I’ve always thought of myself as a creative person. I don’t just mean this in the artistic sense — to me, being creative means having the drive to take the ideas in your mind and share them with the world to make them a reality. Last year, I think I did some of the most creating I’ve ever done. I created a major through Binghamton University’s Harpur College of Arts and Sciences’ individualized major program in social systems science, formed the COVID-19 Student Alliance — a briefly lived organization of people from the different housing community governments spreading the message of COVID-19 safety to students — and published a chapbook that my friends and I made, which we distributed independently through an online publication, Red Phosphorus, we used to run. As I was doing these things, I realized that the cliche really was true — you really are your own worst critic. It wasn’t people around me who discouraged me and made it hard to bring my ideas to life — it was me. At the time, these experiences inspired me to write a pitch for TEDxBinghamtonUniversity about three counterintuitive things that people can do to help bring their ideas to life and get over the hurdle that is themselves. This article is an adaptation of the original speech, as I truly felt it could help anyone attempting to do the difficult task of putting their work, whatever it may be, out into the world.
First, don’t be original.
I think there’s a lot of pressure around us today to be unlike anyone ever was before. It feels like every part of us needs to be curated in just the right way to show that there is nobody quite like us. You look at the accomplishments of so many people and think, “How on earth can I top that? How can I be original when so many awesome things have already been done?” I’ve had those thoughts and felt so small so many times. But that’s the thing — no one creates anything from thin air. Every awesome thing that you see people doing now is probably about 1 percent original. Campaign managers don’t invent entirely new strategies for their campaigns — they pull from what others have successfully done and apply those strategies. The best writers read countless books before they write their own.
I feel that it is not only OK, but rather essential, to build off of ideas that already exist. It’s important to not put pressure on yourself to make everything you do completely original. I’m sure people have done almost identical things to what I have, but I know that I don’t have to reinvent what every single person before me has done to be good enough to put my ideas out into the world. To me, this is empowering.
Second, don’t think outside the box.
I often feel paralyzed when I ask myself the terrifying question, “Where do I start?” As a person who cares about a lot of different causes and wants to do so many different things, I often freeze up and can’t make up my mind about what I should do when I have an idea about something I want to get involved in. I’ve found that it’s the concept that I can do anything in the world that stops me from doing anything at all. David Campbell, associate professor of public administration here at BU, during a summer 2020 webinar titled “Making a Difference In Revolutionary Times,” said something that has stuck with me since then. In a discussion on how he has been getting involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, he said that when he wants to have an impact on an issue and get involved, he asks himself, “What levers can I pull?” He asks himself, what is he in a unique position to do? What actions are right in front of him? This made me realize that there are so many things you can do, so many ways you can make an impact, achieve your goals and create something beautiful. The best way to do that is by starting with what’s in front of you, or what’s inside the box. What happens when you don’t do that is burnout, or being so overwhelmed that you don’t take any actions at all.
Third, don’t be great.
Ah, yes. The classic pressure of perfectionism. This has been stated and restated more times than anyone can count, but I think it’s for good reason. Brené Brown, research professor of social work at the University of Houston, puts it fantastically in her book “The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are,” in which she writes that “perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment and shame … It’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.” By this, Brown means achieving our true potential, even if it seems like perfection, is the path to it. The way I phrase it is by telling myself to “do a bad job” on things that I really want to do but seem so intimidating to me. If I can’t do it well, I can definitely do it badly, at least. Then, I’m able to actually do it.
Writing is one big example of this for me. K.M. Allan, a young adult literature author, says to let yourself write bad drafts. Allan says lowering your expectations is necessary, explaining in an article on her website that “nothing hampers hitting your word count faster than trying to make those words perfect as soon as they hit the page.” I think this same concept applies to any form of creating, whether in art, leadership or in any part of your personal life. Let yourself suck, because those experiences are what can teach you the most if you allow yourself to do them.
I think you really open up so many doors for yourself when acting on your ideas becomes less intimidating. I think the more I realize that what I do actually isn’t that special, that I don’t have to do anything extraordinary, even that these things that I want to do so badly can end up being really crappy and oftentimes do, the more I let myself be free to not keep good ideas in my head during meetings, to speak out when I see something that isn’t right and to do something that I’ve been wanting to do for so long. These are not easy lessons — in fact, they are lessons that I have had to learn and relearn countless times. I still let so many ideas fall through the cracks because I think they’re not good enough, I’m not good enough or I just don’t have what it takes to make them happen. But these voices are simply not useful.
Thrive in your insignificance. Your unoriginality. Your mediocrity. Don’t let them stop you from acting on your ideas. Instead, let them fuel you.
Max Kurant is a junior with an individualized major in social systems science.