Elizabeth Gilbert: What Kills Creativity

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 kills creativity? Do you often put off your creative work because of the pressure to produce something groundbreaking?

Many creatives, no matter the field, get stuck in their creative process because they believe their work should look a certain way or live up to some kind of standard they made up. Such prescriptive thoughts prevent you from fully exercising your creativity and ultimately only stymie you. 

Below are three common prescriptive thoughts that get in the way of your creativity and which you should dispel.

1. “My Work Must Be Novel”

Gilbert claims that many people feel their work must be totally novel to be worth making. This aspiration is what kills creativity for many artists. But it’s nearly impossible to be novel anymore. Most ideas or concepts have already been executed in some way. There have been, for instance, many different parodies of the Lord of the Rings books and films. 

However, writes Gilbert, all other executions of a concept will be different from yours. You bring a specific sensibility and worldview that make your idea unique. While there are indeed dozens of Lord of the Rings spoofs, each of them is unique because each creator’s sense of humor and perspective on the original work is different. 

Gilbert says that when, instead of trying to be original, you try to be genuine—try to best express how you really feel through your unique lens—you create work that is interesting and will resonate with others. 

Gilbert’s Inconsistent Use of the Word “Idea”

Here, Gilbert uses the word “idea” in a way that seems contradictory to her use of the word in Chapter 2. She said previously that there were many ideas floating around the universe, searching for people to make them manifest. Yet now, she seems to assert that there are actually only a few limited ideas floating around the universe (and most of them have already been executed). 

Perhaps the easiest way to reconcile these two descriptions is to say that there are many duplicate or closely related ideas in existence. This would explain why it’s hard to be totally novel despite a proliferation of ideas being out there.

It may also make sense to broaden the conception of what an “idea” needs to look like or contain. An idea may not need to be fully fleshed out; perhaps it can just be “Lord of the Rings parody.” The “Lord of the Rings parody” idea can visit many people over many years, yielding many different parodies. In this way, just one “root” idea can spawn many different similar yet unique ideas.

In any case, Gilbert’s definition of an idea is somewhat nebulous, leaving room for multiple interpretations. 

2. “My Work Must Help Other People”

Another way Gilbert thinks you can limit your creativity is by feeling that your work needs to be helpful to others, politically relevant, or otherwise “important.” This approach always ends up backfiring. Those consuming your work sense that you’re trying to fulfill some external expectation rather than express a genuine feeling or experience. This renders your work less resonant, writes Gilbert, because it does not come from a place of truth.

The Need to Help and the Savior Complex

The need to help others through your creative work that Gilbert describes is similar to a psychological phenomenon called the savior complex, or white knight syndrome. This is the compulsion to help others to feel good about yourself. People with savior complexes often exacerbate problems they’re determined to solve because they lack the required expertise or skillset to solve them. They also stifle the growth of those they’re helping by keeping them from coming up with solutions to problems. In the end, helping others to receive external validation—even in creative work, as Gilbert suggests—typically will not help anyone, least of all the helper. 

Advice on how to counter the effects of a savior complex revolves around changing your self-perception and your perception of your role in the world. Understand that you can only really help yourself: Everything outside you is out of your control. Plus, your own life probably isn’t perfect, either, so why not work through your problems before tackling those of others? 

3. “My Work Must Be Lofty”

A final way in which Gilbert feels you might stymie your creativity is by thinking your work must be “lofty,” “high-minded,” or “worthy.” It’s a waste of time to try to meet some vague standard for “worthy” work, and you should instead just create what you want to create

Gilbert continues by saying that there’s no such thing as “high” or “low” creation; there’s just creation. When people draw a line between highbrow and lowbrow, it’s merely a subjective distinction. Work that someone condemns as philistine might be lauded as a tremendous accomplishment by someone else. 

(Shortform note: The distinction between “high” and “low” art to which Gilbert alludes has been widely debated and is in constant flux. In the past, the line between high and low art was drawn between works that were created purely for aesthetics—a painting, for instance—being high, and works that served a purpose, such as a chest of drawers, being low. But over time, the utilitarian came to be regarded as high art: A beautifully decorated box or piece of furniture might today be considered high art. If “low,” utilitarian work can eventually become “high” art, Gilbert’s assertion that it’s pointless to try to be “highbrow” seems valid.) 

Elizabeth Gilbert: What Kills Creativity

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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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