“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
— Marcus Aurelius
They say creativity loves obstacles, but I don’t think that’s quite true. I understand the underlying meaning, but the term “obstacle” doesn’t really feel right. We tend to think of obstacles as things to overcome — immovable objects that stand stalwart between us and the prize — which in this case is making, or in a broader sense, creativity. Instead, perhaps we should think of obstacles as constraints, which to me feels more like something we can work with — or at least within — rather than against. We also need to recognize that there are different types of constraints. A photographer who goes out to shoot with only a 50mm lens or a painter who limits herself to using only analagous colors are examples of practical creative constraints. In each of these cases the constraints actually facilitate or inspire different ways of seeing that may lead to entirely new bodies of work. Other types of constraints feel more existential, such as “What if I can’t finish it?” or worse yet “What if I do finish it but it’s terrible or nobody likes it?” The existential ones are the ones that trip me up and their severity is usually directly proportional to how personal the work is. Ironically, while they feel much more debilitating in the moment, in the end, I often find that they have been distorted and didn’t warrant the weight and power that I let them command. More often than not, these types of obstacles are manifestations of what Stephen Pressfield calls resistance. If you’ve not read Stephen’s book The War of Art, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
It’s important to remember that not every obstacle can be overcome directly, no matter how hard you lean into it, but that doesn’t or shouldn’t mean that it’s still not an opportunity to learn or grow. Retreat can be a valuable strategy if it allows you the chance to regroup and chart an alternate course. More often than not, reflection is a valuable ally, providing it doesn’t become a rabbit hole you can’t get out of. As my friend Jeff likes to say, “It’s always better to be doing than just thinking about doing.”
I think the reason I’ve been thinking about this lately is that I’m still trying to answer the “What’s next?” question for myself. So I’m thinking about different types of obstacles in my own life and I am trying to separate the ones that feel more existential and creatively debilitating from those that feel more like constraints that can be productive and creatively challenging. As with everything, it’s a work in progress.
Are there recurring obstacles that hold you back? How do you work through them?
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Mihaela Noroc is a photographer from Bucharest, Romania who has spent the last 4 years traveling through different countries to create The Atlas of Beauty, a visual record of diversity through 500 portraits of women from all over the world.
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