Creativity: Discipline Is Not a Bad Word

It’s somehow gotten a bad rep, discipline has. Most people think it’s synonymous with “punishment,” and while you’ll find that as one of the entries if you look up “discipline” in the dictionary, the first thing you’ll find is that “discipline” comes from the Latin disciplina, meaning “instruction” and discipulus, meaning “learner.” At its core, discipline is a good thing; and for creativity, it’s vital. While we’re constantly fed images of free-spirited creatives gamboling across dew-sprinkled lawns, splashing paint with abandon and dabbling in every new material, the truth is that those images–those very words: “gamboling,” “splashing,” “abandon,” “dabbling”–are misleading. Now, if you disagree, if you’re shaking your head and arguing that, for you, creativity is about dabbling and play and fun, and that you don’t want it to be serious and you don’t want to make it anything more than a way to spend Saturday afternoon, fine. That’s great. If that works for you, don’t worry about anything else. I’m talking here to all the people who tell me that they want to do more, push harder, dig deeper, find out what their creativity can do and where it can take them.

I’ve known lots and lots of really creative people. I’m lucky that way. Some of them are artists you’ve read about in books and magazines. Some of the most creative, though, are people you will never read about, for a variety of reasons. One reason is, in some cases, lack of discipline. These are the people you know who have wonderful ideas and can make the coolest things on the spur of the moment. They have tools and materials and a fabulous art room, and maybe their house is filled with stuff they’ve made: paintings, pillows, a lamp, an end table, maybe. You know they could do anything, and they *do* do anything. And everything. The thing is, they want more. They want to show their work, perhaps. Or they’d like to open an Etsy shop. But they haven’t quite gotten there. While they can do a lot of different things, they’re not really great at any of them. Oh, sure–the stuff they make is fabulous and is wonderful in their house; but it’s maybe not quite ready to sell. Maybe the solder is a little wonky, or the tables are held together with wood glue because they never took that woodworking class, or they took it but they didn’t want to really perfect the joining techniques. Their mosaics are lovely, but they don’t hold up so well because of some problems with the grouting that never quite got worked out.

You know. These are amazingly creative people, but they’ve never focused on anything long enough to hone their skills. Perhaps you read Jeanie Thorn’s comment on “Creativity: Why You Need to Master the Skills, Part 1,” in which she said this:

“Doug Braithwaite, who is an amazing artist, painter and teacher, once told me that you don’t get good at anything until you’ve been doing it for 10,000 hours. I almost fainted when I heard that because I thought I would be able to paint after a few lessons. But then I did the math. If you worked 40 hours each week for 52 weeks like it was a real job and did it for 5 years that would be over 10,000 hours. When I considered that I’ve done that with welding I realized he’s right. It took me 5 years to really feel good about designing in steel and even after 10 years I still take a class now and then to learn new things, and I still have to practice to keep my skill level up.”

She’s absolutely right. When I was in school, I played the flute. In high school, I participated in Solo and Ensemble Contest. Perhaps you won’t be surprised to know that I was the tiniest bit of a perfectionist; if I were going to participate, I wanted to get the gold medal. I worked with my teacher to learn the piece, and then I set myself the goal of playing it through 100 times, by memory and completely without mistakes, either in technique or tone. I kept a chart (and aren’t you surprised?) and marked off each successful play-through. If I made a mistake, I had to start from the beginning. I think I had a couple of weeks to do this. I played it through 100 times before the contest, as close to perfectly as was possible, and I got my gold medal. Which I think I threw away a while back, because, really, what’s the big deal with a painted piece of metal, right? Well, the big deal was that, at age 16, I learned the value of self-discipline, of setting myself a goal and following through, no matter how tedious or irritating or time-consuming the process. There were days, I’m sure, when my 16-year-old, just-got-my-driver’s-license self had many other, more pressing things to do. Like, you know, drive. And nobody was checking up on me. My mother wasn’t looking at my chart to see how I was progressing. My flute teacher wasn’t calling on the phone to find out how many hashmarks I’d made that day. No. This was something I did on my own. And I’ve benefitted from it ever since, because what it taught me was that if I want to do something badly enough and I’m willing to put in the work, I can figure out a way to make it happen. Because, see, when I was 16, I was perhaps one of the shyest people on the planet. “Stage fright” doesn’t even begin to describe the terror I felt at doing anything in front of anyone, much less playing a piece of music from memory in front of strangers. I knew the only way to get through it was to be able to make it seem as natural as breathing. And so I set out to do that. And did it.

This also worked for me when, in my 20s, I decided I was tired of being shy. It kept me from doing things I wanted to do, so I set about getting over it. I was working for the department of Animal Control and volunteered to do a lot of public speaking and media-related stuff. The first time, I didn’t sleep the night before. I was completely petrified, and not just because the people I was speaking to all were carrying sidearms. By the end of my four years at Animal Control, I was doing a stand-up television spot every week and had done the morning show and held press conferences and, and, and. Today I figure I could probably talk to anyone about anything pretty much anywhere, which I would never, ever have believed at 16. Or 25. You figure out what you want to do and what you need to do in order to get there, and then you do it. It’s not always easy, and it’s not always fun, but if it gets you where you want to be, it’s worth it.

I’ve got just a little more to say about this, so come back on Friday for the rest, please. Because right now I know there’re at least a couple of people who are thinking, “Sheesh. Ricë needs to learn the discipline not to be quite so wordy.”


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6 Responses to Creativity: Discipline Is Not a Bad Word

  1. Zom says:

    Hurrah! Hurrah! Well said.

    My teacher said 300 paintings before a good one. I am not sure it was 300 paintings. But it was about 10 years of painting 3 or 4 days a week. Maybe 15 years. I am still learning…

  2. Margaret Applin says:

    I love this posting! I have asked myself a million times if I am self-disciplined enough to do one thing or another. If I can’t answer “yes”, then I move on to something else I can confidently say “yes” to! I’m not sure this is a good practice, in fact, it’s pretty much a cop out. So how can I practice more self-discipline to make it work for me. Face my fears of inability?

  3. thecreativebeast says:

    Rice, thank you for this post! I’m so glad you are writing about DISCIPLINE because it really is one of the most important tools for ANYONE let alone ARTISTS…

    I know a few of those TOTALLY TALENTED people who are unable to take their work to the next level due to their inability to be DISCIPLINED and it frustrates me to hear them say that they need “freedom” to create when they are inspired to do so, because it only serves to perpetuate the myth that artists are undisciplined FLAKES. But if you looked at many great artists such as Baryshnikov, Phillip Glass, Georgia O’Keefe, you’ll see how many HOURS they spent working on their craft to make them as great as they are today. Having studied ballet, I KNOW how many hours and diligence it takes to be a good dancer and it takes many, many more to be a GREAT one…

    Thank you also for sharing your own piano performance stories Rice. “Stage Fright” isn’t just for performing on the stage!! I’m looking forward to seeing more on this topic from you tomorrow =-)

    • Rice Freeman-Zachery says:

      Oh, ballet–I can’t even imagine the discipline that would take, and in so many areas. Whew.

  4. thecreativebeast says:

    PS: don’t worry about being wordy – this topic deserves a book all it’s own!! 😉