When you’re a creatively successful person, people always want to know what you’re working on. The problem is that sometimes the answer is: Nothing much.
Actor and filmmaker Aziz Ansari recently offered a refreshing take on the pressure that creative types feel to produce. In an interview with GQ‘s Mark Anthony, he explains that he’s not feeling particularly inspired right now—and he’s trying to be all right with that. He says:
“I’m not gonna make stuff just for the sake of making stuff. I want to make stuff ’cause I’m inspired. Right now I don’t really feel inspired …
… I hope more people get very successful and then quit. Shouldn’t that be the game? That you make a bunch of money and just move to Italy and live a quiet life? No one does it! You do a bunch of shit and you just want to do more shit. Tom Cruise! Look at that guy! He will not stop. He’s still making these fucking movies. No one who does what I do—or anywhere related in my world—is ever like, I’m done. That’s why I travel so much. I always think about this thing someone once told me. They said, Patterns are the work of the devil. For some reason that stuck in my head.”
Of course, Ansari is speaking from a position of tremendous wealth and privilege. Most people don’t have the option of quitting work and embracing the European lifestyle of our choice. But his skepticism about the idea that successful professionals must always be creating is a useful thing for all of us to consider—because it uproots a very common misunderstanding about creativity.
No one, including the most acclaimed artist, is always inspired, says Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of the Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. What’s more, learning to accept uninspired periods in our lives is critical to future success.
“Creativity isn’t a singular personality trait,” says Kaufman. “It’s a way of being that requires being constantly open to spotting and engaging in new ideas and experiences, without the expectation that these experiences will lead to inspiration or immediate creative outcome.”
The most common characteristics of people across all creative fields, as Kaufman previously explained in Quartz, include “an openness to one’s inner life; a preference for complexity and ambiguity; an unusually high tolerance for disorder and disarray; the ability to extract order from chaos; independence; unconventionality; and a willingness to take risks.” All of these characteristics suggest that true creativity is born out of a drive to relish—or, in Ansari’s case, “chill”—in the unknown.
Acknowledging when the process is not going well can be the difference between a forced (and failed) creative endeavor, and an opportunity for learning and resetting, says Kaufman. This is a reality that prolific creators like Lena Dunham, writer and star of the six-season HBO series Girls, have long internalized:
To become more creative, you should be actively trying to find meaning in things that aren’t going as expected or desired, says Kaufman. “Creativity emerges when you are open to detours, not when you approach life, or a job, or an single experience with a set goal in mind.” Only on such detours—like Ansari’s seemingly aimless travel, or a Saturday spent meandering around your neighborhood—can you recognize the paradoxes worth reconciling and the subtleties overlooked by those too busy, or “inspired” to slow down.