Elizabeth Gilbert’s Tips for Living a Creative Life

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Big Magic" by Elizabeth Gilbert. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What does it mean to live a creative life? What do you do when your creative juices run dry?

According to Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Big Magic, creativity is not a one-off project or pursuit only for the young. It is, rather, a lifestyle and mode of being you should maintain throughout your lifetime. 

Here, we’ll discuss Gilbert’s suggestions for living a creative life.

1. Don’t Set Time Limits

Living a creative life means, first and foremost, abandoning the notion that there are time constraints on your creativity. You and only you decide when you’re ready to start and stop being creative. Believing that you can become “too old” for creativity can rob you of years of happy and fruitful work. 

(Shortform note: Others agree with Gilbert’s claim that you are never too old to start creating and add that there are negative repercussions of this societally-held belief: For instance, there is too much pressure on young people to be prolific creators and too much pressure on older people to stay out of the creative game entirely. You can fight this unhelpful conviction by being aware of when you tell yourself you’re too old or too young to do something. Whenever you say this, stop yourself and correct the thought to: “I can do whatever I want in whatever time frame suits me.”)

2. Hunt for Your Creative Time

Another way to stay creative indefinitely is to be willing to hunt for creative time, says Gilbert. Throughout history, creators have never had enough time to be creative. To cope with this dearth of resources, Gilbert advises thinking outside the box about when you can squeeze in an hour or half-hour for your work. You can accomplish a lot in “between times:” during lunch, before bed, on your commute.

(Shortform note: Gilbert’s advice to hunt for snippets of creative time isn’t the only approach out there to effective time management. In The 5 AM Club Robin Sharma proposes an alternative approach to maximizing your potential each day: Sharma suggests you firmly claim the hour between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. for yourself. This is what he calls the “Victory Hour,” a time before others have risen and when your responsibilities have not yet come crashing down on you. Sharma suggests specific activities to do in your Victory Hour (exercise, reflect, and grow), but you could seize the Victory Hour for your creative work.)

3. Be Disciplined

To keep up a productive creative practice long-term, be disciplined, insists Gilbert. According to Gilbert, a disciplined practice means you try hard at all times, but don’t take your work so seriously that you lose the joy in it. This is the only part of the creative process you have full control over: your commitment to your practice and the efficiency of your efforts. 

(Shortform note: Gilbert advises working on your discipline, but how do you become more disciplined? In Deep Work, Cal Newport offers suggestions on how to develop focus and discipline in a world in which both are increasingly hard to come by. These include 1) focusing on what’s important and leaving what isn’t, 2) measuring your progress appropriately, and 3) creating accountability to yourself. Newport’s definition of deep work (work that is mentally strenuous, which you complete with concentration and without interruption) describes what most people feel disciplined creative work should look like, and his suggestions can therefore be applied to creative projects.) 

4. Have a Day Job

To ensure you can stick with your creative pursuit over the long run, Gilbert says you should secure a reliable, non-creative source of income. Adjust your life so all your necessities—bills, rent, food, healthcare, childcare, and so on—are taken care of by some other job. This will keep your mind creatively free. Gilbert herself held on to her day job until she published Eat Pray Love, which was her fourth book. 

(Shortform note: Gilbert strongly recommends that creators get a day job that pays their bills. But the advice to “just get a job” can seem a little out-of-touch with current job market realities.  Finding a decently-paying, stable day job that leaves you time to create is becoming harder and harder. Part of the reason for this is that the skills needed for a given position change quickly because of new software and technology adoption, and candidates struggle to keep up. What’s more, companies rely heavily on software for their hiring, meaning many potentially qualified candidates are being eliminated without their resumes ever being seen by a human.)

5. Be Inquisitive About Everything

To stay creative over months and years, Gilbert also advocates a policy of gentle inquisitiveness about everything. This lets you contact Creative Sorcery and reignite your creative flame at times when your inspiration inevitably falters. 

Creative Sorcery is at all times leaving clues to assist you in your creative work. Gilbert believes that when you adopt a policy of inquisitiveness, you’re more likely to notice and follow these clues. When followed, they can eventually lead you to a new creative pursuit.

How Inquisitiveness Fuels Creativity

Gilbert argues that by being inquisitive, you notice more clues Creative Sorcery leaves you. But you could also view this phenomenon from a rational standpoint. If you’re inquisitive—in other words, pay attention to the world around you—you’re more likely to notice interesting things that can inspire you. Paying attention also leads to improved memory function, meaning you remember details that can come into play in your creative work. Furthermore, you build your capacity for patience when you pay attention, which in turn fosters contemplativeness, an attitude that’s helpful in creative work. Therefore, Creative Sorcery doesn’t have to be seen as a guide that leads you to inspiration. Just by noticing, you can inspire yourself. 

Inquisitiveness Can Be Subtle

Your inquisitiveness needn’t be overwhelmingly strong, writes Gilbert. Even a subtle interest or curiosity in something can, in small steps, lead you to an exciting new endeavor. In fact, Gilbert stresses that “subtle inquisitiveness” is a better approach than the similar-seeming advice to “pursue your passion.” Passion implies there must be a deep-seated, burning desire to do something. Subtle inquisitiveness, meanwhile, allows for mild interest. 

Be Gently Inquisitive, Not Passionate

Gilbert advocates for a policy of being subtly inquisitive, rather than seeking a burning passion. The book Designing Your Life takes a similar stance: Authors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans argue that searching for a burning passion is the wrong approach to life. Instead of looking for your single passion that will allow all the pieces of your life to come together, adjust the pieces of your life so that you can feel passionate about it. Being curious is one mental attitude that helps you make those necessary shifts to your life and generate passion. Both Gilbert and Burnett and Evans thus see inquisitiveness as the starting point for a good life and creative practice: Passion grows from inquisitiveness, not the other way around.

6. Frame Failure as “Interesting”

As a long-term creator, writes Gilbert, learn how to reframe all your work, and in particular your creative misses, as “interesting.” All creative output, no matter how beloved or reviled, can be seen through a certain lens as “interesting” and educative. 

Gilbert notes that a mindset that frames everything as “interesting” encourages you to wonder what can be improved. A “good vs. bad” mindset, conversely, doesn’t encourage growth. It instead encourages giving up if you produce “bad” work. 

7. Make Yourself Appealing to Inspiration

Gilbert suggests making it easier to stick with your creative work long-term by inviting more visits from Creative Sorcery. You can do this by physically making yourself more appealing: Dress up as if you were going on a date with inspiration. Put on clothes that make you feel good, style your hair, and use a scent you like. When you take yourself seriously as a creator by presenting yourself well, ideas and your genius are more likely to see you as committed to your work and to visit, claims Gilbert. 

8. Don’t Expect a Reward

You shouldn’t be creative to receive a reward. While this remains true, there is one form of reward Gilbert says you can look forward to as you create long term: touching Creative Sorcery. 

You can’t predict when Creative Sorcery will visit, adds Gilbert, so just keep plugging away at your creative work. But know that when it does come, you’ll get to experience a transcendent feeling of communion with a higher life force. This, not accolades or praise, is what makes creativity worthwhile, she claims. 

9. Praise the Process

When Creative Sorcery keeps at bay, as it may in the long term, it might be because you’re expressing negativity about it, writes Gilbert. If you complain a lot about the creative process, stop. Complaining frightens away ideas and your genius, which see in you a being that’s not open to inspiration.

Instead, suggests Gilbert, proclaim to yourself and others that you love creating, that you love the creative lifestyle, and that you’ll carry on creating simply because you enjoy it. Saying this invites the forces of Creative Sorcery to visit more often. They’ll sense your receptivity and grace you with their presence. 

(Shortform note: Gilbert’s line of thinking here has a lot in common with Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, in which Byrne presents the Law of Attraction: the idea that you can use your thoughts to attract the things you want into your life. For Byrne, getting what you want takes place in three steps: 1. Ask for what you want. 2. Believe you will get what you want. 3. Receive and feel the happiness you will feel when you will get what you want. While Gilbert’s approach to creativity veers significantly from the three steps described above, she does suggest that by saying, and thinking, and believing that you love creating, you will attract into your life the things that help you create: ideas and your genius.)

Elizabeth Gilbert’s Tips for Living a Creative Life

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Here's what you'll find in our full Big Magic summary :

  • Why integrating creativity into your daily life will make you feel more fulfilled
  • Why creating for money is a form of self-sabotage
  • Why you should never focus on external validation of your creations

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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