“The creative process is a process of surrender, not control.”
In theatre school one of the first things I was taught was that there are two types of people: there are those who create and there are those who consume. And if one was to ever pursue the life of an artistic creator, slipping from the first category into the second was always going to be out of the question.
All of my acting studies from there on out were more or less a constant attempt to prove that I “have what it takes”, “am willing to give it my all” and “was equal to the task”. I’m afraid I have to admit that I have subconsciously continued to live by this particular status in my freelancer life ever since.
This blog post, dear screen reader, will explain why I believe this is a harmful way of thinking to have when going into a creative career. For me it simply ended up feeding that deep sense of unworthiness, that a lot of us with the privilege of pursuing a career and life in the arts, have to face.
I can change!
It’s way too easy to buy into the myth that you need to transformer yourself into a creative machine producing amazing work constantly, effortlessly and tirelessly both online and offline in order “to make it“. Performing artists are actually soft and squishy human beings engaged in a career that demands high performance in conditions that increase the likelihood of burnout. A very tricky combo indeed.
All individuals who enter professions associated with high burnout rates, like athletics (often a bit less squishy), need to understand the risks of burnout. It might be best if you Google it yourself, but here is one quick list on ‘how to know if you’ve got job burnout and what you can do about it’.
“Burnout is a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment.”
Us actors don’t have our own equivalent of sports medicine, but we too need to have a healthy wellness program if we wish to sustain a high-demand career. For me, I feel that this was never stressed enough. And I can totally relate to the risk factors.
“You identify so strongly with work that you lack balance between your work life and your personal life.”
This is why professional improvisers are particularly vulnerable to burnout, it’s very common that their work starts to infiltrate their hobbytime. Regardless of age, everyone needs activities of enjoyment and recreation, free of a serious or practical purpose. In other words, play. That’s just how our brain works. I can’t remember where I read it, but I bet you can Google a study on brain science to back me up when I claim that your brain in fact solves its more difficult problems while you daydream, not when you focus.
So if you are at all like me, an improviser whose obsessive passion sometimes overrides their well paced motivation, and improv fatigue hasn’t effected you yet, trust me, if you keep at it long enough – at some point it will. You need to look up what to expect and what to look out for, so you can learn to take care of yourself and prevent burnout from ever happening to you.
For example, to me that meant taking action to learn positive self-talk: Taking a break does not make me lazy. Setting my own pace is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. You may consider a break to mean 10 minutes, two days, three weeks, six months, or anything else. This is the tricky part, you have to figure it out for yourself.
Taking a creative break from the work you love is how you sustain doing the work you love
The brain is built to respond to change. David Burkus of Harvard Business Review explains nicely why breaks actually lead to creative breakthroughs:
“The researchers found that the group given a break to work on an unrelated task (the Myers-Briggs test) generated the most ideas…One possible explanation for these findings is that…When you work on a problem continuously, you can become fixated on previous solutions….Taking a break from the problem and focusing on something else entirely gives the mind some time to release its fixation on the same solutions and let the old pathways fade from memory. Then, when you return to the original problem, your mind is more open to new possibilities — eureka moments.”
Whether we are talking about writing a blog post, or the back-end work of producing your own career, taking a moment to focus on anything else than the matter at hand is an indispensable tool for making those new unexpected connections we so crave for! Think of doing an improv scene on stage. Taking that quick beat after your scene partner delivers their line to you, a moment of passivity, to not respond even though that might be against some of your “improv rules” actually buys you valuable time to think without exposing you as someone who is confused and lost.
You’re almost always better served from both a presentation perspective and a decision-making perspective to take a deep breath and slow down. To be “quick on your feet” is actually just an illusion, good improvisers appear that way because they are able to slow down enough to think calmly and choose to react in the best way possible.
It’s also good to remember that we are way more demanding of fast responses from ourselves than we are from others. People give themselves 30% as much time to respond as they would give someone else and this is why it’s so hard to find time to pause, even though we know it to be such a powerful tool.
Idleness is not a vice
As soon as I started to notice the gain of momentum I got out of the work I put into my career, I also started to notice the lack of work put into the foundations of one – the lack of work put into taking care of myself.
In order for a rocket to keep burning its fuel, an oxidiser must be present. Jet engines draw oxygen into their engines from the surrounding air. Rockets carry oxygen within them. Due to this they are able to truly fly on their precise courses and are capable of going fast enough to escape the gravitational pull of life. Rockets are really cool.
I need to give myself three things. I need to give myself space, I need to give myself time and I need to give myself energy. So I find time to doodle, I make time for that 10-minute YouTube exercise routine, I stare at things a lot, I stare at houseplants, I stare out of the window, I take naps, I will watch a TikTok 5 times in a row, binge a tv-show I have already binged upon many times before, open 22 wikipedia tabs, and not judge my own interests based on their profitability factors.
Please remember that you are so much more than the work you do, or the gifts you give the world, or the things you put out there. You will never grasp most of the positive ripple effects of your existence. Trust that they are there for us all. Trust that it’s out of your control.
Written by JUTTA TILVIS
Jutta is an improv teacher at YesFinland. She performs regularly on stages throughout Finland as an actor of The Improv Theatre Snorkkeli and around Europe as a member of the travelling improv group Doris Likes Everything. She is also a member of The SIN – Network of international improvisers in Europe.
She believes that improv is a great tool to learn self-acceptance. And once you are able to implement that into your life, the prize that happens to come along with it is self-confidence.