or how I hate fishing sometimes

Telling people how to be creative is easy, it's only being it that's difficult.
—John Cleese

I get to do the easy part: giving people advice on how to be more creative.

“Just do it this way,” I’ll tell them. “Think of it like a metaphor. Look at it through this lens.”


“Give a person a fish, and they’ll eat for a day. Teach a person to fish, and they’ll eat for a lifetime.”

What’s missing from this pithy two-sentence parable is this:

🐟 Occasionally the fish are elusive, or worse, gone (someone got there before you). You spend all your time and energy out on the water but get nothing in return except frustration.

🐠 Sometimes you are too tired or depressed to fish. You’re not in the right headspace. Even the thought of lifting the rod is too much to bear. You just can’t bring yourself to get out there.

🐡 At other times, you are afraid to fish. You’ve completely lost your nerve. The water looks dangerous and foreboding. Wouldn’t it be safer to go hungry today than to tempt fate?

🍣 And every once in a while, you really get into it. You create elaborate plans and traps and nets. You game the system. You catch so many fish, you become overwhelmed. And most of them end up rotting on the deck…

Parables are neat and clean, but living is messy and human.

You need more than words of inspiration:

  • You need specialized and personalized tools that fit your way of doing things and propel you to action.
  • You need tips and tactics to stay focused and connected; to find that balance between perfectionism and reckless abandon.
  • And most of all, you need the creative courage to put yourself out there, to trust in yourself, to stay strong and vulnerable at the same time.
What you don’t do can define you as much as what you do.

John Cleese is right. Sometimes being a creative person is hard. But giving up, or putting things off, can have consequences too.

For the last fifteen years, I’ve promised a book about this very topic. How does creativity work? What kind of creative person are you? Which tools work best for which challenges and barriers?

But I’ve never finished it. (I might have written more about not finishing my book than I have on the book itself!)

What you don’t do can define you as much as what you do.

I am obsessed with creative systems, hacks, and processes. But after examining my Creative Compass (something I’ll discuss in later posts), my real barrier isn’t productivity; it’s boredom.

I perpetually need to reboot, to test another medium, to reframe my content. My default Creative Mode tends toward the Scholar, which is primarily working heads down. So I keep wanting to learn and go deeper. Nothing is ever ‘ready’ or ‘good enough.’ There is always more to discover, to integrate…

I also have a hard time finding my voice when writing about creativity. Everything comes out sounding clinical, impersonal, like an economics textbook.

If the presentation of my work doesn’t excite me, how can I expect it to excite others?

Then I stumbled across a format—on LinkedIn of all places—that really fired up my imagination: a little PDF slideshow with big graphics and a few punchy ideas to ponder. (Thank you, Mark Pollard, for being in the right place in the stream while I was fishing!).

Mark Pollard’s LinkedIn feed with awesome embedded PDFs

It reminded me of my own presentations, how much I love using Keynote as a creative tool, and that I can get down the broad strokes first and fill it in later.

In less than a month, I had a dozen or so of these short ‘little books,’ each about 12 pages in length and containing one salient idea. So I started calling them Picobooks using the prefix pico, which means one-trillionth, because it truly feels like one-trillionth of the effort compared to writing a book.

But enough about me. Let’s jump back into the lesson:

Stop thinking about how creative you are and start thinking about how you are creative.

Your default Creative Mode matters; the setup and format of your work matters; the tools and attitudes matter… Creativity is not some innate talent that a precious few are blessed with. If you are human, you are creative. But it’s up to you to do the work, to make the connections, and be your own exception.

PS: More on all of this soon. Please join the Creative Edge newsletter to stay up-to-date.

Now it’s your turn: Which creative barriers do you need help with? Answer in the comments.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this format, as well as the creative barriers you struggle with. This will help shape future Picobooks. Please answer in the comments below.