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Many of us approach creativity with preconceived notions, assuming that the act of creating is a straightforward process of bringing an existing idea into reality. Yet, true creativity often emerges from venturing into the unknown, challenging our expectations of what it means to create.

In this episode, we dive into creativity as an act of discovery, where the unknown plays a central role in shaping our creations. We examine the interplay between intention and spontaneity, the importance of playfulness, the role of ego, and the transformative power of embracing outcomes, regardless of their success.

Join me as we explore an often overlooked aspect of creativity – that it is as much about discovering ourselves as it is about creating something new.

Topics Covered

  • The essence and process of creativity
  • Challenging traditional views on creativity
  • Creativity as a discovery and unfolding process
  • The significance of willingness to engage with the unknown
  • Embracing playfulness in the creative journey
  • Overcoming fear and setting aside ego in creativity
  • The metaphorical journey of creating a "flying whale"
  • Creativity for self-discovery and expression
  • Embracing outcomes of creative projects

⏱︎ Time Stamps

00:00 • Introduction to the creative act

00:35 • The importance of a creative project

01:52 • Exploring the act of creation 

03:47 • The difference between crafting and creating

04:24 • The mystery of idea generation

09:14 • The role of discovery in creation

09:18 • Creating a space for creativity

11:35 • Engaging with the unknown

15:40 • Self-expression as self-discovery

17:19 • The challenge of letting go of ego

17:41 • Invitation to engage with the unknown

18:28 • Conclusion: the voyage of discovery

📄 Transcript

Welcome to the Zen Habits podcast, where we dive into how to work with uncertainty, resistance, and fear around our meaningful work. This is for anyone who wants to create an impact in the world and cares deeply enough to do the work. I'm your host, Leo Babauta, creator of the Zen Habits blog.

Okay, so let's talk about the creative act. In this episode, I'm going to dig into what the act of creation is. For writing, creating music, creating anything in our lives—it doesn't have to be art, doesn't have to be anything typically creative—but creating anything. What is that act of creation? What is going on? Where does it come from? How do we harness it? Is this some kind of magical force? Is this something we can force? So, let's dig into this.

And as a reminder, I'm inviting you to pick a creative project in this season, where we focus on love and creation. The Season of Zen Habits podcast. And so, if you have a creative project, great. This is going to apply to that. And if you don't, please listen to episodes 1 and 2 and please pick a project. It'll really make the thing that we're talking about today mean so much more. And your learning will be so much richer if you've got something to work with.

So, let's imagine you have a project, and you're creating something. Now, you're sitting down, you've set some structure for yourself as we talked about, and you're going to focus on the act of creation. What is going on there? What can you do to actually create something?

This is something that we actually give very little thought to because we have some preexisting ideas of how creating works, and we just don't get curious about it. We just expect it to work the way that we already think that it works, even though, if we really dig into it, we don't understand it very well.

For example, let's say I want to write. Okay, I sit down, and I'm going to write something. Now, what happens in this act of creation? I have an intention to write, maybe I want to write a novel. Okay, so a little bit more specific intention, maybe what's this novel going to be about? So, when I ask that question, "What will this be about?" or "Who are the characters?" or "What are the themes?" or "What's going to happen in chapter one?" "What's the plot?" "What's the dialogue in this scene?" All of these kinds of questions. It's a big blank, wide-open canvas.

The preexisting idea that we have is that I am going to create something. I am the creator, and I'm gonna make something happen. This is similar to the creation story in the Bible, right? So, it's like God decided to create the world, the universe, everything in it. So, there's an intention that God had, and then he just did it. He made it from that intention. And so, it's if I have a piece of clay and I want to make an elephant, and I just shape that piece of clay until it's an elephant. So, I have something in mind that I'm already going to do, and then I just need to actually create it.

So, that is a real cause and effect model of creation. It's "I am the creator, and I just need to will that into being." But what if we don't know what we're going to create? What if it's not already—we don't already have a very clear picture?

It's not just if we already have a clear picture in our mind of what we're going to create, and then we just need to shape the clay into making the reality of the clay meet the reality in our minds. That's just a matter of craft. It's not so creative because it's already known in our heads what we want to create. And we just need to translate the picture in our head to the actual reality in front of us. That's not actually creation. That's just crafting. It's "I need to copy this to this." It's a photocopy kind of thing, or copy and paste kind of thing.

But that's not what we're talking about here, is it? What we're talking about is creating from nothing. I don't even know what the picture is in my mind. I said elephant? What if it was a unicorn? What if it was a flying whale? And that idea of a flying whale, where did that come from? Because I did not, before I started this podcast, have an idea that I was going to say the phrase "flying whale." It came to my mind out of nowhere.

And so, this is what we're talking about, actually. There's a moment where there's nothing, just unknown, and then all of a sudden, there's something gets created in our minds, and then we express that thing that comes out into our minds from nothing onto the blank canvas, onto the blank page, or onto whatever it is, the clay that we're shaping.

So, there isn't "I have in mind what I'm going to create, and then I just have to create it." It's "I actually don't know what I'm going to create, and then something comes." The phrase "flying whale." You know, if I, and if I wanted to iterate on that, I'd be like, "Purple phantasmic flying whale." I don't even know if phantasmic is a word, but I just put it into the space, and it's one that is lonely and loves cupcakes. All of these things that I just added to "flying whale," I had no idea until just now as I said it.

So, where did that come from? These ideas of a lonely, cupcake-loving, phantasmic, purple flying whale. Where did those things come from, in my head, just now? And the answer is, we do not know.

Now, obviously, each of these concepts were things that I had from previous knowledge, before I've been exposed to in my life. A whale is not something I invented, a flying whale. I don't know if I've ever been exposed to the idea of a flying whale. I've heard of a falling whale in "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." I just tried to remember a time when I've thought about, or I've been exposed to, a flying whale outside of my own mind, and a falling whale was the first thing that came to mind, but that wasn't flying.

Now, of course, I've had other flying animals. Obviously, a bird, but there's, they've been flying, other kind of like magical animals, the Pegasus, that kind of thing. And so, I didn't invent the idea of a flying animal, but a flying whale, I'm not sure if I've ever been exposed to it. So, I had these things that I've previously been exposed to, flying animal and whale were concepts that I had been exposed to, and something in my mind decided to put those two together. I thought it would be fun.

And then I put purple, and I'm like, I of course I've heard of purple, but a purple whale, or a purple flying whale? No, I've never heard of that. And lonely and cupcake loving, and phantasmic. These were things that just came up unbidden. Or maybe I left a space for it. "Ooh, I would like something here. Put something there." And something in my imagination, in my subconscious, in the source of who I am, sprouted that out into the space, from who knows where.

Now, I'm not saying that it came from nowhere. It came from somewhere, obviously. There's some synapses in my brain that connected. There's a reservoir of existing ideas that I can tap into. But what called those specific ideas out into the space just now, I don't know. I didn't decide to choose those things from my preexisting knowledge. And I don't know if anyone does know the answer to that.

Now, of course, I'd love to invite a neuroscientist onto this podcast. And if you are one, let's talk. [email protected] is the email to reach me.

So, it's possible that people know this, but in my research and in my experience, we don't actually know where this comes from. It's this hidden space within us that just comes up with things when we decide we want it. And how do we tap into that?

This is the creative space where there's a blank canvas, and then all of a sudden, we just pour something onto it. Each of you has equal access to that. Now, maybe it's a little bit rusty if you haven't been using it a lot, maybe you're really facile with that, or you have a facility with it that you where you can use it really well because you have been using it. So, it really depends on if you use this very often. I, obviously, use it somewhat more than probably the average person but less than others, and it's not a comparison thing, but it's just a noticing that we all have access to it. It's just a matter of having the facility with it.

Okay. Let's find other ways to talk about the creative act that might be more useful here. So, we don't know where it comes from, but you notice that I said we create a space for it. So, this is a space where we say, "I don't know what's going to come. I don't know what I'm going to create. But I just want to have a space for it to come into."

A blank canvas is a good metaphor, or a literal blank canvas can be a good thing. But for the rest of us who aren't doing paintings, you need some kind of blank space. It doesn't have to be a hundred percent blank. You could have prompts on there, but you don't want to have too many. It's not like fill-in, paint by numbers kind of thing. If it's too structured, too much of "I know exactly what I need to do, and I just need to figure out what colors I'm going to do here," that isn't going to invite the creative process.

And if it's all blank, maybe that's too blank. So, maybe we need a prompt. If I said, "Write me a scene where someone faces a challenge and learns something," okay, so those are prompts. Now, there's a lot of stuff that can come from those prompts. So, it's not too structured where it's just paint by numbers, but we can get more specific where someone faces a challenge with their family and discovers something new about their inner strength. So, I got a little bit more specific with the prompts there, but it still leaves a lot of space for creating something completely new.

And so, we create a space, maybe with some prompts, but not too structured. And then we see what comes. And so, creating the space is the first step, and for you, that might be, "I'm gonna sit down and write for the next 30 minutes. I don't know what I'm gonna write, but I do know it's a novel, and I do know it's something set in the island of Guam," which is where I'm from, by the way. "So, set in the island of Guam, around the turn of the century, 1900, when the U.S. first took over the territory of Guam." So, that's the prompt, right? So, there's a space here, this is the prompt that I have, and now I sit down, and I actually start to write. I don't know what I'm going to write.

So, the next thing is a willingness to come into this blank space, a willingness to engage with it. I don't know what's going to come. I don't have a very clear idea of the output here, but I'm willing to step into this space. To take it away from writing, into something else, an actual blank canvas, you have a big blank canvas that you're going to paint on. Are you set a time, and for the next 20 minutes, I'm just going to create something. I don't know what, and then you set a willingness to step into that blank space. And so, I have my paint, I have my brush, I dip it in, and I'm willing, like, what will happen as I start to move my arm around? As I start to do little fine strokes, as I start to close my eyes and just allow myself to dance on the canvas, what will happen? So, there's a willingness to engage with that.

In another context, a willingness to engage might look like, "I want to create intimacy in my relationship." This is an act of creation. So, there's a structure. "Let's sit down and let's talk, let's have a conversation that hopefully will lead to a greater intimacy between the two of us." This could be a date, "let's give ourselves an hour to have a conversation and create greater intimacy."

Maybe we give some prompts. The prompts are like, "What are the things that block me from accessing intimacy with other people in my life?" Okay, so we have a prompt, and now we can start to create, and is there a willingness to step into the unknown, be vulnerable with this person, and see what comes up as I engage with that prompt? Is there a willingness to, "Oh, I don't know what actually blocks me from intimacy, but let's see, let's explore." In my last relationship, I noticed this, and with my mom, "Oh, here's what I noticed." And with my little cousin, "Here's something that I noticed," and over here with two relationships, I did this. So, I didn't know the answer to this question, but I just let myself start to explore.

So, this is a willingness to engage with the unknown. Are you willing to step into the unknown and not know the answer and still explore? And so, what we're looking at here is that creation is not an act of "I'm going to just take what I already know and stamp it onto a blank canvas." Creation is an act of discovery. Creation is an act of discovery in the unknown, which is always where discovery happens. Creation is a willingness to engage in the unknown and discover something new for yourself.

And so, it isn't just "Oh, I'm going to express something that I already know."It's "I'm going to express something, and I don't know what that is, but I'm willing to discover something new about myself, about the world, about the other person, about the process of creating something on a canvas or with clay." It's a willingness to engage with the unknown. "I'm going to step into this unknown."

And this is the problem: Most of us are unwilling to engage with the unknown. We want to know how to do something. We want to know if we're going to do a good job. And so, we have this idea, "I need to do a good job with this. I need to do something that other people are going to care about, are going to approve of, are going to be impressed with. I need to do something where I'm going to do a good job." And so, that's a needing to know, as opposed to, "Let me just engage with this. Remove the idea that I need to do a good job or I need to know how to do it, or that I'm going to impress anyone, including myself." What if I just let myself step into the unknown and discover something?

And in this framing, it doesn't matter if it's a good output or not. There's no good or bad. It's just discovery. Just a willingness. And maybe I discover nothing today, but I'm willing to engage with the unknown and discover something. And in this way, self-expression in the act of creation is really a self-discovery. There is something that's going to be expressed of yourself, but you don't know what that is. And as you express this thing that's yourself, this purple flying cupcake-loving phantasmic lonely flying whale that I've just created today.

This is an expression of something in me, but I didn't know that was in me until it came out. And this is something that I discovered just today. Actually, a lot of the stuff here that I've just said is completely unknown to me, but I was willing to engage with the process of creating this podcast, this video that we're putting on YouTube. I had the topic, I had the space, and I had the willingness to engage and discover something new.

And that's what I've been doing this entire podcast, is discovering something new as I engage with it. It's not like I didn't know this; I have been discovering this stuff, but as I recorded this podcast, I didn't know what was going to come out. I definitely didn't know I was going to talk about a purple flying whale so much. And I didn't know exactly what was going to happen. I just knew that I had a topic to talk about, I had some thoughts, some things that I've already been discovering, but I also had a willingness to engage with the unknown, see what gets expressed.

This is the act of creation. Are you willing to engage with the unknown, not knowing what's going to come up? Let go of the need to do things right, to do things well, to impress anyone. Let go of the ego, which wants to be safe and do things right. And know, letting go of the ego, being willing to say, "I don't know what's going to get created here. I don't know what I'm going to discover. If anything, I don't know what I'm going to express. But I'm willing to engage with that."

Are you willing? And what I encourage you to do this week, the next few weeks, is set this intention. "I'm willing to set a space, a blank canvas, maybe a prompt, and then I'm willing to engage with the unknown, step into it, and see what comes up." Let yourself create, let yourself play, let yourself discover something about yourself, or the world, or the process.

Engage with the unknown. And then see what emerges. It'll surprise you; it might be great, it might be funny, it might be stupid, it might be foolish, it might be... who knows? It'd be amazing. It might be magical. You won't know until you try it. And then just keep engaging with that. And through this, you will discover more and more, and it'll just be this fantastic voyage of discovery.

Okay, my friends, that's what I've got for you this week. I hope you actually do practice with us. Thanks for being a part of this journey of discovery with me.

If you haven't already, please subscribe to this podcast in your favorite podcast app. If you found this episode useful, please share this podcast with someone you know, who cares deeply. That would be really meaningful to me. And, if you'd like to dive deeper with me into this work, please check out the blog at or get in touch at [email protected].

Thanks for listening, and I hope you'll join me every Wednesday for more episodes of the Zen Habits podcast.

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Music: Salem Belladonna & Robrecht Dumarey

Editor: Justin Cruz

Post-production: Diana C. Guzmán Caro & Amanda Goddard