Recently I was sharing some concerns with a trusted mentor. I was stressed and anxious. As I rambled on, I realized I was talking in circles.
I was jumping back and forth between the backstory and current story, sidestepping and swinging back around to finish a thought. Then I stopped narrating.
“I’m sorry. I’m making no sense,” I said.
“Natalie. I’m tracking you,” my mentor said. “You’re painting a picture. I can’t tell you which strokes to use, but I see the picture.”
Her response was so simple and reassuring, I felt understood. She validated my thought patterns.
Entrepreneurs, by nature, see things differently. They are constantly searching for opportunities, for points of pain and possible improvements in current systems. Such individuals rarely think inside the lines. If they did, things would remain status quo and innovative breakthroughs would be nonexistent. For entrepreneurs, the wheels are always turning and the creative juices rarely stop flowing.
Anyone who has ever experienced the creative process can attest to the fact that it is anything but predictable and rarely clear-cut. Brushstrokes fly all over the place in ways that can make very little sense to an onlooker. Sometimes multiple ideas are at play at once — something that more systematic thinkers might not understand.
I’m not suggesting that one way of thinking is superior to another. Rather I wish to acknowledge and validate that the creative process is messy — and that this is OK. Here are a few ways I try to organize the messiness that is my creative process:
1. Write things down.
Because creative people see potential in so many different situations, they are usually juggling multiple ideas at once. I find that in the quiet moments of one project, I’m often pondering my next idea. As an entrepreneur, I can’t “turn off” my creativity. It would be detrimental to my growth and potential.
Instead of putting your idea maker on mute, I suggest keeping lists. Create an “idea inventory.” Write down your ideas. Keep lists of projects that you’re currently working on: What have you done? What do you still need to get done?
If you carefully track each project that you’re involved in and each one that you’d like to do, you can inject a healthy amount of organization into your creative process. Done right, this will let you expend your creative energy while making significant progress on the tasks at hand.
2. Know when to purge.
I often have a certain conversation with fellow entrepreneurs. People get bogged down because they don’t know when to cut the cord on a project or partnership that’s no longer viable or healthy.
There’s nothing wrong with experimentation. I highly recommend trying out as many different interests and ideas as possible.
Finding the right outcome won’t always be straightforward. Sometimes the process involves a lot of trial and error. But one thing gives way to the next. And after a series of seemingly nonsensical brushstrokes, people often end up where they are supposed to be.
Experimentation is key but so is purging.
Knowing when to step away from a project or pursuit that’s no longer productive or fulfilling is crucial. This is not failure. It’s simply part of the learning experience. I constantly make lists of the projects I’m focused on and go through and “delete” projects that I no longer want to pursue.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that these project ideas were failed attempts. It just means I’ve found that my time and energy is put to better use elsewhere. By purging the extraneous projects from my list, I am able to create more mental space for the things I want to focus on, as well as nurture new ideas.
3. Keep painting.
I am very lucky to have a mentor who has expressed such understanding and empathy about the messy tendencies of a creative mind. But not all people understand this. For those who lean toward systematic thought and orderly expression, a scattered creative process can be intimidating and undesirable.
Don’t let such individuals dampen your process. Keep painting and let the brushstrokes fly. Even if they don’t make sense to other people, let yourself go through your own messy, creative process. Continue exploring fresh ideas and purge the ones that don’t work for you.
Stay on top of your projects, but give yourself the freedom to fall flat on your face and then rise again to try out a new idea.
Each person’s project capacity will be different. Perhaps working on multiple projects at once isn’t your style. That’s OK.
But for those of you who function best in a sometimes chaotic and creative environment, give yourself the permission to live in it. Keep the ideas flowing: If you don’t explore them, you will never truly understand their potential or viability.
Famed writer Lillian Hellman penned the book Pentimento, recounting the people who had had a profound impact on her life. (Pentimento means “a reappearance in a painting of an original drawn or painted element which was eventually painted over by the artist.”) An entrepreneur, like an artist, always has the option of “painting” over a current project to reshape or remold it — or begin something new. If traces of the old “painting” resurface, they only serve to influence the new project.