Should Creativity Be Exhausting?
Hello, Dr. Maisel:
There’s so much talk everywhere about burnout, chronic fatigue, and overwhelm that I wonder if we are all doing too much or maybe we are just getting used to complaining about how much we do! If you love what you do and want to do it a lot, is it really so bad to exhaust yourself?
- Lisa R., Toronto
Thanks, Lisa! I think you may have your finger on something!
Who doesn’t wish that he would create more deeply and more often? Who doesn’t have a list as long as his arm of reasons and rationalizations why he’s produced only two paintings in two years—and neither of them quite satisfactory? Who doesn’t wince a bit as he thinks about his productivity over the past decade and feel a little blue as he tallies the ledger sheet of time lost versus time well spent? Virtually all the people I know, coach, or train are painfully aware that they haven’t fought the good fight often enough—the fight to prove the exception and to completely exhaust themselves in the service of their creative work. As you say, a little more exhaustion might be just the right thing!
It is good if we try harder to honor our ambitions and our inner obligations. But maybe you aren’t ready to take those vows. Maybe you have doubts about the wisdom of exhausting yourself in the service of your creative work, especially considering how exhausting life itself can feel. Maybe you think that you’ll be visited by some demon if you work that hard, maybe by Beethoven’s bouts of nervous irritability or Dostoevsky’s anxiety attacks. Maybe you doubt that you or your efforts matter enough to be worth such an expenditure of energy.
Those are legitimate worries, because devoting yourself to your creative work in the way that I have in mind can indeed take its toll on your physical and psychological health. Nevertheless, there are excellent reasons to commit to making the Herculean effort of exhausting yourself in the service of your art: that this is your time on earth, that this is your chance to create worthy things, that this is your opportunity to conceive a startling idea when, an instant before, nothing existed, and that this is your moment to represent yourself in ways that make you proud.