What is the most important tool that every creator needs?

Is it diligence? The perfect cup of coffee? The silence of dawn before the family wakes up? Is it sight? A brain full of magical ideas? A handy-dandy notebook to write down those magical ideas? Ambition? A network of High Class Connections?

Nope. None of that.

The most important tool is restraint.

I understand that this is paradoxical. How can you hold back, while simultaneously pouring every gallon of your genius into the work? Like all paradoxes, the answer is in the balance of two seemingly opposite forces.

Restraint equals taste. Taste means knowing that if you add more to this, you’ll end up making it worse. Worse is not better than good. Nobody wants a worse chair than the one they’re sitting in now.

Creative people love having the freedom to come up with ideas. It’s what creative people are do: come up with ideas. The C in creativity means Comesupwithideas. It’s fun to come up with ideas. I’m sure you know someone who (whether they know it or not) identifies as an Idea Guy. Creativity? Psh. Easy. Just slap on some more Ideas. Boom. Better.

But what about maximalism? What about the awe of complexity? Some of my favorite works of art and music feature many moving parts. Complex systems in art and machinery are beautiful because complexity is hard to manage. How does one manage complexity? With intent. With care. With restraint. Complexity does not mean cacophony. Complexity does not mean chaos for the hell of it. Complexity only appears chaotic. And then we get used to it. Complexity and restraint are like yin and yang. Can’t have one without the other.

Creators must choose between making something stellar, or making something mediocre. If they tell you that you should have added more to it, they might be right. More gusto, only if the actor is too timid. More dissonance, only if the violinists sound too clean. More sauce, only if the chicken is too dry. Simply adding more ‘ideas’ does not make something better. Artists that know when and what to hold back are artists that care.

School taught us that the one thousand word essay is the benchmark. It’s easy to get cynical about this somewhat arbitrary standard. I used to repeat myself so that I’d have enough words on the page. But, stringing together a thousand words is not the point. The one thousand word essay is a test of exploration. It’s about depth, nuance, connecting the dots. It’s about seeing the invisible, and adding your perspective. If you can write that many words without backtracking, without regurgitating (not restating), without copying what you said before, then you understand restraint.

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