January 4, 2023 · Essays

To Create

I was watching my son doodle on my tablet the other day. He recently learned how to draw a closed shape, and he was so proud of it. Drawing one blob after another, he excitedly proclaimed each blob as a pumpkin, a monster, a car, and so on and on.

As I watched, I remembered how much my younger self also loved to create. To write. To compose. To code. Looking back now, I was mediocre and a lot of what I created was honestly pretty embarrassing. Clumsy. Derivative. Trite. Cheesy.

But creating is so much fun. There's just something magical about it. There's that special kind of joy, that almost sublime sense of fulfillment when you bring something new into being. In the words of Genesis — to see “every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.” To quote Carleton Noyes in The Gates of Appreciation:

In our conscious experience the sense of becoming is one of our supreme satisfactions. […] In the exercise of brain or hand, to feel the work take form, develop, and become something, — that is happiness. And the joy is in the creating rather than in the thing created; the completed work is behind us, and we move forward to new creation. A painter's best picture is the blank canvas before him; an author's greatest book is the one he is just setting himself to write. […] The impulse to expression is cosmic and eternal.

And that impulse pushed me to learn and grow. I never could’ve written the next Hamlet or The Lord of the Rings, but all that Shakespeare and Tolkien certainly helped with my SATs and college essays. I never could’ve built DOOM, but all that C++ practice certainly helped me land my first job as a software engineer.

But over the past several years I’ve noticed that it’s become harder and harder to stay creative in my personal life. I feel lucky that my professional career so far has provided me a lot of space for creativity. Outside of work, however, my drive to do anything creative has slowly atrophied.

Why?

The first reason is time and energy. A lot has changed in my life in the past few years. At home, I’ve been blessed with two beautiful little children of my own. At work, I’ve taken on increasing responsibilities as a tech lead and manager. Of course, I love my children to death, and of course, I feel very grateful to have had the professional opportunities that I did. But these life changes have also meant that I have significantly less discretionary time at my disposal. Any such time often has to come at the cost of family time and other responsibilities. And it's often fragmented, and at inconvenient hours when I’m already tired or distracted.

The second reason is motivation. As I’ve gotten older and “wiser”, it’s increasingly hard for me to be impressed by what I’m capable of creating myself. For example, I know this essay will never approach the insightfulness and impact of, say, one of Paul Graham’s. It will never make money and help pay off my mortgage. So why bother writing it at all? Several times over the past few years, I'd get the urge to pick up the metaphorical pen and sketch out a blog post, only to then re-read it later and find it just not interesting enough, or polished enough, or otherwise worthy enough to publish. As Picasso famously said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.

The result is that I find myself spending all my downtime consuming. Absent-mindedly reading the news. Doomscrolling on Twitter. Impulsively clicking yet another recommended video on YouTube. Shopping for stuff I know I don’t honestly need-need. I try not to think about the growing list of projects I want to do but never started or finished, or the ideas gathering dust in my drafts folder. It certainly feels like I’ve been stagnating, not getting any better at anything or learning new things.

And then occasionally I’ll come across something on the Internet where I’d chuckle to myself, thinking “lol what is this, I bet I could’ve done a better job.” And then I’d always kick myself mentally because, well, at least someone had the drive and the courage to create and publish it, while I’m just here scrolling away.

So, I’ve decided that I want to change. I want to find the drive to create again. Just like it did in the past, I want it to help me continue to grow personally and professionally, and I trust it will be a reward unto itself. But this time, I also want to model what I would like to see from my children. I want them to also experience that joy of crafting something of their own, and grow up passionate, curious, and self-driven.

Here’s my plan:

Firstly, I’ll need to better manage my time and energy. The reality of having young children is not going to change for me anytime soon, so I need to make the best of the time that I do have. Some specific thoughts:

Secondly, I'll be blocking out my inner critic. Enjoy the journey, rather than agonizing over the destination. Find motivation in my own growth and fulfillment, rather than external validation and material outcomes. I’ll need to better tune in to my inner child, just like my son as he was doodling that day — he could not care less how his doodles will be compared or judged, or whether he’ll be able to sell them for profit.

I hope I’ll succeed. This essay is the first blog post I’ve published since 2017, almost 6 years ago, so at least I’m already off to a good start.

Happy new year, and wish me luck!

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