Do Creators Have To Struggle?

My back hurt like hell. I don’t normally sleep on the floor—especially not a cheap, smelly yoga mat, surrounded by cheap, smelly guys in their 20s. As I groggily struggled to sit up, I wondered what we were doing this for. “What the hell are we doing, riding around the country in a car that leaks gas, eating fast food and crashing on strangers’ floors every night? I’m exhausted. I just want to share our music, man!”

My bandmate Thanos roared awake, calling me some words I won’t repeat here. “This is how it’s supposed to be!” he yelled at me, before throwing some old McDonald’s wrappers at my head.

The night before, we had played in the small college town of Göttingen. The venue was a sweaty basement packed with students, the dancing crowd threatening to stumble onto our “stage,” the corner we had set up in. It was the second stop on our “national tour”.

Really, we just crammed all our gear into a shaggy, affordable rental car and drove from town to town, playing whoever would accept us. We used to pack three or four gigs into a long weekend, race up and down the German highways to make it to the next venue, and after we finished playing, we would head right to our next destination.

It was 2017 and I was a full-time venture investor and lead guitarist in a rock band. After driving six hours through the night from Cologne to Berlin, arriving at 5.30 in the morning, I would be sitting in a VC partner meeting by 9.

I might have been able to afford at least a hostel bed.

But Thanos insisted, it had to be hard. It had to be a struggle. Not because he enjoyed it, but it was what being in a young band was supposed to feel like. Or so he had heard—Musicians who sleep in comfortable beds become comfortable, stale, uninspired artists. They lose their edge, and that would be the end of their career.

How many times have I heard founders tell themselves (and each other) that same story? Founders and artists alike are creators—they create something from nothing, using their imagination. In tech, we call this “zero to one,” where artists romanticize “creating from a blank canvas”. And both communities are united in the idea of struggle as the path to greatness. Both fear becoming too comfortable over time and settling in the shadow of their former dazzling, inspiring, and inspired selves. Are they right to be afraid?

Creation needs tension, not struggle.

Picture six strings, strung from opposing ends of a hollow piece of wood. The reason a guitar produces a sound upon our touch or strum is not the wood. It is the tension of the strings between the neck and the bridge that makes it a creative instrument—a living thing. As I tune up a guitar, I apply tension to the strings and the strings store this tension in them. The energy I used while tuning the guitar is what generates the sound when I hit the strings while playing.

Photo by Simon Weisser / Unsplash

All creators feel tension between different parts of themselves.

Tension is the polarity between competing personality elements, a polarity which generates energy. It is this energy that entrepreneurs tap to fuel their work and inspire others.

Perhaps the first thing I noticed about entrepreneurs is that they’re prone to polarities—they’re high and low, optimistic and pessimistic, masculine and feminine, logical and creative, energized and exhausted, open-minded and critically-minded, and other poles of experience that seem as though they shouldn’t exist within the same being. I’ve never encountered a population so receptive to the extremes of the human experience, and yet, these extremes seem to be the lifeblood of entrepreneurial success. – Jessica Carson in "Wired This Way", p.33

Remember the cartoons you used to watch when you were little? When the characters would find a miniature angel and devil arguing across their shoulders? The experience of our lives is narrated in a mental dialogue that rarely stops.

CM: “We must use entrepreneurship against this climate catastrophe! I can’t sit around and ignore this challenge!”

CB: “Oh, this is an exciting challenge. I’d love to figure out how to build a business around this opportunity / write a song about this. It’s an urge like I am called to do this!”

AA: “Ok, then… let’s do this for real! We’re not here to play, we are here to win this game! Also, not like we are the first to think of this… here are the five leaders in the field, and we have to be better than them!”

IE: “You are not good enough to do this. Yikes, you’ll need to put in a lot of hours to pull this off without anyone noticing you’re just another fraud. Get to it, time’s running out already! We have a reputation to lose!”

Meet the cast of my play: CM is the passionate Change Maker. CB is the Curious Builder. AA is the Ambitious Achiever. Finally, IE is the Imposter Ego. And they are all me, they’re in my head. I am not suffering from a mental disorder. This is how my creative mind works—and if you’re a creator, these voices may all sound familiar to you.

As we walk through our lives, we all can observe how these voices or personas change our behavior, showing up in the way we feel, think, speak and act. The underlying theory, called Internal Family Systems in psychology research, applies to everyone, and is key to understanding the creator’s personality: it is this complexity of inner parts that holds us back, motivates us, shows us opportunities and creates dead ends.

The tension between these parts is necessary for the creative process, a battle of wills that the artist or founder has to be able to conduct—or else the positive tension turns to back-breaking struggle. The curious builder lets me try something, just by playfully experimenting. Then the ambitious achiever barges in, proclaiming, ‘let’s do this for real’, and then imposter ego joins in the cacophony, stating ‘you’ll fail if you don’t work incredibly hard.’

If I am not careful, every cute little experiment quickly becomes something of a competition for me. Regardless of whether I wanted that or not. This is how the drivers of my personality work together to create tension—and output.

This tension is not positive or negative. It just is. It’s energy trapped between two opposite ends. In our personality, these forces can be curiosity and ambition or the imposter ego—‘I need to do this, I need to do it better than others, otherwise I’ll be found out!’—that make creation possible. To create something from nothing, a creator needs to hold a vision, to project a future and keep this projection alive. Creation requires tension: it requires energy to both generate and uphold a vision.

Quite naturally, people want to follow humans who radiate energy and charisma. This tension is a requisite for leadership. To inspire themselves and to lead others with confidence and clarity about the destination. You have surely noticed founders being described as “intense” or “charismatic”: an attempt to describe their raw energy, manifesting in their life. It is not without cause that the most charismatic founders and artists are said to have a force-field, sometimes also a “reality distortion field”. Their energy, derived from their inner polarity, is so strong it will bend your experience of reality.

But, a guitar string with so much tension can contort the neck of the guitar. When we do not acknowledge nor try to understand how our tension works, we are running the risk of “spilling our tension” into life. We risk breaking our guitar because we ignore the basics of the craft. It is so important to understand that tension is not automatically struggle—founders and artists aren’t doomed to pain and suffering. But unacknowledged, unmanaged tension is what leads to struggle in the external dimension.

Society ❤️ The Struggle.

Kurt Cobain embodied the struggle attitude by saying, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” The tech bubble has found their version of this story: the narrative “broke songwriter moving to LA to make it big” has found its counterpart in Silicon Valley hustle culture, the ramen-munching, garage-dwelling creators of the tech world. It’s a story that continues to get clicks, and so it continues to be told, both in Rolling Stone magazine and in TechCrunch. Struggle culture is hustle culture.

The lone artist struggling in life, transforming through her problems and creating beautiful art from her troubled soul and circumstances: it is the epitome of storytelling, the hero’s journey. Those are the stories we want to hear. Producers tell fledgling musicians that suffering is part of being an artist, and venture capitalists continue to seek out entrepreneurs with a “chip on their shoulder” or some other troubling external indicators for struggle.

It’s no wonder that creators identify so strongly with the idea of suffering as a necessity for creation. In the absence of clarity about how, exactly, they are to build a successful business or composing a chart-topping opus magnus, they default to the path of lesser resistance: that of committing to struggle instead of craft, to “being busy” instead of creating output. And so struggling becomes the core of their being. But struggle is not a tool; struggle in itself doesn’t create anything. What it can do is distract us from actively engaging with our inner tensions appropriately—which is to say, identifying with the struggle means we’re not engaging with ourselves. Tension is what allows creators to turn creativity into breakthrough. When you believe that pain is itself a creative force, you might stop there, reveling in the experience of the pain that proves you’re the real deal—without actually doing the creative work itself.

We’ve really skillfully navigated ourselves into a bleak, creative dead-end here, fellow humans.

How You Can Embrace Your Tensions

My client Max visibly deflated in his chair, suddenly distraught with the prospect of being happy and fulfilled. “If I overcome this tension, will I just descend into that exact mediocrity that I am trying to escape?”

Again and again, my clients experience this tension, and they report suffering from it. All their lives, from the earliest memories, they’ve felt somewhat out of place and sensed a drive within to separate from the group, to stand out, to be exceptional. They yearned to belong but isolated themselves in standing out through their actions and words. And so ‘being an outlier’ becomes a fundamental part of their identity. Mediocrity becomes their worst enemy. 20 to 30 years later, they end up in my office after selling their company or driving it full-throttle into a wall, asking, “Was it worth it? All the struggle and suffering, all the loneliness, just to now let it go? Are you kidding me?” They recognize that their tension has fuelled the success so far. And even though they did not enjoy the road traveled, they look at the distance they’ve covered and think, “Will I lose my fire if I stop struggling?”

The point is not to overcome the tension. Neither is it to ignore parts of your personality. It is accepting and intentionally employing all the parts and the tensions they generate. It is about learning to play the guitar that is in your hands, not wishing it was another instrument, and strumming and resonating with gusto, not with disgust.

When we hear about mature artists, they often report that instead of treating their art as a mystical, dark force that cannot be controlled, they treat creation as a craft. A craft that they purposefully employ every day. We hear them say, “Inspiration comes when you show up to work,” and waving around The Artist’s Way two inches from your nose (an excellent book, by the way). I observe the same maturity in serial entrepreneurs: they cease to revel in the mystical magic of creating businesses and instead become intentional about the practical craft of starting and running businesses.

Photo by Malcolm Lightbody / Unsplash

This shift in perspective from art or magic to craft helps founders separate their identity from the business they are currently building. It allows them to consider the broader portfolio of activities that may change over time. This simplifies their lives in three ways: First, it helps to objectify, and intentionally improve, the practice of entrepreneurship. It extends the mental model of “working in the company”, to “working on the company” to “working on the craft of entrepreneurship”. It’s the layer of abstraction that Stephen R. Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, famously titled “sharpen the saw”.

Second, devoting your craft to a purpose feels less daunting and more flexible than trying to find your purpose in life: it allows for time devoted to hobbies, family, and living a life outside the pursuit of entrepreneurial goals. Finally, this is how serial entrepreneurs manage to untie their identity from their business after leaving their companies, both in successfully exiting them or shutting them down. Entrepreneurship comes with the risk of failure, especially in the high-growth venture world. Failing with their company does not mean failing at life anymore.

Kicking off this internal shift requires you to understand how your tensions work: what are the parts of your personality that are creating the (productive) tension that is fueling your work. If you’re a visual, tactile type like me, draw it out! I have long been a fan of mapping virtuous flywheels and destructive downward spirals out on paper, drawing element by element and how they relate to each other.

As you are drawing, use a pencil or sticky notes so you can make changes as you go. This is an explorative exercise, so don’t be too precious with what shows up on paper. Keep going for 30 minutes, considering the following questions:

  • What are the key parts of my personality? How can I group my behaviors and tendencies into personas, like “the ambitious achiever”?

  • Which parts are creating tension? How do you currently manage it? Note: There is neither productive nor unproductive tension.

  • How is that tension spilling out into the real world, creating struggle? How can this tension lead to suffering in my life?

Let us come back to my creativity flywheel. Where do my personality elements create tension? Where do they create struggle? What’s my sweet spot of working in productive tension? Here is a rough draft of what my earlier example might look like:

My creative process as it typically unfolds.

You see how I mapped my “change maker”, “builder”, “ambition” and “ego” in my creative process. While I know that when I get into ego territory, I am going to end up unhappy, there are also tensions that have a positive spin:

I thrive on the tensions my process entails. I suffer from the dynamic that my ego introduces.

My ambition lets my change maker come to fruition. It is when I start to desire to create system-wide change, moving from “I want to help entrepreneurs as a coach” to “making entrepreneurship more human”.

Ultimately, I want to sit somewhere between the curious builder and my ambition. It is where I see results that satisfy my urge to have an impact without creating suffering to me and others in the process.

I recently learned that, in order to correctly replicate the sound of the 1998 Red Hot Chili Peppers song “Scar Tissue”, you’d need to slightly detune your guitar. Only then would you recreate the slightly edgy feeling of the verse. It’s exactly that dissonance, the rough production, that makes the song work. That’s the magic sweet spot. Even when Ambition wants to create a pleasing listening experience for the masses: it needs the tension that the Curious Builder introduced.

I think of managing my tensions just like tuning and playing my guitar—adjusting the energy each string holds, until it carries just the right tune. Strumming the right string at the right time, so music can emerge.