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25 Apr

The Reverse Creativity Trap

In the realm of creative work, there's an approach called Madman, Architect, Carpenter, Judge. Have you heard about it? It's a structured process that can help creatives create great work consistently, but surprisingly, many follow it in reverse, limiting their potential before they even begin.

The Madman is the uninhibited creator, producing a vast amount of work without concern for structure or style.

The Architect then imposes structure, organizing the chaos.

The Carpenter then goes on to refine and craft the stylistic elements.

The Judge edits and evaluates the end result.

In the context of writing, The Madman is constantly generating great ideas and making all sorts of observations — producing a vast amount of work without concern for structure, style, or relevance. The Architect is organizing the writing by rearranging paragraphs and making it fit the central narrative and letting it tell a story that flows logically and coherently. The Carpenter is crafting the sentences, choosing the correct expressions and tone, and picking the right words to use. The Judge is editing out unnecessary parts that don't support the narrative or take away from it.

Ideally, we should follow these steps in order. But we often fall into the trap of doing the reverse.

When people start their creative journey, they often dive straight into the role of the Judge and Carpenter, focusing on stylistic elements, stressing on word usage, and judging their work to no end. Then, they impose structure too early, as the Architect, even before having undertaken the sheer volume of creation that the Madman represents.

This reversed process stifles creativity and prevents growth.

By jumping to the final stages, people neglect the crucial first step:

Embracing the Madman's uninhibited, prolific creation.

This phase lays the foundation for content generation, which is the lifeblood of any creative endeavor.

The Consistency Paradox

You know what's funny about consistency? It is the fact that you can never start being consistent by focusing too much on quality, although you wish to be consistent in order to get at quality.

Being too paranoid about quality at the beginning just stops you from having fun.

When you set out on a creative path, like writing, you often think that the secret to good writing lies in tone and style, because they're the most obvious elements. But it is this very idea that is stopping you from being consistent. You're putting the cart before the horse.

You think you have a style problem. No, my friend. What you have is a content problem.

You see, there are three essential levels to writing: content, structure, and style — in that order.

Most people get stuck at content: the Madman stage.

They join writing challenges that force them to write every day for the next 30, 50, 100 days. And what I've usually seen happening is that they start strong. But by Day 7 or 8, they falter.


Because they run out of things to say!

Remember your friend who tried the challenge and quit halfway? Their writing became empty, devoid of insight. And soon, they started hating it. This negative association they built with writing just ended up destroying the possibility of falling in love with the craft.

The truth is that to be consistent with writing, you need enough content to chew on. And you will only have enough content to chew on when you're having fun, exploring areas you're truly interested in.

You have to allow yourself to be the Madman: recording observations, taking notes, and connecting dots. Think of it like a puzzle—you need all the pieces before you can see the big picture. The issue most people face isn't style; it's content.

Here's another misconception a lot of people harbour these days.

“ChatGPT helps you create content.”

Let me tell you why that is — excuse my English — ass-backward.

Tools like ChatGPT can only help you with structure and style. You still need to supply the insight that forms the meat of the essay and makes it interesting. If you haven't taken the journey of the Madman before consulting Chatty G., it will only give you a lot of words that say absolutely nothing of substance.

Remember: there are no free lunches. The effort you give up in writing when you use ChatGPT is the effort you'll have to invest in mining the insight. And to get at that insight, you will need to produce a lot of work yourself early on.

Many believe writing is about style, so they edit as they go — even before the content is solid. But you can't be the judge and edit before you have enough content. Focus on the quality of insight before worrying about vocabulary or stylistic elements. And that quality comes from consuming vast amounts of content, leaving you rich with ideas. You must embrace the madness before becoming an architect or carpenter.

Trust me, you will not be consistent by forcing yourself to be consistent. Relying on willpower is never a sustainable strategy. You will only be consistent if you enjoy it and don’t feel that you’re writing just for the sake of filling a word count.

To be honest, it takes a dense system of notes and observations and tonnes of diligence to have something to write about every single day for even thirty days, let alone one hundred days.

Quantity not only leads to quality, it often reveals it.

When starting out, we lack taste and a unique perspective. Only after creating a thousand pieces do we start to see a pattern: our signature style.

By being too much of a judge and limiting ourselves at the beginning, we prevent ourselves from producing the kind of quantity needed to reveal quality.

You have to allow yourself to engage with the subject like a Madman, before you start thinking about issues of structure and style. There's no point in attending a storytelling workshop if you have no good stories to tell!

Producing quantity also has another positive side-effect: fast feedback.

The faster you ship, the tighter your feedback loops are. Without feedback, motivation wanes. Take the example of a stand-up comedian: they try out jokes in small clubs, learn from audience reactions, and refine their material.

The same goes for writing or building any consistent creative practice.

In order to get feedback, you need to put your work out in the world. You need to be able to see that your work has the capacity to influence and move people, even if there are just a handful of them, to begin with. This is the root cause behind feeling like you have agency... feeling like you can meaningfully impact the world with your work.

This will keep you motivated and going to produce even more work.

And lastly, this is for those who are truly playing the long game:

If you're committed to the long term and doing something unique, be prepared for long and loose feedback loops. Positive feedback will be scarce, and your patience will be tested at every stage.

I would like you to consider the example of famous street photographers who take ~100,000 shots a year, only to find one or two photographs they feel proud to exhibit in their portfolio. But they can't simply go out and get these two portfolio shots without doing anything else; to get there, they must journey through the other 99,999 photos.

At the stage Berkshire Hathway is at, Warren Buffett considers himself lucky if he can find a good company to invest in in a decade. And this guy goes through tens of annual reports every single day!

In general, almost all of the effort in life is wasted and you get little to show for it. But if you don't put in that work, you will never arrive at the effort that reaps the outsized reward.

Quantity creates quality.
Quantity reveals quality.

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