Episode 20


Creativity, Comfort Zones and the Magic of Failure

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Are comfort zones a bad thing in creativity? How do you grow your comfort zone and what the heck does failure have to do with it all?

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Creativity, Comfort Zones and the Magic of Failure

Let’s talk about comfort zones and creativity. Why they’re not a bad thing and why failure is the way to make it grow. Welcome to this week’s episode of The Positive Creatives!


Hey hey and welcome to this episode of the positive creatives! I’m Adam. I’m your host and I’m a photographer who has a not so secret obsession with the creative process and overcoming most of the creative obstacles we face with a positive mindset.

If you already knew that because you’ve been here before… welcome back!

I seem to have picked up quite a few new listeners this week which is very lovely and thanks for all your messages telling me what you’ve enjoyed about some of my other episodes. I had a lovely one from a new listener who said that whenever she listens she feels like she’s doing exactly the right thing for her at that moment, which just was such a great thing to hear and really made my week. So thanks again!

This last week I’ve been thinking a lot about comfort zones and creativity. I saw a quote on Instagram from Elon Musk, and it said this, presumably he was talking about working at Tesla I don’t know…

“Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you’re not innovating enough.”

And I think that really sums up the way I feel about comfort zones and creativity too.

Clearly Elon Musk is one of the great innovators of our time. If you don’t know who he is, he’s the founder of Paypal, of Tesla and of SpaceX. And other companies but those are the most famous.

If someone owned just one of those it’d be an impressive feat, but Elon Musk is responsible for all of them and others.

And the fact that he embraces failure so openly will be a huge reason of why he’s been so successful, but it’ll definitely be why he’s been so successful at such innovative and groundbreaking companies.

But how does that apply to creativity and comfort zones, Adam?

I’m glad you asked.

Well I think fundamentally the ethos is the same.

I don’t know why but I think of my comfort zone as a circle.

The circle represents the things I can do. The things I’m capable of doing creatively. All my knowledge and experience live in this circle.

As a creative the circle also represents your creative voice. Your style. Which stands to reason – the things you are capable of doing in your creativity are what you do, and so that becomes your style.

Closer to the middle of the circle are the things I know I can do with my eyes closed, the things that don’t take me much effort, and the things closer to the edge of the circle are those things I’m not massively experienced at, or the things I’ve recently learned, or the things I know I’m not very good at so I avoid doing.

So if I choose to do the things in the middle of the circle, I pretty much know how they’ll turn out. I know it’ll work.

I think comfort zones are great by the way. I’ve got no issue with comfort zones. And this episode won’t be the usual cliche about how you have to live outside your comfort zone if you want to be any good and that sort of waffle. No.

I’m happy in my comfort zone. I like comfortable things.

Like chairs for instance.

I’d rather sit in a comfortable chair than an uncomfortable one.

Equally I didn’t choose a creative life to spend it being uncomfortable because I’m constantly doing things that make me uncomfortable, or scared, or anxious.

So I love my comfort zone. And I love comfort zones. And you’ll see by the end of this episode that a comfort zone is a good thing…

Because the way I think of it is that I want to make my comfort zone as big as possible.

But how?

Well it goes back to that quote from Elon Musk that I shared at the start.

“Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you’re not innovating enough.”

When you start doing something creative you learn a bit and that becomes the basis of your comfort zone.

So at this stage your comfort zone is tiny. Most of what you try to do is going be experimental or innovate for you.

And it’s important to know that often as creatives we can be innovating and doing things that are experimental to us, even though they might not be seen as innovative or experimental on a wider scale.

So yeah, you start learning and you’re basically living in this tiny comfort zone circle, but most of the things you’re doing you don’t know if they’re going to work or what the results will be do you?

So the way I see it is that you’re constantly pushing at the edges of this comfort zone circle.

And as you push at the edges your comfort zone circle gets a little bigger.

But if you exist only in the middle of your comfort zone, and lots of us are guilty of this because we see that little central zone as ‘what works’ or ‘what clients want’ and so we kind of get stuck in a cycle of just doing that and wondering why we’re getting bored or lacking in fulfilment…

These are the times we plateau.

Maybe we’ve just gone through a long period of learning, or experimenting or innovating, and we’ve pushed hard at the edges of our comfort zone, and maybe we just need a rest and to catch our breath before we push again, and that’s totally ok.

In the fitness industry they encourage regular rest days because muscles need time to recover… if you’re just constantly pushing your muscles to the limit your progress will slow or you’ll get injured and your progress will bring to a halt for a bit.

I think it’s the same with our creative muscles. We can’t just work them all the time. Sometimes, to keep the momentum going, we need to retreat to the middle of our comfort zones and chill out on a beanbag or something!

Too many analogies as usual!

But where does failure come into it?

We don’t like to fail do we, on the whole?

But we should learn to like it.

I put a lot of my success as a photographer down to the fact that I try to spend as much time as possible when I’m creating, at the edges of my comfort zone. Doing things that may fail. Trying ideas that are risky, that will either be total rubbish or really amazing.

It’s an exciting place to be. And when I’m with wedding clients, which is how I spend most of my time as a photographer, I include them in this experimental excitement.

I don’t feel the need to pretend to them that everything I’m going to try will work. I want them to be excited and invested in the process of experimentation.

All this time I’m living at the edge of my comfort zone and pushing on its edges. When I do this it grows. And it grows whether my ideas succeed or fail.

If they succeed then I just found something new that works. That new discovery becomes part of my style and part of my comfort zone. As I try that same idea and technique more and more it’ll move away from the edges towards the centre of my comfort zone.

You see what I’m getting at?

The more you live at the edges and push at the edges of your comfort zone, the more you’ll learn. The more you’ll grow and the more your comfort zone will grow.

The edges of your comfort zone are the boundary between what you know works and what might not work. And it’s a magical boundary to live at creatively.

None of us want to go through the motions, creatively.

But equally like I said earlier, we didn’t get into the creative life to spend it being told we should never feel comfortable and if you work within your comfort zone you’re a loser.

We’re not losers. Just so you know.

And we’re not failures if some of our work doesn’t turn out the way we planned it either. And that work isn’t a failure.

It’s cheesy but it’s true: you win or you learn. Especially in the world of creativity.

Failure is a great teacher, if you let it teach you.

And I think that’s the really important thing to know – you have to let it teach you.

Failure doesn’t mean never try that thing again, it’s bad.

Failure just means it didn’t work this time. So you work out why it didn’t work. What didn’t work about it. Was the idea just bad? Sometimes that happens and so we move on. Or do we need to practice the technique, or tweak the way we did it or what? Then we can try again. And maybe it fails again and again. Each time we learn a little bit more. Each time our comfort zone grows even though the ideas aren’t working.

And a big comfort zone is where it’s at for me.

So I think I’ve waffled enough about circles and comfort zones and failure so I’ll wrap it up by saying this.

You don’t need to work outside your comfort zone, because what even is that? Who even knows.

What I think you should strive to do is spend as much time as you can at the edges of your comfort zone. It’s not uncomfortable there really. And actually the longer you spend there and the more time you spend embracing that fine line between success and failure you’ll get more comfortable with that part of the process and you’ll learn to love that feeling of not really knowing whether something will work as planned.

You need to not just accept failure as part of the creative process, you need to embrace it, and shoot for it as often as possible if you want to really push at the edges of your comfort zone and make sure it’s always growing.

And the more you do it, the more new ideas will come to you. Because you’ll see stuff at the edge that you’d never see in the middle.

The middle is where you go when you need a quick rest. Spend the rest of your time at the edges.

And like Elon Musk said: “If you’re not failing you’re not innovating enough.”

Here are your listen, read and watch recommendations for the week ahead!

Listen is an app I’ve started using, which I’m really liking so far called Headway. It does cost a bit of money and it is basically just audiobooks but you’re basically paying for the curation… it gives you a sort of path of books to listen to based on the areas of yourself you want to work on. I’m a week in and it’s pretty cool, and I’m not a big audiobook fan.

Read is a book called “It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be.” and it’s one of those books that is great to have next to the toilet! Like you don’t need to pick it up and read the whole thing in one go. And you can just pick it up sometimes and flick to a random page and read that.

Watch is a documentary about David Bowie that I just watched and it blew my tiny mind. It’s called “David Bowie: Finding Fame.” and it’s just a tremendous insight into everything David Bowie had to go through, or chose to go through to become the iconic megastar that he became. Whether you’re a fan of Bowie’s music or not, I think there are so many lessons in here about failure, about comfort zones, about trying and trying and experimenting and never losing sight of who you truly are and who you know you can become. I watched it on BBC iPlayer so if you’re outside the UK it might be more difficult to get hold of but it’ll be well worth it if you can. And here’s my favourite quote from Bowie to finish this week.

“Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.”

That’s it for this week, so I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode and if you’ve not been here before, please stick around and listen to some more episodes. And if you’ve liked what you’ve heard please keep telling your creative friends to drop by and listen too! Either way thanks for being here and see you next week on the Positive Creatives!

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