We should look to artists not merely for advice on how to create something astounding, but also for the insights they have when it comes to dismantling the constraints of a productivity-obsessed culture, writes Madeleine Dore in this extract from her new book I Didn’t Do The Thing Today.
You don’t need to be ‘a creative’ to live a creative life. Applying the creative process as a lens to our lives simply means a day doesn’t have to be narrowed by productivity, but rather observed and shaped depending on what’s in front of us - much like a potter at a wheel.
Being creative, I think, has less to do with your job title or some artistic pursuit, and everything to do with how you shape your own life - how you turn your attention to another thing, instead of lamenting the thing you didn’t do. Spending the better part of a decade interviewing artists, designers, musicians and thinkers about their creative processes hasn’t rendered me artistically prolific by any stretch - I can’t recall the last time I picked up a paintbrush - but just because I’m not a painter, that doesn’t mean I can’t live like one.
Creativity isn’t reserved to a select few - we all have access to this innately human trait. It’s a great loss to us all, in fact, to confine it to a particular subset of people who have had access to certain education or the means - in time, money or luck - to follow their passions and purpose. We might not even know what our passions and purpose are, but we can still see creativity as a human aspiration accessible to us all.
Creativity is present in the ways we get to know ourselves, express ourselves, question what we believe in, discover what we want - it’s in how we live our lives. As the novelist Henry Miller put it, ‘To make living itself an art, that is the goal.’
We live our lives as if they are a script, but we can improvise - we can go with the moment, we can find something new, we can be curious about what’s right in front of us. We seem to forget that we can be creative with at least part of our schedules, our careers, our conversations, our definitions of balance, ambition and enjoyment.
We don’t have to make grand creative gestures to find poetry in our daily lives - we can simply try something new or see something anew. It can be appreciating something in the day that already exists, or reshaping it to suit us. To borrow a quote attributed to the actress Helena Bonham Carter, everything in life is art: ‘What you do. How you dress. The way you love someone, and how you talk. Your smile and your personality. What you believe in, and all your dreams. The way you drink your tea. How you decorate your home. Or party. Your grocery list. The food you make. How your writing looks. And the way you feel. Life is art.’
Each of us creates our day through how we interact with the world, with ourselves, with other people. If we see creativity as a way of being rather than of doing, we can attempt to live each day as if our life itself is a work of art - we can be what I like to call ‘day artists’.
To me, being a day artist affirms that creativity isn’t just something we do - it’s how we live our lives. When I first put the words ‘day’ and ‘artist’ together, it made me chuckle because it reminded me of a worker at a fast-food chain who might call themselves a ‘sandwich artist’. Some would say both pairings are grandiose - almost anyone can make a sandwich, everyone has a day, so who are you to deem yourself an artist when your material is so commonplace? But that’s precisely the point.
If we don’t play with what we have at our disposal, how can we find enjoyment in the mundanity of our daily lives? We’re so used to the wonder that is a day that we call it ordinary. Perhaps reminding ourselves what an extraordinary thing it is to have a day - a day where anything can happen - is a better goal than trying to optimise and render it perfect. As G.K. Chesterton said in Tremendous Trifles, ‘The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.’
A day artist is the light-hearted counterpart to the strict optimiser of days. We should look to artists not merely for advice on how to create something astounding, but also for the insights they have when it comes to dismantling the constraints of a productivity-obsessed culture: how to go with the ebb and flow of the creative process, how to work within constraints, how to find what works for us day by day, hour by hour, even minute by minute.
Our approach to work, life, relationships and even our own definitions of productivity can benefit from the application of these creative lessons. Even those whose days are more regimented than those of the self-directed artist can learn from the insights. We too can reject the status quo, act on our wants, say yes more, learn when to say no, take things step by step, allow for space, embrace mistakes and be open to the inevitable ups and downs of life, the successes and failures, the potential of both the done and the not-yet-done.
We can see what we need to thrive rather than change. Through the lens of a day artist, we can see what’s needed in our own process - it may be a deadline, or moments of downtime, or not setting a morning alarm, or setting a dozen in five-minute increments.
A day artist isn’t defined by their work, but rather immersed in it. Rather than having a set routine from which they will inevitably slip, the day artist finds rhythms. The day artist is more than the doing - they are the choreographer of their ideas, the composer of their inner life and the curator of their experiences. Being a day artist takes the judgement away from the different versions of our days: there’s something to glean equally from the dull days, the joyous days, the unproductive days, the changing days - because each day can be an experiment.
Experimenting with our day is an act of applying our human creativity. It’s less about doing more than about doing things more creatively - which means embracing messiness and imperfection. The people I’ve interviewed have taught me to find joy in the process rather than the outcome. They lean into the dread of doing the thing to find flow. They create beauty from entangled human emotions. The rut becomes a lesson. Comparison becomes a guide. Shoulds are replaced with wants. Distraction is a place for discovery.
When we strip back judgement of what we did or didn’t do, we can embrace the day for what it is - an empty canvas. We might not have the same privileges, the same resources, the same available hours in the day as somebody else, and our canvas will not look the same as theirs. But irrespective of our life circumstances, each of us is given a day, and within it there is always something, however small, we can experiment with.
We can strive to encounter everything a day offers - people, places, things, feelings, missteps - and reframe them for ourselves. It’s this commitment to experimenting - to trying, to starting over - that can imbue our days with meaning, perhaps more than doing. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his journal, ‘All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.’
As day artists, we can treat life as one big experiment - to find what brings us alive, and have the courage to get closer to it so it can expand us. We can try new things, follow whims, focus on discovery, build patience, allow surprises to happen. We can trust, hold things lightly, take the pressure off. We can be okay with the not-quite-theres, with the change-of-minds. When we treat our days like an experiment, we see it’s all part of the process - the failures, mistakes and stumbles come with the territory. And those stumbles can help us deal with the knocks of daily life. As Emerson added, ‘What if you do fail, and get fairly rolled in the dirt once or twice? Up again, you shall never be so afraid of a tumble.’ Each tumble in our days is an opportunity to learn, so we do not fall so hard the next time.
It will not be the same each day - neither what brings us alive, nor what knocks us about. But making creativity rather than productivity the focus of our day helps us become more open to accepting this version of the day and what we do within it. We can let more of life unfold and learn from the tangles. We can experiment with the best way to live, dabbing a little bit of understanding here, a little bit of softness there - to paint a more vibrant picture for ourselves, and for people around us. We can remind ourselves that we do not find the way; we create it continuously.
This is an extract from I Didn’t Do The Thing Today by Madeleine Dore. Published by Murdoch Books, $37. Buy a copy here.