Discipline: The Key to Creativity

When people praise exceptional creative professionals, they often talk about how incredibly talented they are. “This is amazing. I have no artistic talent,” they mutter, as they watch someone sketch a likeness or splash watercolor across the page. They speak of talent as this incredible, magical thing that one is either born with or without.

But talent isn’t an ephemeral gift to be coveted. Any creative venue — be it writing, drawing, music composition, sock puppet crafting, or anything else — requires hard work in order to perfect. Creativity is a technical skill that is developed. Discipline is the key to creativity.

What does this mean? Jocko Willink is a Navy SEAL who creates podcasts explaining what discipline is, and how important it is in daily life. While Willink often speaks of physical discipline, particularly in regards to his military training, he also talks about mental fortitude and the will to succeed, which can be applied to any endeavor.

Willink says that “Discipline calls for strength, and fortitude, and will.” He explains that discipline requires daily practice.

This certainly seems an apt description for many creative endeavors. A famous quote from Chuck Jones (the Looney Tunes artist who birthed Bugs Bunny, Wile E. Coyote, and others) says, “Every artist has thousands of bad drawings in them and the only way to get rid of them is to draw them out.”

Author Brian Clark has similar advice for writers. He wrote: “10 Steps to Becoming a Better Writer: Write. Write more. Write even more. Write even more than that. Write when you don’t want to. Write when you do. Write when you have something to say. Write when you don’t. Write every day. Keep writing.”

Quotes like these are common, especially from some of the most celebrated artists. In high school, I remember scrolling through writing or art blogs, looking for advice, and I was somewhat frustrated when I discovered that every list had the same piece of advice: to just do it. Write, draw, sing, paint. Do whatever it is you love to do, and keep doing it, because the skill develops with your discipline.

So where does discipline come from? In the words of Willink: “From within… It’s an internal force. Self discipline comes from you, when you make a decision to be disciplined, when you make a decision to be better, to do more, and to be more.”

Everyone is bad when they first begin. “Talent” may account for some kind of proclivity to a craft, or it may allow some to look at the world in a certain way, to wonder how they could capture it in music or paint or words. But creativity is a result of discipline, and the will to improve and to keep changing the way you perceive everyday life.

Discipline not only helps you develop better technical skill, but it is often more valuable in the workplace than any “natural talent” is. In the first couple years of my high school career, I went to a panel to hear a local cartoonist speak. He said that when he first started working, he was told that his art was very good, but he ultimately lost jobs because he completed projects last minute and did not spend enough time on them.

Discipline is also the key to helping with things like “writer’s/artist’s block”. Making a commitment to work everyday, despite how creative you may feel, will ultimately help overcome the block. After all, you can edit a page of poor writing, but you cannot edit a page you did not write.

This type of discipline– the commitment to always do your best work, to practice until you master the craft, and the perseverance through the times that you don’t want to work– really  applies to any career or hobby, not just to creative endeavors. It is chosen self-discipline that allows one to really do well in something.

Willink says that, “Self discipline comes when you decide that you want to make a mark on the world… And if you think that you’re not disciplined, or that you can’t be, its because you haven’t decided to create that will yet. So make the decision, make the commitment.”

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