Creativity vs Productivity (Which would you choose?)

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners; I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple of years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have.

We all go through this.

And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. It’s only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap and your work will be as good as your ambitions. It’s gonna take a while. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

–Ira Glass

I bookmarked Caitlin Kelly’s Broadside post “Would You Rather Be Productive Or Creative?” back when it was Freshly Pressed many months ago. Today I finally got around to actually reading it.

The question at the heart of her post has stuck with me because I fundamentally disagree with its premise. By asking which we would rather have, it seems to disconnect the two qualities. My own struggles and successes with both creativity and productivity have made me very certain that they are proportional and very tightly connected.

Previous posts have detailed my attempts to up my production output while decreasing my consumption of media, information, or entertainment. That is an ongoing endeavor. So, I have become very familiar with the interplay between productivity and creativity.

Creativity is naturally productive. Those with creative tendencies tend to create. The act of creating is productive.

Productivity fosters creativity. When highly productive, such a volume of work is created that inspiration will take hold sooner or later. By producing more and more, the work becomes honed. Creativity is, after all, a practiced skill.

That is what Ira Glass was saying in the quote I included at the beginning of this post. His advice is something I’ve taken to heart (I have that quote hanging on my wall). Bre Pettis also spoke to the importance of productivity in the Cult of Done Manifesto. This is also advice I have hanging on my wall.

Personally, I regard myself as a productive person. I’m not highly creative. When I produce more, though, I find I like more of what I create.

So, I think the question needs to be re-framed. Rather than asking you to separate the two inter-dependent qualities and rank one above the other, I want to ask a more telling question.

When do you feel the most successful: when you are highly productive or highly creative?

And I’ll borrow this follow up from Caitlin Kelly. When you’re both, what’s your secret?

2 thoughts on “Creativity vs Productivity (Which would you choose?)

  1. Thanks for the link!

    It’s true you don’t have to decide…but you do, as Seth Godin points out, have to “ship” — get your material out into the marketplace at some point IF this is how you wish to make a living. Which was how I defined productive. You can create for decades but never put it out for judgment/sale.

    I’m both when I’m getting great feedback telling me there’s an appetite for what I offer. We all need encouragement.

    • I think most people should approach their creative work as though they have to eventually ship it. Even if you don’t, putting yourself on a deadline increases both your productivity and creativity. It’s a two-fer! That’s actually one of the habits I’m trying to develop.

      Thank you for your response! I really did enjoy your piece. I think a lot about the intersection of creativity and productivity, especially when I feel like I have neither.

      I agree, getting feedback helps a ton. I have a side project that is getting way more attention than this blog. The response I’m getting from that project is fueling my creativity and productivity and it is spilling over to my other work as well. So wonderful.

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