"…Your ideas, efforts, and creations rarely fall short because you aren’t intrinsically creative enough. They fall short because you either fail to grind your sparks or you fail to spark your grind."
We’re all looking for creativity in at least one aspect of our lives—in our work, relationships, or other passions. In The Spark and the Grind: Ignite the Power of Disciplined Creativity, speed-painter and keynote speaker Eric Wahl inspires us to embrace both the initial illumination (the “spark”) and the work of creativity (the “grind”). To tap into our creative potential, we have to acknowledge our current tendency as either an Igniter or Grinder. If you’re an Igniter, you often discover good ideas through observation, but it’s rare that you can actualize them. If you’re a Grinder, you’re known for being resourceful, but can fail to notice solutions along the way. Staying open to switching between the two modes is how to make progress on your creative ideas every day.
The son of a highly self-disciplined father, Wahl credits the introduction of disciplined creativity into his routine with allowing him to reinvent himself and his career after being laid off. It was Wahl’s “militaristic discipline” that gave him the patience to learn how to complete his photo-realistic paintings in three minutes. An intense personality, he buys stock in companies that book him to make sure he has some “skin in the game” for the performance. And his pre-performance routine, starting at 4am, involves meditation, writing, working out, and visualization—all before breakfast. It’s now his mission to share his philosophy and methods to help others use disciplined creativity as a way to navigate life.
Your work must reflect you
"When your work does not bring pieces of yourself into being, it quickly becomes a maddening grind."
To be truly effective, who you are needs to come through in what you produce. Who you are is whatever distinguishes you from everyone else. An extreme grinder, Wahl diligently taught himself how to paint for performance after his career with a corporate speakers bureau came to an end in the dot com crash. He agonized over how to support his wife and three children. Eventually he drew on his knowledge of the speakers circuit, his background in graffiti art, and his remarkably disciplined personality—the things that distinguish him from everyone else—to create a new career.
We all have a need to reach for our potential, and creativity is our greatest opportunity. We need to become attached to our work to develop mastery, and exercise passion and purpose each day to maintain this attachment.
Igniters: Keep your day job
"Within your current context lies more creative opportunities than you probably even realized. There are no dead-end streets for the truly creative."
Often great sparks come from long periods of grinding. Ideation isn’t always the beginning of the creative process, Wahl reminds us. Creativity is all about what you do with what you have. The more present you are in your existing environment, the more your perspective of your environment will change. So don’t look for the perfect idea—just find a pretty good one and make a commitment to consistent progress.
You can take creative risks within your current roles, which give you the support you need while you learn. You don’t have to worry about money when you keep your day job, so you have more freedom to grind your more wild sparks. Philip Glass, widely regarded as the most influential musician of the 20th century, worked as a plumber and taxi driver in the first part of his music career. With a day job, you’re more connected to the world, and each day is an opportunity to find out more about your audience and gather creative material. Plus, with fewer hours to develop your idea, it means you have to be more focused on the next most important step—especially helpful for Igniters.
Grinders: Defamiliarize the ordinary
"The trouble is that we are not daring people in familiar situations…then we realize it’s killing us."
Our brains need both efficiency and novelty. If you’re struggling to be more creative, it’s probably because you haven’t been exposed to enough new ideas or situations that boost your curiosity. By opening ourselves up to the unfamiliar, we prime our brain for more innovative thinking.
Wahl remains highly aware of when he experiences staleness in his relationships or career. To keep himself pliable, he plans to learn something completely new every two years. He signed up for the World Series of Poker with only four months to learn how to play well. He also attends stadium concerts as professional development and regularly subjects his body to shocks like polar plunging, wind sprints, and fasting. This resets his mind, unlike napping, snacking, or going for a walk, which aren’t foreign enough to wake his senses.
Develop your creative intuition through daily contemplation of your life, career, and yourself. It takes sustained effort to look past what seem like mundane details and find some unfamiliar aspect that may be a spark that will lead to growth. Scratch your creative itches. Think about what you haven’t changed in years. Just like an artist, how can you generate the inspiration you need to continue creating your life? What could change your mental or physical state? This could be how you exercise, how you travel, who you interact with, or how you spend your free time. If we don’t consciously usher in the unfamiliar, it will invite itself in by way of an unexpected event. Creative breakthroughs are often born from the darker, or at least more inconvenient times in our lives.
Although extreme examples, the stories from Wahl’s life will remind me to bring more creative discipline to my work. Whether you’re more of an Igniter or a Grinder, we all need to look for ways to improve our skills on both poles.