start writing a book would ever finish.

On the other hand, Van Gogh averaged one painting every 4 days of his career as an artist in addition to his 1100 drawings and sketches on the side.

Just why are creative pursuits so challenging?

“It’s surprising that creative pursuits are so challenging,” says Eric Koester, a Georgetown professor who teaches entrepreneurial classes around creative pursuits such as book writing, novel writing, audio show development, and video production. 

When I first began teaching in the creative fields, I realized how hard it was to help someone succeed — in fact in one of my first open courses less than 20% met their goal of finishing a first draft manuscript for the book they were working on during my course.  It surprised me because the passion was there, but the progress wasn’t.

Researchers have long studied motivation and drive, particularly in the workplace.  Researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer conducted a study to identify key drivers of motivation in careers that require creativity, like sales and marketing positions.

Amabile and Kramer studied over 12,000 diary entries from creative knowledge workers to find out what drove work satisfaction and productivity.  They originally believed that traditional measures of success which come from completing something most mattered — recognition, goals, incentives, and rewards.  But they were surprised at what they found.

“Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work,” wrote Amabile in the Harvard Business Review.

And while these principles have become central to many emerging management trends inside companies and organizations, few of us apply them to our own creative pursuits.

“When I interviewed the people who quit their projects,” says Koester, “we found that they felt like they weren’t making the writing progress they had expected.  They had expected to be writing so many words each day or each week.  And when they didn’t do that in the first weeks, they stopped.”

Deepu Asok, a Portfolio Ops Project Manager at Pfizer and blogger is working on his first nonfiction book.  Shared Asok, “When I initially set out to write the book, I thought that it’s all about writing from day one since I have to complete a 30000+ word manuscript.  So, in my mind, I was calculating, 1000 X 60 = 60,000 words which give me enough material for a rough manuscript. I can then cut it down to 30K words and I will have a close to the final manuscript.”

The reality was when Asok missed his early targets he began to doubt himself.  That’s when Koester shared the concept of Creative Progress.

“Creative progress is happening in two phases,” explains Koester.  “Any creative project from a film script to a novel to an album begins by making divergent progress — progress where we learn and expand upon our initial ideas.  That progress is messy, nonlinear, and often doesn’t create any outcome we can track.  It’s more likely to be notes, snippets, recordings, or PostIts than words on a page or video footage or music.  But it’s critical to initial progress.”

For Asok, he changed his approach.  “Instead of worrying about getting the right number of words on paper or writing 1000 words/day, I focused on finding at least one good research material/day.”

What Koester finds is creative progress happens very differently than we anticipate leading us to be disappointed in ourselves and often abandon the project entirely. 

“Amabile is right that making progress towards meaningful work is critical — not only at our day jobs but in our side projects and creative pursuits,” says Koester.  “The truth is that we often pick the wrong thing to judge ourselves on in creative projects.  Yes, we have work that’s meaningful which is critical, but when we don’t see progress in the way we thought we would, doubts, uncertainty, and imposter syndrome creep in.”

For Koester, that led him to radically transform his teaching approach and how he advises anyone pursuing a creative endeavor.  In 2017, he launched the Manuscript Group, a social venture dedicated to helping authors and creators through its Creator Institute and New Degree Press organizations.

“Outcome-based progress — word count, recorded footage, script pages — are slower than we expect at the beginning but accelerate as we go.  Outcome-based progress accelerates based on your pace of learning.  So track early progress around conversations, notes, snippets, recordings, or PostIts.  And just as important is build a community of others who are also working on similar projects so you can help each other see progress even if it’s not in ways you anticipated.”

The pandemic has led more of us to seek personal creative projects than ever, and as more of us seek to find meaning through these individual creative pursuits outside work, it’s important to leverage progress as both Amabile and Koester have discovered.

“Creative projects are challenging, but if you tackle them correctly you can finish,” says Koester. “Just be kinder to yourself and surround yourself with others — just because it’s an individual creative pursuit doesn’t mean it’s a lonely pursuit.”

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