Competition Kills My Creativity
Originally published on June 3rd, 2021.
My competition schedule for Jiu-Jitsu has been relatively back to where it was before the Covid-19 pandemic. I’m back to competing in tournaments and grappling super fights all over the country at least once per month, sometimes more. I’ve done this every month this year since February and there’s no end in sight.
Though I’m absolutely thrilled to be back doing the thing that I love, I’ve developed a weird problem that I didn’t even know existed for me until this year: regular competition kills my creativity.
I guess this explains why writers lock themselves in cabins to finish books.
As a writer as well as a competitive martial artist, I need to be both highly competitive and highly creative in order to succeed at my goals. However, after a weekend of intense competition, I recently have found that I’m creatively empty for days (sometimes even a full week) after competing, and I struggle to create anything — much less anything good — during that refractory period.
In this article, I’m going to get into why I believe regular competition is killing my creativity plus what I’m doing in order to reignite my creative flow despite continuous competition.
Creativity Is a Muscle
I’ve always been a “creative type”, but I’ve only been a “creator” for the last 6 months or so. I’ve always been interested in creative work, whether it’s art, music, or books, but it wasn’t until this year that I really began to use my creative muscle regularly.
For a long time, I lacked the confidence, time, and desire to really dive into my own creativity. Doing so had always felt like a selfish pursuit and a helpless one that I wasn’t going to be any good at. However, once I began creating regularly this year (freelance writing projects, blog posts, and working on my novel), I loved it. Better yet, I felt like I only got better and better at “being creative” with each writing session. I didn’t want to slow down.
Obviously, art is often subjective, but creativity is a muscle. The more you use that muscle, the more it grows.
Intense competition, on the other hand, is a completely different mental muscle. When you engage in competitive endeavors (for me, it’s sports), you’re not only tuning out your creativity, you’re temporarily dulling it down. Whether it’s due to distraction, a lack of time, or overwhelming anxiety, my creativity doesn’t seem to flourish when the pressure is on.
Competition Comes From a Scarcity Mindset
When I compete in Jiu-Jitsu matches, there isn’t really a ton of authentic self-expression going on.
Sure, there are moments where my mind is “free”, and I’m in a flow state, but this isn’t really an expression of my artistic self. The version of myself that you might see if you watched me compete in Jiu-Jitsu is a reflection of the hours upon hours of hard work that I’ve put into developing my skills. It’s a display of muscle memory, strategy, and hard work, not creative flow.
As a highly competitive person in a highly competitive setting, winning is my primary objective. I’m operating from a mindset that allows very little room for error because, at the highest levels of Jiu-Jitsu competition, one simple mistake can be the difference between a gold medal and a first-round loss.
There are brief moments where creativity appears to help me solve unconventional problems, but for the most part, I’m prepared to handle any circumstance that I find myself in on competition day due to prior preparation. The fewer variables I encounter, the better. I’m only taking calculated risks designed to avoid failure.
My creative process is nothing like that.
My Creativity Comes From Taking Risks
Just about every single time I practice Jiu-Jitsu, I reach a flow state. This flow state leads me to discover new variations of techniques as I encounter them, and my brain is literally firing on all cylinders. When I’m here, I can create, innovate, and execute techniques that I’ve learned that I didn’t even know I’ve learned.
It’s an incredible experience and honestly, it kind of feels like magic.
Competition allows me to reach a similar flow state, but there’s one crucial caveat that destroys my creative freedom: I really, really, REALLY want to win.
In training, just as with freewriting or noodling on the guitar, there's a sense of indifference to failure that allows a creator to push the envelope to a new level. I’m not saying it’s impossible to have complete creative freedom under the pressure of a performance or in the structure of competition, it’s just something I’m not a complete master of yet. I’d say it’s definitely harder.
When I compete, I still feel free, but not as free as I do during training or freewriting. This is a good thing for my competitive career, but I’ve begun to notice that this decrease in creative freedom follows me home after each competition. It takes my brain several days to reset from “peak performance mode” to “let’s have some fun and make stuff up” mode.
It’s a problem, and it feels like my worlds are colliding. I can’t speak for everyone, but I need to feel “free to fail” to feel “free to create”.
This Is What I’m Doing to Revive My Creativity
The week after each competition I’ve done this year, my articles and content production haven’t been horrible, but it isn’t up to the standard that I expect of myself.
The opposite is also true: during the long “time off” periods I’ve had both this year in between events, my creativity has grown and improved at incremental rates. The best example of this was when I was forced to take an entire 6 months off of competition last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
During those 6 months removed from competing (1 of which was completely removed from training as well), I was more creative than I’ve ever been during my entire life. I wrote the entire first draft of my novel over the course of just 2 months, and I was also creating content for a freelance client and working an internship, not to mention beginning to dabble in personal essays as well.
I kind of romanticize these days of creative freedom, but the reality is I love competing in Jiu-Jitsu just as much as I love creative writing. Though it feels as if my worlds are at war with each other, I love them both, and I’m doing my best to both optimize my competitive drive and my creative nature.
These are the 3 main strategies that I’m using to do so:
I’ll be honest with you, I hate meditation. I freaking hate sitting or laying on a cushion and just breathing. But at the same time, because I hate it, that seems to be a sign that I need to do it. If I don’t practice mindfulness, the chatter in my head is too strong. That’s just how it is. To each their own, and to me, I guess some deep breathing.
Especially when I’m feeling creatively drained, I need to take time for myself to practice mindfulness and get back in touch with myself. Competition forces you to become obsessed with the external world, and meditation helps bring you back to center. That’s where the growth happens.
2. Not Freakin’ Writing
I don’t know where I messed up, but I feel morally obligated to deliver at least 2–3 blog posts per week. I do this in addition to writing copy for my clients each week, and occasionally doing newsletter work for them as well.
Unfortunately, copywriting is my job. I can’t decide to take the week off just because my artistic self is out of wack and I need a break. However, what I did do this week was take a full 3 days off of blogging. I hadn’t done that in months, and by taking the time to actually chill, I was able to sort of get back in touch with the message that I’m trying to spread when I write. I stopped writing just to pump out content and actually started writing for fun again. It was… well, fun.
Doing My Morning Pages
Recently, I’ve been working my way through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, and I can confidently say I’m a big fan. I’ve been doing “morning pages” every morning for about a month now, and doing this exercise has both helped me process life events and ease the burden that I put on myself to create engaging content on a daily basis.
I don’t know if there’s really any science to the morning pages, but I’m a big fan of this exercise as a way to develop a connection with your “inner artist” and get back to creating the way that you know that you can. I don’t always have time to take myself on “artist dates” every week as Cameron suggests, but the morning pages are super easy to execute and have profoundly helped me.
Competition is draining my ability to create. That’s not a complaint, that’s just the dilemma I’m in right now.
Someone else might see this as a reason to either quit competing or quit creating, but I see this as an incredible growth opportunity. I mean, how many high-level athletes are also able to produce high-quality creative work during their competitive careers? I’m sure some exist, but I can’t think of any.
I won’t be able to compete in martial arts at a high level forever, but I do have the ability to do it now. I also won’t always have the ideas circulating through my head that I do right now, and I still feel compelled to get them out into the world.
Though the cutthroat nature of competition might affect my ability to create, it’s only really a limitation if I see it to be one. By developing the awareness of this new roadblock in my path to creative fulfillment, I’m already taking the early steps to overcome it.
Competition and creativity might seem like opposites, but maybe they're less like water and gasoline and more like peanut butter and jelly. Maybe together, they can create something truly special. There’s only one way to find out.
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Some Awesome Quotes From the Book I’m Reading
(21 Lessons for the 21st Century, by Yuval Noah Harari)
“Humans think in stories rather than in facts, numbers, or equations, and the simpler the story, the better.”
“First, if you want reliable information, pay good money for it. If you get your news for free, you might well be the product.”
“People fear that being trapped inside a box, they will miss out on all the wonders of the world. As long as Neo is stuck inside the matrix, and Truman is stuck inside the TV studio, they will never visit Fiji, or Paris, or Machu Picchu. But in truth, everything you will ever experience in life is within your own body and your own mind. Breaking out of the matrix or traveling to Fiji won’t make any difference. It’s not that somewhere in your mind there is an iron chest with a big red warning sign ‘Open only in Fiji!’ and when you finally travel to the South Pacific you get to open the chest, and out come all kinds of special emotions and feelings that you can have only in Fiji. And if you never visit Fiji in your life, then you missed these special feelings forever. No. Whatever you can feel in Fiji, you can feel anywhere in the world; even inside the matrix.”
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Wishing you the best,