There is a reason that the birth of an idea is so frequently represented by the bright burst of a light bulb coming on, or the dazzle of a spark. This “ah ha!” moment is hard wired in our brains as a positive, pleasure giving experience and releases endorphins—which is why humans continue to discover, experiment and evolve. The iconic light bulb, and the spark, are symbolic visuals because having an idea or discovering a solution often “illuminates” the next step on the path to a goal. This could be something as complex as figuring out how to improve a work relationship, what needs to happen to a main character as the next plot point in a story, or as simple as figuring out a new configuration for your too stuffed closet (ok, maybe not so simple.)
But for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Or in other words, there is a ying for every yang. So this post, on a blog about discovering bright white wattages of ideas, is actually about the opposite. This is a post about what to do when you are “in the dark.”
To be “in the dark” usually means that you don’t have information available to you or that it is kept from, or unknown to you. While ideas illuminate the next step or express understanding, being in the dark encompasses a sense of blindness regarding the situation or a lack of direction.
One of the myths about ideas, and creativity, is that it comes easily. The truth is that creativity has many, many enemies. For me, and most people—and most companies—being overwhelmed or too busy is at the top of the list of creative roadblocks. When I get into The Busy, or have more ideas and tasks than I can count, all feeling of equal importance, I encounter moments of feeling that I don’t know the next step or have the right idea. This is when I feel “in the dark.”
While having one of these moments recently, I thought to myself, “if I was literally in the dark, the best thing to do would be to move slowly.” This awakened a memory of a long ago 6th grade art class, and one of our first projects, using blind contour to draw a portrait of one of our classmates. (Blind contour, for those of you who have somehow escaped this classic academic art exercise is where you look at something and draw it, while never looking at the paper and never picking up your pencil. You can look to the photo for this post for an example—I used blind contour to draw a light bulb.)
The teacher, whose name is long forgotten—but whose advice is not—told us this as a way to start the blind contour drawing:
“This is how I want you to think: How would you drive if you were kidnapped and put behind the wheel of a car blindfolded?”
(Never mind that it was 6th grade and none of us could drive.)
There was the usual awkward middle school silence and emphatic re-asking of the question, the teacher’s mane of curly red hair bobbing “How would you drive blindfolded?”
“You can’t,” came an answer.
“Yes you can! You would drive very slowly. And I want you to draw, vvveeeery sloooowly.”
So when I am feeling uncertain about the next step or overwhelmed by challenges that need solutions and I don’t have any readily available, I remind myself that I need to move slowly and gently. The answers will come through small steps. Most importantly, have patience with finding your way, because the answer always comes, like a light bulb flicking on, even when you are in the dark.
What do you do when you feel “in the dark” on a problem or idea? Are there any techniques or creative tools, such as morning pages that you’ve found helpful? To inspire you, especially if you are feeling “in the dark,” or stymied in your progress towards a goal, here are a few suggested techniques to put in motion to illuminate your thinking:
• Walk away from it: Think about where you do your best thinking—it is usually a different place from where you do your best “working.” When you are stuck, and ideas are just not forthcoming, one of the best things you can do is go do something else. Change your scenery by talking a walk, going for a drive, seeing a movie, or just stepping away for a moment to refresh your brain.
• Embrace mundane tasks: Julia Cameron in her book “Vein of Gold” recommends putting together a pile of items that need mending. When you get stuck on a project, sit down with the mending, ask a question, and then sew up the holes in socks and put buttons back on shirts. In an hour, not only will you have accomplished a household task, but you will also probably have the answer to your question. I, personally, find doing the dishes is also a great form of meditation. And folding the laundry is another good one.
• Organizing: Sometimes our external environments can begin to reflect our internal mind. I find that if my desk is messy, my thinking is messy. When the next step on a path to a goal is not apparent or the goal seems unobtainable, I recommend finding the physical area in your home that is associated with that challenge and then do a deep clean and reorganization of it. While your desk or office may be an obvious choice, this can also be applied to goals such as eating healthy. If you keep finding yourself nibbling your way through the kitchen in the afternoon, then do a deep clean of your refrigerator and pantry. Put a big bowl of oranges and apples on the counter, and healthy choices right where you can spot them if you open the fridge.