What motivates you to create?

Programming and poetry

I’ve been asking developers what it is that motivates and excites them to write code in their spare time.

The best answer I’ve gotten so far is from Brendan Kohler. To which, I exhibit zero surprise. This is the guy who, upon meeting, his very first words to me were around how programming in python was like writing poetry.

(we have, of course, remained friends to this day)

“I’d say for me the motivation is the desire to create some perfect jewel; if not art, then artifact. Before code it was poetry, but the desire to create something executable overwhelms any other artistic impulses. I think what’s neat about code is the sheer breadth of possibilities: as with poetry, you can create something designed to move someone emotionally or challenge their way of thinking (like games), but in addition you can explore science, mathematics, and other realms.”

Bryan Cranston. Mic drop(mic drop)

I really can’t possibly add on to that.

But! It did get my brain going on the broader question of what motivates us to create whatever it is that excites us.

The secret to happiness

I started thinking about the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (highly highly highly recommended) and how author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research into happiness found that this state of “flow” is, well… The Secret to Happiness:

I think this is one of my favorite things about coding. I love the challenge of solving problems and making computers do just what we want them to and writing beautiful, elegant code. Coding never fails to put me into what Csikszentmihalyi describes as nothing less than a state of ecstasy…

A state which is motivated by something far more pure than money or power:

“I began to look at creative people — first artists and scientists… — trying to understand what made them feel that it was worth essentially spending their life doing things for which many of them didn’t expect either fame or fortune, but which made their life meaningful and worth doing.”

And, of course, what Csikszentmihalyi found was this state of flow:

There’s this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback. You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears, you forget yourself, you feel part of something larger. And once the conditions are present, what you are doing becomes worth doing for its own sake.

I love this.

Why we struggle to create even when we want to

I think Flow can also explain why sometimes, even though we really want to create, we can’t seem to get out of our own way.

We sit down to write or draw or paint or code and… nothing.

To really achieve that state of flow, we have to have the right level of challenge to match our skill level. And, I know for me, I love drawing and painting but I’m still such a beginner that every new piece can feel like a huge ordeal. And, not helped by my perfectionist nature (!), I can get so overwhelmed that I psych myself right out of creating at all.

It’s only when I’m able to find a way to break through and focus on a piece that is within my abilities that I can really get going. And then boy, look out! Because I won’t step away for hours and hours and hours. My house could be on fire and I probably wouldn’t even notice.

On creating more

Csikszentmihalyi says we need to have 10 years of experience with something before we can achieve true flow, but that isn’t my experience, is it yours?

I think if we can find a way to set the right level of challenge for our skill level (not so hard that we’re too overwhelmed to do anything, but not so easy that we’re bored) and – maybe this is the harder one – not set these expectations that our first ever paintings should match those hanging in a museum – then we can allow ourselves the joy and… ecstacy of creation.

What about you – what motivates you to create?


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