Vulnerability in the Creative Process

Everything man-made and heart-made in this world began as an idea in one person’s mind. Ideas transferred into reality are what drive the evolution and degradation of humankind. New ideas, old ideas, ancient ideas — they all began as seeds, tiny kernels of inspiration in the brain. And an individual or a group of people took it upon themselves to bring those ideas to tangible fruition.

To do this, to take a vision in someone’s mind and turn it into something concrete that people can see and interact with, is hard work. Sometimes really hard work. Most people’s minds are messy places. Even if you as the visionary, have a clear mental picture of what you want to create, it can still be difficult for others to know which rock to look under, or which drawer you have that idea shoved in.

While the idea remains in your mind, it is safe; in a sense it’s pure and unsullied by any harsh reality. But once it’s out there, the idea is immediately judged good or bad, right or wrong, or just plain “meh.” That’s scary.

We don’t talk about this much, the level of vulnerability people experience in the process of turning ideas into creations. Let’s think about how this process plays out between a client (the idea-originator) and a creative professional (the idea-translator) they’ve hired. It’s not just the client who’s feeling exposed during this business of getting their ideas out into the world. Is my idea a good one? Will it work? The creative professional does, too. Have I understood her idea correctly? Will the physical manifestation of this understanding work?

And feeling vulnerable, feeling risk and fear are difficult emotions for many people to deal with. That these emotions show up in the business world is nothing new, but in the context of turning ideas into words or images for the purpose of communication, they can often feel unexpected.

We see client vulnerability show up in various ways:

  • Resistance to the change that is required to take on a new business identity
  • Pulling back or pulling out of the project
  • Micromanaging the development of the design or its production
  • Requesting many rounds of revisions in the pursuit of psychological perfection
  • Inability to make a decision

For the creative professional, a reaction to feeling vulnerable also shows up in different ways:

  • Presenting a slew of design options with no single strong recommendation
  • Not taking a leadership role in the creative development
  • Getting angry or acting hostile about a client’s critique
  • Ceding to a client’s demands when they know doing so will adversely impact the project outcome

Granted the reactions described above may result from something besides feeling vulnerable. But most of the time, if we dig deeper and examine the reason why clients and creative professionals do these things, we find that allowing our true ideas to be seen by others can cause both fear of exposure, and fear of losing our shirts.

The only way to allay feeling vulnerable is to trust, trust ourselves and trust others. And this trust requires that we believe that our idea is good and worth sharing, that our vision will find its place in the world. And we must also trust that the creative process, by nature of its ability to transform and idea into a reality — whether that’s a campaign for gun control, a car that can drive itself, or a book that inspires generations — is ultimately a safe and necessary adventure.

Lisa Mullis