The importance of experimenting as a creative person

I spoke to one of my clients recently who is in the middle of a big potential switcheroo in her world. Lots of new information, life decisions and pivoting to make sure her business, her work, her life and everything else fit together well.

And one of the things she said was feeling like she’s constantly chopping and changing what she does. Seeing something – pursuing it – seeing something else – going that way – this way – then that – and woah!

My former client and friend Arash recently wrote about experimentation as an important stage in finding your own personal style. And I think it’s the same for your creative work and dreams.

There is a natural experimentation phase which can feel, at the time, like something quite different and unpleasant. It can feel uncomfortable and frustrating as you flit from one thing to the other like a butterfly, never feeling like you’ve made a decision, always looking around at what else is available in the garden.

There is a lot of business and creative advice saying to pick one thing and stick to it. I think it’s great advice. If I’d have picked a thing and stuck to it many years ago, I might be much more well-known, respected and reimbursed for my expertise in certain areas than I currently am.

BUT (a big one).

‘Experiment’ is also a very important piece of business advice and creative development. Moving forward and trying something new is crucial in working out what works for you, your life and your goals.

So how do you hold yourself between the advice of

‘doing one thing and sticking to it’ vs ‘experimenting to find what works’?

Or the advice of

‘experimenting is good to find what works’ vs ‘never settling on anything and always flipping about’?

Good questions.

Good to ask them! Good to try and respond. I’m going to respond by imagining these four ideas are four ends of some axes and I’m standing in the middle of the axes. How do I stay standing in the middle and getting the best of all worlds?

The first way I try and stand in the middle is reaching for a new word to describe what I’m doing. I’ve taken it from the nerdy, tech, software developer world. The word is ‘iterative’.

Iterative is what happens when you make a beta test, a version 2.0, version 2.1 and 2.2 and onwards. It’s what you do when you make incremental changes – some of which may seem quite at odds with the path you were previously on. Iterative is step by step developments.

Iterative work is a useful and legitimate process. For me, I have to do a thing (imperfectly) to decide whether it works or not. I can’t wait until it’s perfect to do it, because it never will be. I have to write my LinkedIn profile or design a workshop or pitch an idea to even find out whether the profile or the workshop or the idea is going to work.

A lot of us really want to be perfect. We want our work to be perfect: finished, decided, complete. Life is not like that. We are not like that. We are much more likely to be iterative beings; testing the air with our little proboscis, sipping from different flowers, darting around to help us make decisions about where to perch for a bit.

So the second way I try and stand in the middle is allowing that: allowing myself to not start as perfect, finished or complete. Iterative assumes the first version of something will be a bit shit. That’s why you make a second version. If we expect our first attempt at anything to be perfect and complete, we will do nothing because we’ll be waiting – waiting for the first attempt to magically become perfect.

The third way I try and stand in the middle is changing my relationship with being ‘watched’ when I am being iterative or experimenting.

I sense there’s a big drive for us to appear to be sorted, decisive, doing one thing, experts, etc. We want people to see us as having our shit together, because it’s less messy, vulnerable and ‘embarrassing’.

What if we changed our relationship with being watched in the messiest and most vulnerable bits?

You can change it by being messy and vulnerable in front of good people you trust. I’ve worked with a couple of folk recently where I’ve shared my half-formed (and possibly half-baked) ideas with them because I trust them, I like them and I believe their input is going to help me make much better decisions for the future of my work.

And you can change it by remembering something very important I tell my clients (and myself, and my friends, and pretty much everyone):

Most people won’t see most of what you do most of the time.”

This is particularly true of social media. But also true in general – most people aren’t paying attention to what you’re doing. Like, ever. While this could feel deeply frustrating (“But why aren’t they paying attention to me?!”), I’ve found it strangely comforting. If most people aren’t going to see most of what I do most of the time, I might as well just please myself. What a relief! No more worrying about what people think – just focusing on what I want and need to do to grow myself, my creativity and my work.

There are naturally going to be tensions between ‘sticking to one thing’ vs ‘experimenting’, and ‘experimenting is great’ vs ‘experimenting is just indecisiveness’. I feel those tensions a lot because one of my gifts is rapid learning, development, playfulness – so I can often feel frustrated at my apparent lack of consistency.

So trying to stay in the middle for me is saying:

“I’m choosing to be iterative in my approach because I know it generates great results. I’m never going to have a perfect first draft, but at least I’ll have a first draft. I’m vulnerable in front of people I trust because I know it’ll give me something special … and I remember that most people won’t see most of what I do most of the time – so I can mostly do what I like.”

What’s the balance like for you?


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