I was a bright-eyed fourth grader the summer we stopped by the gift shop in Wisconsin Dells where my mom’s younger brother had a summer job. I had a tiny bit of spending money, and I picked out a necklace for myself—a silvery yin yang pendant embedded with shell inlay dyed maroon and a bluish teal. It was one of my favorite childhood accessories for a time, well before studying Eastern philosophy and the origins of this symbol. I mostly liked the colors, and the swirling semi-paisley forms looked fun and cool.
The necklace has long since fallen apart and the pendant reworked into an art piece, but the symbol has stayed with me and ironically immediately came to mind when thinking about discussing the relationship of balance for artists when considering creativity and productivity. Sometimes, it seems we confuse these very different concepts, especially as the corporate world has found encouraging creativity to be helpful in its workforce’s productivity, so I wanted to spend a moment peeling the onion of what each mode is and is not and how, as artists and creative persons, we need both.
Creativity is not a thing—it is a flow.
You know that you’ve stepped into that flow when all experience of everyday measures of time evaporates. Hours rush by, and you’re not even exhausted. In fact, you’re exhilarated! Creativity is an energy, THE great energy of the universe or divinity or however you wish to put handles on it that calls us to be the conduit for that which is seeking form and expression.
Creativity is boundless and endless, infused with divergent thought. Ideas are everywhere—even really outlandish and crazy ones that are probably never going anywhere, but that’s ok. This mode is exuberant and joyful and full of discoveries and puzzle pieces.
Yet, creativity is shy. You have to build a relationship with it. You have to show up for this invisible wild horse without any ropes or bridles and show that you are trustworthy. When you ride the wild horse of creativity and imagination, the thrill makes you want to never get off, but at length you must. Creativity also needs times of rest, of contemplation, or letting ideas simmer in the back of your mind without forcing them. The horse must graze too, and you must sleep and let the dreams work their magic.
Abuse or neglect the wild horse of creativity, and it vanishes for long, dreary, drought-like periods. Coaxing it back is a soul’s effort of building trust, healing, and re-learning how to be playful (or un-learning to be so adult) that is no task for the introspectively squeamish.
Productivity, on the other hand, is quite concrete.
We are all familiar with the world of productivity, which has dominated our Western culture since the Industrial Revolution. It’s deadlines and quotas and releasing the next product or filling the next order. It is measurable, tangible, and marketable. It lives and breathes the schedule of the weeks and months, the days’ emails and to-do lists. It is deductive thought—paring down from many possibilities to find the “right” answer.
Many artists bemoan productivity mode, wishing they could instead be with their creative wild horses all day, but I want to focus on why we need both and how they interact with each other, just like the symbol of yin and yang.
This ancient Chinese circle shows yin (female energy) in relation to yang (male energy). One is white and the other black—opposites of pigment coloration. Both are the same size. All yin, and life is out of balance, as it would also be with just yang. All creativity with no productivity and there’s lots of ideas, but nothing gets done. All productivity with little or no creativity, and the work becomes dull and lifeless, chasing only what sells.
If, instead, we focus on the balance of the two, we can lift both our creative practice and our effectiveness of that practice.
For example, creative mode tends to come in waves. These waves are not always at moments when it is feasible to chase after them! Write/draw/jot them down. I mean it! I always carry a notebook with me everywhere, and it’s full of sketches, notes, design concepts, etc. It’s horrible when a flash of a wonderful idea comes that you can’t later recall. The wild horse has rushed off again, and you didn’t snap a picture. Snap that picture! Jot them on the nearest scrap of paper and tape them into your notebook if necessary, so that you don’t lose that spark. These notebooks are goldmines later when I have the time to revisit them.
But a flurry of a thousand ideas is not useful in itself—it must be honed and winnowed. This is where turning on productivity mode helps. For instance, which of these ideas is actually feasible? All concepts have pros and cons, and this is the work of productivity mode, which also has a strong sense for what might have the best results with audience (e.g., market appeal, gift-ability, etc.). These are not small concerns when embarking on turning ideas into form. I switch from creative mode to productive mode and back again all the time when designing projects for classes. Here might be an internal monologue between the two modes.
C: “Ooh, I think we should make a dragon! Wouldn’t needle felting a dragon be fun?”
P: “Sure. But let’s also make it approachable. There can be lots of complex parts on a dragon.”
C: “Painting with wool style, with some beadwork! It could be so pretty!”
P: “This sounds like a two-session class. I’ll research helpful beads and get some on the way for a prototype. The folk school needs sample images for this class before next month.”
C: “I love Celtic/Nordic zoomorphic designs, where the animal and knotwork are blended together. It should feel enough like the Old World imagery and yet enough recognizable elements we associate with dragon today that it draws from both modern and ancient sensibilities, with lots of powerful flow.”
P: “I’ll do some image research and compile a file of ideas to draw from.”
C: “Sorry?” looks up from busily doodling in notebook. “Oh, yeah, that would be great, thanks.”
Another example of the interrelationship between creative and productive modes is during what we call “the creative process.” Everyone who lives the artist’s life knows that your relationship to a particular piece changes as the work progresses—especially works that are quite involved and take considerable time to complete.
For me, creativity infuses the initial rush of the project—concept sketches, design, color choices, etc. This infuses powers through typically the first third of the work before seriously waning. I hit a snag, and the project sits for a while as I percolate the solution. Quite easily, creative mode can be wooed by the next new idea and bounds off, leaving the previous piece behind.
This is where I need to switch to productivity mode, which is the “get ‘er done” powerhouse. It thrives on deadlines (real ones!), goals, and breaking a complex process into manageable, measurable steps. Yes, creativity handed off a fantastic idea for a tapestry class and a marvelous mockup, but now how many tutorials will that break down into, what should they be called, and how should they be organized? Which materials and how much of each need to go in each kit, and what would that cost? That’s where productivity mode rolls up its sleeves and gets to work. Harness this, and you’ll find out in the end that the wild horses of creativity adore the euphoria of the full fruition of an idea and visit more frequently and regularly than they did amidst a mess of orphaned concepts.
Neither of these modes, however, are purely their own. Notice that the swirl of yin has a spot of yang in it, and the swirl of yang also contains a spot of yin. This is critical. Creativity without a spot of productivity won’t yield results that are fully actualized or even workable. Productivity without a spot of creativity is dull and lifeless—“the grind.” Cultivating balance and agility at toggling between modes becomes the great dance. As with all things, practice makes it easier.
How might cultivating the yin and yang of creativity and productivity in your practice shake things up and bring your work to a new level? Pay attention to what mode you are in when, consciously shift when necessary, and see what happens.