There is a story about the legendary 18th-century poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, known for iconic works like ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Kubla Khan’. Coleridge was living in a farmhouse in the English countryside in the 1790s when the entire course of the poem ‘Kubla Khan’ came to him in a dream. Waking up, he realised that he distinctly recollected all the words, and eagerly set about putting pen to paper. He was not even midway through it when he was interrupted by an unexpected visitor, the ‘person from Porlock’, who detained him for an hour. After that, when Coleridge tried to get back to the poem, he struggled to remember anything but scattered lines. ‘Kubla Khan’, considered among the most exquisite works of poetry, was finally published in 1816, in its unfinished form of 54 lines.
We all have our creative moments, when we are inspired and almost possessed by ideas that we feel could turn into the next literary masterpiece, the next blockbuster movie, a sublime sonata or the next billion-dollar entrepreneurial idea. Then reality intervenes like the ‘person from Porlock’, with its unceasing demands — deadlines, targets, financial pressures or family commitments — and we find the inspiration slowly slipping away from our grasp, almost like a twig carried away by a stream, never to come back to us again.
For those of us with corporate careers or family responsibilities, this frustration must seem rather familiar, and I am no exception. I wrote my book KaalKoot – The Lost Himalayan Secret as I juggled demanding corporate jobs and business travel, along with the accompanying jet lag and the constant feeling of sleep deprivation. Parts of my journey might resonate with those of you who are attempting to find a balance between things that scream for your attention and the things that inspire you. To borrow author Stephen King’s terminology, the former — the things that have to be done — are the ‘haftas’ (have to’s), while the latter — the things that you want to do — are the ‘wannas’.
The most important part is to figure out what is important to you and to make peace with the trade-offs. Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip, said, “If you want success, figure out the price, then pay it.” Quitting a full-time job to explore creative pursuits might work for some, but it involves taking a drastic hit on your financial security, not to mention the emotional toll of toiling away with minimal interim reward or validation towards an uncertain outcome. I chose to pursue my creative pursuits in parallel with my role as a business leader, as I felt that both roles gave expression to different aspects of my personality. But that also involved getting used to the constant tussle for time and the gnawing feeling that I might not be doing justice to either.
A corporate career comes with certain advantages too. It has enabled me to travel and meet people, and has provided a rich reservoir of life experiences that I can tap into for creative inspiration. As a private equity investor and a board member, I got to work closely with businesses and experience the peaks and troughs. My stint in investment banking gave me first-hand experience of what happens when the primeval human emotions, greed and fear, are tightly packed together in the adrenaline-filled powder keg of the stock markets. Working with firms across the world has helped me appreciate cultural nuances, while also underlining the universality of human emotions.
The other big learning for me was to learn to keep the ‘haftas’ at bay, and make space and time for the ‘wannas’. For most people, this is easier said than done, with clients, bosses, friends, family and social commitments all jostling for space. Many writers use the early morning hours to write, when the demands of the day have not yet started screaming for attention. I used the time I spent on flights and in airport lounges to quieten my mind, keep the external noise at bay, and focus on tuning into my inner voice. A few years ago, I was travelling extensively on business, and ended up taking over three hundred flights in a couple of years. That is when most of my book KaalKoot was written.
It is also important to be consistent, rather than waiting for a flash of inspiration. While creative inspiration is important and can strike at unexpected times, it is also true that inspiration comes easier to those who are prepared. To start with, I found it useful to set aside a couple of hours every day to write, and to not be disheartened even if a large part of that involved staring at a blank screen. In his book ‘Outliers’, Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes around ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in any area. To become good, you need to make a start at clocking those hours.
An exaggerated need to achieve perfection is often a roadblock to unleashing creativity, as insecurity frequently masquerades as perfectionism. Creativity flourishes best when it is allowed to bloom and express, unfettered by the fear of failure. To rephrase Steve Jobs, it needs to ‘be crazy enough to think it can change the world’. When our creative endeavours are in their infancy, they need to be protected from the harsh glare of judgement, not only from the external world, but also from the cynical part of ourselves. Rather than wait for perfection, it makes sense to make a start, albeit an imperfect one. There is a separate time for editing and seeking external feedback, and I found it easier to do that after I finished the first draft of my book.
It is important to provide fodder for our creative mind. For an entrepreneur, this would mean meeting people and understanding more about the market and business models. For a musician, it would involve listening to more music, and for a writer, it would mean to read, read more and then read some more. I try to make time for this by replacing time spent checking phone messages and social media with reading books, even if it’s in small bite sizes.
Lastly, the single most important ingredient of creativity is fun. That means letting go of the illusion of control, and being open to the voyage of discovery your creative pursuits might take you on. That also means letting go of the need for determinism and logic, and being open to intuition and serendipity. It means taking the first step, and to believe, as the Tao Te Ching says, that ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’.
S Venkatesh, the author of ′Kaalkoot-The Lost Himalayan Secret’, was previously the head of equity research at JP Morgan and is an analyst at Credit Suisse, a director on the boards of many companies and a private equity investor.