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.
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