Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Something Old, Something New: A Shortcut To Your Best Work

Every creator knows the terror of the blank page. When you start on a new creative challenge and you have no idea how you are going to solve it, the virgin paper (or screen, or canvas, etc.) seems to stretch off endlessly in all directions. There are so many things you could do, it’s impossible to know where to start.

And as a creative professional, you pride yourself on coming up with original solutions. It’s what your clients pay you for, or what your audience loves you for. So the pressure to ‘make it new’ can make it even harder to get going.

Next time you find yourself in this situation, ask yourself this question:

“Have I ever solved a problem like this before?”

It doesn’t matter if the problem isn’t an exact match – scan your memory for something even remotely similar. Then go back and revisit your old work, to see if there’s anything there that could help you now.

I first came across this technique when I trained as a psychotherapist. Working with clients facing seemingly intractable problems such as long-term depression, substance abuse, or the breakdown of a marriage, I found myself using this question over and over again – with some surprisingly good results.

The pressure to ‘make it new’ can make it even harder to get going.

Clients coming for therapy are understandably so focused on their problem that they forget or discount the many times when they have dealt with it effectively – or at least not disastrously. So when I asked this question, they were often able to remember times when they managed to motivate themselves to do something productive, and felt less depressed; or times when they resisted the cravings to use drugs; or when they managed to resolve disagreements with their partners in a respectful manner.

No, it didn’t change their lives overnight. But it often gave them a foothold on the problem – a small success that boosted their confidence and opened up the possibility of achieving more. And it can do the same for you, next time you’re wondering if you’re up to a creative challenge.

“But won’t this lead to me repeating myself?”

Only if you keep working on the same old types of project. But if you keep setting yourself new challenges, then that will force you to build on your old knowledge by adding something new to the mix.

The big advantage of starting with one of your old solutions – apart from the motivational boost from getting a foothold on the problem – is that you are building from a foundation of success, using something that has been tried and tested and delivered results.

One of the reasons clients pay more for experienced creatives is that they have a wealth of previous successes to draw on, which can give them a shortcut to success. Of course, you also need to make it new – but you knew that already.

What do you think?

Have you ever used an old solution as the starting point for a new project? What was your approach?

More insights on: Creative Blocks, Motivation

Mark McGuinness

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Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach. He is the author of Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success, and the free course for creative professionals, The Creative Pathfinder.
load comments (28)
  • NeilPauvres

    Nice article! Thank you!

  • Susan Alexander

    Hey Mark:

    Good to see a post from you here.  Your technique really works.  Many times, I’ve picked up old work and taken a new direction with it.  In fact, right now, there’s a whole body of writing that I need to do just that with.  Once I do, I’ll be able to post it all.  It will add a whole new dimension to my blog.  I look forward to it because I know it will be different the second time around

    Also, as you point out, it can be hugely empowering to reminding yourself, “I’ve done this before.” 

    Miss seeing you on Twitter.  I have to get over to G+.  Hope to see you there.


  • Girishmiglani

    Hmmm……. seems a tried and tested technique… u’ve articulated it well.. 

  • Pencilneck

    I agree.  Thomas Keller summed it up nicely; “There’s nothing that’s pure creation. Everything is either inspired by or an evolution of something earlier”.

    Though, I’d also add that sometimes a complete accident can give something new…

  • Patrick Cullen

    You don’t have to read about the craft of writing for long before
    you come across Ezra Pound’s declaration that we should strive to ‘make it new’
    — with ‘it’ basically being anything that already exists.


    How do you make something (or anything) ‘new’?


    I guess in an inspired moment you might actually approach ‘pure
    creation’, generating something that is a major shift away from what already
    exists, but I tend to agree with the evolutionary interpretation.


    I’m not too concerned about delving into my own creative
    history as a starting point. Maybe it doesn’t create an obvious step change but
    a series of iterations is a little like building a cantilever: with more support
    behind you, you’re likely able to extend yourself both farther and further (more
    on that distinction at http://grammar.quickanddirtyti….


    Thanks for the great article.



  • Mark McGuinness

    My pleasure.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Thanks Susan. And fear not, I haven’t abandoned Twitter! Just enthused about Google+, I think it’s got a lot of potential for creatives. Hope to see you there…

  • Mark McGuinness

    Thanks, I do my best. :-)

  • Mark McGuinness

    That’s a great quotation. And creative accidents are always welcome too.

  • Mark McGuinness

    I’m glad someone picked up on the Ezra Pound reference. :-)

    Pound was of course very good at making poetry new – but he also knew his classic poetry, and spent a lot of time translating it. So I guess I could claim him as evidence for the old/new thesis!

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  • Tanguy

    The good thing is, for creatives, that a little of known ingredients always reassures your audience, and helps you sell the real novelty. So looking into your experience as creative but also your experience as audience/consumer is definitely a good start to build your project.

  • David Yarde

    Great article. One thing I’ve noticed when faced with this problem is that having a journal of past experiences is very beneficial. It allows for a easier way to pinpoint the source of whatever creative block that may be going on, while also providing a unique insight into how the problem was solved, as well as how often we tend to go through the same experiences over and over. 

  • Mark McGuinness

    Good point. There’s often a fine balance between selling people something innovative and reassuring them that they won’t regret it!

  • Mark McGuinness

    You mean a reflective journal? Or a notebook full of drafts, sketches, etc? I often use the latter, haven’t tried the former.

  • Josh Johnson

    I like to think of recycling old solutions as “modular” solutions. You can always piece something together based on previous experiences.

    In the world of web, these solutions are “frameworks.” This is great food for thought when it comes to creating anything, though. Can we take something that we repeat and turn it into the foundation for many future projects? Yeah, and we can make each one unique in the process.

    Great article, btw. I like reading things with a fresh view, and “recycling” is something that doesn’t get mentioned often by creatives.

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  • Mark McGuinness

    I like ‘modular’ as a description. And taking your ‘frameworks’ idea, Chris Brogan has a good post about using a ‘writing frame’:

  • Patrick Morris

    I remember being in my freshman writing seminar, and my professor told us to just free type. I waited there for a second, not knowing where to start. He then said to just start writing whatever you are thinking, and then eventually you will start writing something that you can keep. It’s almost looking at starting to write as warming up for a game. Athletes don’t just run onto the field and start playing. They spend time warming up, and getting ready to go. Creatives should apply the same framework. 

  • Logo Design

    i have very good reading of this article here, Appreciates this writing :)
    Thanks for share :)

  • Design

    It’s like re-tweeting your own stuff. If you are real you find better ways to do new stuff and push the new levels when constant copying, stealing from others or from yourself. But for zillions of design and art wanabes who dosen’t have anything to say any way it’s good enough :) No offence but art in any form is not manufacturing. If you don’t have anything to say then you don’t – simple.

  • Mark Marek

    Bingo! I’ve done this my entire life – pulling out old files, data, forms, projects and the like to adapt them to my current circumstances. It’s nice to know, after 53 years “on the job” of life that there is actually a ‘name’ for what I’ve been doing. It makes sense, is simple, and I never once considered it to be “reinventing the wheel.”

  • Mark McGuinness

    “start writing whatever you are thinking, and then eventually you will start writing something that you can keep” 

    Good advice. I also like the fact there’s an implied editing process to come – i.e. not everything we write will be worth keeping, however ‘inspired’ it may feel at the time!

  • Mark McGuinness

    Yes, AND I don’t think many of us have much to say to begin with. After a while – and a little experience, trial and error – that can change, if we’re paying attention.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Yep, sometimes it’s a case of finding the right name to describe our working practices in the best light. ;-)

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  • David Yarde

    A hybrid mix of both seems to work well for me. Its a great way to measure growth as an individual as well as creative.

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