Happy New Year, friend!
When I wrote you last, I told you the story of my not-so-great Great British Bake-Off inspired foray into home baking. It ended disastrously, with me abandoning my intention to bake something “scrummy” altogether and instead eating three already-made cupcakes in the car on my drive home from the grocery store.
But you didn’t think I could just end that story there, did you?
No, I’m not starting a baking blog. No, I’m not slowly morphing this newsletter into Dave’s own little weird homage to British baking, all because I enjoyed a reality show on Netflix.
What I am sharing with you today is what happened next: the actual process I took as a novice creative — in this case, as a baker — after my doe-eyed desires to make hit the hard wall of “the other half of the creative equation,” destruction, and stopped cold.
In 2019, I am celebrating my 10-year anniversary of quitting my job, starting my blog, and setting off on a bit of an uncertain odyssey into writing. Throughout this year, I want to invite you into some fresh, intimate, and unconventional explorations around what it really means to create something in today’s world.
For you, that may mean creating change, creating art, creating a body of work, creating a new outlook on life, creating more joy and contentment in the everyday, creating a business, or creating a brand new story.
We are all constantly creating and recreating ourselves in the daily choices we make, what words we speak, what words we leave behind, and even in the stories we choose to believe about who we are and what we’re capable of.
Naturally, I thought the best way to begin this year-long exploration into the creative was by sharing my own silly little confrontation with home baking, because it says a lot about what happens to all of us when the desire to create is confronted by an uncomfortable reality.
So, this isn’t really about baking — it’s about the common experiences that we all share when good natured, innocent, natural desires to create, make, perform, be inspired, or engage in any act of “doing” hits the “other half of the creative equation,” destruction.
We all will face this shadowy element. We already are, probably more frequently than we realize.
After wiping the cupcake crumbs from my chin, I went back to face my discomfort all over again so I could document the process and share it here with you.
Here’s what I recommend you might do to endure your own creative challenges that arise in 2019 when creative impulses clash with the subtle underbelly of discomfort that rises with the natural desire to make.
Step 1) Start at Your Starting Point
After watching really good amateur bakers whip up ridiculously beautiful cakes and tarts and puddings, my instinct was to also throw myself into the “deep end” of baking with complicated Genoese sponges and French macarons.
That was my first mistake. I failed to temper my expectations.
Tempering expectations is surprisingly difficult, especially when it comes to any new artistic or creative endeavor. First, the aspirational quality of art (which promises total freedom, endless possibility, and so much potential) is so seductive that the notion of deliberately tempering your expectations can feel deflating, unmotivating, and maybe even self-defeating.
After all, the exhilarating potential of “what could be” is what pushes us to try anything creative at all. Dreams fuel us to take big risks, despite the odds. Reigning back sheer excitement, on purpose? Lowering your enthusiasm, from the start? It’s not fun, and may even stop you short from starting in the first place.
Which leads to the second reason why it’s so tough to temper the excitement to create: because our expectations for what is “good” and “worthy” and “worthwhile” art are set at a ridiculously high bar.
As consumers, most of exposure to art comes from finished products of a really, really professional caliber. What we see are results of countless hundreds or thousands of hours of dedicated hard work.
We see the 100th version of a book that ends up on a bookshelf, not the clunky, ugly, piecemealed rough draft on the author’s hard drive.
Our exposure to finished art falsely inflates most of what our understanding around what “art” is, at all.
It gives us a false impression that art is mostly just showing up before making something spectacular.
It also discounts how many people contribute to shaping so many of the finished projects that we consume. We don’t see the scores of experienced, talented professionals whose entire careers have led to the Netflix show that magically appears one day on your TV. We never meet the editorial team behind that best-selling book. We don’t consider the sound engineers who meticulously perfect the chorus of the new pop song on the radio.
Our exposure to most “done” art is not representative of of what 99.99% of all people make — even the full-time professionals, especially on their first attempts.
Realizing that I had no recollection of baking anything from scratch in my entire life, I figured I might not set my bar of expectations as high as some of the most challenging European baked desserts of the last couple hundred years.
What I Did Next: I went all the way back to the start. Like, back to the grade school start. I bought a package of stir-and-bake cookies on my next visit to the grocery store. Add two eggs, whisk and you’re a baker. I nailed it! Later that week, I went for a package of stir-and-bake brownies. Nailed that one, too!
Why It Works: Tempering expectations isn’t about deflating your passion for a new creative venture; it’s actually about preserving your passion for long enough to actually get where you’re hoping to someday go. By pulling back the ambitiousness on my first few baking attempts, I found a starting point that wouldn’t derail my young creative impulse from the get-go.
How to Do It Yourself: Aim for one small win. Set a small, manageable container of expectations — like my stir-and-bake cookies — and know that this starting point means to serve you with the chance to do (i.e. to be in the experience of the making) and, just as well, the chance to finish or complete something, as well, which starts vital cycles of learning and growth with which you’ll build vital skills.
Step 2) Enlist Some Help
After rocking the hell out of my ready-bake brownies and cookies, I knew I wanted to up my baking game. My next small goal was to bring holiday cookies to a family gathering right around Christmas: a cookie exchange where guests put a special spin on their favorite cookie and trade with the group to make a blend of holiday treats to take home.
In order to narrow down some of the endless possibilities (and thus, the indecision and overwhelm) of what cookie I might bake, I knew I needed some help and guidance.
But in lieu of having Paul Hollywood on speed-dial, to whom could I turn with my still as-of-yet inexplicable desire to become a home baker?
I enlisted my bestie Coral, who has long been my go-to peer in support of new learning and growth, for guidance. Not only did Coral have some actual baking experience, but she and her husband (my buddy Brian, who also happens to be a professional chef!) possessed necessary instruments and fancy ingredients for baking cookies, like a standup mixer, and baking sheets, and… all the stuff I very much did not have.
Better yet, Coral is a rock of a friend who — with thanks to our long and strong history of learning, growth and experiences together — I knew would never judge me or shame me for wanting to learn how to bake, even if I was altogether terrible at it.
Me, I didn’t know if I’d enjoy baking at all. It was a passing whim that I wanted to explore, not a whole new identity I wanted to undertake. It’s so easy to feel judged, embarrassed or even ashamed of trying something new, especially when it’s something creative, that the fear can prevent us from trying at all.
Based on our history of deep friendship, I knew such would never be the case with my friend Coral. That’s why I knew she’d be the best person to turn to for help.
What I Did Next: After a little convincing (“I’ll share half of the cookies with you”) and deliberating over a recipe (we landed on a simple chocolate and sea salt dipped peanut butter cookie), I headed over to Coral’s and Brian’s baking-ready kitchen for emotional support and guidance from a peer who knew what the heck needed doing.
Thanks to my new “baking coach,” I was able to proudly present an elegant basket of homemade cookies at my family gathering. Not only did the cookies come out great — my discerning 10-year-old cousin said they were the best cookies at the party — the family was flabbergasted by my A-level display game, with my tray of cookies tied with a holiday-themed bow and ribbon.
(Although, that was really Coral’s doing…)
Why It Works: It only makes sense to enlist help when we need it. So why don’t we do it more often? The truth is that it tends to be particularly uncomfortable, if not outright embarrassing, to lay claim to a new, budding desire — especially a young creative impulse. Creative whims and intentions feel particularly personal to each of us; thereby, it feels particularly vulnerable and exposing to lay claim to them out loud.
If you don’t know why you want to try, or where the effort may lead you, or even if you’ll enjoy the experience in the end, taking ownership of a new creative passion can be surprisingly daunting. Enter: enlisting the help of someone — a friend, a coach, a peer.
To do so requires you to take some ownership of the desire.
It requires you to be seen, heard and witnessed for this curious calling you are still striving to understand, yourself.
And yet, once you do lay some claim of ownership to that calling, curiosity or desire, you open the door to being supported and guided in ways that alleviate some of the daunting “overwhelm” of not knowing where to begin, how to get properly started, or the ways in which you ought to best focus your efforts.
How to Do It For Yourself: What a friend like Coral provides to me — and what I strive to provide to my clients in my Writer’s Group of Two coaching — is a blend of hard-earned trust paired with compassionate guidance. All creatives, in particular, require this delicate balance of hands-on support and hands-off understanding. This holds space for being supported and encouraged and seen while still being free-willed and autonomous enough to navigate your own learning curve without added pressure.
When you’re enlisting help of a peer, friend or a professional coach, be extra discerning; not all support systems are created equally. Turn to someone whom you feel you can trust — and someone who can trust you back enough to do your own learning, exploring, and figuring-out. Remember: part of the magic of the creative experience is the privilege of creating our own path.
Step 3) Explore Widely, Then Narrow
After conquering the family cookie exchange, I had something of a revelation: I didn’t really enjoy baking. At least, I didn’t enjoy baking sweet things. Something about dessert baking didn’t inspire me or feel particularly rewarding. I was hitting something of a watershed moment that happens, especially at early stages of creative journeys, when we begin to learn enough about our desires for the desires to start “talking back” to us.
First, my ill-defined creative impulse was telling me, “Just bake something! It’ll be fun.”
Then, with a little bit of experience under my belt, I heard my desire starting to tell me, “Enough of playtime in cookies and brownies, young Padawan learner. Now find a direction that really feels fun to you.”
My desire began to tell me that it wouldn’t survive on making sweets. I needed an alternative that would inspire, motivate, and keep me going.
Call me an American of Italian decent (since I am), but bread has always been something of a religion to me. At least, when I eat really good bread you could say that I am having a religious experience! And thankfully, my source of inspiration for baking, The Great British Bake-Off, does have a whole week’s worth of baking dedicated to a savory home baking alternative: bread.
I found the prospect of bread-baking from home to be of particular interest. It would honor my bread-loving heritage, teach me something of a “lost art,” and offer equal parts excitement and challenge. So, I gave it a try!
What I Did Next: I Googled around for a simple bread recipe until I found one that had only a few ingredients, a short bake time, and didn’t require a world of effort (see: Step 1 on tempering expectations!). Go figure, the very recipe I found for a simple white bread was one written by Great British Bake-Off judge, Paul Hollywood. It was fated!
In the following days, I made my own dough!
And I baked four loaves — one after the other, based solely on a single recipe — over the following weeks. I loved it!
Making dough from scratch is kind of awesome, and the fact that just a few ingredients and techniques can come together to make what has been a long-nourishing staple of humanity’s diet for thousands of years is rather radical.
Bread, it turns out, is my new baking passion.
Why It Works: We all understand that developing strong creative skills (as with any other skill) require dedicated practice and hard work. That’s why so much advice you’ll find online and in books tries to encourage you to focus on a single-track path in pursuit of expertise or mastery. This is a remarkable oversimplification, and threatens to suck all the joy and reward out of what creativity promises.
The least you can do for yourself before you begin to invest hundreds of dollars and thousands of hours into a brand new creative pursuit is to figure out if you actually enjoy it, and why.
That’s why I encourage all my clients to indulge in open exploration, play, experimentation and creative meandering, especially when they are just coming into relationship to a brand new creative calling.
Starting with a wide, ambling, exploratory focus embodies the essence of that seductive “anything is possible” quality of creativity that we all know and value. It allows you to wonder, wander and play. It gives you the gift of an opportunity to use your feelings, gut instincts and intuition to learn more about yourself, what you value, and what you desire. It gives you the damn chance to just feel good without the need to rationalize it or defend it.
When you allow your desire a chance to “speak back to you,” you find an easier sense of direction as you go along.
How to Do It For Yourself: All you have to do is to give yourself full permission to try. Forget becoming an “expert” or a “master.” A lot of that pressure to go from zero-to-expert comes from our society askew values that equate worth and value to wealth, status and acclaim. It’s the reason why so many of us struggle to embrace creativity without our society’s over-masculinized, overly-industrialized norms interfering with open exploration and pure indulgence.
Treat your creative endeavor as a journey of learning that you trust will inspire natural reflection and growth.
In other words, if you don’t know what you desire yet, don’t let that derail you.
Keep exploring and playing, and the desire will make itself known. At that point, you can focus yourself in one direction and grow your skills in ways that may be challenging, but still feel rewarding.
Step 4) End (to Begin Again)
After baking four loaves of bread from scratch in about a week or two, something became very clear to me, which brings home all of the stories that I’ve been writing to you about in recent weeks about the “two halves” of the creative equation: the making side, and the destruction side.
Cooking and baking, as it turns out, are excellent teachers of both halves of the creative equation because with every effort to make, you are compelled to complete the making… or else “destruction” will find your project anyway.
With baking or cooking in particular, there is immediacy and urgency built into the creative process: living ingredients will spoil, go stale, grow mold, or otherwise become inedible.
If you don’t finish the task of making by choosing the “destruction” (which, creatively, usually just means finishing, ending, or completing a task), the destruction will come anyway and spoil what you were creating in the first place.
Baking, in other words, requires you to practice the art of ending, completing, finishing or letting go.
Unlike writing a book, or working on a painting, or composing a song, you really can’t hit pause on baking bread or assembling a towering three-layer cake. Sure, you can quit mid-way through. But unlike burying a script on your hard-drive or putting an oil painting in the closet for a while, baking compels you to finish, complete, and try again.
What cooking and baking thus teach us is the importance of taking your creative efforts to some state of completion.
This is the fourth and final step in “overcoming the destructive side of creativity,” embracing the destructive side as a practice in starting again.
All that that really means?
Ending an effort.
Completing a task.
Finishing (or, at the very least, surrendering and moving on).
It may not be perfect; it may mean calling it quits when something’s just not working.
But you have to learn to end a creative effort. If only, so you can begin again.
Why It Works: On a practical level, what happens when we neglect the “finishing” is that we lose out on vital feedback loops, learning and growth which are essential for growing skills and developing experience. When we don’t complete, end, finish, or let go of a creative effort, the learning-growth cycle short-circuits.
Ending a creative effort is essential because it compels the cycle of creativity to begin anew, by our own choice.
Either way, the destruction will happen — and perhaps in far more ominous ways that affect more than just our creative practice.
What’s at stake, that’s more than the painting or loaf of bread or the book we want to write?
Losing self-confidence. Losing enthusiasm. Losing the zest for trying new things.
We may learn to distrust our passion.
We may start to grow skeptical of our desire and our wanting.
When we willingly complete a creative task — when we learn how to surrender, let go, finish, release expectations — then, we start to become true practitioners of creativity.
Because what we start to practice is both sides of the creative equation: the making and the letting go; the faith and the surrender; the journeying onward and the strength to begin again.
Yours in creativity,