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Overcoming creative block and self doubt

Every photographer, for that matter every creative, I've ever met comes to a point when they're not happy with the work they're producing. The pendulum between creative highs and dry spells swings continuously. For some the cycle is long and the bouts are quite mild for others the feeling of doubt about their work can be a crushing experience which returns all to frequently.

It's actually quite healthy to have these periods of doubt because it can often be the beginning of something new and interesting which takes you further than you thought possible.

Creatives in the commercial world have to always perform and although they may agree looking back that they've had a few patches where their work was less good, they always seem to bounce back. A very few creative geniuses deliver such high quality work that their poorest attempts still surpass the rest of us. But I have never heard of anyone, from tortured soul of Van Gogh to the supreme showman and genius, Salvador Dali, that didn't have their bad days.

OK, so you probably have them too. How do you get past your creative block and self doubt? That feeling when you look at what you've been producing lately and you've got to admit to yourself that it's not as good as it should be.

For me the solution is simple. Keep on working. It can be a painful process but what you've got to do is unlock the potential in your ideas or come up with new ones.

One thing is for sure. Having no ideas and doing nothing, sitting back and suffering from inertia will leave you stuck in a place you do not want to be. Any ideas, even if they are bad ones, will lead you somewhere new. A bad idea can lead to a good idea.

Simple dos and don'ts to overcome creative block and self doubt

Don't go and look at other great photographers' work. You'll just feel more crap and if you do find an idea to steel then all you're doing is being a second-hander. To be successful you have to come up with a fresh and creative take on things by yourself.

Don't sit and write lists of ideas. All you're doing is intellectual foreplay and pussyfooting around the problem. You're not dealing with it head on.

Don't give up and sit sulking in the corner. Sooner or later you're going to have to come out. You're just prolonging the pain.

Don't compare your work to other peoples'. Everyone is unique. All the great photographers have their own voice. You have to find your own creative voice.

Don't choose the company of doubters and negative people. They will just pull you down.

Do pick up your camera and start taking pictures of anything and everything. One idea will lead to another.

Do think creatively and set yourself a challenge and an achievable target. A good way to get going is to pick a totally off-the-wall starting point. For example set yourself the challenge of taking 10 pictures while kneeling on your front lawn with a lens on your camera that you rarely use. The idea here is set parameters and points of departure. By limiting your freedom in movement and equipment you force yourself to become more creative.

Do challenge conventions and the norm. Challenge everything you've learnt. Great creatives all have one thing in common. They break the rules in interesting ways. If you follow the rule book you'll be safe, mundane and ordinary - just one of the crowd.

Do think in terms of opposites, conflicts and interesting juxtapositions. But remember successful images rely on fine visual balance and the most satisfying results are a harmony created out of often disparate elements.

Do realise and remember that all creatives feel the same as you do from time to time and some of the most successful are driven foreward by tremendous self doubt. Turn the negative feelings into positive self motivation.

Do surround yourself with people that believe in you and want you to succeed. This kind of support makes a world of difference.

I hope these strategies will help you next time the black dog of creative despair falls into step by your side and you doubt your work. Above all, just pick up that camera and take some shots. Remember a bad idea can lead to a good idea. Having no ideas and putting in no effort leads to nothing.

Just go and do it. If you've found this article useful please let me know.



sierravisions said…
Thanks for the good advice Paul. I've been going through some of this just this week. I'm going to take your suggestions and see if I can get out of my funk.
777arty said…
great read. i'm there, and i can't wait for the weekend to get out of the "gray office blues"

John Mackay said…
Good article Paul,

Well thought out and lots of good ideas--I'll need to keep them handy :)

E said…
Indeed some great advice and inspiration.
I'd like to add a "do"-line though.

Do read this blog entry. It is in itself a good motivation to getting out of creativity lows.
Anonymous said…
Thank you very much! I will always have this in my head when i doubt myself.
I got the link from your reply to Richard on the critique of your photo of Magda between the flowers. I had to tell you how much I agree with you on the whole creativity thing. I didn't want to write it there because I know how sensitive some people can be.

Some people have to be in the box otherwise they always feel uncomfortable. Others need to constantantly jump out of the box otherwise they get bored. It is so true what you said and I think it is not always that easy for us that needs to be out of the box. But we do not have a choice. And the doubt is inevitable because it is so new. There is no guidelines to measure by. You just have to go with your gut feeling and most of the time it is right.

Great blog and so true. Thanks it was good to read it.
More down on your knees, up on the top of a ladder, turn left instead of right - force yourself to do some unexpected things - change your behavior willingly; look up look down, zoom in zoom out, do something else but - you are right - do something...
Peter Høvring
David Toyne said…
Wise words
ac said…
i use this to overcome it:

instant visual stimulation :)
Anonymous said…
Glad I googled 'creative block'

thanks, mike
Kirsty said…
Excellent! I have struggled with creative block on and off for years, and always felt ridiculous about having it. I tend to have creative blocks when I'm not feeling settled - thank you very much for providing me the the 'push' that I need!
Hannah said…
Thanks so much, that's some pretty helpful advice. It always seems to work better when I hear it coming from someone else than when I try to tell myself the same things.
Anonymous said…
Anonymous said…
Thank you Paul! I'm going to get right to it!

Ronak R. said…
Being a music producer, I'm well-aware of this creative block.. its a terrible time you simply want to escape from...

Thanks for useful suggestions.

~ Ronak R.
Anonymous said…
Hey Paul! Wow.. thank you.. just what i needed... :)
Anonymous said…
Cheers Paul. I like to call myself a singer/songwriter but at times (like now) I feel as if I'm relying on a few songs I've written by fluke. Your article has reminded me that more will come and I can't wait to get writing again. Joe
George Brown said…
Thank you. I'm not a photographer, I make jewelry from gemstone beads. I do however find your words helpful and fitting my current "block" I'm sure they will help me get out.

Thanks again
dtaye said…
Very nice article!
I would disagree with the 'don't look at another great person's work' one though. I tend to get inspiration from watching someone else's work. It inspires me to become greater.
Nice article though!
Anonymous said…
Great article. I'm a dancer and choreographer, and I am working on a special dance piece for a show and I have felt a creative a block for a few days and started to feel doubtful. but your article, even though your talking about photograph, totally applies to dance or any creative job. Thank you! great job (i even made one your quotes my facebook status for inspiration) :)

Anonymous said…
Your article is v.inspiring Paul. Thanks for putting it on the web-its nice to know this is not just happening to me, and is clearly quite common..thank you!
Anonymous said…
Thank you Paul, I'm a graphic designer and have been going through a terrible creative slump lately, your advice and ideas have been great inspiration!

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