First things first: There's really no such thing as un-creative entrepreneurship. Building a company means putting something new into the world and bringing dormant ideas to life. It’s a nonstop exercise in overcoming self-doubt and embracing self-expression.
That's something entrepreneurs tend to forget at our own peril, but it's something I was reminded of while reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. Part inspiration, part how-to, it offers up both a philosophy of creativity and advice for living a more creatively fulfilling life.
Since those lessons are too infrequently part of the conversation among entrepreneurs and business owners, a refresher can be helpful. Here are a few of the foundational habits, based on Gilbert's work, that the most creatively minded entrepreneurs practice every day.
In Big Magic Gilbert asks, "Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?"
I know: That hardly sounds like a question you'd pose to a business-minded person, but that's precisely the point. Hands down, the hardest part of starting and running your own company is believing in yourself. Plenty of people think of ideas, but most never act on them because they haven't learned to trust their gut.
I’ve certainly failed more times than I’ve succeeded, but over time, I’ve built up the courage to keep trying. Believing in your ability to execute on big things—whether that's opening your own yoga studio or developing a new business strategy from scratch—begins with believing in your ability to do the small but sometimes more challenging things.
Gather courage from your smallest successes—they count! Look for it in the seemingly mundane moments of your life. Then take that confidence and act. Speak up, disagree, ask the question everyone else is too afraid to. The more you exercise your courage, the more it will grow.
We live in a world that tends to measure our worth by outcomes, which can discourage process and experimentation. The fear of not having enough to show for our efforts holds many of us back from creating anything at all.
For Gilbert, living creatively means addressing that dynamic head on. "When I refer to 'creative living,'" she writes, "I am speaking more broadly. I’m talking about living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear."
We typically learn to trust our anxieties early on in life, as children. Even when I was in grade school, playing the violin and viola, I held back from indulging my real interest—electric guitar—because classical music seemed like a safer and more acceptable environment in my family.
But as I’ve grown older, I’ve learned the value of vulnerability. Last year, I started playing bass guitar in an adult rock program, and it’s been amazing to find a new creative outlet. At first, it was admittedly hard to fumble around in a new discipline.
But being a beginner has reminded me what it’s like to produce without the pressure to excel. That's precisely what entrepreneurs need to allow themselves more of, otherwise they leave a wellspring of creative energy totally untapped.
In the startup world, it’s often said that it’s not the idea but the execution that matters; until you can make it work out there in the world, you haven't accomplished all that much. But for Gilbert, ideas have a spirit and determination all their own.
She recounts how a friend of hers, fellow writer Ann Patchett, independently hit upon the same book idea Gilbert herself had cooked up. When they realized the coincidence, instead of being angry or jealous, Gilbert reveled in the notion that, of its own accord, the idea had found an appropriate caretaker. The next one would be hers to run with.
"Ideas of every kind are constantly galloping toward us, constantly passing through us, constantly trying to get our attention," she writes. "Ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will. Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest."
That helps explain why entrepreneurs tend to get consumed by a business idea, even when it’s not the most opportune time to pursue it. But we need to get better at recognizing this impulse to put our ideas into action without necessarily indulging it every time. An idea can be a valuable thing, even if it remains an idea—temporarily for permanently.
Choosing to see ideas as their own entities also means we can’t take the best ones for granted when the time really is right to act. If we don't, we risk losing it to someone else. But this attitude can also give us a more graceful way to react when we see other people pursuing "our" ideas.
The creative process—for artists and entrepreneurs alike—can be lonely. Gilbert writes powerfully about the people who've supported her creative endeavors, including Patchett and a group of writers she met in her twenties. "We had selected one another carefully," Gilbert recalls, "thereby precluding the killjoys and bullies who show up in many workshops to stomp on people’s dreams. We came to know each other’s voices and hang-ups, and we helped each other to work through our specific habitual obstacles."
It can be game changing for small business owners and entrepreneurs to build a community of peers around them. You seldom ever get anything meaningful—or genuinely creative—done all by yourself. Besides offering connections to potential customers, new hires, or investors, a strong network can become a boundless source of support, accountability, and fresh ideas to test out and build on.
"Frustration is not an interruption of your process; frustration is the process," Gilbert writes in Big Magic.
Every creative endeavor has its rough patches. But if you’re sure that you’re on the right path, the only option is to accept those negatives and move forward. Even better? Recognize that moments of frustration can lead to tremendous growth. If you can’t get past a frustration, temporarily walk away. Sometimes difficult problems aren't so much intractable obstacles as signs that it's time to recalibrate our perspectives.
"How you manage yourself between those bright moments, when things aren’t going so great, is a measure of how devoted you are to your vocation, and how equipped you are for the weird demands of creative living," Gilbert writes.
"Holding yourself together through all the phases of creation is where the real work lies."
Amy Vetter is the global vice president of education and head of accounting–USA at Xero, an online accounting software for small businesses.